Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Unbroken, and other Readings

Week two of my two-days-off-every-other-week plan.  I worked on my next e-publish effort last week, and have made great progress on getting caught up on my reading.  I finished the January editions of Nat Geo and Smithsonian, plus while reading Smithsonian I realized I had not read December's edition.  I had apparently put it aside and forgot about it.  Finished that edition as well, and started and finished the book I was given for Christmas, Unbroken.


January's Nat Geo article about the origin of the universe made me think about those who like to deny or ridicule certain science facts and theories when they don't fit into their comfort zone.  Of course, easy pickings are those who prefer to ignore the scientific work of the archeologists who estimate the earth at 4-5 billion years old, while believing in the creationist theory which places man and dinosaur on earth together, only 8000 years ago.  For those of us who looked to people like Bill Nye to help us learn about science when we were kids, he continues to be a source of rationality, and, kudos to him, patience, as he continues to teach real science rather than religious science. 


Then there are those who would rather believe in a liberal conspiracy as opposed to the insurmountable evidence of climate change.  My wife frequently asks me how seemingly intelligent people can continue to ignore all of the research; she forgets that even intelligence can be overcome by fear, and it is the fear that we need to alter our way of living that prevents so many people from trusting the science of climate change.  And, unfortunately, the power of the status quo, which in America today is translated as the power of the fossil fuel industry to deny their culpability, and use their influence to buy politicians, distort the facts, and instill fear through the prospect of lost jobs. 


Strangely, we are experiencing an unprecedented drop in the price of oil resulting in a huge drop in the cost of gas (good for the consumer), but a reduction in the profitability of shale and oil production in the United States (bad for US jobs).  So, it seems that no combination is good in that jobs will always suffer when oil is too high or too low.  What scares me is that the low price of oil is the result of OPEC manipulation to reacquaint America with its oil addiction (what better way to bring sheep back to the fold than to lower the cost), whereupon the pendulum will swing back to $4 a gallon gas once we have turned back to the OPEC teat.  Or, even worse than that, all of America's oil money going to the Arab countries will be used to build a huge solar energy industry that they will control, as I detailed in my story The Energy Conundrum.  (link below)  


http://wurdsfromtheburbs.blogspot.com/2011/05/energy-conundrum.html


What intrigues me about the science deniers is their tendency to trust certain other science implicitly.  Medical science, especially through the pharmaceutical industry, seems to have no doubters when it come to taking a pill to fix your ailment.  (Especially when that pill produces a hard on, but that topic is best left to rise another day).  Even when the side effects, which generally range from nose bleeds to death, are stated during the commercial, and presumably, on the label, we are more interested in the instant health gain than the potential hazard.  I guess that explains this clamor for the XL Pipeline.  It is the dirtiest, most difficult to cleanup, least efficient form of energy (tar sands from Canada), but, since it will produce some jobs for a few years, its full steam ahead.  Of course, should the president fail to veto the bill, or if the fossil fuel industry buys enough of our legislators to override the veto, don't expect that same Canadian company or the fossil fuel industry to pay for the cleanup, assuming they can even do so, when the first aquifer is spoiled, or the first swath of farmland is made barren.  No, the American tax payer will foot the bill, as we certainly can't allow those big oil and gas companies to go bankrupt.  Think of all those lost jobs!


I guess it depends on the nature of the science.  That which allows us to maintain our bad habits, only having to take a pill to rectify, good.  That which points out the consequences of our actions, or makes us think about our behaviors, bad. 


Finally, we turn to Unbroken.  I have not seen the movie, so be forewarn that my impressions from the book may seem odd to those of you who saw the film.  First, it is an incredible story of a remarkable man who defied the odds, and survived circumstances that would have killed, and or broken most of us.  For those of you who sometimes feel that fate or god has dealt you a poor hand, this story is a good reminder that everyone faces trials and tribulations, and that it is in the face of adversity that your character is forged, and your life is revealed.  The author takes the philosophy of the difference between perceiving things as half full or half empty, and, with the backdrop of the Pacific World War Two theatre and the indomitable spirit of the main character, Louis (Louie)Zamperini, she has created an amazing and inspirational story.  I read the 400 or so pages in less than a week.


Yet, I found myself not liking Louie.  Now, I am sure that had I met Mr Zamperini (he died just this past July), my perception may be different.  From what I have read in other accounts of his life, he was a truly remarkable man, the epitome of anything can be done if one tries. 


So, why did I find myself not liking his character?  I thought about it yesterday, on the ride to work, at work for a bit, and on the way home.  My current theory is that the author relied too much on divine intervention to explain Louis's ability to survive his torments, and to turn from his obsession with the war and one particular prison guard, to becoming an inspirational Christian speaker.  What bothers me about this way of explaining his strength, is its simplistic nature.  (My lack of faith lurks in the back of my mind; I acknowledge it is there, but prefer with this explanation, for now).  It seems to suggest that only those with such an abiding faith can survive such horror.  That, assuming divine intervention, only those preferred by God will overcome.  Taken to the next step, then, did God not favor the tens of thousands of American airmen who died in the Pacific theatre?  Did God not love those who survived, but could never overcome their bouts with the mental damage resulting from their particular experiences? 


Also, the author describes Louie's early years, before the crash of his plane began his ordeal, as someone who stole, fought, and was in trouble a lot.  It makes me wonder about the boys who exhibited similar immature traits and actions but did not have the boyish grin and luck to have been forgiven his foibles.  Boys who were merely thrown into jail at the first sign of trouble, especially in light of the appalling incarceration percentage of young black men today.  And, I was not all that happy with Louis's perception of women.  He loves his mother, immensely for sure, but when the author mentions other women in his life, they seem to be fulfilling only one purpose.  Even his wife, whom he marries after less than a month of dating, is treated poorly during his times of fighting with the mental devil that overcomes him after the war.


Finally, the horrific treatment of the American POW's at the hands or their Japanese captors is detailed very starkly.  In contrast the author offers a few examples of some Japanese officers who were not sadists, and mentions a Japanese POW who claims that his detention as a prisoner by America was a positive experience.  She glibly ignores the tens of thousands of Japanese Americans who were interred without warrant during the years of WW2.  Don't get me wrong, the Japanese culture of the time was not tolerant of the West, and its citizens had been socialized to consider other races inferior.  They were wrong in these beliefs, just as Americans were wrong to dehumanize the Japs and the Krauts.  It is a function of war to whip up the citizenry so that they will hate the enemy, and risk the lives of their children to die in the fight.  It was done during WW2 by all sides, as it is done today by those branding our enemies as terrorists, evil, barbaric.  In the end, when nuclear weapons were used to end the war against Japan, the author easily justifies it as having saved the lives of all the American POWs who would probably have been murdered by their Japanese captors.  We are led down the primrose path to empathize with the suffering of Louie and all the prisoners, hate the Japanese, and shrug off the death of tens of thousands of Japanese civilians living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as necessary, without questioning the morality of killing women and children in their homes, their schools, their beds.  


I guess what I am saying is that the author paints a picture too black and white.  And, for me, Louie becomes the face of that picture.  Which, I guess, for me, makes him seem less human, more an extension of the divine. 


Is it that scary for us, that we have to make those who excel in life whether by overcoming tremendous obstacles or by exhibiting advanced spiritual knowledge, into something beyond human?  And, that we like to find flaws in those in the public eye, so as to bring them down to the level of the everyday?   Perhaps someday, we will be able to admire those who have achieved greatness despite, and with the knowledge of their human frailties, and bemoan those who commit despicable actions without attributing those actions to the devil.    










    

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Education and Spending

With the recent announcement by President Obama concerning his proposal to enhance the education of America's youth through a free community college program, I thought it worthwhile to reflect on my personal experiences with the cost of education, especially as it relates to my children.


First, Obama's proposal was met with the standard political reactions; support and cheering by Democrats and liberals, dismissiveness and "cost" concerns by Republicans and conservatives.  (Is it even possible for a member of either party to praise a proposal from someone across the aisle?).  Those supporting the idea cite numerous studies that find a correlation between level of education and income, marital stability, employment with a livable wage, access to health care, and perhaps most importantly, those same categories for their children.  Even the business community, often quoted as bemoaning the lack of skills among those applying for job openings, generally support advanced education. 


As for the cost, it is a no brainer that for every dollar spent on education, the return is substantial, ranging from money realized through taxes, to money saved from expenditures on public housing, welfare, unemployment and incarceration.  Lamenting that it is $60 billion that we don't have to spend as some Republicans have stated, reminds me of the old oil filter commercial where the mechanic says, "You can pay me now or pay me later".  It continues to amaze me when some politicians play the cost card for everything that helps those with the least, yet find no objection to spending 500, even 600 billion dollars per year on our military budget.  Or, find no reason to reduce the tax benefits for the richest, all in the name of (bow your head) business. 


(Perhaps with this proposal, the business community will put some money where their mouth is, lack of skills among job seekers wise, and get all the Washington politicians to include education funding within the framework of their worship of business).


For me, addressing education reform is far bigger than free community college.  One reason why attendance at community colleges and technical institutions has exploded is that the cost of higher education, public or private, is out of control.  In Pennsylvania where we live, the state college system is about $20000 per year.  Most private schools start in the upper $30K range and end in the $60K range for the "best" schools.  As compared to inflation, the cost of college has risen many times the cost of almost any other commodity, certainly much more that the average family's salary.  (Of course, the good news is that the salaries of the top 1% has kept pace with the cost of college.  Is it possible that education costs are driven by what the richest can pay?  HMMM).  It is no wonder that college tuition debt is the fastest growing type of debt.  When middle class parents are no longer able to save for their kids college, and are less able to use home equity to finance tuition, yet still retain the belief in the American dream of a college education for their kids, then borrowing by both the parents and the children becomes the only option. 


For my family, now that my son has graduated college, we are starting repayment on the tens of thousands of dollars we borrowed, while my son has begun his own $300 a month for 10 years repayment program to cover his Stafford loans.  I accept the idea of some debt for college.  While I applaud the free community college idea, I firmly believe that with any privilege, all should have some skin in the game.  It makes everyone appreciate what they are involved in, work that much harder to be successful knowing there is a cost.  What galls me is the interest rates being charged!
The parent plus loans we have are 7.9%.  Stafford loans range from 3.5 to 6.0%.  At a time when the prime rate is virtually nil, charging 5,6, 7% interest for 10 years is obscene.  If zero interest loans for education seem anti-capitalist to you, fine, but let's at least agree that 7.9 is outrageous.  How about 1% over prime, with a maximum of 5%?  Remember, the more money the middle class and recent college graduates spend on education, the less money there will be to purchase the goods and services that we need to keep the economy growing, to keep the demand for jobs high, to allow everyone to pay their debts in the first place.


Another question we need to address relates to who should go to college.  In some European countries, a test is administered in high school; pass, and you attend a free university for higher education, fail, and you are taught a skill that suits your talents and will provide a livable income.  I can't imagine Americans agreeing to allow such a system here; there are too many examples of people who test poorly but are good students, or are late bloomers, or who find the motivation to succeed in college while being unmotivated in high school.   However, if we hold the idea that only through college education can one be deemed successful, then we do a great disservice to those for whom college is not the best choice.  We drastically need to provide better counseling to our high school children about all the paths to success, we need more partnering of local businesses with public schools to direct the right skills to be taught to those not going to college, and we need to
re-emphasize the importance of the skilled trades as being, not only necessary for our society, but a solid career choice for those with the aptitude, not just a second best choice.  This also means that we need to address this issue by re-evaluating compensation levels; do we need $100 million dollar salaries in any field?  Should there be a salary structure that provides a livable wage for all job choices, as opposed to one which relegates those at the bottom to poverty wages while rewarding those at the top with obscene salaries? 


Curiously, if one is to research the original GI Bill and its 62 year history, there were many detractors of the concept, many doubters that it would provide assistance without encouraging laziness.   In retrospect, it seems crazy to question the efficacy of these programs and the astronomical return we received on the investment in the various GI bills, yet most new programs, especially government programs, are met with doubt at the time of birth.  This is even more so now, in light of the movement to depict the government as the bad guy, and the desire to make it smaller.  When I see someone of this ilk, I always wonder which government program they or their family used to help them and I wonder if they are unappreciative or merely the victim of selective memory.    


I applaud Obama's proposal although I do so with restraint, fearing that the real problems in education may not be addressed.  Perhaps, education should be one of those services that is not market driven.  Perhaps our education system should focus on knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and skills which enhance the life of the graduates.  Perhaps it should teach how to think just as much as what to think.  Perhaps be less concerned with budgets, and alumni donations, and more concerned with graduation rates and employment opportunities.  Like our health care system, there is far too much money in our education system that is not being directed properly.  We should be able to cut the cost and improve the product, but we need all parties involved to work towards the same goal and I fear that those who support the status quo will win the day.


In the meantime, my wife and I will continue to make sacrifices to pay for my son's college debt, and the ongoing college education of my daughter.  I have seen first hand how college helped my son to mature, become a more confident person and a more productive citizen.  And I already see similar results for my daughter after a year and a half.  I know we are not unique in this perspective, there are tens of thousands of parents who make similar decisions every spring when their children decide on a college in the fall.  My hope is that over time, those voting, those who win elections, and those who claim to be educators will come together and realize that the future of America lies not in how many guns and bombs we can make, but in how many young people we can inspire to believe in themselves and in our country.   

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Interstellar and Time

Happy New Year!!


I am starting the new year off "right" by taking some time off from work.  Of course, not everyone has the luxury of a stockpile of vacation time, or a job where taking one's vacation time does not interfere with the smooth operation of the business, but that unfortunate fact is topic for another day.  In my case, I plan to take a few days every other week for the first quarter of the year.  Hopefully, it will provide me the time and the opportunity, to catch up on my reading, and e-publish something I have worked on for far too long without completing.


In the meantime, I finished the Laphams Quarterly called Time.  It was interesting in parts, but a bit redundant in others.  I say redundant in that essays, poems, reflections about Time seem to fall into a smaller group of categories as can be inspired by other topics.  I guess after the umpteenth example of someone expressing regret over wasting their time as their life comes to a close, after another example of a metaphysical approach to defining Time in relation to eternity, God, space, etc, after yet again someone's reflection of how Time makes a mockery of earthly possessions, fighting over specks of land, angst over almost any of life's events when compared to forever, I was beginning to tire of the effort to read.


Then I went to see the movie Interstellar.  For those of you who have not seen it, I will try not to spoil the story.  In essence, it is a love story, set with a background of time, space, and the future of mankind.  For me, it brought to life many of the concepts encased in Lapham's Time edition.  I would imagine that for most people, Einstein's theory of relativity is just that, a theory, but something hard to apply to everyday life and experiences.  Reading a magazine like Laphams, I surmise that there may be an attempt to make such a theory come alive by compiling the musings about Time over the course of thousands of years.  With just such a perspective, it is a sobering read.  But, perhaps regrettably, seeing the effect of relativity as played out on the big screen with believable actors in a not unbelievable story, seems to bring home the point all that clearer.  For me, one of the most striking scenes is the one in which the father is reunited with his daughter after his time in space.  It is a reunion in a hospital where the daughter is dying of old age while the father has aged only slightly.  On the face of it, something out of science fiction, but as theorized by Einstein and as depicted in the movie, as realistic as any scene could be.  


To return to Lapham's Time, there was one essay that caused me pause.  It was written by a father who, with found memories of his childhood days at a summer vacation spot, decided to bring his own son to that same place.  At first, unsure that Time and Progress may have changed his summer retreat, he moved cautiously.  But, upon arrival, and after the first full day, he was happy to discover that very little had changed at the lake.  Except him.  While Time had seemingly stopped as far as the summer vacation spot was concerned, he had aged.  When he looked at his son, he remembered his own father and he started to combine those images.  He saw himself as both the son and the father, interchangeable.  This, of course, made me think about my father, already gone for two years, and my son, just graduated from college.  I am the link between them, yet also the end result of a link that extends multiple generations in the past, and hopefully, the beginning of a chain that will extend multiple generations into the future.  A bit of immortality, both backwards into history and forward into Time.


There is no time like the present.  A nice little saying.  Ridiculed by some who perceive those who live in the present to be irresponsible or immature.  Yet, is it not the present that links what has happened with what is to come.?


Which begs the question; what is preferable, or what is worse; living in the past, living in the present or living for the future.  The past is a nice place to visit when one feels nostalgic but its experiences tend to exist through rose colored glasses, always better in reflection than they were in reality.  It may be pleasant to start one's sentences with "I remember when.." but turning back the hands of Time is not a foundation to build upon for the future.  While the future is an imagined place, a wonderful or dreaded place depending on one's age, outlook, economic situation, country of birth, gender, race, health condition, etc.  For those of us approaching retirement, there are too many stories of friends or relatives who plan for their years after work, only to pass to the next realm within a few months,  never actually reaching the future they planned for so long. 


Perhaps then, there is no time like the present is the better choice of philosophies, perhaps the only choice that adequately links the past with the future.  The only choice that values what has come before, honors what is now, and appreciates what is to come.          

Monday, December 29, 2014

Holiday 2014

Happy Holidays!!


I hope you were able to spend some time with your family, some time with less stress than normal, some time to reflect on the reason for the season.  As anyone who knows me personally, and/or those who have come to know me through my posts, I am not a religious person.  I don't belong to any particular church, haven't been in a church other than for the occasional wedding or funeral in many, many years.  Yet, I like to consider myself spiritual.  Over the course of my life I have had the opportunity, through formal education as well as through personal time spent "searching for the meaning of life" to have been exposed to the lessons of many of the great spiritual teachers of history, especially those of Jesus Christ.  Having been raised a Catholic, I suppose that is why I identify more with his teachings, although, like many a searcher for truth, I have been also drawn to the spirituality of the eastern cultures, Buddhism in particular.


So, it should come as no surprise that I laugh aloud when I hear certain political pundits claim America is a Christian nation.  Of course, I realize that we identify ourselves as Christian from the standpoint that the predominant religions that we claim affiliation to our based on His life.  But, as I have said more than once, and most recently to my brother-in-law, to believe that we act Christlike in regards to the issues of the day is ludicrous.  From our acceptance of violence as a means to address our problems to the all consuming emphasis on material wealth as a means to happiness and an yardstick for success, we behave as unChristlike as is possible. 


Turn the other cheek.  Love thy neighbor as thyself.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Do we use these as guidelines in our national and personal relationships?


As a nation we spend more money on our military than the next dozen countries, and we provide weapons of destruction to friends and foes alike, friends through the mistaken belief that guns will provide peace, and foes through the avarice of men who are only interested in money.  Rather than rehabilitation, we incarcerate as large a percentage of our own citizens as any other nation on earth.  Even when it comes to situations where one citizen confronts another, we have Castle Doctrine laws that give the green light to shoot each other.  While the vast majority of our police hold true to their creed of protect and serve, the axiom seems to lose some of its power when men of certain color or religious beliefs are involved. 


From issues ranging from torture to health care, we seem to ignore the lessons of Christ when making our laws.   The recent debate on the investigation into the interrogations techniques used by the CIA seems to center on whether the torture resulted in viable information, and less about whether by using torture on our enemies we had lost another portion of our soul, another claim to be a Christian nation.  "I have met the enemy and he is us" never rang so true than when I hear Americans defend the use of torture against our enemies.  As for health care, we have finally made a step towards treating all Americans with respect in terms of providing access to affordable health care insurance, especially those who need it the most, ie, the sickest, the poorest, the youngest, and yet in the name of profit or simply because some believe in the one bad root of capitalism, survival of the fittest, there are those who vow the repeal of this new law.  I always think of that famous Scrooge line from "A Christmas Carol"  when told by the gentlemen collecting for the poor that some would rather die than go to a poorhouse when he responds - "If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population".


Speaking of yearly, traditional Christmas shows, I am sure we all saw a few these past couple of  weeks.  Whether it be A Christmas Carol or It's a Wonderful Life, I am sure more than one tear was shed at the moments when Scrooge turns from humbug to happy and George Bailey's financial woes are solved by the generosity of his neighbors and friends.  We respond with tears and smiles because we know that Scrooge was not treating those in his life as Christ teaches, we know that George Bailey's rescue is the result of his lifelong mission to help his neighbors, to put people above profit.  And, hopefully, in both cases because we believe in the goodness of men.  Yet, we contribute to the cheapening of our beloved holiday season through our silence when the big retailers open on Thanksgiving Day, or stay open until 11:00 on Christmas Eve.  Or worse, by actively shopping at those times.  I happen to work in retail, and, for the most part, most of my customers are pleased that our doors are closed at the holidays.  They understand that they are happy not to work and so are happy for me that I am off as well.  Yet there are always a few who frown at the knowledge that they will have to complete their shopping before the holiday, that we are not open for them to be able to wait until the very last minute to shop; that we are not at their beck and call.  I usually ignore those frowns, feel a bit sorry for them, but every once in a while I will ask if they have off or must work.  Generally, my question is met with surprise, as if the person couldn't conceive of working on a holiday but never made the mental jump to realize that it was just as important for us to be off as well.  Almost as if being a retail clerk made us less than a person, or less deserving of the holiday at home.


Do unto others...  It is such a simple idea, this golden rule, but so very difficult to practice.  Hopefully, you had a chance to watch your favorite holiday show, and you found a moment to remember that the root of the word Christmas is Christ. 


Lastly, a correction.  I mentioned in my last post that I had finished reading the Laphams Quarterly Youth and was beginning Time.  I misidentified the issues however; Youth was summer, Time was Fall.  Winter, which I have not yet begun, is called Foreigners which should be interesting in light of the recent immigration policy change initiated by President Obama and the upcoming legislation that will be created in the new year when the next Congress begins its term.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Youth and Time

I've been singing "Winter Wonderland" lately, as we have had light snow falling since yesterday.  Not much accumulation but the song still runs in my head.  My favorite line is "walking in your winter underwear", which is, of course, not in the song, but is my Yankovich version.


I finished reading "Youth" the fall Laphams quarterly, and began the Winter edition called Time.  Not sure what the thinking was to have those topics back to back, but the juxtaposition seems appropriate. 


I must say that I found myself distracted/less interested as I read Youth.  While there were many interesting essays, poems, stories, I was not as engrossed in the overall collection as usual.  Since my drive to work is only 30-40 minutes now, I have a bit less time to myself in the car, but during a recent commute, I thought about why Youth was less appealing to me.  The obvious is, of course, that I am not young anymore.  That in itself is a disturbing concept, and can very readily lead to a reluctance to read about the wonders of youth. Also, as I may have mentioned in a previous post, I also tire of the those past their prime who bash the young at every turn, as if the next generation is the worst to ever set foot on the planet.  Reading tirades such as these that date to the seventeenth century, the 9th century, and times with BC after the date, confirm my suspicion that youth is one of the most envious attributes, and the one which inspires a myriad of attacks from those who have lost theirs. 


Do I wish to be young again?  I don't think so.  Certainly I wish to have more energy, i.e. feel less tired.  And, if you haven't figured it out yet, I sometimes wish I had pursued writing at an earlier age, had went all in rather than writing as an ancillary aspect of my life.  But, if we knew now what we didn't know then .....  I certainly don't regret the main decisions I made in my life.  Marriage to a wonderful woman, two tremendous children.  Perhaps a writing career would not have lent itself to a more traditional life, and, were I to be a writer, I would be wondering if I missed out on the joys of a family.  As the song lyrics go, "It is not having what you want, it's wanting what you've got".


As for Time, I certainly do hope I have a fair amount of time to come.  More time to continue writing, more time to spend with family.  We all know that life is uncertain, that the car on the other side of the yellow line can come head on to yours due to a bee flying through an open window, or the scent of a flower that makes one sneeze, or merely due to a day that was too long with too little sleep.  We all know that ultimately, our time is limited.  Yet we spend so much of our lives looking past the present, wishing to be older, wishing for the weekend, wishing to be young again.  We seem to spend so little time in the present, then wonder why the presents have not added up to happiness.


Youth and Time. 


Here's hoping that you enjoy both!


    

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

To eat or to work

Happy Thanksgiving!


I hope your holiday was pleasant.  For those readers not from America - yes, my readership from Norway continues to surpass the US - we traditionally celebrate Thanksgiving to mark the mythical meal which occurred in the very early days of European settlements in America between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans.  A meal demonstrating that people of different cultures could find reasons to gather, share, and give thanks for the fruits of the land, and family.  I imagine that most countries have some sort of special day to celebrate and give thanks as we do on Thanksgiving.   


Sadly, the day after Thanksgiving in America has also been the starting point for the holiday shopping season, Black Friday, so named because it begins the time of the business cycle when so many companies move out of the red (losing money) and into the black.  Years ago, this shopping season was moved to begin at 6:00 AM, then 4:00 AM, then midnight in the last few years, and finally, recently, some large retailers decided to open on Thanksgiving itself, at 6:00 PM.


That being said, in the past week, just before and right after the holiday, I made a point to comment to family, friends and co-workers how disgusted I was with this newest development.  Most of those who responded did so in agreement.  I only recall one or two people saying that they had shopped that night, although there may have been more who did not want to admit it.  In scanning the news of the retailers reports of their Thanksgiving evening and black Friday shopping numbers, it appears that business was less than expected, in general.  Of course, this could reflect the continuing economic struggles of the average American family, but I would like to think it may also reflect a growing realization that profit is not more important than people, and, perhaps, a groundswell of condemnation that big retailers are taking Americans from their homes to work on the holiday.  Most likely it is a bit of both.

While I am sure that there are those retailers who requested volunteers for Thanksgiving evening before requiring others to work, there are certainly many who scheduled their labor without any give and take as to who might want to work and who might prefer not to.  Also, I would hope that some employers may have paid overtime to some employees, but I suspect that many of those who worked Thanksgiving evening were part time employees who did not warrant holiday pay, and may not have received any additional salary differential. 


Additionally, some smaller retailers who may not have planned to open Thanksgiving evening reportedly felt forced to do so to avoid losing out on the money which was potentially going to be spent.  As many of those smaller retailers represent the small businesses of America, it is a good bet that many did not have the resources to offer additional compensation, perhaps even promising to make it up to those who worked in the future based on sales of the evening, or after the season.


For those who were interviewed at the malls on local news channels either Thanksgiving night or early the next morning, the reason for leaving one's family that night or at 4:00 AM was simple - cheap prices.  The good news is that we all still want to provide our family and friends with thoughtful gifts on Christmas.  No one wants a barren Christmas tree come December 25th.  We are even so generous as to fill those Toys for Tots boxes and Salvation Army kettles in hopes that by sharing a little during the season of giving we might bring a smile to someone in need.


The bad news is that by participating in this rush for everything cheaper we are providing grist for the cheap prices requires cheap labor circle.  As the growth of the Dollar Tree and Bottom Dollar like franchises continues, so too does the prevalence of salaries below $10 per hour.  And, since somewhere between a fourth and a third of all American jobs are at such low pay rates, more people, more households exist at or below poverty levels, and more government assistance is required to feed, clothe and shelter our citizens.  To put it bluntly, every dollar you spend at the lowest priced establishment you can find, is another dollar to an overseas exporter, another dollar to a corporation with zero affinity to America, another dollar on the ever growing pile of dollars being siphoned from the American working family to the coffers of those individuals and corporations that believe in America only so far as their money can buy tax breaks, watered down competition and laws that favor business interests over employee rights.


In the end, what galls me is the lack of outrage by the conservatives who espouse family values in their daily diatribes against gay marriage, welfare programs, school lunch programs, and any government handout that doesn't go to the business community.  Where are they when families are forced to decide between work and celebrating the holiday with their families?  Where are they when the wealthiest in our country decide to spit on the tradition of Thanksgiving by forcing people to choose between work and food?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Sideways, Backwards, and .....

I watched the last half of the movie Sideways today.  A particular scene struck me.  If you don't know the movie, it would take too much time to describe it, but it a nutshell it is about life, with a side of wine.  The scene in question involves two of the main characters, a male and female, who have spent time together with another couple but not time together, alone.  It is a typical give and take scene involving two people feeling our their way at the start of a possible relationship.  At one point, the male character asks the female why she is so interested in wine.  Her response is a series of statements, more than a few which begin with "it makes me think about".  It is a very reflective answer, one perhaps not all that common in real life, as so many of us delay truly describing the things in life that make us think, move us, make us, let alone revealing them on a first date.  I've seen this movie many times, yet today was the first time I was moved to reflect on that scene.  One of the many "it makes me think about" was that wine makes her think about the people who tended the grapes, bottled them, participated in all the phases of the wine making process, and about the fact that if it was an aged bottle of wine, many of those people may be dead.  The connections of our lives between the past, the present, and the future can be very humbling, very inspiring, very educational.


The past week's votes in the United States House of Representatives, included a bill which would negate specific rulemakings by the EPA unless all data from underlying scientific studies, including confidential health information about participants, has been make publicly available.   Proponents claimed this was necessary to provide transparency in the EPA (again Republican's ability to frame the topic to sound reasonable), while in reality it was another in a series of GOP attempts to strip the EPA of its ability to protect the environment.  Opponents cited some specific air quality related studies that enable the EPA to administer its oversight of the Clean Air Act as studies being targeted in this bill.  Curiously, an amendment to the bill sponsored by Dems was not passed.  It would have exempted EPA actions which might be taken to combat health threats to drinking water resulting from a nuclear or terrorist attack, or to approve Ebola disinfectants.  One must wonder why the GOP thought these concerns not worthy or passing. 


Another GOP sponsored bill which passed is meant to reshape the EPA's scientific advisory board to make it more industry friendly for those industries that the EPA regulates.  The bill would diminish academic representation and expand corporate membership, permit experts with financial ties to the industries regulated if they disclose their ties.  A democratic amendment to bar representatives who have financial ties to the industries regulated was summarily defeated.  I doesn't take much thought to conclude that by having less non-scientific and more industry related board members may result in an EPA less concerned about health and more concerned about profit.  


As a side note, these bills will not pass in the Senate as they stand.  Not just because the Senate is controlled by the Dems, but because nothing passes in the Senate without 60 votes as is obvious from two Senate bills which featured tallies of 58-42, and 59-41 where each was defeated as they didn't reach the 60 vote supermajority.  Not sure when this rule came into effect, why the Senate cannot pass bills when a simple majority is reached, but it reflects the gridlock in effect in Washington today.  I know the 60 vote is meant to keep the majority party in power from running roughshod over the minority party, but it seems to be stalling legislation that might be beneficial.  I have heard some pundits say that this supermajority rule is a more recent phenomenon, in that it is in effect much more than in the past.  The GOP certainly will use any and all methods to prevent the Obama Administration from passing anything, but in this case one of the above mentioned votes concerned the Keystone Pipeline.  I guess it is another example of being careful what you wish for, you might get it, as the GOP wants nothing passed but that nothing now includes bills they support.


What truly irritates me is this lack of connection between the past environmental disasters that have occurred in the United States, the success of the EPA to reign in so much of the pollution, air, water and ground, that would occur if businesses had no oversight, and the apparent backwards tilt of the GOP in thinking that, if left un-regulated, businesses would do any better at containing their methods of pollution than they did in the age of acid rain, Love Canal, etc.  It is especially short sighted when one factors in the incredible profit margin mentality that runs all large corporations, and has resulted in the shipping of jobs overseas to save labor, the fight against increasing minimum wages, and the delusional admiration of the government run Chinese economy where environmental regulations are non-existent, and the concern for the health of the environment and the people is ignored. 


As for ..., well, I maintain a belief that man in general, and Americans in particular will lose interest in looking backwards, will become more financially solvent that they can stop moving sideways, and might realize that forward thinking is not just being open to the latest I-phone or virtual reality device, but a construct that understands the past and its lessons, applies those lessons to present day issues, and proposes solutions that account for the ever changing nature of the world, the ever changing nature of man.    


Monday, November 17, 2014

Immigration

I continue to be popular in Norway; 400 hits in the past week, more than from any other country by far.  No specific post is being hit more than others, and those being hit do not seem to have any common theme.  Not sure if America's immigration woes are shared with Norway, but I welcome any comments from a Norwegian if interested.


Before delving into the current immigration debate, I want to review the recent election results.  Clearly, the American people sent a clear message to the president and the democrats that they are not happy with the current state of the union.  With the stock market at record territory, unemployment back to pre-recession levels, GDP growth at its highest since 2004-2005, and very little loss of American life in overseas wars, its no wonder that the electorate is prime for a change.


Oh, that's right.  None of this news is broadcast on Fox channels.  Even Fox business news with Lou Dobbs glances over the actual state of business and talks politics and how bad the Obama Administration is handling, name your topic.  Crime is down, especially violent crime, yet we are told to be fearful on a daily basis.  More people have health insurance now, yet the Affordable Care Act is ruining America. 


The one true number that is troubling Americans, is take home pay.  While the top 1% has seen tremendous growth in their spending power, share of income, and actual wealth, the middle class has not yet felt that surge in spending power.  In real dollars, the average worker has barely kept even with inflation, if at all.  Fortunately, gas prices in specific, and energy prices in general have decreased - when they were up, Obama was blamed on FOX, but I guess that is a one-way street for them - but sadly, sales for trucks and cars with low mpg ratings have begun to rise -  Ugh. 


Fortunately, the GOP has many proposals in the pipeline to address low pay for Americans.  Debates about income inequality, minimum wage increases, equal pay for equal work are all hallmarks of the GOP economic platform, which is why they increased their majority in Washington, as well as in many states.  What, you say, they are against all those measures?  Well, then surely, a drive to limit tax breaks for the wealthiest individuals and corporations must be at the top of their agenda?  After all, when the wealthiest pay less, the rest of us have to pay more.  No, they are against those measures too?  So, what you are saying is that the one area where our economy is lagging, take home pay for the average worker, is the exact area where the newly elected majority has worked the hardest to keep the status quo, and to enhance the position of those with the most.  Hmm. 


Which brings us to immigration.  (Sorry it took so long).  The president has promised to use executive action to change immigration law in this country.  Understandably, the GOP controlled House and soon to be Senate are apoplectic.   The fact that a bipartisan immigration reform measure passed the Senate but died in the House doesn't seem to matter.  However, I do agree that the president should not act alone in this important area, just as I agree that the president should not be able to wage war without Congressional approval.  The problem is, since Obama is evil and everything he does, thinks and proposes reflects his hatred of America, the GOP has no other option but to either disagree with him, or do nothing when they agree, as you can't agree with the views of someone as vile as they have portrayed him. 


Common sense dictates that you can't round up the 11 million illegal immigrants now in America without creating some kind of paramilitary organization that would supersede local and state police jurisdiction, and most likely violate the fourth amendment regarding unlawful search and seizures.  Common sense also dictates that people who came to the United States illegally, should not be granted citizenship just because they are here now.  Therefore, it seems prudent for the president to stay within the boundaries of these two common sense tenants.  Remove the threat of deportation for those who have not committed a crime other than illegal entry while continuing to deport those deemed undesirable.  Make some type of registration necessary to avoid deportation, which should not only give the registrants some peace of mind, but help us track down those employers who have taken advantage of illegals via poor working conditions and meager pay while also circumventing their requirement to pay the appropriate taxes for these workers (or hire Americans).  Grant citizenship to those born in America (the Dream Act or some new version of it) but whose parents are illegal.  And, budget an agreeable increase in securing the border, via a larger barrier, more patrols, etc so that those attempting entry in the future are less apt to succeed.


Is this a perfect plan?  No.  Will it keep out all illegals forever?  No.  But is does give those here already, a chance to emerge from hiding, pay taxes, and participate in some of the advantages of America, without granting them citizenship which would reward their crime.  It also throws a bone to the far right in terms of making a better effort to close our borders more tightly.  And, if Obama is smart, he will make his executive order law only if nothing is passed in the House and Senate within a certain time table, say 6 months to a year.  The good news is that an executive order will movre the debate forward, allow the GOP to create their own bill, and give the American public some type of evidence that the GOP and the president can act as adults in attempting to resolve the issue.


Finally, for those of you unfamiliar with executive orders, feel free to click on the following link


http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/executive-orders/disposition.html


It will show you a summary of the presidents and the executive orders they have signed since Hoover.  You will notice that Obama has signed just under 200 such orders, Bush 2 just under 300 in his two terms.  Bush 1 and Ford were low instance users.  Reagan signed about twice as many as Obama, Hoover and Truman signed almost 1000 each, and Franklin Roosevelt was the king of the executive order signing over 3400 in his 3+ terms.  I would suggest that perhaps those arguing the loudest against Obama's use of the executive order should propose a law limiting or making illegal such orders but even the GOP is not that shortsighted in knowing that when a future Republican is elected president, they would not want to limit his/her power.        


 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Anyone for a loan?

Our household receives credit offers on a daily basis.  If I am in the process of moving a low interest credit card debt which is about to have a rate change to a new low interest card, I will open some, but mostly I toss them in the trash.  Today, I happened to open one as it was from a local "lending" agency that I did not recognize, and I wondered at the offer.


Imagine my surprise when I read the following;




                                                      You could borrow $4250
                  for just $156.93 per month for 42 months at 26.77% APR




The advert included other phrases such as "Get the money you need at a payment you can afford", and "A better alternative.  Unlike payday loans, you'll have months (not weeks) to pay back your loan".


Now, there was a caution that "this is not a guaranteed offer".  I assume that only the best of those with the worst credit possible would be approved. 


Still, my mind flew in all sorts of directions when I read this mailing.  I seethed, I boiled, I threw it in the trash.  Then, I fished it out of the trash and called the number listed.  My call was answered by the person named on the letter.  I read the offer to him, emphasizing the 26.77 % APR.  He began to explain that it must have been a corporate created offer, but, to be honest, I didn't let him finish his explanation.  I told him that his offer was predatory, should be illegal and that if I had the power I would close his business tomorrow, then I hung up.


I know, not very nice but at a time when big banks are able to borrow money to lend America at historically low rates, less than 1%, I was outraged.  The fact that the tag line for the company is "lending made personal", makes it all the more outrageous.  After all, what could be more personal that paying almost $7000 for a loan of $4250?? 


Well, you might say, these loans are for people with bad credit and a history of not repaying their debts whereas the big banks have collateral and always pay back their debts.  I guess so, unless one recalls the great economic meltdown of 2008 when so many of the big financial companies needed taxpayer money to keep them afloat!


I am not sure when loan sharking became legal, but I imagine that it coincided with the ability of the biggest moneyed interests to write the laws of America (through groups like ALEC) so that these type of predatory loan practices are condoned.  Crazily, it is these very kind of lending companies doling out money at ridiculous interest rates who will keep those with the least resources toiling at the bottom of the economic ladder, or default sending ripples up and through the rest of the financial community as, I am sure, these scum sucking lending companies are getting their money through a more legitimate lender; or both. 


I will be saving this offer, and, once the new Pennsylvania legislature takes office, sending a copy to my state and local rep asking them to create legislation limiting consumer interest rate offers in my state to a rate that less predatory, perhaps even Christian. 


Finally, now that my son is 6 months out of college, it is time for our family, my son on his own, and my wife and I, to begin repayment of his college loans.  My son has the typical Stafford Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans, ranging in interest rates from middle 3% to 6%.  I won't say how much my wife and I borrowed but it would have purchased a really nice car.  (The kind of car we will never buy for ourselves).  You might call us crazy, borrowing on our own to send him to college, but I still believe that a college education is worth the money, despite the fact that college tuition prices are ridiculous and that if they continue to rise, the next generation of middle class Americans may not be able to send their kids to college.  What irks me, is not the debt itself, but the fact that the Parent Plus interest rate is 7.9%.  Compare that to mortgage rates in the high 2 to upper 3% range, and car loans in the 0-2% range, and it is clear where our priorities lie.  And, by the way, for the Parent Plus loans, the interest began accumulating from the day the money was borrowed. 


If I were king, I would consider education loans an investment in the future, and charge little or no interest.  So, again, once the new federal legislators convene next January, I will be contacting my representative and senator to fashion legislation that delays interest rate accumulation for all loans for education until graduation or departure from college, and to tie interest rates to the prevalent lending rates of the day, perhaps the same rates that big banks get. 


If, you feel similarly, please act upon your feelings and contact your state and federal representatives. And, in the meantime, I will keep an ear out for comments from our elected public servants when discussing education, paying for education, and funding education. 
   

Monday, November 3, 2014

PA Governor's Race

My blog has received an inordinate number of overseas hits this past month.  In fact, for the past 30 days, more people have accessed by blog from the United Kingdom than the United States.  And, this past week, Norway was the source of the most hits by country.  Not sure why these occasional foreign blasts of interest occur but it is interesting and for October, this interest pushed me over 2000 hits for the month.  Thanks to all, American and non-American, who continue to express interest in my writing.


I read an interesting article recently comparing the positions of the two men on the ballot to be the next governor of Pennsylvania.  There were a number of issues detailed, most of which I sided with Tom Wolf, the challenger.  There were a couple for which I understood the perspective of the incumbent, Tom Corbett, but did not believe that his ideas would fix the underlying problem.


So, you might say, that just makes me a liberal, a democrat.  I guess.  But I wonder if all those people who will vote for Corbett tomorrow actually agree with his opinions.  Assuming Wolf wins 55-45, or even 54-46, do those 45-46% of the voters actually agree with Corbett that


women's access to birth control in general, and abortion in specific, should be restricted


consenting adults can not marry the person they love


those earning below $10 an hour shouldn't be paid a livable wage


all working Americans shouldn't have access to health insurance


women should earn the same pay for the same work


the energy industry, specifically those in the natural gas business, shouldn't pay higher fees for the right to extract the natural resources of our state


better background checks for gun purchases, and the requirement that gun owners report the theft of their gun are bad ideas


medical marijuana should continue to be unavailable to those for whom a doctor believes it will help, and that the possession of small amounts of marijuana (under an ounce) should remain illegal


big business and corporations should pay less taxes


the death penalty should be continued to be used in Pennsylvania


climate change may or may not be happening but it is better to pretend it isn't and continue to depend on fossil fuels for our energy needs


Perhaps, most of those 46% agree with most of these opinions, or at least enough to vote for Corbett.  But I can't help wondering if many of those 46% do not know the position of Corbett on these issues, but who vote Republican because they always vote Republican.  And, of course, this can be expanded to all those people who will vote Republican so that they gain the majority in the US Senate, a bigger majority in the US House, and majorities in state congresses all over America.  Am I really that left of the rest of America?  Or does the American electorate continue to vote against their best interests by electing members of a party that does all they can to continue the gradual distribution of income to the 1% and away from the American middle class.  Who talk about keeping government out of our lives bet really mean keep government out of the business community only, but full stream ahead when it comes to government in the bedroom or regulating womens' bodies.  Who enact laws that make it harder to vote rather than easier.


I wonder.