Sunday, October 19, 2014

Youth

I have fallen behind reading my Lapham's Quaterly resulting in my just getting to the summer edition called Youth.  Also, to be honest, I was reluctant to start reading it.  I was a bit concerned that I might find too many examples of the elderly reproaching the young.  In direct contrast to my belief in the next generation addressing the problems of the day, there are far too many people on TV, radio and in print that see only laziness, non-persistence, selfishness, even immorality in everything that is today's young.  Even some young people, that would be people in their late 20's and early 30's to me, seem to consider those 21 and under as spoiled, unmotivated.  Of course, I was also concerned that I might encounter just the opposite.  A veneration of all that is young to the point of abhorring those in the more mature age categories.   


Still, I began reading Youth last week.  Immediately, I was immersed in Lapham's opening essay.  True, he did lament over the seemingly never ending bombardment of new and improved marketing strategies.  And he certainly expressed some longing for his youth.  But his attack on youth was not about the young but more directed to the culture which worships youth as it denigrates age.  In essence, he was rebuking those of his generation (over 70) and mine (50-65), who spend far too much time trying to avoid getting old.  Who somehow believe that Viagra and sports and home exercise equipment will keep us forever young while it is so much more about accepting, no relishing, life as a mature adult.


And then I came to Teddy Roosevelt's essay about what it takes to be a good boy, or rather how being a good boy leads to being a good man.  What struck me was Roosevelt's opinion of the bully, which might seem curious to someone who recalls the Rough Riders and "speak softly and carry a big stick".  In the essay I read, an excerpt from The American Boy, Roosevelt expresses a disdain for those who use their superior strength to gain advantage over others.  Yes, he often thought of himself as a defender of those being bullied, and perhaps did not always recognize when he himself may have been the bully, but he expresses a sincere belief that those possessing superior strength should use that advantage as much for the good of family and society, certainly not to simply gain personal advantage.  It gave me new insight into Roosevelt's anti-trust activity as president.  Like him or not, he maintained his values when he had the power to do so, working to enable the regular guy over the big company.


Which brings us to today, and the continued battles being waged to prevent more examples of "too big to fail" which contributed in part to the recent economic meltdown in 2008.  Where are the
anti-trust, or anti-monopoly forces today?  Certainly not in the Republican party where any attempt to regulate business so they do not have free reign to pollute our environment and prostitute our labor force, are net with calls of anti-capitalism, as if capitalism was meant to produce limited competition and mega companies dominating all markets.  Not that democrats are much better when the company, like Comcast, pumps large sums of money into their campaigns.  When our elected officials rationalize cutting the benefits of those with the least rather than removing the tax advantages for those with the most, it seems that they prefer the bully to the victim.  Or, at least, prefer being friend to the bully in hopes to avoid being the victim.


So, I continue reading and enjoying Youth.  It helps me bite my tongue when I am tempted to rebuke today's young as was done by each generation since time immemorial.  Reading a diatribe about the "rabble" of today, and seeing BC after the year provides good perspective when thinking today's youth are the worst ever.  Somehow, all those admonitions seem to be just one more example of envy.  I guess it is human nature to wish to be older until we wish we were young again.
       

Monday, September 29, 2014

The curiousness of politics



Not sure if curiousness is a real word.  As I type it the automatic spell check is not highlighting it, but it sure seems like it may be made up - or has been made up in the recent past.


I just finished watching the end of an HBO special on Nixon.  I didn't see it all, but I did see enough to feel an inspiration to post.


What struck me to write was the realization that Nixon won reelection in 1972 by a devastatingly huge majority; 63% of the vote.  I assume all or the vast majority of the electoral college.  (Perhaps McGovern won his home state).  Yet, Congress at the time was controlled by the Democratic party.  Similarly, President Obama recently won reelection by a comfortable majority yet the House is Republican controlled, and there is a very real possibility of a Republican controlled Senate after the 2014 midterm elections.


Curious how the nation has changed.  We elect a Republican to run the country in 1972 yet rely on the Democrats to run congress at the same time.  Other than a brief blip called Jimmy Carter, this pattern continued through the Reagan and Bush 1 years.  One may say that at that time, we preferred a more conservative, traditional approach to running the country but wanted a more liberal perspective in terms of creating laws and allocating our monies.


Fast forward to Obama and, other than the first two years, he has had a Republican controlled House the last four and will so again in the next session.  (Control of the Senate has not followed control of the House as closely, but other than the current 6 year run of a Democratically controlled Senate, the pattern has been similar).  So, it seems we prefer a more liberal viewpoint to preside over the presidency but seem more conservative in our approach to establishing laws and spending money. 


In 1972, despite the daily protests in the streets over America's involvement in Vietnam, Nixon bombed the heck out of the country, even, infamously, over the Christmas holiday of 1972.  I don't know this for a fact, but I assume the Democrats in Congress were in tacit agreement with Nixon's handling of the war. 


Similarly, President Obama has presided over an unprecedented increase in the use of unmanned drone bombings in Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan, and now in Syria and Iraq as we chase down the ISIS scourge.  While I do see some politicians from both parties questioning the use of drones, it says it all when Congress refuses to vote on the current campaign against ISIS.  Republicans who support military action don't want to be on record of agreeing with anything Obama does, and Democrats who are against it are not to eager to disagree with their political leader. 


It strikes me that when it comes to war, presidents generally have the support, spoken or unspoken, of Congress.  And Americans, despite believing in our Christian heritage, and despite being the most generous nation on earth, are always willing to authorize killing when a case can be made for the evil nature of those we are attacking, regardless if the case has any merit.  The fact that we continue to cling to the notion that might makes right when our spiritual leader preferred "turning the other cheek" says it all.


So maybe the title of this post should be the curiousness of American politics; or merely the curiousness of Americans.


Finally, and I am not about to quote Nixon because I have any love lost for him, but the HBO special ended with a quote from his farewell speech to his staff.  He said it, I assume, from a very personal perspective, consistent with the egocentric personality that enabled the bugging of the Democratic office in the Watergate Hotel at a time when he fully expected to win at least 60% of the votes.  But what he said should resonate nationally, especially considering our reaction to the horrible events of 9/11/01, the continued incendiary actions from a small minority of the Muslim community, and the recent beheadings of American journalists in the Middle East.


Nixon said
 
"Always remember others may hate you but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself."


Perhaps he was reminding those who served him in the White House and the country in general, that it is OK to be hated by those who do not, or refuse to, understand you.  Or, that it is OK to be hated by those who may even envy you or wish to bring you down out of jealousy.  But to return that hate only serves to justify their hatred, and not only brings you down to their level, but inspires actions that beget further hate, or worse, inactions when a dissenting action is required.


In the end, Nixon was on record as despising all kinds of people, all kinds of Americans that disagreed with him and his policies, or engaged in activities that he did not approve of.  If you listen to any of his tapes you are left with the impression of a brilliant politician with a huge persecution complex.  


Yet those words, "those who hate you don't win unless you hate them" should be a reminder to all of us who are all too willing to give credence to the vilification of a religion or culture or race or ethnicity, and to tolerate the killing of our perceived enemies.  And, whether Richard M. Nixon is watching us from above or below, he may be wagging his finger in rebuke and warning that our problems may be self inflicted, our potential for destruction may be self generated.   
  

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Conservatives and Conservationists

I watched the Bill Maher live show on HBO the other day.  One of his bits talked about conservatives and their apparent lack of concern for conserving our environment.  Of course, if one were to research the conservative movement in America (and the world for that matter), it is clear that the basis of belief for conservatives has nothing to do with the environment.  Still, it made me think how the words conservative and conservationist have the same base, yet if describing a person or their perspective would rarely be used in conjunction with each other.


The Merriam-Webster definition of conservationist is as follows


someone who works to protect animals, plants, and natural resources or to prevent the loss or waste of natural resources


While the M-W definition of conservative is


believing in the value of established and traditional practices in politics and society : relating to or supporting political conservatism


I would surmise that at some point in America's history, there were people who believed in the value of established and traditional practices and those practices included a respect for the land.  After all, early Americans depended on the earth for their daily food and water, there not being supermarkets and malls at the time.  I imagine that Americans of the 18th and 19th century especially, made it their business to make sure that they could provide their families with fresh meat, home grown fruits and vegetables, and pure water.  And, if someone were to shoot all the animals in the area, or poison the ground or water, they would have been upset.  Their traditional practices included taking care of the land in hopes that the land would provide sustenance now and in the near future.  In essence, many people may have claimed to be both conservatives and conservationists.


Now, of course, most people don't hunt for their food or grow it in their backyard.  We have a system which, to tell the truth, is more efficient at providing nutrition for the ever increasing population of our nation and our planet.  (I acknowledge that there is hunger and poverty, too much of it.  But most of it is caused, in my opinion, not due to a lack of food, but due to improper/unequal distribution, and more critically, greed).


Unfortunately, the down side of this improved ability to grow food is that we have concentrated all the growing in smaller areas.  We became dependent on chemicals to enhance the efficiency of the soil.  And, since we now needed to move the food to the consumer, we needed to improve our transportation systems.  In so doing, these new systems needed fuel, and we chose to obtain this fuel via digging holes in the earth, and polluting our air and water with the soot and effluence that came as a byproduct of "producing" energy rather than harnessing energy from the sun, the wind, and the water. 


In the meantime, the business community, generally an institution that would tend to be happy with the established and traditional practices, and especially large and successful business entities, turned to politics to help them maintain those practices.  So, while we accept a certain amount of pollution as long as the coal fired electric plants continue to enable us to turn on our lights, the conservative tends to work to maintain that established practice.  Whenever a proposal emerges to penalize a polluter, or cause that business to spend money to reduce or eliminate that pollution, it is the conservatives of the nation who balk at unnecessary government regulation.   Of course, hypocrisy rears its ugly head when those same conservatives are profiting at the lack of pollution controls, or do not live in the areas being polluted.


In the meantime, the conservationist is the one pushing for those pollution controls.  Unfortunately, there may still exist a bit of hypocrisy when those demanding more stringent pollution controls or a reduction in the use of coal to generate electricity complain when an increase in their energy bill occurs. 


Perhaps I have overly simplified it, but that is how I see it.  The business community turns to the conservatives, in our case the Republican Party, to counter the efforts of the conservationist, who believes that the established and traditional practices (of the business community) choose to sacrifice (and/or exploit) the animals, plants, and natural resources of the earth.


And, as always, there is a solution if we were to choose the path of cooperation rather than confrontation.  To read about one particularly hopeful effort, click on the following link.


http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/can-world-really-set-aside-half-planet-wildlife-180952379/


And, for all you conservatives who believe you are conservationists, who vote Republican in every election, you may want to check the voting records of your party.  Whether it is removing the teeth from the EPA, relaxing water regulations for the fracking industry, decrying enhanced scrubber technology for coal fired plants, or just turning a blind eye to those mega corporations who send their jobs overseas where no one cares if the local people are poisoned, it is always, always, always the GOP proposing the bills and defending the polluters.






Monday, September 8, 2014

Another look at The Future

A month or so ago, I mentioned that I had borrowed The Lapham's Quarterly called The Future from my son; this morning I finished reading it.  Believe it or not, I was continually impressed by how much this collection provided a wonderful perspective on man's history.  As quoted by someone in the book, "the vision of the future is shaped by the present".  Since all the future essays in this quarterly were written in present times that have passed... history.


I was particularly interested in two things I read in the last few days.


One was about how end of the world prophesies were both prevalent and powerful in the years leading up to 1000 AD, not unlike the recent surge that occurred in the time just before the year 2000.  So often we think of the past, especially the past encompassing the years 500-1500 AD, as times when barbarism and superstition ruled the day.  Clearly, logic and reason, compassion and empathy were less a part of the dynamic between the haves and have nots, the ruling class and everyone else.  But there were many individuals before the Age of Enlightenment, and before industrialization, who wrestled with the BIG concepts, whose early musings and insights led to the eventual breakthroughs that mark how we live today.  In terms of predicting and preparing for the end of the world, it appears that leading up to the year 1000, the world itself was influenced by the thinkers of the day into believing that 1000 years was the extent of man's existence as determined by the divine intervention of the Son of the Creator.  Whether it be 1000 years from His birth or death, each approaching anniversary produced the same reaction; the End is Near.  Obviously, the end did not occur but in not happening, this non-event led to what one essayist describes as a world wide change of perception.  Rather than marking time from the past to the inevitable end, viewpoints changed to a belief in the future as an amenable event that could be affected by those living it.  This was a huge paradigm shift that gave the impetus to the belief that the institutions of the day, the religions, the governments, the economic as well as social structures, could be influenced by man, not preordained to exist by the Creator.  It was if the world looked around at the lack of an ending and said, OK, let's make things happen ourselves.  Assuming this interpretation is anything close to true, imagine how powerful was that shift in thinking, s shift which occurred in a time that we dismiss as the Dark Ages.  Again, our egocentrism leads us to believe that nothing crucial happened before "recent times", and that everything about today is the ..est of all time.  Such a disrespect for history is this viewpoint, and such a shame that we assume that understanding the past is irrelevant.


Which brings me to a quote by, of all people, Sigmund Freud. 


"The less a man knows about the past and the present, the more insecure must prove to be his judgment of the future".


I would even take it a step further.  The less a man acknowledges the importance of the past, the more fearful will be his outlook of the present and the future.


From denying the age of the earth and the evolution of man, to dismissing the lessons of the downfall of the great civilizations, we seem to be surrounded by people who prefer controlling how we think than helping us to learn to think.  I have a friend, my brother, who has been reading one book each about the United States Presidents, starting with Washington.  (I believe he is on his 21st President or so).  In reading about these men, my brother will often enter a conversation about a topic of the day with an insight into how it was perceived by one of our past leaders.  Inevitably, the debates of that time were very similar to the very debate of today.  The problem still existed, both sides still had their points, but nothing had been learned.  Now, my bother is a smart guy but he is no genius.  I say that, not as a shot against my brother but as a challenge that anyone can enlarge their knowledge base if they read.  With the information technology at hand today, it is not that difficult to develop one's own opinions from fact and research rather than sound bites from TV and radio that emanate from those with agendas not related to educating you but to keeping you fearful and ignorant.


Certainly the past does not have all the answers.  But in ignoring what has happened, and reducing the past to insignificant events that have nothing to do with today, we bring life to the oft repeated saying "those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it". 


Even more troubling, with all the bad news that is heaped upon us in the 24 hour news cycle that has become our media, we are rapidly becoming afraid of the present.  It doesn't matter that actual crime is down, we are constantly bombarded with reasons to fear our neighbors, although it is not our actual neighbors that are demonized but those "others" that can take the form of other races, other religions, other cultures.  Even our government, when politically expedient, is to be feared.  Should we condemn the recent actions of ISIS?  Of course.  But do we equate their ability to do evil with the fear associated with the Cold War and the very real ability of both the United States and Russia to create a nuclear wasteland of the earth?  Is Putin a jerk for invading the Ukraine?  If I was a Ukrainian who preferred self rule, I imagine I would be upset.  But to think him the next Hitler, and that France or England or Germany is next on his list is absurd.  Sadly, it is more likely that an American will die because of poor maintenance of our infrastructure than an ISIS attack or Putin's plan to annex the Ukraine yet they are the fears that drive our politics, not to mention our stock market.


The future is tomorrow, and all the tomorrows to follow.  As I talk to those I encounter in my life, there are too many of us who fear that tomorrow will be the same as today; or worse, as Janis Joplin once said, "tomorrow never comes, it's all the same f...ing day". 


Finally then, are we so fearful of the present, and hence the future, because we are an aging society, and that with age comes the twin fears of no longer being young and the inevitable death?   Is it a grand conspiracy controlled by the powers that be who prefer to maintain the status quo and so use fear to keep us from questioning the chips that seem to fall in the direction of the few? 


I would imagine that over the course of history, a large percentage of people, when pressed for an opinion, would have expressed the belief that mankind would not last another 1000 years.  Even today, I would bet that less than 50% of those asked would believe man will someday mark the year 3000.  Yet, up until now, those predicting the end have been incorrect.  In reading The Future, there have been visions of what might come that were relatively accurate, as well as those that were completely wrong.  I imagine that in 1000 years there will be a similar distribution of accurate and inaccurate prognostications.  I just hope that there are more positive descriptions, utopias, and forecasts of what will come than negative, so that when the math is done the people of the year 3000 will consider us a happy, forwarding looking bunch, and not the gloomy, fearful group that we seem to be at this moment.     


Monday, September 1, 2014

Happy Labor Day

I posted a blog about Labor Day three years ago, so before I started this particular entry, I reread it to see the particulars of that post and to decide the direction of this one.


That post revolved around the fact that, due to the prevalence of service industry jobs in America today, so many more people are working on Labor Day that in years past. 


Of course, nothing has changed since then in terms of more people working on Labor Day.  In fact, the trend is getting worse with more employers opening their stores on other "national" holidays, i.e July 4th, Thanksgiving and Christmas. 


Still, there is good news.  After peaking in October 2008 at 10%, unemployment has dropped to about 6.2% as of July, according to the Bureau of labor Statistics.  So, in theory, as the availability of labor begins to equalize with the open or newly created jobs, pay rates should start to increase as employers will find it harder to keep good employees who may now find better paying jobs, and/or find new employees for new positions.  Also, a possible consequence of the health exchanges will be that some people will no longer have to stay at poorly paying or unchallenging jobs, as they are less tied to their employer for reasonably priced health care insurance.  We may see an increase in new start up companies, as well as an increase in those deciding to pursue income from non-traditional jobs, as I discussed in a recent post about work pyramids. 


Unfortunately, the bad news is that many employers, especially corporations, will first move their jobs to states with lower standards of living, or countries with very low salary expectations and little or no environmental and work force regulations which protect their employees.  Taken as a whole, it seems that the continued state of working Americas living in poverty may continue for some time.


And that is bad news for all of us.


As long as the American consumer, those people who do two-thirds of the buying of goods and services, continues to struggle from one payday to the next, our economy can't possibly recover fully.  As long as the benefits of what marginal economic growth there is stays in the hands of the few at the top, we will continue to see stops and starts in GDP growth. 


Which brings us to the hot topic of late, raising the minimum wage.


I did some brief reading about the effects of raising the minimum wage in terms of potential job loss.  Many economists believe that low pay jobs will be the most at risk should minimum wages increase.  Makes sense, since it is those very jobs which pay the least.  Others believe that such job loss will be matched by an increase in spending money for those at the bottom of the pay scales, which could result in a demand for some goods and services (more job openings) and perhaps even a reduction in government assistance for those making more money (lower government expenditures).  Still others believe that any increase in wages, if not resulting in job loss, will automatically be passed along to the rest of us as consumers thereby causing prices to rise and negating any increase in pay. 


Talk about the circle of life.


For me, it is worth the risk to increase minimum wages, gradually, so that the market can accommodate the increase.  I like the idea of an increased minimum wage, in stages of 75 cents per year for four years to reach the $10.25 mark, by the year 2018.  The key though is to tie continued minimum wage hikes, after that, to a standard that does not need future legislation.  Cost of living would be good.  Increase in CEO pay might be better.  If the market can "bear" CEO pay to increase by some estimates up to 700% in the past 35 years, compared to 10-20% for the average worker, then I imagine that the smart men and women that run our biggest companies can figure out a way to increase worker pay similarly without causing job loss.  Or perhaps, just increasing CEO pay at the same rate as average worker pay will be sufficient to raise all of our salaries without adding to inflation or job loss.  Better yet, perhaps CEO's and those at the top of the pay scale, entertainers, sports stars, etc, those making over $5 million a year, could live on that money in ensuing years and take no more pay raises for a bit, instead passing all that money that would be given to them anyway to those people who do the actual work in America. 


Can you imagine?  All those hypocrites in Hollywood, on Wall Street and in Washington DC, putting their money where their mouths are and sharing their fortune with their fellow working class Americans.  (See the story, The Change which I wrote a few years ago and can be found on this blog and in my e-book on Amazon.com)


Oops sorry, I digress.


Anyway, happy Labor Day.  For those of you who had the day off, good for you.  Perhaps, rather than assuming all the Wa-Wa's and grocery stores and shopping malls will be open for you next year, you can make a New Years resolution to NOT shop on national holidays in 2015.  Perhaps then, all American workers will actually have off on these holidays.  And, while you are at it, make it known that everyone should get paid to not work.  Seems like the least we can do for the American workforce on Labor Day.


  


   


 






Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Lucy

I have a note in my computer desk drawer to title my next post Sacrifice and Selfishness.  In addition to the thoughts I had percolating in my head, I was going to comment on the George Will piece I read from this past Sundays Opinion page in the Inquirer.  But after seeing the movie Lucy on Sunday night, I thought I might be able to connect my last post about the future with the movie, and Will's essay, and my original topic.  Here goes.


If you have not seen the now released movie, Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson, and if you like movies that make you think a bit, then I recommend seeing this flick.  Without giving too much away, the movie is about a young woman who is accidently exposed to a nasty drug which causes her brain activity to increase from the normal 10% to, eventually, 100%.  During that time, her enhanced brain allows her to control her body, the bodies of those around her, the electrical impulses that permeate (invisibly) our daily lives, and ultimately, time.  (For those of you that are cognizant of the history of the ape to man theory of evolution, her name Lucy in the story is no coincidence.)


For me, the key scene in the movie is when Lucy contacts a famous professor who has been active in the theory of the brain's capabilities and what those capabilities may morph to as our ability to utilize more of our brain's capacity improves/evolves.  The professor, played by Morgan Freeman, when asked by Lucy what she should do with her increased knowledge, answers that she should do what all evolving life has done for millennia; pass it on.  As Lucy knows she is dying and has less than a day in which to accumulate her knowledge in order to pass it on, it may seem surprising that she would choose such a selfless act, as opposed to the oh so many more selfish ways she could have spent her last day.


Which brings me to George Will's Sunday editorial.  Obviously, Mr Will is extremely intelligent.  On more than one occasion, I have tried to read his opinions in the Sunday Inquirer, only to give up part way through as I found them beyond my grasp.  But I made it through this particular one.  To paraphrase Will, liberals in particular and President Obama in specific, are hypocritical to blame corporations for moving their jobs and money overseas when the labor and tax rates of those countries are more friendly to their profits.  Hypocritical because, in Will's opinion, it is liberals and democrats who support labor unions and create the tax laws.  Will points out that since corporations only concern is shareholders, and shareholders only concern is profit and dividends, then, of course those companies will more their businesses and their money to more favorable environments.  Of course, Will does not choose to explain why, given the sad state of the corporate world,profits, CEO pay and the stock market are at all time highs.  Are they not indicators of a favorable environment?  He also avoids discussion of why he assumes 0% corporate tax would do anything more than improve corporate bottom lines just as the reduction of corporate taxes over the past 30 years have done.  It seems clear that as long as the only yardstick of corporate success is profit, then labor rates (and for that matter, consumer safety), will always trail far behind.  I give him credit for sticking with his love of trickle down economics, despite the facts that show that very little trickles down.  I can only conclude that should a corporate CEO had gained Lucy's powers, only the corporation would have benefitted from them, not the United States, or the human race.


There in lies the problem.  The future, should it continue to be driven by a Supreme Court that believes corporations are people, should it continue to be controlled by the belief that money and wealth are the only goals that matter, should its leaders and citizens continue to believe that the haves earned what they have and the have nots are lazy, or worse, not loved by god, then the idea that in one's last days, we should consider what we can contribute will be permanently replaced by the idea of what we can take before we go.


Sacrifice and Selfishness.


Fortunately, I don't believe that the majority of people are selfish.  Daily, we read about and can witness the lives of parents who work a 2nd job to send their kids to college, neighbors who check on the elderly on their block when the weather turns nasty, teachers who supply books and pencils to their students when the school district is unable, and all the millions of volunteers who build houses, plant gardens, serve lunches, and donate goods and services and time to those in need.  Acts of sacrifice are all around us, just as prevalent as the horrible acts, just not as news worthy.  (I could inject here that since so much of our media is controlled by large corporations, perhaps that is why bad news rules the day, but I will resist the thought).


In the movie, as her brain's capacity moves closer to 100%, Lucy teams up with a police officer, not because she needs the backup, but so she is reminded of her connection to humanity.  One might say that at the end, despite her astonishing mental abilities, she was also far more humane, even spiritual, in that she sacrificed her life to provide knowledge to those that remained.  She chose a path which she believed would improve the human race, not one in which she could take advantage of those with less brain capacity.   Let's hope that there will come a day when George Will and those that defend the corporate philosophy that is so well summed up in the phrase, "it is business, not personal", will gain the brain capacity to realize that being human is always personal.  Anything less is not worth defending. 



Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Future

When I first became aware of the Lapham's Quarterly, I ordered a past edition called The Future for my college aged son, as well as the next year's 4 editions for my wife.  The Future stayed in my son's hands since then until our family vacation in late July when The Future returned to me. 


A few days ago, I began reading it.  Already, I have encountered a number of thought provoking essays and quotes.


One very interesting quote written by John Kenneth Galbraith from The Affluent Society is


"Wealth is the relentless enemy of understanding"


Another, attributed to Jean de la Bruyere is


"We must confess that at present the rich predominate, but the future will be for the virtuous and ingenious".


Interestingly, the second quote by Bruvere was written in 1688.  Makes you wonder, both, how extreme income disparity must have been in the 17th century, and how much progress has been made in the past 325 years since.  I like to think that the 17th century's haves were all winners of the birth lottery; good names with established pedigrees, while the have nots were virtually everyone else not born into such lucky fortune.  Assuming that is true, and that the concept of a middle class had not yet been conceived, or existed, society has made vast progress.  While place of birth, economic level of one's parents, and mixture of genes and environment still influence greatly the eventual outcome of a person's success in life, there are many more homes in which one can be born which will provide moderate opportunity as compared to the all or nothing status of 1688.  And, there is certainly a greater chance that a person can break through the barriers of the negative details of where one is born, due to the tremendous opportunities that capitalism and the free market provide. 


Still, it is certainly not the vision of Galbraith who helped influence the programs of the 1960's and 1970's, the so called Great Society programs.  His quote, to me, seems to be saying that once one becomes rich, the ability to understand the situation of all that are not, is limited.  Is this not reflected in our current Congress, where most of the Senators are millionaires as are a large percentage of the House members?  When it becomes so easy for them to continue tax advantages for the wealthy individuals and corporations while cutting SNAP money for those in the direst of needs, is that not their wealth impinging on their ability to understand the poorest of their constituents?  (Let alone, is that not the most glaring example of how American politics and governance is certainly not as Christian as we would like to believe).


What is so mind boggling to me, is that daily, we read of rich and famous people who have serious problems, financial, marital, mental.  All their money has done little to make them happy.  While I certainly don't know the details of Robin Williams' recent suicide, it is common knowledge that he was drug dependent.  Despite his obvious genius, despite his ability to make me laugh until I peed my pants, despite his remarkable acting skills which ranged from the most hilarious to the most dramatic, he chose to end his life.  Yet, despite the obvious, despite the fact that study after study demonstrates that after a certain point, more money does not lead to more happiness, we continue to fight each other as we grasp for the gold ring.  And, in opting for quick rich schemes and lottery tickets, or worse, engaging in businesses that take advantage of others to make money, whether it be senior scams or selling sub prime mortgages, we continue to build walls to the understanding that Galbraith described.


In his introduction to The Future, Lewis Lapham uses a number of points to distinguish how the future has changed in America since the 1960's.  Ending racial inequality, eliminating poverty, reaching the moon were but a few of the goals of America in the days of JFK and LBJ.  And these national goals were shared by many citizens.  We were inspired to think that we could accomplish such feats, each doing our part individually, the goals prioritized collectively by our government.


Fear of the future now seems more prevalent than hope in its coming.  The news is filled with doom, whether it be terrorists in the Middle East or climate change, the corporate mentality of profit over people or our belief that only by polluting Earth can we provide the energy we need to prosper.  Liberal or Conservative, Democrat or Republican, Religious or Agnostic, no one is free from the guilt of using the fear of the future, the fear of what if we do or don't do this or that, to control the populace and increase the voting rolls or church pews.


The Future.


It was just a few seconds away as I began this post, became the present when I began this paragraph, will be the past when you read this essay.


The Future is what we make of it.  Sounds elementary, I know, but if we continue to fear the future then it will be a fearful place.  Worse, the future is just the present, over and over again.  So, if we continue to despise our present, hate our job, tolerate our kids or our spouses, believe in the worst of our neighbors and our leaders, then we condemn the future to be a reflection of today. 


Can the future be a place where food insecurity does not exist in America?  Can the future be a place where the faithful respect the religions of others, and glorify their god through good works and deeds?  Can the future be a place where one's gender, race, age, heritage, and sexual orientation, are as innocuous as one's handedness or shoe size? 


Or will wealth, individual as well as national, keep us blind to understanding? 





Monday, August 11, 2014

42, and (hopefully) counting

It's been a bit since my last post.  Sorry.  On vacation for a week in late July, then no time since then to catch up.  My run of over 100 hits a day ended about 3 weeks after it started.  No explanation for either its inception or ending.  Happy for the attention though.


On vacation I was reminded of how opinion of the topics of the day can be so varied.  There wasn't as much politics or social issue talk on vacation this year as some other years but what did occur among my family and the other people we encountered demonstrate the difficulty that our elected officials face in determining the course of America.  Whether it was overseas conflicts, the state of our health care industry, Supreme Court rulings, income disparity, immigration, or whatever the topic, opinion just among those in attendance varied widely, split 50-50 in many cases.  If an extended family with similar genes and environmental influences can have such disparity in their opinions, imagine the range when one considers the depth of differences between Americans across regions, incomes, race, intelligence, political awareness, education, etc.  If nothing, we are a nation with perspectives that run the gamut, probably more so than any other country in the world.  Many, including myself, frequently lament the state of partisanship and lack of cooperation and compromise, but considering how different Americans are from Maine to New Mexico, Wall Street to Main Street, perhaps we should be pleased with just how much we do accomplish when we put our minds (and wills) to task.


Which brings me to 42.  For those non-baseball fans, 42 was the number worn by Jackie Robinson when he played baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  He, along with the GM of the Dodgers, Branch Rickey, broke the race barrier in the 1940's.  Up until then, black baseball players were restricted to playing the game with the all-black teams that dotted America at the time.  Currently, there is a movie running on HBO called 42 which details the first year of Robinson's entrance into major league baseball.  Of course, it is a Hollywood version of the events, but is apparently reasonably true to the real story.


For me, the pivotal scene is when Branch Rickey, played by Harrison Ford, asks Jackie (played by Chadwick Boseman) what he will do when he is spit upon, called a nigger, and exposed to the incredible racism that he will inevitably face during the upcoming year.  "Will you fight back?"  Rickey asks. 


"Do you want someone who doesn't have the guts to fight back?", questions Robinson in a not too pleasant response.  "No," says Rickey, "I want someone who has the guts not to fight back".


Think about what an incredible request this was.  And, assuming Robinson complied in a manner anywhere near how it is depicted in the movie, think about how incredible this behavior was, especially during those early days in cities where, not only were there social restrictions to blacks and whites mingling, but in the South where there were actual laws against such intermixing.


And now extrapolate that incredible strength of character to the world stage.  Instead of justifying "proportional retaliation" what if the offended nation chose the more difficult path of no response.  Instead of revenge after attack, there was no revenge.  Instead of the Old Testament "eye-for-an-eye", there was the New Testament teaching of turning the other cheek.


I know, your first response is what about Hitler?  Didn't his atrocities require an immediate and physical response?  I would, of course, answer yes, Hitler's clear intention of ethnic cleansing required war.  But Hitler and his beliefs, his ability to motivate a nation of rational people to commit irrational acts, did not develop in a vacuum.  Perhaps, after WW1 had the victors not punished the losers with economic devastation to go along with the already diminished capacity to recover via the loss of life and resources, perhaps if the Treaty of Versailles emphasized less the so called War Guilt Clause and was more like the Marshall Plan that was executed after WW2, perhaps the perceived punishments of the German people would have been short circuited and not led, in part, to the nationalism that was used by Hitler to build his Third Reich. 


Perhaps it is still too much a part of the human genome to hurt after being hurt.  Revenge, whether person vs person, faith vs faith, or country vs country, seems to be the first instinct, the first response.  But it is not the only response, as Jackie Robinson demonstrated in 1945. 


A young co-worker recently said to me that everyday he felt that the world was getting worse and worse in terms of people hurting others.  I tried to explain to him that perhaps it is only because, with our advanced communication technologies, it seems that way because we hear about the atrocities more quickly and more often.  Thirty years ago, would we even know about the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East where thousands of people have been driven into the desert due to religious persecution?  Perhaps the fact that we know about it and are horrified by it indicates that we are evolving spiritually, towards a more compassionate viewpoint of relations with others.


War is not the answer sounds like a nice sound bite, good for a bumper sticker or a t-shirt, but not as the basis for the policies of an America that seems to have enemies throughout the globe.  But what if it is the drone bombings, the nation occupations, the forced change of leadership, the perception that America will get her way, no matter the cost to the people on the ground, what if our response, our refusal to learn from Jackie Robinson, that plays a role in this environment of hatred.


Restraint in the face of aggression is not an easy path to follow.  But if we are serious about our belief in American exceptionalism, it can only be proved by following the more difficult paths.





 
     

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Lawrence, and Arabia

A few days ago, I read an article in this month's Smithsonian about T.E. Lawrence, a British military officer known most famously as Lawrence of Arabia.  Young Mr. Lawrence was born into an upper middle class British family in 1888.  His fascination with all things Arabic began at Oxford College when he decided to study the Crusader castles of Syria, not by reading about them, but by walking from one to another through the deserts of this foreign land.  It was this time that he spent up close and personal with the people of the deserts, that earned him the intimate knowledge of the area, knowledge that proved invaluable to the British army during WW1.  And, unfortunately, it was the closeness to the people of Arabia that led Lawrence to be denounced by his home country when he worked ceaselessly to represent the rights of the Arab people to live and govern their lands.


Here is a link to the article.


http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-lawrence-arabia-180951857/     


Of course, Hollywood's version of Lawrence is all glory and honor and loyalty.  And it is certainly true that Lawrence was considered a hero in the war, was turned to for advice both militarily and politically, and was loved by the Arab people he helped free from the Ottoman Empire.  But while Lawrence truly believed in Arab autonomy, the British and French had already carved out the lands of value, the lands with oil, for themselves, leaving only the wastelands of Arabia for the people who lived and had died fighting with them against the Turks.  The Smithsonian article paints a very sad picture of Lawrence, both towards the end of the war when some of his raids were less than merciful in the treatment of the Turks, to his apparent suffering of post traumatic disorder from both the war itself and a particular incident of torture that he suffered at the hands of a Turkish war lord.  His influence gone, his reputation in the Arab world fading, Lawrence became a recluse, dying in 1935 at the young age of 46 in a fatal motorcycle accident.  Not the stuff of a blockbuster movie.


The Smithsonian article also discusses the modern day reputation of Lawrence where he is considered more of an accomplice to the Western nations take over of Arab lands, Arab natural resources, and Arab governance.  Sadly, it seems as if it is only in Hollywood through the everlasting life of celluloid that Lawrence is still revered.


Sadly, the mistakes made by Britain and France at the end of WW1, were repeated just recently by our own government in our war in Iraq, and even now in our perspective of the Arab spring, Arab autonomy, democracy, and religion in Arabia.  We continue to act as if our values are the only correct values.  As if our need for energy trumps the history, traditions, and freedoms of the people who happen to live on the land that harbors that energy.  


What is going on the Middle East is very complicated.  There are no easy answers when there is such a toxic mix of royalty, power, religious fanaticism, and the money to be made from oil.  For Lawrence, living with and understanding the people of that diverse area led him to conclusions about freedom that did not play well in the political capitals of Europe.  Today, despite the obvious evidence that war begets war, that killing the people of that region only results in an increase of their hatred for us, whether that hatred is focused via religion or politics, we continue to act as if there is a military solution to the unrest that has existed there, not only since WW1 when we drew artificial boundaries in the sand to create Iran, Iraq and Syria, but for the thousands of years before that when other empires crossed the deserts to claim the riches of those times.  


The true irony is that Lawrence's acts of war, disabling bridges, razing forts, was effective precisely because he understood the battlefield, understood how to disrupt supply lines.  It is the exact kind of war that every native people engage in, when being invaded by foreign forces.  It was used against the British in the War for Independence, against the Germans on the battlefields of France and England in WW2.  And against America in Vietnam, against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and then again against the United States in Afghanistan. 


History can be a good teacher, but no matter the intelligence of the lesson, only students willing to learn from her will gain wisdom.   Let's hope that the lessons ignored by men like Dick Cheney will not be lost on our current administration, and by the future leaders of our country.



Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Supreme Court and Hobby Lobby

First, a shameless plug.  There has been a burst of activity on my blog this past week.  It started on July 2, which was the day a letter of mine was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer.  This could be a coincidence, but I suspect not.  For all those new readers of my blog, thanks for your interest.  Also, if you would like to assist me in my goal of using writing as a second income so I can leave my late-night part time job, feel free to purchase my compilation e-book on amazon.


http://www.amazon.com/Short-Stories-wurdsfromtheburbs-Joe-Pugnetti-ebook/dp/B00F58LX8A


If you cut and paste the above link, you should be able to purchase it.  Thanks in advance.


So, another Supreme Court Ruling related to the Affordable Care Act and its implementation.  As is usual, there are many responses one can have depending on whose interpretation of the decision one listens to or is influenced by.  My suggestion is that if you are truly interested in an unbiased opinion of this decision, do not rely on those from the far right or left.  In the few minutes that I spent reading about the decision, it is clear that the Supreme Court did not uphold the plaintiff's freedom of religion in regards to the free exercise clause of the first amendment nor did it make all contraception inaccessible for the women who work at Hobby Lobby.  It was a very specific ruling concerning closely held corporations (as opposed to publicly traded corporations), in regards to how the Affordable Care Act is implemented with respect to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993.  Without getting into too many mind numbing details, the RFRA was a Congressional reaction to the previous Supreme Court ruling in Employment Division v. Smith (1990) which said that a person may not defy neutral laws of general applicability[a] even as an expression of religious belief. "To permit this," wrote Justice Scalia, "would make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself." He wrote that generally applicable laws do not have to meet the standard of strict scrutiny, because such a requirement would create "a private right to ignore generally applicable laws".


Yes, Supreme Court fans, the same Justice Scalia who was part of the majority opinion in the Hobby Lobby case. 


In a nutshell, what happened was that the Supreme Court created a barrier in the work force that would prevent employers from dictating their religious beliefs to their employees, the Congress weakened that barrier through the RFRA, and the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the RFRA as applied to federal statutes in Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita in 2006.   And, in allowing other groups, not for profit companies, businesses under 50 employees, and religious affiliated companies, among others to be able to opt out of the requirement, in effect by watering down the Affordable Care Act so that it was not the "law of the land", the Court had an easy justification in saying that other methods had been devised for women to gain access to those other contraceptive vehicles.  Sort of like saying, there are already exceptions, a few more won't hurt.


As for the women who work at Hobby Lobby, they will still have access to birth control methods which do not "abort' a newly fertilized egg, as certain IUD's and emergency contraceptive pills (commonly called after morning pills) do.  Other forms of birth control which prevent fertilization are OK with the religious beliefs of those who control Hobby Lobby.


So, while this is not the end of the world, nor is it the beginning of a legal restoration of America as a Christian nation, it is still disturbing to me on a number of fronts.


First, I am disappointed that the Supreme Court would backpedal on its initial ruling of 1990 which created such a rigid barrier between religious beliefs and work force rules.  Religion is a wonderful thing in its place, but allowing employers to hire, fire and conduct relationships with its employees with respect to their religious beliefs seems absurd.  In addition to asking about benefits, compensation and job duties are we now supposed to ask for the religious affiliation of the employer?
For those who offhandedly reply that those Hobby Lobby workers who don't agree with the tenets of their owners' religion can find another job, I wonder if they know the religion of their employers?  Would they quit if the answer was Muslim?  Atheist?  Would they be outraged if their employer thought that a certain benefit, say the day off for Christmas, was not in agreement with their beliefs and so did not offer that as a benefit?


Second, I would find it amusing if it were not so sad that the gender of all those justices for the majority opinion is male, while three of the four with the minority opinion were women.  Only Justice Breyer, a man, crossed the gender line.  Really?  If the next justice is a women and replaces one of the five males of the majority opinion, does the court rule differently?  Also, and I have mentioned this before, the affiliated religion of all 5 justices in the majority is Roman Catholic.  Is it a coincidence that the Catholic religion still holds that birth control other than the rhythm method is a sin?  Of the 4 dissenting justices, 3 are Jewish where no such religious tenet exists.  Only Justice Sotomayor, a Catholic, crossed the religion line in this decision. 


Third, we are talking about birth control here.  Why, in the year 2014, is the method of planning one's family, to have or not to have children, the business of one's employer?  If the government came out and said, like China did a generation ago, that one child families are the law, most Americans would scream bloody murder at the intrusion of the government in our personal lives.  Yet we are OK with our employer doing the same?  The sad part is that most people, regardless of religious affiliation, use birth control in some form before they are ready to start a family.  Even most Catholics.  For those who still believe that each act of sex should result in the birth of a new baby, OK, your belief.  But keep it to yourself, don't hold it as a weapon over the heads of people who are looking for work or need a job to support their family.


Lastly, and most disturbing, is the recent court decisions that treat corporations as individuals. I googled corporation to review the definition.  But before I clicked on one, I saw a number of websites offering help in incorporating a business.  One such ad posted the cost at $49.   I wish it was that inexpensive to raise a child!!  


One of the best definitions I found was this


"A legal entity that is separate and distinct from its owners. Corporations enjoy most of the rights and responsibilities that an individual possesses; that is, a corporation has the right to enter into contracts, loan and borrow money, sue and be sued, hire employees, own assets and pay taxes.

The most important aspect of a corporation is limited liability. That is, shareholders have the right to participate in the profits, through dividends and/or the appreciation of stock, but are not held personally liable for the company's debts".


The reason I like this one is that it so clearly describes the state of capitalism in America.  All the positive  aspects of a business remain when one incorporates, especially the profit part.  But when things go wrong, the shareholders are not held for the company's debts.  Instead, the taxpayer gets to eat the debt, either because the debtor can write off the debt owed by the failed company in their taxes, or the taxpayer must assist those left without work via unemployment, food stamps, health subsidies, etc.   Capitalism, in its present form, engorges those on their way to the top with all kinds of assistance, then protects those on the way down with all kinds of excuses to avoid responsibility. 


In essence, a corporation is a legal creation which allows the owners/shareholders to be removed from the debt which may result from poor management, changes in the economy, acts of god, defective products, superior competition, etc.  Personhood, without responsibility when things go bad. 


The right to donate unlimited money to buy candidates of their choosing, the right to feel religious infringement; what will be next for the corporation.  The right to marry, then sue for divorce?  The right to vote?  I often try to play devil's advocate with those who see doom and gloom with every topic they discuss, but I just can't understand why the Supreme Court justices of the United States of America, those nine individuals who are supposed to represent the best legal minds of our time, feel compelled to give carte blanche rights to a legal entity that can be created by filling out a form and paying $49.


Let's just hope that Hobby Lobby continues to stay in business.  It would be bad enough to realize that, should the business fail, the owners will have the years of accumulated profits tucked safely inside trusts and personal accounts untouched by the debt of the corporation that was so violated in its religious beliefs.  But it adds insult to injury in knowing that they can start a new "closely held" corporation in some other state and ram their religious beliefs about abortion down some future employees throats whose only goal is to find good employment in America. 


I wonder what Sharia law says about contraception?