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?









Sunday, June 22, 2014

More on Tea Party and Voting

I have been "blogging" now for about four years.  During that time I have touched on a myriad of topics most often as a response to the news of the day.  Sometimes I imagine the course of a particular post in my head, driving in the car, walking the dog, taking a shower.  Many times, actually more times than not, the post evolves on its own and may not resemble the imagined essay that spurred the original idea.  Being a bit of a narcissist, I am often intrigued by my own creative process.  I will attempt to analyze the end result of a post as if it were written by another in an attempt to understand the motivation behind the writing.  This can be both amusing and disturbing when one thinks about the origin of inspiration.  When a particular post of mine just flows out, almost as if my fingers know which keys to hit without input from my brain, it can be very exhilarating.  When I have to work at a particular blog, typing, deleting, moving phrases, stopping and starting as if I don't know where the post is headed, it can be very frustrating.  I am sure I am not alone in these thoughts; many much more creative people than myself have both exalted and lamented in their own creative process.  Today I am wondering if in twenty years, assuming I still draw breath, will I understand more fully my own creative process?  Or is that the rub.  Creativity is best left alone, not to be fully understood, not to be overly examined, and especially, not to be taken for granted.


Perhaps, even more importantly, not to be taken too seriously.


It is easy to look at certain pop culture idols and shake one's head at their perceived self-importance.  It is easy to make fun of the one arena successes, whether it be sports, acting, or business, who believe that every utterance from their mouths is important, meaningful, just because they make a lot of money at their particular vocation.  But what about truly impressive people who have made a real contribution to society?  How self important are they allowed to be if they are truly important?  How much credence should we give to their opinions?  How much faith in their perspective?


How do we know when to respect or reject another's opinion?  Too often, the answer is, when it agrees or disagrees with our own.  When someone says that we can't possibly have all 7 billion people on earth come to our country, so all immigration is bad, do we examine the logic of the first premise before agreeing with the conclusion, or do we say YEA, to the speaker because we already dislike immigrants and aren't interested in facts to back our prejudice?


It is no secret that I believe that the tea party movement has been hijacked by wealthy individuals who were able to redirect the anger at the financial slugs who caused our recent recession against the government which stepped in to save our economy.  It is like blaming the cop for the crimes of those he arrests, blaming the doctor for the cancer she removes during surgery.  Yet, despite the minority of opinion that the tea party holds, despite the often ludicrous statements made by those claiming the moniker, the tea party inspires people to vote, especially in elections where turnout is light.  It should come as no surprise that they focus on these elections because that is where a motivated minority can be victorious.  The White House and US Senate are too big, too many votes to counter.  But local school board offices, state senate and representative seats, even Congressional House elections can won by candidates with a clear, one issue message, especially when that message places the blame for our country's troubles on an easy target.  What is truly sad, almost laughable in its irony, is that the majority of people who forego their voting rights, who claim their one vote doesn't matter, who say that they are all crooks, etc, they enable the minority to hold sway over the direction of the country by their apathy.  As if surprised when someone steals a running car, we wonder how it is that our public servants seem so unresponsiveness to our needs even though we've handed over the keys to our democracy by abdicating our responsibility to vote.


I am about half way through the Lapham's Revolutions issue so obviously I have revolution on my mind.  Throughout history, even today in many countries across the planet, there are people using violence to change their world.  Perhaps armed conflict, the literal death of one form of government for another is the only way for the oppressed to defeat the oppressors.  But just once, I would like to see Americans use their vote to change their government.  Can you imagine 75, 80, 85% turnout in November?  Can you imagine the silent majority getting off their butts and saying no to both those on the extreme left and right?  Can you imagine incumbents being held accountable for their actual votes in Congress?  Can you imagine candidates being asked specific questions, and then demanding specific answers as opposed to 5 second sound bites?  Can you imagine elected officials who emphasize the servant in public servant?


If not, then I recommend joining the tea party because by not voting you enable the extremes to win the day.  I heard someone say on TV that pre-World War 2 Germany was filled with good people, that most were not Nazi's, not believers in the Aryan Race.  But they allowed a vocal minority to rule the day and then had no way to bring it under control.  Unfortunately, this person was using the example to describe the raging Muslim radical minority which was hell bent on destroying Western civilization, and she was directing her anger at moderate Muslims who were allowing the radicals such power.  I use the example to remind Americans that we have the most powerful weapon ever devised to defeat extremism, the most direct method ever created to form a government responsive to its citizens needs without violence.  Our precious right to Vote. 


So Vote.  And, to be fair to my previous assertion about not taking ourselves too seriously,
vote early and often.


   





Thursday, June 19, 2014

Hail to the Tea Party

A few weeks ago after a number of primary elections, I commented that the tea party may be losing its attraction.  A number of establishment republicans had withstood strong challenges for the November midterm election, causing me to posit that perhaps moderate republicans had finally realized the no win scenario that tea party candidates presented in swing states, states with a growing percentage of independents, and states where registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans.  With the recent defeat of Eric Cantor by someone further to the right, and with the severe tilting to the right of many establishment Republicans as they fend off tea party challengers, it is clear that my supposition of the tea party's demise was premature.


So, I raise my glass to the movement and say well done.


Its' OK, calm yourself, I am not tearing up my Democratic party registration card.  On the contrary, the continued success of tea party candidates at the polls will re-energize me, and should do the same for those of you who recoil at some of their rhetoric. 


My praise is directed to their ability to get those who agree with their positions to the polls.  While it is true that Cantor's loss in Virginia was partly due to his arrogance and his taking for granted his constituents' votes, it is also true that David Brat spent hundreds of hours going door to door to meet the voters, while focusing his campaign almost exclusively on one issue; immigration.  The fact that Cantor was one of many Republicans who have fought any immigration reform bills that included amnesty or a way to citizenship, did not matter to Brat, or those who favored him.  Cantor did not adamantly oppose a path to citizenship for the children of illegals, even though a majority of Americans believe that children should not be punished for the crimes of their parents.  Cantor had the gall to agree with Obama that perhaps it was time to craft a bill which would allow those children a shot at the American dream and that was all it takes for the hard right who have been fed a steady diet of Obama as Muslim sympathizer, hater of America, etc, etc, to label Cantor as a traitor, and elect someone who will never agree with anything Obama. 


Think about it.  The number two guy in the House of Reps, the guy who has successfully stalled dozens of  Senate passed bills, while supporting House bills that fly in the face of the president's initiatives, this guy is defeated, rather handily, by a novice who spent pennies to the dollars that Cantor spent.


Of course, there was probably some celebration on the left at this loss.  Whether we choose to call it karma, just desserts, or the monster turning on its creator, many Republicans are feeling the wrath of the very movement that they supported when it was convenient to use them to defeat Obama's bills and policies.  Once painted as the devil himself, moderate Republicans have no way of turning back the clock when Obama proposes something they support.  The least bit of compromise is considered treachery by those who bought the years of character assassination that Fox News and right wing radio have perpetrated on the President and his Administration. 


Yet, despite that so many of the tea party's positions are poorly received by most Americans, the movement continues to gain traction.  They are successful at framing the issues, successful at communicating their positions on those issues, and successful at spurring those in agreement to vote.  It is long past time that the Democrats pull their heads out of the sand, stop pretending that this movement will sputter on its own, and learn and adopt some of the tea party's methods.


First, there are clearly some specific issues that will inflame the base and inspire independents (and perhaps even some moderate Republicans) to vote Democratic in November.  The easiest targets are the very tea party representative themselves who have voted repeatedly for budgets that would turn Medicare over to the private sector, budgets that continue to grant massive subsidies to corporations that earn billions but avoid their tax bill, budgets that slash government oversight which act as a deterrent to those who would cut corners in the manufacture of our food, cars, clothes, or befoul our air and water, budgets that do nothing for middle class Americans but everything for those with the money to buy campaign ads and politicians' largesse. 


Funny thing, initially the tea party evolved from those aghast at Wall Street's shenanigans which led in large part to the recession of 2008 and required a massive bail out.  Influence, power and growing economic strength of the 1% is an issue that, if properly framed, could produce an overwhelming voting edge for those trying to level the playing field.  The danger of course, is that many Democrats are just as guilty of pandering to the rich, but it is still fact that Democrats are the ones proposing equal pay for equal work bills, minimum wage increases, and laws which protect workers rights, all which are voted almost in unison by tea party republicans. 


We need to educate the voters about the actual votes being taken in Congress, all those votes which have done nothing to create jobs, nothing to provide assistance to the victims of Wall Street's ill advised money games, and nothing even to help prevent future Wall Street hedge fund managers and derivative creators to repeat the disaster of 2008.  Even disaster relief has been voted against by tea party representatives, until, of course, the disaster happens in their states. 


And let's not forget the complete disregard for the overwhelming evidence that climate change may make all our economic problems look like kindergarten issues as the earth continues to heat.  The proverbial Rome is burning while Nero fiddled is a perfect description of those in the tea party movement that are controlled by the energy companies that are the source of so much of the carbon in our atmosphere. 


Immigration reform, the assault on women's access to birth control and to make decisions about their own bodies, environmental changes, the rich buying our democracy, sensible gun controls, the ease at which we want to go to war, the right to marry the person you love, the denial of voting rights.  It is time to pick an issue, connect the dots of those voting on the wrong side, and present an alternative to just saying NO.


If the tea party can be successful with distortion of the facts, finger pointing and an avoidance of actual solutions, we should be smart enough to be able to use the truth, acceptance of our mutual problems, and a platform of ideas that will begin to address those issues.            





    

Monday, June 9, 2014

Bergdahl: Hero or Traitor

Just a quick note about my last post.  I forgot to mention in my list of jobs that I delivered newspapers.  Since I engaged in this activity just a few years ago, and considering that I mentioned delivering papers in many of my posts, I was surprised to realize I had forgotten. 


Anyway, on to the present.  A few weeks ago, I posted a similarly titled blog concerning Cliven Bundy.  In the end I concluded that "Ultimately, Cliven Bundy is a confused person".  I added my concerns that in his defense, some family or friends may be harmed or killed, or that a member of the BLM, a federal officer doing his duty, may be harmed or killed.  Fortunately, when it became clear that Bundy was a racist, support for his cause vanished.  As of today, I believe he is still in violation of the law, but my expectations are that justice will be served, and the news coverage of this event will be buried in the papers and be merely a footnote on the national media scene.  You would think that the media would vet their "heroes" a bit more thoroughly.


Which brings us to news of the prisoner exchange involving Sgt Bowe Bergdahl. 


While many of the players and their reactions are predictable, there is some bipartisan support and condemnation of this trade.  On the one hand, there are very serious questions about how Bergdahl came to be a prisoner of war.  There are also serious questions about the value of his release as compared to the value of the five terrorists that were traded for him.  And, there are some hurt feelings on both sides of the aisle that Congress was not adequately briefed on the exchange.


On the other hand, there is the long established tradition of prisoner exchanges, especially as hostilities are winding down.  And, the military credo of never leaving a soldier in enemy hands, even to the point of further bloodshed. 


As is usually the case, there is no clear cut wrong or right in this situation.  Anyone you see on TV or hear on the radio that tries to convince you of the "obvious" evaluation, is biased either for or against the President.  Here is my take.


First, of course the President should have pursued talks with the Taliban to gain Bergdahl's release.  He is an American soldier, who volunteered to place himself in harm's way by joining the military to serve our country and protect our freedoms.  Regardless of how his opinion of this service may have changed, there is no doubt that we should make every effort to return him to American soil.  I can't imagine any parent who would not expect the same of our government.


Speaking of parents, one of the rather odious reactions to this exchange was the attempt at character assassination that took place on FOX TV.  (I even saw part of an attack against Bergdahl on FOX Business News).  Not being a soldier, I guess I can overlook his platoon mates who skewered him but then again, I wonder if there weren't times when they may have questioned their own commitment or been just plain scared.  Worse than this though, was the character attacks against Bergdahl's father.  He has been cast as an Islamic sympathizer because he learned the language of his son's captors and grew a beard.  These type of attacks are shameful!  I dare anyone who opines in such a way to look me in the eye and tell me they would stop at nothing to gain the release of their son or daughter after five years of captivity.   If learning a foreign language will someway give me a path to communicate with those holding my son, count me in.  If growing a beard so I could more easily get a spot on Duck Dynasty would do it, I am also in.  It is a shame that some Americans hate our president so much that they would question the love of a father to free his son from prison in a foreign land.  As the details of Bergdahl's captivity become available and it is revealed that he was the victim of both mental and physical torture, I hope there are some apologies offered by those on the far right whose attacks were not only un-American but un-Christian as well.


But, I digress.


Despite my adamant belief that Obama did the right thing, he did not handle it properly.  I have to conclude that he knew about the questions surrounding Bergdahl's disappearance, so it seems that either he believed that the American public would place recovery above all else, or he underestimated just how far the right would go to discredit his Presidency.  Either way, he should have been more transparent with the plan, and he should have held a more low-keyed announcement than the Rose Garden show that occurred last week.


This is just another in a series of poor decisions that Obama has made in terms of appearance.  Ultimately, while I hope he will be remembered for his accomplishments, the killing of Osama, the economic recovery, the historic healthcare law, the winding down of two wars overseas, the repeal of Don't Ask - Don't Tell, I fear he will also be remembered for his lack of gauging the effectiveness of those opposing his decisions to always seem a step ahead of him, forcing him into damage control, even when his motives and decisions are right.  If you are always battling uphill, it is impossible to get everything done. 


As for Sgt Bergdahl, he appears to be another confused person.  Perhaps he joined the military truly believing in the moral correctness of our war in Afghanistan, only to encounter evidence that contradicted his original belief.  Perhaps he just got scared.  Whatever he was thinking that night he wandered from camp, he was clearly not thinking straight.  I imagine he came to regret that decision over and over in the past five years, perhaps even came to the more rational conclusion that America is not always right, war is not always right, terrorists are not always wrong.  The world is not black and white but rife with shades of gray.  But that in the end, leaving his platoon was the wrong choice and that American ideals, when cached in love, life and liberty are as good as it gets in this complex world we inhabit.


Let's hope that his convalescence includes emotional and spiritual healing in addition to any physical ailments he may have attained, and that he emerges from this ordeal a more whole human being.  Perhaps in that scenario, those who chose to demonize him will also come to realize there own deficits and become better Americans, and better humans.





 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Which work "pyramid" should you choose

My wife and I were recently contacted by friends to consider a multi-level marketing company as a way to supplement our household income.  We spent a lovely evening catching up with them as it had been a while since we saw each other, then we dove into the opportunity via a few videos, and some time for questions and answers.  As I am not unfamiliar with multi-level marketing businesses, much of what I witnessed on the videos and heard in my friends' answers were not surprising.  The question of course is, can you make some money with a multi-level marketing business?


In this case, the product is something everyone uses everyday.  It is not a fad item like trampolines,  not an item that someone would only buy once like life insurance, and not a get healthy item that may be replaced with the next popular get healthy item, or just discontinued if the person didn't "get healthy".  From that respect, I was interested in the opportunity.


But, like all multi-level marketing businesses, it is necessary to create a down line.  In other words, in addition to selling the product, you need to recruit other associates to sell the product and you need them to recruit still more associates.  Unless you get three or four levels deep, you will never earn an income worth the effort.  The good news with this particular company is that the number of "sales" one needed to make was minimal, and the number of associates one needed to recruit was less than fingers on your hand.  So, as with some multi-level marketing businesses, the problem of saturation. i.e. running out of friends and family to buy your product, was less of an obstacle.  To me, finding those people who might run with the idea and recruit other associates is the more difficult part.  And, while having one down line that becomes 4,5,6 levels deep would certainly produce some income, creating a 2nd, then 3rd line is where the real money lurks.  That is why so many of these organizations advertise for managers when they recruit because in the end, it is finding, then training a team that is the required skill. 


For my friends' part, they have already experienced some positive results.  Part of their approach includes the fact that they have been involved for over 6 months.  They have reasonable expectations as opposed to those opportunities that promise big bucks.  They have not drawn any lines in the sand as to when they expect big success, which is a bit unlike some of the high pressure tactics you might experience  from some of these opportunities.  Of course, the down side of that approach is that the guys at the top, the people who started the business in the first place, the people you meet at the seminars who have 6 figure incomes and large blocks of leisure time, they are smart enough to know when to get out and find the next big idea in multi-level marketing,  Once that happens, a new management team may be less successful or the company itself may shrivel and die away.


At this point you may be thinking that I do not intend to pursue this opportunity.   That I know the dangers of investing in a work pyramid of this type, know that upwards of 90% of those who jump in do not make a big splash, and know that there is no stability in these schemes.


But then again, how stable is any job today?  What company isn't really a pyramid in which those at the top gain wealth through the work of those below?


My current full time position with the PLCB is under debate in the PA legislature as to whether they will sell the stores for a one time windfall.  Truth be told, anyone who works for a large corporation faces potential job loss whether it be through a buyout/merger with a competitor, outsourcing the work to a more friendly area, (i.e. where labor is cheaper), downsizing the company itself or merely closing one location in favor of another.  As for small companies, upwards of 50% of new companies fail within 5 years.  Clearly, the days of getting hired out of high school or college and staying with one company for life have long since past.


Even a few seconds of research tells us that over the course of our lives we will likely have more than one career and certainly many different jobs.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that people born between 1957 and 1964 (that is me) held an average of 11 jobs from ages 18 to 44. On average, men held 11.4 jobs and women held 10.7 jobs.  25% percent held 15 jobs or more, while only 12% held four jobs or less.  In my lifetime I have worked in fast food (twice), as a telemarketer, making candles, making gang mowers, working for a wicker furniture importer, making jewelry, working for a bulk mailing company, working for a firemen's clothing manufacturer, working for a sporting goods wholesaler, working as a sales rep in transportation, and stocking shelves for a supermarket, in addition to my current position managing a wine and spirits store.  I even worked on the 2010 census.


I have spent my life working for companies at various levels of their work pyramids.  Sometimes I was at the very bottom, sometime towards the bottom but with some access to a few levels above me, and sometimes, in the smaller pyramids, in the middle with direct access to the top level.  But in the end, I have never worked my way to the top, never started my own pyramid so that I could be at the top.  And ultimately, that is where the vast majority of workers fall.  We are recruits, sometimes directly via the owner, but mostly we are associates hired by other associates of whatever work pyramid we call our job.  And, like those multi-level marketing organizations, much of our work rewards those above us, whether it be the top tier in a multi-level marketing company, or the CEO of the corporation. 


In the end then, the decision to work for a multi-tier marketing company should be based on the decision to work for any other kind of company.  Is it work that I like doing?  Is it work that will reward me for my efforts?  Is it work that will provide the opportunity for advancement?  Is it just work to provide myself and my family with a bit of breathing space?  If the answer to that last question is yes, I don't see any reason to elevate or disparage one type of work pyramid over another.


Coincidentally, this quarter's Lapham is called Revolution.  So often, it seems, revolutions are connected to work and feeling one's efforts are properly rewarded.  Whether it be land owners who tire of the king's edicts, business owners who tire of a far away governments' taxes or peasants who tire of living in poverty while the ruling class prospers, there have been many instances of revolutions in which the fruits of one's work were fought and died for. 


While I am sure that multi-level marketing opportunities existed in the 50's and 60's, (Avon, Tupperware), I wonder if the proliferation of them has something to do with the decline of the purchasing power of the middle class since 1980.  Is the next work revolution already in progress? 


Some say that the industrial revolution, the mechanization of our manufacturing processes, the assembly line nature of so many of the products we make, leads to job dissatisfaction.  We can't see a connection between what we do and the finished product.  We can't see a connection between our role in the process and the consumer who purchases the product.  We work for the weekend because we get very little satisfaction from the work itself. 


When so many people work 30, 40, 50 hours a week and still struggle to stay afloat, and are miserable in the effort, is it any wonder why a multi-level marketing opportunity, with its chance to be one's own boss, its seminars packed with happy associates, one might say its offer of finally reaching the American dream, is it any wonder why this type of work pyramid can be so attractive?


Perhaps the slow economic recovery will continue and the middle class will somehow gain its footing again either through the realization of those at the top that they can't continue to bogart the pie, or via legislation that will force the private sector to pay livable wages.  But if the trend does not start to revert itself, if 35% of the wealth owned by 1% of the people becomes 40%, then 50%, will the American worker continue the revolution of seeking income elsewhere?  Will that trend result in a new work pyramid, with less levels and less disparity between top and bottom? 


I imagine that I will have retired from the work force before these questions are answered but hope for my children that they will be able to boast that their generation created a new work dynamic without the bloodshed that previous revolutions required to change the system of their times. 




   






   


   
     

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Midterm election 2014

It is the day after the 2014 mid term primary elections so I googled up some results to see how the candidates in my area fared, and if there was a national trend at work in races across the country.


In Pennsylvania, four Democrats were on the ballot to take on Governor Corbett in the fall.  As predicted, Tom Wolf won handily.  Wolf's decision to advertise early staked him to an insurmountable lead which none of the other three candidates had the resources to overcome.  Luckily, despite their loss, it appears that all three will put their full weight behind Wolf's attempt to unseat the unpopular Corbett.  If I heard it once, I heard it dozens of times; anyone is better than the current Gov. 


I was, and still am, a bit concerned about Wolf who clearly used his millions of dollars to buy this primary.  But I also had misgivings about his competition, Allyson Schwartz, Rob McCord and Katie McGinty.  McCord's controversial ad accusing Wolf of racism in the far distant past indicated the desperate state of his campaign, and smacked of sensationalism without substance.  As you may remember, I receive weekly emails which detail the votes cast by my reps in Harrisburg and Washington, and was disappointed to see that Schwartz had abstained from many votes in the past few months, my assumption being that she was too busy with this race to represent her constituents.  As for McGinty, she did not seem to have the experience to take on Corbett.


In the end, since it all comes down to removing Corbett, I am happy with Wolf.  Assuming the Dems can get out the vote in November, his business experience should attract some independent voters.  And, while I don't expect many Republicans to defect from the Corbett camp, there may be enough who have been less than satisfied and may just stay at home.  Let's just hope that, where Corbett may have chosen to sacrifice state services rather than seek additional sources of revenue, Wolf will walk a more balanced line by increasing revenue through some specific tax changes aimed at those who can afford it the most, perhaps get a bit more money from the natural gas industry, and find a way to make the business community understand that a strong education system creates more intelligent, motivated future employees and a strong middle class creates more customers with some money to spend on the goods and services.  Where some Dems are portrayed as anti-business, we need Wolf to use his business experience to show that Dems are not anti-business as much as they are anti-greed, and anti-selfishness as those traits apply to businesses that focus on tax loopholes over responsible tax payments, and paying employees a livable wage so less people are dependent on state and federal subsidies to pay for food, shelter and healthcare.


In other elections that directly effected me, the current state representative for my district, is not running for re-election.  While he was a Republican, he did not always tote the party line so there were times when I supported his votes.  He was very visible in the local community and seemed to have maintained his principles over the years.  I found him to be fair and honest, rare traits some might say in today's world of politics.  I will miss your service, Paul Clymer.  Still, I am hoping that the winner of the Democratic primary can muster enough local support to turn the seat to the Dem side, seeing that the PA House and Senate are currently Republican controlled. 


There was no "race" on the GOP side, only one candidate "chosen" by the local party.  This was also true of the Dem race to unseat the current state senator in my district.  And I am sure there were many of these uncontested primary races for state house and senate seats throughout the country.  Is there that much of a disinclination for public service that so many primary elections are "confirm-the- candidate-already-chosen-by-the-party" races as opposed to actual elections featuring two or more candidates?  Or is the system so closed that only those invited can play?


Perhaps it is merely an indication that the parties want to portray a sense of unity, as if the candidate doesn't matter as much as the party platform/ideology.  Which brings us to the current state of the GOP on the national stage.  As of this writing, it appears that the tea party has lost some influence; or perhaps that the GOP establishment has gained control back from its more radical wing.  In many GOP primaries throughout the country, tea party candidates looking to unseat established GOP incumbents lost to those incumbents.  This trend differs dramatically from the more recent GOP primaries where so many tea party candidates won, many over incumbents deemed not conservative enough.  Is this a sign that finally, the moderates of the GOP have realized that they cannot continue to win elections under the banner of not governing?  That the tea party was useful in its day to wield as a bludgeon against the Obama Administration, but its elected reps have become so enamored with the word NO, that they are using it in response to laws that would benefit America even when sponsored by other GOP representatives.


They say all movements eventually die of their own accord or are incorporated into the mainstream in some watered down form.  In 6 or 8 years, will last nights primary results be thought of as the day the tea party movement officially lost its allure?


It will be interesting to see if last night's tea party losers will join the GOP flock or pout on the sidelines in November.  If the latter, the historical pattern of the party in the white house losing ground in the legislature may be interrupted, or at least curtailed as compared to the swing that occurred in 2010.


One final note.  If you didn't vote, be advised that your future opinion on the topics of the day may not be heeded, at least not by me.  I am advising that all conversations that lean to the political should begin with the question, did you vote?  A no answer without a compelling reason, may disqualify one from opining on the problems of the day.  I had predicted that 2 of 3 voters would not go to the polls yesterday; it appears it may be more like 4 of 5.  What a disgrace!!  Disregarding the fact that our elections take place on a Tuesday as opposed to some more practical and longer time frame, and that there were so many rubber stamps races with only one name on the ballot, it is extremely disappointing to see that upwards of 80% of Americans couldn't exercise their right to vote.  It is especially indicative of the state of our apathy when one reads about people dying in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq as they stand in voting lines.  They risk their lives while we can't risk a few minutes.  Hopefully, November's election will feature a higher turnout so that our elected officials are actually representatives of the people as opposed to public servants who are accountable to a vocal, one issue minority, or worse, a super wealthy group or individual. 








   


  

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Celebrating a Milestone and the Future

This past weekend my wife and I travelled to Meadville, PA to celebrate the graduation of my son from Allegheny College.   It was a glorious day!  The weather stayed dry so the ceremony was held outdoors.  The event featured the reading of the names of every graduating senior, but did not feature any long, drawn out speeches, so the proud parents and friends were not nodding off in their chairs.


As the time for JW to walk to the stage approached, Nora and I moved towards the front to get a closer view and take some pictures.  Of course, it was hard to focus the camera through the tears of joy, but we cheered loudly when his name was called and we managed to click off a few shots as he walked to receive his diploma then returned to his chair.  I yelled his name as he moved down the row back to his seat.  His look and his wave to us will forever stay in my memory as one of the greatest moments of my life.


Afterwards, we had twelve at dinner including my son's girlfriends' family.  The next day we helped move JW to his temporary digs as he will be staying with a friend and his family while he looks for an apartment, and a job.  After saying a tearful goodbye, my wife and I headed home, full of concern, anxiety, love and pride.  And, more tears.


Before leaving however, I spoke for a while with JW to gauge his perception of the job market.  He was extremely optimistic, almost on the verge of arrogance.  He had spent some time in the past few weeks testing the market and had gleaned from these contacts that there were many jobs to be had, he just had to decide which was the best fit for him.  While I am sure he must have been nervous about the tasks at hand, he did not convey this uncertainty to me.  What do they call it?  The ignorance and exuberance of youth?!


I guess I am a bit jealous of his confidence but would certainly not wish him to reflect the negativity and hopelessness that I have heard in other young people.


Since arriving home, I spoke to him on the phone once and he remained positive.  Additionally, I read an article in the May edition of the Smithsonian.  (How I wish that everyone could read this magazine - I truly believe that if they did, we would be working, both collectively and individually, much more effectively on solving the problems of the day).


Here is a link


http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/inside-technology-can-turn-your-smartphone-personal-doctor-180951177/


The focus of the article is the incredible technological breakthroughs that are in progress which may revolutionize the medical industry (and a few others as well).  Forget about all the political games being played in Washington over the Affordable Care Act, all the hand wringing over the insurance mandate, all the doom-saying talking heads who predict bankruptcy if the United States tries to provide health insurance for its citizens, the real progress is being made in the labs and basements of America's innovators who are creating hand held devices and apps that will provide access to health services, medical test results, and perhaps even basic diagnosis and treatments without ever visiting a health professional.  If even one tenth of the possibilities of this technology work as predicted, our grandchildren will look back on all the partisan bull crap exhibited in our discussions about health care and shake their heads in wonder as to why we didn't stop arguing and start cooperating. 


Have we become that concerned about who solves the problems, who gets credit, who is proved to be wrong, that we can't see that we need to work together to solve our problems? 


In the 60's, America was all about the future, how great it would be, how great America would be, how our leadership and example would improve the world.  We were a younger country then, literally 20 years younger on average.  Perhaps that is the root of our problem, we look at the future through the eyes of the middle aged, as opposed to the dreams of the young.  We cower at what may come as opposed to rushing to the future with eyes wide, ready to experience, ready to live.


So, thanks JW!!  Thanks for reminding me that life is to be lived, regardless of one's age or circumstance.  That life is about taking chances, moving to a new place to find a job, living in a basement as the first stop on that trip, experiencing life, the ups and downs, rather than fearing about what life might bring.  


May we all remember and embrace the ignorance and exuberance of youth!!!


   



Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Sterling, the NBA and real news

One of the big news stories of the past few days has been the revelation of racist remarks by Donald Sterling, owner of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers.  While the remarks were alleged for the first few days of the story, the reaction and condemnation of Sterling was based on the assumption of guilt.  Clearly, his statements are onerous enough without the realization that his obvious prejudice is directed at the employees that have made his business successful and a significant percentage of the fans who provide his revenue.  And, since the remarks came from tapes made by his much younger, darker skinned girl friend, and based on his history of showing his biases in other public statements and business practices, it is most likely that the voice on those tapes were his.  Still, I thought we believed in innocent until proven guilty, and talk of taking his team from him seemed an over reaction if not, illegal and, frankly, un-American.  Are we really comfortable with taking a man's possessions based on his opinions, as onerous as they may be?


Then, with yesterday's announcement by Adam Silver, the commissioner of basketball, that Sterling would be banned from basketball and that actions would be taken to remove him from influence in the operations of the team, the issue seemed to be settled.  As commissioner of a privately owned business group, Silver believes he has the NBA's charter behind him as well as the votes of the remainder of the owners to take such unprecedented action.  It remains to be seen whether Sterling will go quietly into the night with an estimated 700 million dollar profit from the sale of the Clippers, or whether he will challenge the action in court. 


I hope he fights the decision by the commissioner.  I hope he retains control of the team into next season and that those players with expired or expiring contracts seek employment elsewhere.  I hope that those players with contracts in place, break those contracts, seek employment from other teams and ask for monetary help from the players union while engaged in their search.  I hope that fans with season tickets cancel their plans, and fans who might watch a game or two in person spend their money on other sports or forms of entertainment.  I hope that sponsors of the ads on Clippers radio and TV broadcasts choose to not renew.  In short, I hope that the market works to deter Sterling from ownership, that the value of his team plummets, and that he is rebuked, not in words which are cheap and fleeting, but in dollars and cents which is all he understands. 


In the meantime, there is some real news that should be addressed.  Which brings me to my conspiracy of the day.  Well, actually, not my conspiracy as I am not the first person to mention this nor is it my original thought.  But, did you ever wonder why our news cycle seems so dominated by news of this nature?  Sure, overt racism is an important issue to report, but for days on end, on every opinion, talk and even some business channels?  Are these stories, and for that matter, all of the stories that focus on the lives and foibles of athletes and entertainers, and even the importance of sports in our culture, are they all the manifestations of a plan to distract us from the big problems we face, the big issues we need addressed?  Are they all just fodder to keep us spinning our wheels trying to decide who is the greatest athlete, the prettiest starlet, the newest voice, the owner of the coolest tattoo, while those pulling the strings grow wealthier and more powerful?  As long as we are debating why so and so should have stayed on Dancing with the Stars, we remain ignorant of the evidence of climate change, the collapse of the middle class, and the continued membership of America in the very exclusive club of nations with the death penalty.


Sure, there are news items detailing that today's flooding in Florida is as catastrophic as that from any recent hurricane, and that a recent study indicated that 95% of the recovery wealth from the last recession has been returned to only 5% of Americans, and that yesterday's execution in Oklahoma didn't go as planned because they were using a mixture of chemicals that hadn't been used before which resulted in the convicted murderer thrashing about on the gurney for some time then expire from a massive heart attack.  But will these news items be with us tomorrow?  Or will they be replaced with revelations of a famous Hollywood star with cellulite, or a new Justin Bieber drunken joyride, or a dog who helps feed the family cat?


In the classic chicken or the egg question, is our appetite for what is news and important directed by those with money and power who want us to remain oblivious to the really important topics of the day or are we so petty and trivial in our desire to read and hear about dirty laundry that those who provide our media buffet are only too willing to dumb it down since that is so much easier and cheaper to provide?


Sadly, it is most likely a bit of both although I lean towards the-rich-and-powerful-like-us-dumb theory of journalism and the news cycle.  In the meantime, I have noted a recent interest in Norway for my blog.  Let's hope that if they are seeking info and news about America, they are not laughing at us for our obvious contradictions, and find some real news to share and discuss.    


      





 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Cliven Bundy, Terrorist or Patriot

In the wake of the as-usual reporting of the standoff in Nevada between Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), I thought I would do some research about the issue.  I was hoping to find solid proof to support Mr Bundy's claim that he didn't owe the grazing fees levied against him, solid proof that the BLM had tried multiple times to negotiate with Bundy, and/or some type of factual evidence that would show that Bundy was either a terrorist as stated by Nevada Senator Harry Reid or a patriot as countered by Nevada Senator Dean Heller.




Unfortunately, far too much of the information being pressed on the public about this issue is biased and full of extremism.  Luckily I did find the following article detailing the root of the problem and  facts that demonstrate that the specific issue is as old as the existence of the state of Nevada.  Also, it seems clear that the source philosophical problem is as old as our country and was reflected in our founding fathers' own struggle with states rights versus a strong federal government.   If you wish to review this info, a link is provided below.




http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/04/15/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-long-fight-between-cliven-bundy-and-the-federal-government/




So, onto the topic at hand.  It seems that in this case, Bundy wants to eat his cake and have it too.  He prefers to start history at the time his Mormon ancestors settled in Nevada.  Since that time, any claim to ownership of the land, even of a federal nature, is invalid.  Basically, he does not recognize the government's authority to tell him where he can graze his cattle because his family has been grazing their cattle there since the 1870's.  In fact, he doesn't seem to recognize the existence of the federal government. It does not matter to him that the vast majority of land in Nevada (over 85%) is owned by the federal government, that thousands of other cattle ranchers play by the rules of the BLM and pay a very reasonable grazing fee (far below the market value collected in other states), or that prior to his ancestors' arrival that land was part of Mexico (annexed by the same federal government that he despises so much), and that before that, for thousands of years, the land was used by the Native Americans who were, let us say, not asked nicely to leave or compensated for their ancestral lands.




In the case of Cliven Bundy, he has decided that he us above the laws of the United States of America because they just don't suit him.  While I am sure that he abides by many other laws, it is his belief that any law that interferes with his individual needs indicates a federal power grab of his rights and therefore allows him to ignore them.  While I don't perceive Bundy to be anti-Obama, I think he disregards all Washington based decisions, there are certainly many on his bandwagon who have an agenda to bash the president.  A quick perusal of the history of Bundy's 20 year long war against the BLM will find few republican officials standing side by side with him when Bush was president from 2000-2008.  But boy they sure love him today! 


Clearly, I do not agree with Senator Heller that Cliven Bundy is a patriot.  He is a welfare rancher who, rather than appreciate the sweet deal he has from the federal government, is ungrateful and selfish.  Strange that so many on the right will excoriate the unwed mother on welfare who has child after child, living entirely off the backs of the American taxpayer yet rallies to the side of a wealthy rancher whose herd of cattle has grown over the years from grazing on land he does not own or has paid a fee to use.  He has lost every court case, has been ordered by a handful of court decisions to pay his fair share, has contributed to the national debt, if you want to be explicit, yet he is somehow painted as a hero of the right?


However, unlike Senator Reid, I don't believe he is a terrorist.  Terrorists kill other Americans, plant bombs in public places, openly fight and kill on the side of our enemies.   But, and here is the problem, when you stand beside someone who openly flaunts his disrespect for America's laws, you embolden those who might not stop at merely refusing to pay taxes.  Doesn't it disturb those right wing pundits and republicans when they see pictures of American citizens aiming loaded guns at American law enforcement officials?  Will it only bother them when it is their guy in the white house, or their kid or family member wearing the BLM blazer?


Ultimately, Cliven Bundy is a confused person.  More than once he has indicated that he doesn't even believe in the federal government yet he is frequently seen waving an American flag.  Let's hope that his confusion doesn't cause harm to himself, someone in his family many of whom have been arrested in support of his lunacy, or a BLM or law enforcement officer who is merely doing her job.