Monday, November 13, 2017

Means testing not Mean Policies

There has been a lot of discussion lately concerning the GOP tax reform push.  Ostensibly, this was advertised as the first real tax reform since the 1980's.  The tax code is too complicated, which it is.  There are too many loopholes, which there are.  Taxes are a burden to the American worker and the business community.  Hm, not so sure about that one, but I will circle back later.

History seems to indicate that the buying power of the average worker has been eroded, beginning with high inflation rates during the 1970's, followed by tax cuts to those in the upper income brackets, a surge in the availability of cheap labor throughout the world, the ease of corporations to move their "headquarters" to where ever taxes were less, and the focus away from quality goods at a fair price to selling whatever generated the highest profit. 

Certainly, some of the above will not be fixed by lowering tax rates for the biggest corporations and richest individuals, but instead will increase the burden on everyday people who will be faced with tax burdens passed from federal to state to local (the real trickle down economic theory), or cuts in basic services to the neediest among us, or both. 

I recently mentioned to a sibling that I do not find my tax burden all that high.  Perhaps I am lucky, perhaps I am misinformed, but with mortgage, SALT, education, and charity deductions, along with the standard deduction per head, I find my final tax rate to be more than acceptable, if I consider that my taxes pay for

- environmental safeguards
- a strong military
- a mostly free interstate highway system
- relatively safe food sources
- reasonable health care costs and access to above average health care providers
- education system up to 12th grade
- security of knowing social security and Medicare will assist the navigation of my senior years when income will be static
- much more that I am sure I could list if I spent more time

Now, of course, we can all debate on how to distribute those tax monies.  More here, less here, etc.
But, are we really not getting our monies worth? 

In the past I have proposed a floor for all tax rates meaning that if the rate for your income is 35%, you may take deductions down to 20%, no more.  Perhaps the only bracket that can result in 0% rate would be for those whose income puts them at the poverty level or below, but I would eliminate tax credits that result in people receiving a refund greater than the tax they have paid.  The tax system should be just that, a system designed to collect the monies needed to run the government, not a system for helping the poor.  Those programs should exist on their own, paid for by the taxes collected!

As an enhancement to the floor tax rates, there should also be means testing for most, if not all of the tax breaks.  Certainly one home owners should have a mortgage deduction.  Perhaps even a partial for a second home.  But nothing after that.  This is especially true for the hundreds of business expenses that can be written off.  The neighborhood hardware store should be able to take full advantage of tax credits to help him/her create a successful business.  But mega-corporations don't need all those advantages.  Means testing would put a scaled limit on all those tax write-offs so that all businesses up to a certain size get the same credit in actual dollars.  Once the top of the scale is reached, credit ends. 

It is well known that upper middle class tax payers end up paying a higher percentage of their income in taxes than the very rich.  With some type of floor philosophy along with means testing, no individual making $150K per year should ever experience the dubious distinction of paying a higher tax rate than Warren Buffet or General Electric.

Can we spend a little less at the federal level?  Of course, all large entities have fraud, duplication, inefficiencies, and outright misappropriations.  But we cannot continue to behave as if deficit spending can go on infinitum.  The dam will break, eventually, and it will be the middle class who will bear the burden of its collapse.  For all the talk about kneeling or standing for the anthem, and who is more patriotic, who isn't, perhaps it is time to link the patriotism question to the tax rate one is paying.  To me, wearing a flag on one's lapel while stashing millions of dollars off shore in a tax free haven negates the meaning of the flag pin.  Perhaps, instead of railing at athletes who kneel during the anthem, the president should publish a list of the richest people who pay the least taxes!

Oh, that's right.  President Trump brags about how little taxes he pays!!

A true patriot might realize that every dollar saved to enhance one's wealth, every dollar written off to improve earnings shares, every dollar withheld from the government so that one more big house, or car, or diamond ring can be purchased, is one less dollar paid to our active military soldiers, one less dollar for veteran care, one less dollar for border security, one less dollar for local police, one less dollar for teaching supplies, one less dollar for choose your favorite government provided benefit. 

As for the tax burden preventing American business from thriving, well, yes, small businesses are undoubtedly hurt by the tax system.  This should be the litmus test for any tax reform.  Does it help the small businessman and middle class worker more than anyone else?  If not, then tax reform is just another money shift to the top.  Did we learn nothing from Reaganomics?

Means testing not mean policies.


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

False Choices

It is nothing new for politicians and pundits to present choices which encourage the listener to prioritize goals, encourage resources to be directed to issue A over issue B, or when all is lost, pick the lesser of two evils.  After all, like any American, our government must make hard choices concerning where is should expend its resources and how it should collect the money to afford those decisions. 

Traditionally, and I say traditionally as the United States government has run a deficit for the vast majority of its 225+ years of federal budgets, we, as a nation, have spent more money than we received in taxes.  This was especially true for the presidents who were in office during WW1 and WW2 when the percentage of our national debt grew the most in history.  More recently, since fiscal year 1982, the 36 federal budgets under the last 5 presidents (Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton, Bush 2, Obama) have created $18.6 trillion of our total $20 trillion debt; about $13.8 trillion of that in only the last 16 budgets!

Of course, this trend is not just confined to our federal budgets.  State and local debt is over $3 trillion, and the total household debt in America just broke a new record at $12.7 trillion.

Clearly, we are a nation of consumers who do not save for our big ticket items, are not prepared with an emergency fund to pay for unexpected failures of big ticket items, are not content with the possessions we have, and/or do not earn enough money to purchase the items we feel we need to improve that lack of contentment.  In other words, through easy credit, a keeping up with the Jones's philosophy, and a serious lack of discipline, we are a nation of debtors.  And I include myself in this assessment!

Just as clearly, the time for hard choices is upon us.  The recent GOP tax reform proposals take a swipe at the problem by reducing our nation's tax rates (reducing revenue) in hopes that increased spending will lead to a demand for more products and services which will spur economic growth, reduce unemployment even further, and create more and higher paying jobs.  Unfortunately, the bulk of the tax breaks are going to those in the top tax brackets.  As we witnessed during the Reagan and Bush 1 administrations, not enough money trickled down to the working class in America, the national debt increased by $3.4 trillion (from 1 trillion to 4.4 trillion) in those 12 years, and the beginning of the stagnation of the buying power of the middle class began.  As a result, it is not too hard to imagine another jump in the national debt, even more incredibly rich people, and a continuation of the disappearance of the middle class. 

Additionally, as the mantra of reduced government regulation continues to fly from the lips of these same legislators, forward thinking plans to address climate change, invest in the green energy industry, and protect our environment are scuttled by the short term vision of interstate pipelines, bringing back coal jobs, drilling in our oceans, and pretending that spewing pollution and contaminants into the air is not the same as taking a shit on your front porch.

But that is the rub.  We are told that we can't have cheap energy unless we pollute our environment. That we can't have low employment without mega corporations paying little or no taxes.  That we can't have gun control without freedom.  That we can't have a standard of living which enables everyday people to work only one job, have a few children, take a few weeks of vacation, and retire with the knowledge that they won't have to choose between food and medicine unless we allow corporations free reign to move jobs and profits offshore while still reaping the benefits of American security. 

In as partisan as is our political discourse, as unequal as is the income of the top compared to the bottom wage earners, as rabid as is the criticism and support of President Trump, we need to dissect and dismember the arguments of those who present us with false choices.  When we can afford to pay our star athletes $40 million a year to play a game, our top CEO's the same and more to run our businesses, when we read of hedge fund managers who net 8 and 9 figure salaries while underfunded pension funds threaten the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of retired Americans, and billionaires who area legally able to deduct the result of their bad decisions from future tax payments, when we are startled to learn of inner city school classrooms that lack the basic teaching materials, and that upwards of one in five children go to bed hungry at some point in a calendar year, then we MUST stop accepting false choices from our leaders and demand that our voice and our vote is for the most pragmatic process to reduce taxes for the middle class without sacrificing our elderly, the most sensible way to control gun violence while maintaining our freedoms, the most efficient means to address the very real threat of climate change while reducing our dependence on fossil fuels; in other words, the best of two (or more) options. 

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Las Vegas Killer

It has been almost three weeks since the worst mass shooting in United States history, and we don't seem any closer in discovering the motive for this horrendous act.  There appears to be no political basis for the killings, no religious reason, no past belittling incident or employment related activity.
Nothing has been revealed, to date, to explain why the murderer chose Las Vegas on that particular day during that specific concert.  His family is devastated, his girlfriend beside herself with grief, due to the unexplained actions by a man they considered sane, a good brother, a good companion.

As a result of both the magnitude of the horror, and the ease at which the gunman was able to collect so many weapons of mass killing and fire them so quickly, there has been some talk of new gun legislation, at least in terms of the bump stock aspect which enabled the killer to virtually turn his semi-automatic weapons into more rapid fire devices.  But, to be honest, I don't expect much progress even here.  The NRA exerts too much influence, especially on the House of Representatives, and there are too many radio talk show hosts and TV pundits making the case that guns are only tools, and that all tools are capable of abuse. 

And, in one way, those advocates of less gun control, are correct.  Without addressing the culture of violence that permeates America through the glorification of vigilante justice, the right to defend one's property with deadly fire, the oft repeated threat of nuclear engagement against our enemies, and the more recent emergence from what we thought was the backwaters of our most virulent history, the white nationalist (aka Ku Klux Klan) movement, we will never have any meaningful debates concerning the place of guns in our society. 

Guns, and the violence and death that follow their use, will be with us for the foreseeable future.  The most frightening aspect to the hunt for a reason behind the Las Vegas massacre, is that in the past instances of mass murders, a motive was easily discernible.  That motive, terrorism, mental health issues, divorce, job loss, political disaffection, all lent themselves to the rationale which allows us to pretend that guns don't make killing people easier to do.  Those obvious reasons justify our misplaced excuse for the lack of common sense gun laws by claiming that the perpetrator would have done the dirty deed some other way; its not the gun but the user at fault.

Now, assuming a valid reason for the actions that resulted in so much death and injury in such a short time is not discovered, we are faced with the real possibility that each and every sane, law abiding  American is just one moment away from committing a similar act, because we refuse to address the simple fact that accumulating a large and potentially deadly store of rapid fire weapons can be easily accomplished by anyone.  Even more so by those we consider safe, right up until the moment they peer through the site of their legally purchased, legally enhanced automatic weapon and begin to mow down innocent citizens. 

In our desperation to find a reason for such a horrible crime, we ignore the history of how we arrived at this moment.  We pretend that the we can't connect the dots, from our founders who created the 2nd amendment to provide them with a means to address the tyranny of an unresponsive and foreign government to the misinterpretation by the Supreme Court to equate militia with everyday citizens to the profits of the gun industry, to the fame and influence of those in the media who trade success and money for the death of Americans by flaming the passions of those who prefer a reason to shoot first, and ask question later.

Violence control is the topic under which I place all such posts related to guns and our obsession with justifiable violence.  I will continue to use that reference, just as I will continue to be perplexed by those who do not see that violence may be as American as apple pie, but it does not reflect the teachings of all the great prophets, and certainly not the reason behind the birth and death of Jesus of Nazareth.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Birth Control

Another disappointing decision by President Trump came last week when he removed the requirement for birth control coverage (under the Affordable Care Act) for employers who claim religious objections as their reason for refusing to pay for such coverage.  Clearly, those in the Christian right who saw fit to sacrifice their principles in support of a thrice married man, guilty of infidelity at least twice, and who openly bragged about being able to touch women in their private parts with impunity, were rewarded.  Additionally, the recent House passage of a bill which would make abortions illegal after 20 weeks, 4 weeks less than the viability aspect of the Roe vs Wade ruling, tosses them another bone.  Perhaps I should be grateful that there is still some compromise left in America, considering the polarization of our times, but then again, there is a fine line between compromise and the more Machiavellian method of ends justifying the means.

Notwithstanding the presumption that President Trump most likely used birth control (or made sure his partner was "safe") during his "womanizing" years, and the fact that the vast majority of Americans use some form of birth control, especially condoms, of which upwards of 450 million were sold last year in the United States (see link below), and that the mantra of responsibility for oneself and one's actions is not far from the lips of those who justify gutting government programs for the poor and needy, why is it that the Christian right, especially Roman Catholics, consider birth control other than the rhythm method, immoral?

I will leave you to decide the answer, with top choices being a reflection of a time when religious leaders knew that a bigger flock meant more money and influence, that there has always been a bit of misogyny as a foundation for most of the big religions, that our DNA drives us to protect our babies, unborn or born, or more simply, that men like to play and will develop all kinds of societal rules and norms to justify their fun while punishing the objects of their lust.

Still, it would be funny if not so sad that in the year two thousand and seventeen, the idea that family planning would not be supported by all the institutions that we turn to for guidance, religious or governmental, seems ludicrous.  Especially when we contemplate the simple fact that it took all of human history up until the early 1800's to get to one billion people on earth, 123 years more for us to reach 2 billion, only 33 years to get to 3 billion, and that we have added another billion every 13 years or so since which means that even the low end projections put our planet's population at 14 billion by the end of this century. 

In other words, access to birth control, education about family planning, and an understanding that sex education is not a green light for sex, but rather guidelines for responsible sex (there is that word responsible again).  More important for Americans to understand, is that the fastest growing population rates are generally in countries that we consider third world (South and East Asia, Sub-Sahara).  Places where there is a lack of education and/or a lack of resources.  Is that what we aspire to as well?

Of course, there are not that many employers who actually use the religious objection reasoning, although I would like to see a list of those employers granted that exception to see if they are sincere, or just cheap.  So, one might say that if an employee does not share his/her employer's convictions then they should find another job. 

But what if the employer has an epiphany one day and suddenly converts to an anti-birth state of mind.  Is there a grandfather clause that protects employees that were hired before the owner saw the light?  Or what if the company is sold to a new owner with these objections?  Again, OK for senior employees but no new ones get the benefit?  Or, more likely, what if the CEO of one huge corporation realizes that he can save some money on health benefits, is struck by the lightning bolt of the evils of birth control, and seeks the exemption, thus creating a competitive edge in that particular marketplace.  It wouldn't be the first time that, once one large company changed policies, the rest of the industry followed.  (See fees for bags on airlines).  Oh lordy, what a coincidence that the majority owners of all the large corporations in the retail sector suddenly converted to Catholicism!!

Also, when we consider the misplaced fear of sharia law taking over our country, well, what if my employer supports sharia law?  Are they protected by the same rationalization that allows Catholics to discriminate against non-Catholics when deciding company benefits?  I would like to see the panel of pundits debating that issue on Fox Five.

And, speaking of our objections to sharia law?  Aren't laws that establish that an employer's religious beliefs can be used to justify how employees are treated, a version of sharia law?  If we are going to pretend that we are a Christian nation, then I am on board, as long as we address income inequality, the accumulation of wealth in too few hands, our addiction to guns and violence as methods to solve interpersonal and international conflict, and the rampant materialism that gauges success by one's bank account, regardless of how that wealth was earned.

In the end however, there is a simple answer to those who believe that they should not have to pay for their workers to have access to birth control.  (By the way, I would endorse all parents who work for companies like this to become pregnant, but those same companies probably don't have a very good parental leave policy; perhaps that should be addressed before we allow them the exception.) 

That simple answer is to get employers out of the health insurance business.  Remove the incentive that allows big corporations to get price breaks for health insurance premiums, by placing all American in one large pool, or allow each state to create their own pool, perhaps in unison with a neighboring state, if their population is small.  As it is today, better health benefits, better access to affordable premiums and health networks, go to those who work in industries where an advanced education is required.  Pharmaceuticals, financial, energy jobs, doctors, lawyers, politicians all have better access.  In essence, the health insurance industry is organized to discriminate, through higher premiums and deductibles, and less access to better health professionals, against those poorer, less educated working class Americans.  It seems a bit surprising that no enterprising young lawyer hasn't created some kind of class action suit along those lines.

Sometime, hopefully soon, enough Americans will realize that we succumbed to the rhetoric and showmanship of a reality TV host when we went to the polls last November.  He has no great ideas except those he borrows from a time long gone.  And, he has no concern for anyone but himself, as is displayed daily through his self-aggrandizing tweets, and relentless obsession about how he is treated, talked about and judged.


Friday, September 29, 2017

The Power of Symbols

The power and meaningfulness of symbols in any culture, country or ethnicity is often palpable, always prevalent.  For America, the Liberty Bell, the Pentagon, our various national monuments to presidents, the bald Eagle, Pearl Harbor, all represent something important to each and every American. 

And then there is the flag - Old Glory.

As important a symbol of our country and our freedom as any other.  Steeped in history, from its creation at the hands of Betsy Ross, to the inspiration it provided Francis Scott Key, to the struggling, brave men who hoisted it on Iwo Jima, to the proud display of our enduring strength depicted in pictures of the flag on heaps of concrete and steel in the aftermath of 9/11, the Stars and Stripes is perhaps our most iconic of national symbols, and most controversial.

The most recent controversy centers around well paid athletes, predominately African American, who chose to kneel during the playing of the national anthem, rather than standing and facing the flag.  Many people who do not follow professional sports, and American football in particular, may not be aware that the first athlete to "take a knee" did so during last year's season.  But when President Trump chose to enter the fray in the past two weeks, it suddenly became the biggest topic in town, discussed on everything from day time to late night entertainment shows, to talk shows of all types, and even to business shows. 

And, as is true of so much of today's discourse, passion on both sides often exceeded compassion for other viewpoints, and thinking before opining.

A quick question here.  How many verses are there in the Star Spangled Banner?  If you said one, that is because we generally only here the first stanza.  If you said two or three, you may be guessing, or perhaps you heard someone sing more verses at some point in your life.  If you said four, you would be correct, and, I would bet in the minority, small minority, of Americans.

Click here for complete version --

An easier question might be, how many stars and stripes are on the flag?  I would like to think that a majority of Americans might say 50, but all?  And, if 50 is your answer, why 50?  Hopefully, one for each state in the union, is your answer. 

And, assuming one has scored 3 out of 3 so far, do we know when the playing of the national anthem while presenting the flag before sporting events began?  Which sport was the first?  Was is always before the game started or did it perhaps first occur during a game at the time when people stood up for a different reason.  (Yes, there is a hint at the origin there).

So, one last question then, are we any less patriotic if we don't know what each star and stripe represents, or if we don't know all the verses of the Star Spangled Banner?  Or if we stand and face the flag but mouth the wrong words?

Conversely, are we more patriotic because we perform the ritual of standing at sporting events and removing our hats when the anthem is played and the flag displayed even if we don't know the origin of the action? 

The flag and the anthem are symbols of everything we have overcome to this point in our nation's history.  Symbols of our victory over England, twice, our ability to recover when attacked by foreign enemies.  And perhaps most importantly, they represent our unique form of government, and those most extraordinary documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

But even more incredibly, more powerfully, the flag and anthem evoke different memories, different experiences for the citizens of our country.  One thing to a veteran who can still remember the horrific sights and sounds of his fellow combatants as they sacrificed their lives on the battlefield.  Another to the immigrant who is grateful each and every morning as he prepares for work, and his children for school, in a country that judges him and his family, not by his native origins or fluency in English, but by his work ethic and character. 

When we see various politicians and pundits rail for or against those athletes, does it matter if, when asked to defend the flag in Korea or Vietnam or the middle East, they choose to hide behind their family's name or money?  Does the fact that they wear a flag pin on their lapel over ride their avoidance of service, or lessen the harshness of their tone in judging someone else's patriotism?

While being respectful of our national symbols is certainly important, is it also important to understand what those symbols really mean, and that our country is great precisely because freedom is a tough act, requiring us to, if not understand, at least permit other citizens to voice their concern when they see freedom diminished, even if it conflicts with our version of respect and patriotism.

Finally, is it more patriotic to stand and face the flag, or to pass legislation that improves the ability to access and afford health care?  More patriotic to remove one's hat when the anthem is played, or to draft tax reform that elevates the take home pay of the millions of hard working poor and middle class Americans rather than those already in the top 5%?  More patriotic to worry and fret and argue over the interpretations of other people born in the land of the free, or to label and then demonize groups of Americans that look, love and worship in a different way?

If we don't fully understand the profound meaning of our national symbols, then it certainly doesn't matter if stand, kneel or lay prostrate on the ground when we hear a song for which we don't know all the words, or why it is being played at that moment in the first place.

Monday, September 11, 2017

President Trump is Right on DACA, for all the wrong reasons

President Trump's recent decision to end the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program (DACA) was met with swift condemnation from the Democrats, lukewarm support from the GOP establishment, and loud applause from his base and those on the far right.  Same old same old.

For me, Trump's decision is the correct one, but for all the wrong reasons.

First, let me be clear when I say that deporting children whose only crime is to have parents who risked everything to cross illegally into our country is cruel, certainly not Christian, and clearly not the action of a nation which aspires to be viewed as the moral standard of the world.

We know we need immigration reform.  We know that, like those who fled Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, there are millions of people born south of Texas who are fleeing from economic hardship and poverty.  And we know that our borders must be secured to permit entry by the vast majority of people who we should welcome while still identifying and removing those who do not deserve to participate in the opportunities which America can afford.  So why has there been literally zero progress in the past 50 years to reform our immigration laws?

It is politics, pure and simple, inflamed by our natural tendency to distrust people unlike ourselves, the proliferation of garbage news on the internet, the insidious rhetoric spouted daily by politicians and pundits who prefer power and money over truth, and the philosophy of the Grand Old Party in general and Candidate Trump in particular who had convinced enough Americans that people born in Central America can not be trusted.

You see, once you demean someone based solely on their race, country of birth, sexual preference, or any such characteristic, it is hard to go back.  When economic parity is disappearing, it is much easier to point the finger at the immigrant, illegal or otherwise, who has a darker complexion or different facial structure or disparate cultural traditions.  The fact that those people generally earn the lowest wages doesn't matter, as the real culprit in the growing income disparity are those with the most wealth and resources.  Those same people who donate large sums of money to campaign war chests, who create patriotic sounding organizations with one issue agendas, and who manipulate our legal system by encouraging laws which favor their needs or using the courts to tie up legal challenges by victims who don't have the resources to withstand lengthy hearings and appeals.

When President Obama attempted to spur Congress to create new immigration policy, he was thwarted multiple times by the GOP controlled Senate and House.  Finally, Obama signed an executive order creating DACA, and since then about 800,000 individuals have taken advantage of it.
Unfortunately, Obama attempted to expand the scope of DACA and these expansions were successfully challenged in court and the changes were struck down.  In the meantime, challenges to the original DACA rules moved through the courts.  It was in the defense of this program that Trump and Attorney General Sessions found themselves at odds with Obama.  

Trump couldn't very well defend DACA in court because he has spent the last two years convincing some Americans that a Wall was one of the solutions to our problems and that once the scourge of illegal immigration was defeated, all would be right with our country.  The fact that upwards of 10% of those "bad hombres" are children, did not enter into his rhetoric, and could not be walked back. Also, Trump couldn't defend DACA, simply because it was Obama's plan.  

Still, despite the obvious politics behind President Trump's DACA decision, the pandering to his base and the clear discrimination against those born in Central America, President Trump is right in demanding that Congress be responsible for immigration reform.  The House and Senate need to do their job, difficult as it may be, and stop hiding behind political aspirations.  By crafting a policy that allows for citizenship for those brought to America as minors, for those who become productive members of America, for those who were foreign born but have raised their children to appreciate and respect the opportunities that America has presented to them, Congress can reform our outdated immigration policies in a bipartisan way that Trump can sign into law.

Remember, America exists today precisely because of the flood of immigrants, from Europe, Asia, Africa and now Mexico and Central America.  The circle of diversity which brings new ideas and energy, which creates proud first and second generation Americans, which allows for tolerance of the next wave of immigrants, separates us from those countries that reject non native born peoples outright, or isolates them in areas within their cities which provide the least opportunity and upward mobility.  People are not crossing illegally into Russia or North Korea for a reason.

And lastly, also remember that had immigration quotas existed in the late 1800's and early 1900's, and had the xenophobic opinions of the day outweighed those with more tolerance, many of us, those who are first, second and third generation Americans might not have been born here.  

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Reading and Thinking

I've been reading a lot lately.  Finished the James Hockenberry novel "Over Here", read through the August edition of National Geographic and began the September edition, and continued my reading of the summer edition of Lapham's Quarterly called Fear.  It has helped that I have taken advantage of the many vacation days I have built up over the past 2 years, and that the nice weather has encouraged me to read in our sun room rather than plopping down in front of the TV in our living room.

Some of the things I have read about include the disturbing fact that close to a billion people on Earth still defecate out of doors, resulting in sanitation risks that create the needless deaths of tens of thousands of children a year.

That a private sector space race is in progress in an attempt to win the $20 million Google Lunar XPrize by being the first privately funded group to land a craft on the moon, travel 500 meters on its surface, and beam images of its trip back to Earth.

That new research into the workings of the brain is revealing an amazing connection between addictive behavior and brain activity, specifically in the area of dopamine release and interceptor cells.  Research that is inspiring not only new ways to look at destructive behavior, but some innovative approaches to ending the escalating cycle of craving, satisfaction, deeper craving that is creating far too many addicts and far too many opioid related deaths.

That there are indeed, present day messiahs roaming our planet preaching their own unique version of the meaning of life, the way to happiness, and the path to God.

I have also been thinking a lot lately.

That statues and monuments are merely symbols of our history, and that removing them won't matter one bit if we don't address the underlying cause which leads everyday people to hate other people because of a more pronounced degree of sun exposure.

That words matter more than symbols, and that when we do not condemn a mind set that places one race above another, or advocates the kind of hate that drove the everyday people of Germany to excuse, at best, condone and contribute to, at worst, one of the most heinous programs of genocide in our history, we are likely to repeat such terrible actions.

That while we debate about lowering the tax on corporations that demonstrate limited loyalty to America, choosing to move jobs, monies, and home offices to wherever they get the best deal, most inner cities schools are struggling to make payroll and provide basic teaching tools, producing children, who will have learned that rich people are more important than our youth.

That work ethic seems to be on the decline while drug dependency is on the rise.  If we assume that we engage in activities that produce pleasure, thereby training our brains to seek those activities, and given that the last 35 years has produced a minimum increase in the standard of living of most Americans as compared to a hundred fold for the wealthy, then perhaps it is no wonder that too many everyday people are reluctant to buy into the version of the American dream that depicts a relaxed retirement after a lifetime of hard work.

And, if the above continues, that more and more people will look to the lottery as the only way to financial independence, or worse, find contentment in the arms of the plethora of drugs, legal and illegal, that produce far too many addled brains, as well as too many rich pharmaceutical CEO's.

That the internet provides the world at our fingertips, all knowledge, all facts, all of history, but is too often used as a distraction from living, or as a way to spread falsehoods and distortions so as to gain power and money.  And that our phones have evolved from a lump of black plastic and metal that was more useful as a paperweight than a communication device, to a hand held wonder that takes better pictures than most cameras, and enables us to find out virtually anything we need to know, from directions to a list of the tallest trees, but is unfortunately mostly used to send pictures of cute animals, outrageous comments that have been taken out of context, and viral emails that depict the everyday activities of our lives as the greatest, the best, or the worst, as if the preceding thousands of years of mankind's existence had little meaning.

That perhaps if our political and religious leaders worried less about their personal legacies (and wallets) and more about the ability of everyday people to be happy, productive, and inspired that anything is possible with perseverance, then we might be able to create a world where the basic needs of indoor plumbing and accessible, potable water, a safe and solid education, and the guarantee that hard work, regardless of occupation will result in access to affordable health insurance and health care, will come before billion dollar sporting arenas and trillion dollar weapons systems.      

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Unreasonable Perspectives

In my last post I discussed my over riding belief that most people are reasonable, and that by appealing to that reasonableness, it is much easier to defuse confrontations, and engage in more civil discussions even about the most divisive issues of the day.

But what about people who act unreasonably?

Again, it is important to remember that one's own perspective of another's "unreasonable" opinion or perspective most likely equates to the exact same opinion of that person to your particular lack of understanding their viewpoint.  In other words, they consider you unreasonable as well.

Two weeks ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, a march was organized by some reasonable people who felt that removing the statues of Confederate Civil War heroes was inappropriate.  Some felt strongly that these statues honored not just the leaders of the South, but also the hundreds of thousands of men and women who died for their beliefs.  Additionally, there are those from the North as well as the South who feel that maintaining statues of Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson, etc, provides teaching points for our youth.  We must understand our past, the failures as well as the successes, if we are to move forward in our treatment of all people.

As a possible corollary, we maintain markers and monuments recollecting the various horrendous treatment of Native Americans by our government via the military, and by some of the pioneers who helped tame the vast lands of the West.  I am sure it pains many Native Americans to see those markers, as they remind them of their lost culture and the inhumane treatment their ancestors received by the settlers who perceived the taking of the Indian homeland as a divine right intrinsically paired with manifest destiny.  However, I might also conjecture that most Native Americans prefer to keep those memorials so as not to forget their ancestors, and their culture.

Unfortunately, many of the marchers in Charlottesville were there to express a desire to return to the time when white men ruled with impudence.  For them, the statues represented a time to be honored, even recreated.  The lesson of the Civil War, the spirit of the Declaration of Independence which proclaims that all men are created equal, the hard fought battles of the Civil Rights Era which brought down decades of Jim Crow laws, the understanding that we are all sons and daughters with diverse heritage and DNA, all these truths are lost on those who support white supremacist doctrines.

Conversely, most of the counter protesters at that rally were there to remind those marching for a more whiter America, that the 400,000+ Americans who died fighting to defeat Nazi Germany during World War 2 did so to bring freedom to Europe and guarantee the same for America.

Sadly, there were those on both sides who chose to express their beliefs in a violent manner.  It is those people that President Trump was referring to when he added the phrase "many sides" to his scripted speech.  In the absolute, there was aggression by some on each side of the protest, and so Trump is correct, many sides acted unreasonably when we assume that violence is never the answer to perspective differences.

However, and this is an important point, condemning the violence committed by some on each side, does not create a moral equivalence to the reason behind the marchers and the protesters.  Those who advocate white supremacy, who glorify the participation of those honored in marble and stone in a war meant to continue the barbaric practice of owning and abusing a class of people because of their race, represent a perspective that is not only unreasonable, but is anathema to the very heart of the meaning of America.  It is not another notch in the Make America Great Again slogan, but a slap to every American who gave his or her life, not just during World War 2, but in the execution of every war fought since the War for Independence.

This is the crux of the problem with President Trump's statement.  Had he condemned the violence which causes Americans to fight with each other on the street, he would have been on point.  A president, any president must often remind his constituents that the right to peaceably assemble, the right to protest, and the right to free speech, does not include the right to intimidate and threaten their fellow citizens.

Once established, that no one should resort to violence in the expression of their rights, he should have then separated the intent of the marchers from the protesters, making it clear that the tenants of white nationalism has no place in America today.  That it is an unreasonable perspective that he does not support, and that is not reflective of his overall philosophy of Making America Great Again. Unfortunately, Trump's campaign rhetoric struck a cord with those that believe that the mixing of the races weakens America, and his mutual condemnation of the violence during the march signals to those believers a justification to express that view.

Which brings us to people with unreasonable perspectives.

Every day we encounter people with whom we disagree.  Many of these differences are easily sorted out or tolerated if they are inconsequential.  But some of these differences are not so easily rectified. They may possess a cultural or religious foundation, or a learned bias that is not so readily countered with facts.

In the summer edition of Lapham's Quarterly, called Fear, which I am presently reading, there is an excerpt from Marilynne Robinson's book called Fear.  In September 2015, then President Barack Obama interviewed Robinson about the essay.  Robinson said "I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people," she said. "When people begin to make those conspiracy theories, and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that it made for a position that they don't agree with - you know?".  Obama replied, "Yes.".

The belief that one race is better than another is an unreasonable perspective.  It is held by people who may be reasonable in many other perspectives which means that they may be dissuaded of this viewpoint.  Perhaps through education, perhaps through example.  But when we make the mistake of equating unreasonable opinions with unreasonable people, then no matter of discussion or violence will change either party's mind.  We have to assume that someone is willing to listen to facts and truths if we are to believe we can alter someone's perspective. And, when we are bombarded every day with forces that prefer to emphasize radical perspective on either side so as to garner more profits, more and more people become unreasonable in their belief structure and less willing to perceive those with differing opinions as reasonable.

The challenge of both an active citizenry and its political leaders, is to promote an understanding that holding opinions which differ is an important facet of a vibrant democracy, that violence in voicing those opinions is not acceptable, and that perspectives which run counter to the foundations of our country as detailed in the Bill of Rights, may be voiced, but must not be condoned in even the slightest fashion or through any kind of moral equivalency.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Reasonable People

I had a job interview yesterday.  One of the questions asked was "How would you handle a customer who insisted on something that you knew was wrong".  As a current manager in a retail establishment, it is not uncommon for a customer to insist that they purchased a product for less money in the recent past, so it was not a scenario that I had not encountered many times. My answer, however, was different than when asked the same question during previous interviews.

Generally, whenever I am confronted by a customer with a complaint, I attempt to diffuse the cause for concern by asking for the customer to share their issue as opposed to getting it second hand from an associate, as most frequently, problems are brought to the attention of someone at the register or on the sales floor rather than direct to me.

Along with this step, I attempt to direct the customer to an area out of earshot of other customers. Once the problem is reiterated, I ask for their name while introducing myself as well.  I feel that this approach addresses those customers who may be experiencing an increase in the level of their irritation because so many of us have attach a negative perception of business, especially big corporate business, while forgetting that the person fielding the complaint is a fellow human.  By personalizing the encounter, I have found that some of the anger is tempered.

But most importantly, I listen to and answer the customer with the assumption that they are a reasonable person looking for a reasonable answer.  Put another way, I assume that most people are nice.  Using this idea as the beginning of any conversation, especially one in which there is a hint of conflict, sets the tone so that however the discussion might end, it involves two reasonable people who are resolving a difference in perceptions.   No crossing of arms, no interruptions by one speaker over the other, no hint of haughtiness when the mistake is obvious.

Granted, this can be difficult if the customer is aggressive or abusive, but again, that is not usually the case.  In fact, sometimes it is the lack of personalizing the conversation that escalates the situation.
So often, anger is the result of a feeling of helplessness, or vulnerability.  A "You can't fight city hall" mentality.  This is especially true for those who have been taken advantage of or abused when they were vulnerable.  For some, the lessons of letting one's guard down, or assuming the best of their fellow men, have scarred them to the point that self preservation rules the day, and any hint of future helplessness produces anger and harsh emotions.

I often credit my years of hitchhiking across America as proof that most people are nice, most people are reasonable.  As a hitchhiker, you go no where unless a stranger decides to stop and offer assistance.  Perhaps I was fortunate enough not to have had any serious negative experience in that time, but I maintain it is more because, most people are nice, and that helping others is as integral to our DNA as any other motivation.

This premise, that most people are reasonable, seems to be a missing component of so much of the dialogue concerning the topics of the day.  Whether that dialogue centers around liberal vs conservative, left vs right, or Democrat vs Republican, and whether the topic includes race relations, health care insurance options, or the uncertainly surrounding Russia's involvement in our elections, the conversations invariably revert to name calling and vitriol; in summary the premise that the other side in not nice, not reasonable.

Of course, this is nothing new.  Presenting our enemies, or those with differing opinions, as not quite American, or not quite sane, has been with us for all of history.  Fortunately, within the nastiness of those debates, there has usually been a countering force which helps both sides realize that no deal, no common ground can be found, unless we can rely on each other to be reasonable.  Every contract that exists, from the simple marriage contract to a 145 nations treaty, is doomed to fail unless each and every party is reasonable.

In the end, it is this ability to disagree yet still respect each other that separates us from the animals. It is certainly not an easy path to take, but it is a critical aspect, one that will help ensure that our species continues its slow, bumpy, tumultuous path towards the spiritual enlightenment that has been detailed by Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, the Dalai Lama, etc.    

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Over Here, over there, and eveywhere

I began reading a novel last week called Over Here, by Jame Hockenberry.  (My wife gave it to me for Christmas last year, autographed by the author; thanks Nora).  It is the fictionalized account of the activity that occurred in the United States just before America entered World War One.   While I am just about 1/3 through the book, I am finding it to be an interesting portrayal of the mixed emotions that existed in our country before we entered WW1 in April 1917, especially among those who considered themselves German-Americans, either because they were born in Germany, or because they were raised by German born parents in the United States.

Obviously, those Americans with ties to Germany, were conflicted by the war in Europe, a war which many considered to be the primary fault of German leaders' desires to break the Franco-Russia alliance, while elevating Germany to the class of world leader nation.  Throw in the rumors on both sides of the war of atrocities against civilians, and the unwillingness for all concerned to contain the initial outbreak to a localized war between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, and we have a recipe for both individuals and nations to be torn over which side to support.

Perhaps the parallel is not quite as solid, but I have to imagine that similar internal battles exist in the hearts of Mexican Americans when they here some of our our leaders disparage their country and its people, as well as those Americans who practice Islam, when they hear the phrase Islamist terrorist bandied about without regard to the vast majority of Islams who are not infected with a deep case of "ism-ness".  In each case, I imagine that being proud of one's heritage or religion, as well as one's adopted country, should not necessitate the need to choose one over the other.  Unfortunately, like some Americans during World War 1, distrust of their German neighbors, fueled by the occasional act of violence, is easy to see in action today by some who distrust people born south of our border or who worship a different God.    

One particular moment in the book struck me as both interesting and poignant.  At one point, one of the Bomb Squad detectives is discussing with his wife the recently released movie they had just seen; A Birth of a Nation.  The wife, Corinne, pushes her husband to understand that the awful actions of the KKK as depicted in the movie are similar to those being perpetrated by the mostly German American saboteurs that he is sworn to hunt down and stop.  But more importantly, while we might agree that their actions are horrible, to them their actions are in defense of their way of life.  In essence, Corinne is acting as the conscious of all of us to remember that men do many awful things in the name of self preservation, loyalty to country and family, and to defend their beliefs and values. She reminds her husband that those who used guerrilla tactics during the War for Independence were most likely considered barbarians and traitors by the majority of people in England at that time.

Corinne ends her side of the conversation with the question, if all people on both sides of a conflict believe that God is on their side, whose God is right if there is only one?

Which brings us "over there" where a nation of people institutionalized by government propaganda which controls their news, education, and virtually every aspect of their lives, believes that the only way to protect their way of life is to construct a huge military, enhanced with nuclear weapons capability.  While we may know that their leader, Kim Jong-un, is a brutal dictator who prefers to spend his country's money on weapons rather than food and medicine, they only know from years of teachings that America may strike first, at any moment, and their only alternative is to acquire similar weapons.  Certainly, Kim Jong-un is a despot of the worst magnitude, but when our President threatens to bring "fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen" he is only adding fuel to the fire of those poor people who live in an ignorant cloud of deception.  The sad thing is that it is those very same people who will suffer the consequences of some type of military operation, while the escalators of the violence, the two leaders of the countries, will emerge unharmed.  And, in the end, the majority of North Koreans who have no other source of information, will have their worst fears about American aggressiveness realized.  

And then there is Charlottesville, Virginia.  A small town rocked over the weekend by violence over the plan to move some statues of Civil War era heroes.  Certainly, there are some people who feel pride in their Confederate heritage.  They do not glorify the horrors of the War between the States, but do respect the values of the South, which helped build and bind their communities, perhaps conveniently ignoring the damage caused by slavery, but not maliciously so.

Unfortunately, there are too many who would eagerly bring back the days of white domination over other races.  Their rhetoric was all too obvious in the signs and speeches of the march, as was the intent of the young man who drove his car into the crowd of protesters.  The good news is that, while vocal, it is a minority of people who learned to hate, as ex-President Obama's tweet so eloquently described.  The bad news is that, purposefully or not, President Trump's election has emboldened some of these groups into thinking that making America great again means putting minorities back in their place, and recognizing that America was founded by white men for white men and that their heritage is at risk due to the insidiousness of diversity.

History, while occurring, is a fluid thing.  Individual historic moments can be recognized when they occur, but generally are not realized until time has passed.  We of course, egocentric as we are, tend to think that everything that is happening is historic.  With the advent of the "Breaking News" crawl on every opinion and news show, it is no wonder that we think our time is so important.

I can only hope that future historians will mark this time, and the next few years, as an important watershed in America, as a time when the electorate realized that a democracy ignored is doomed to collapse, that a true moral compass requires a moral foundation upon which the needle moves, and that those who have learned to hate can be taught, if not to love, at least to un-hate.