Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Eugenics

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Time and a Word

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


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


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


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




Time and a Word


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

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


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


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


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

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

More on Philanthropy

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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







 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Philanthropy

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




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




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




Dear


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Respectfully,


Joe Pugnetti


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

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


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


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


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


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


 






 

Monday, June 8, 2015

God, guns, grins and crazies

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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







Friday, May 29, 2015

Minimum Wage, Retirement Income

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


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


So, who to believe?


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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




Monday, May 18, 2015

Looking Forward

A few weeks ago, my wife and I spent the day with friends, walking around Peddlers Village, a local shopping area which features artisan shops, weekend special events, live music, and fattening food, in a pleasant outdoor setting.  At first, the guys accompanied the ladies into the shops, but soon we opted to stay outside and talk.  As usual, our conversation ranged from the metaphysical to sports to politics to religion.  In reality, this conversation was merely another chapter in a conversation that began almost 40 years ago, when we would shoot pool all night in his parent's basement, or I would visit him at work during his 11:00PM to 7:00AM shift.  While this recent encounter involved water only, our initial conversations were often enhanced with natural and artificial stimulants.  While my experience with the stereotypical portrayal of using such methods to delve into the deeper concepts of the universe seemed to corroborate the effectiveness of such props, it is also true that our current conversations are as deep, as reflective, as enjoyable as those from the early years, perhaps proving that artificially amplified discussions may be more an excuse to review life's mysteries than a requirement.   In other words, a need to be "not ourselves" to talk seriously.  I assume, of course, that that need is only required when we are young, as if being too serious is not a component of youth.  Also, life experiences, a missing component of those early conversations, often causes changes, sometimes profound changes, to our perspective, all too often leading to the decline of a relationship, friend or spouse, as points of view diverge.  Finally, sadly, what passes as serious debate in today's partisan environment, occasionally makes me wish that some "smoke" may be mixed into the air of the participants, or a "tab" slipped into their drinks.


As stated above, we had quickly passed into the heavier topics when my friend commented on the darkness of the times we lived in, darkness defined as the absence of awareness, consciousness, even spirituality.  It is easy to see why that opinion might exist.  The radical news outlets on each side, seem to feed on our fears, whether they be of the cataclysmic changes that climate change will bring, or the perceived Big Brother like takeover of our lives by the government.  When once "breaking news" was reserved for assassinations, tsunamis, or airplane crashes, now they are a daily occurrence, ranging from the latest Hollywood star to be arrested to whose leading on DWS to news of the latest "most evil" group of all time.   Worse, good news that effects everyone, is ignored by those whose political opinions differ from the current administration, or by those whose ratings depend on the continuation of "how bad it has become".


Also, and I can't put too fine a point on this, it seems that our current outlook in America (perhaps world-wide) is more negative than positive.  Certainly, compared to the 1950's when nothing was out of reach, no goal to lofty to aim for, no future too rosy to aspire to, there seems to be a cloud of pessimism hanging in the air, an expectation that something wicked this way comes.  If we were to take a psychological position, that negativity begets negativity, then perhaps we are reaping what we sow.  A more cyclical viewpoint might suggest that what we are experiencing today is a natural phenomenon, no more complex than that the pendulum of self-confidence, whether for an individual or a nation, must swing from high to low.  The debate then, is have we reached the nadir of optimism, are still on the downslide, or just beginning to emerge?


My reaction to my friend's assertion, was that we need to look at this on a bigger scale.  That, unlike the incredible technological breakthroughs and advances that we have witnessed in the past few decades, our spiritual evolution is on a much slower incline.  Compare our present day acceptance of people of different races, creeds, country of origin as opposed to the mainstream accepted thinking of a few centuries ago when slavery and genocide ruled the day.  So, while yes, there are still pockets of people who prefer to treat others inhumanely, the general population condemns such behavior.  While it is clear that we, as the population of planet Earth, still have a long way to go, it is also true that we have passed many milestones on our road to the lofty goals of guaranteeing the freedoms of every human and treating them as we would want to be treated. 


And then there is magazines like the Smithsonian.  In the current issue, there are a number of articles detailing the main idea of the issue, why you should be excited about the next decade.  While the details of the concepts center around science and technology, those areas of human endeavor that have always been turned to for solutions to our physical problems, I would like to think that the inspiration to develop such revolutionary devices, whether they be to improve communication, health, availability of food or even entertainment, emanates from man's innate desire to improve the lives of his fellow man.  And, it is that innate desire, which I truly believe in, that has advanced our species to the place we are today and will continue to propel us towards a time when the individual's desire for power, money and fame are balanced with the community's desire for equality, opportunity and freedom.         






       

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Money, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

When I log onto my computer, the MSN website is displayed first.  I generally glance at the weather for the day, check the state of the stock market, and peruse the "hot" topics, which consist generally of fluff and sensationalism, but occasionally includes something worthwhile.  Today I noticed a blurb about GOP candidate, ex Florida Gov Jeb Bush, and the fact that during his term, state pension money was invested in a video rental company that was known for having an "adult" section in the back of its stores.  Of course, the article used the word porn to attract readers, which, while some adult videos show all forms of sexual intercourse, it is usually of the soft porn type, meant to entertain consenting adults, and generally not hard core pornography that can feature children, bestiality, or violence.




Apparently, Bush did not deny the reports, instead justifying the investment as a way to maximize returns for the Florida taxpayers.  In essence, his excuse was that any vehicle to make money was fine.  I am not a Jeb Bush fan, and, frankly, am not looking forward to a Clinton-Bush presidential election, although I expect that is how it may play out, but I felt a bit sorry for him when I glanced at the article.  (I thought we fought a war, in part, as a protest for government by way of aristocracy, and to me another Bush or Clinton in the White House, belies that fight; it would mean that since 1988, we would have someone of those families as president 24 out of 32 years!)


Unfortunately, for Jeb Bush, the base of his party, loves to inject religion into politics.  Which, of course, is the height of irony since they despise those countries which feature the Muslim religion as a main force of their government.  Oh, that's right.  I forgot that the Christian right is OK with religion in government, as long as it is the religion they follow.  Anyway, poor Jeb is taking some heat from the religious right for contributing to the corruption of Floridians morals, by investing in a company that sells/rents such videos.  My previous prediction not withstanding, it seems clear that the evangelical block of the GOP will not support Bush in the primaries, especially when candidates such as Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee and the soon to announce Rick Santorum are running.  I expect, however, that those far right candidates will split the my-religion-is-the-best-of-all-religions voters, Bush will attract the big money from donors who want to actually have a shot at winning the White House, and voila, we are back to Bush-Clinton.


By the way, is it me or did those who are so upset about the investment in that video company, skip right over those movies that have wonton violence, huge amounts of gunplay, and murder.  I guess the lesson here is that a good killing is fine, but good lovemaking corrupts our morals.   


But I digress.


The point of this post was to comment on money, investing, and how much we are willing to compromise to gain wealth at any cost.  I am serious when I say that it is not an easy decision to forego profit, returns, perhaps even future financial security, when making choices about a job, an investment, or even the course of the nation.  For instance, most of us have mutual funds as part of our portfolios, but how many actually read the prospectus for those funds before making our decisions.  Isn't it more likely, we focus on our risk tolerance, check past returns, then choose according to how much money we may earn.  We may have very strong feelings about the environment, the fossil fuel industry, the proliferation of guns, yet may be investing in those very companies through our mutual funds.  


If you are the type of person who discusses investments, ask yourself how many conversations you have had which centered around socially responsible mutual funds, as opposed to the number of conversations that focused on percentage of  returns.  Like most of us, you either have not thought about investing in mutuals that do not include defense contractors, known polluters, companies that produce most of their product overseas with child labor, or whatever social problem you might feel strongly about, or you have decided long ago that the financial security of you and your family comes first and foremost, and how the money is accumulated is secondary.


Frankly, and don't get me wrong, I am not innocent in this area.  We are all guilty of contributing to the very social ills we deplore, if we are not cognizant of how and where our money is invested.  So, while the very rich can use the excuse that they don't know where all their money is invested, after all, that is why they hire investment planners, they are still guilty of contributing to the social problems of the day, if they do not specify industries, and/or companies that should be avoided, but instead just say, get me 10%, or I will find someone who will.


And that goes doubly for where we spend our money.  When we buy the cheapest things we can, not noticing that those products are made overseas to the detriment of American jobs, when we demand $1 stores in every community, and are ignorant of the fact that cheap products are the result of cheap ingredients and poverty wages, then our righteousness concerning those companies that produce and sell those cheap products is misplaced.  It is the person in the mirror who is at fault.


It is easy to get mad at those perpetrators of scams that target grand moms with stories of grand children in trouble who need wire transfers, but what about those who have attained great wealth, not through great ideas and innovations, but through the abuse of employees and the rape of the land.  Do we have a scale that measures wealth and considers the source, or once wealthy, does it not matter how that wealth was accumulated?


But how can we possibly know how all those companies, all those wealthy people came to be rich?  Good question.  And, before the explosion of social media, I would have said, it can be tough.  But, when someone slaps their child and a million people know about it a few days later, it is clear that we have the vehicle.  The bigger question is, do our journalists, our news media outlets, our social networks, spend the time to dig into the important questions, track the dollars, so to speak.  Or, are our media giants bombarding us with information meant to distract us from the real data we need to know.  Is it coincidence that so much of our news is fluff and sensationalistic in nature, or the very distraction necessary to keep us from knowing what we should know.


Money, like all inventions of mankind, can be used for good and for bad.  And, despite what some who are devotees of capitalism might say, some money, some wealth, is accumulated, and used for very wrong reasons, to the detriment of people, not their benefit.  Now, I will admit that sometimes I go too far, mislabeling all those that are rich as someone who must have twisted the rules to their benefit, stepped on the backs of many to gain their advantage, or just paid some politician to make  legal all they do that is unethical.  There are clearly people who have used, and continue to use their wealth to help those in need.  To those philanthropists, kudos for knowing the point of wealth, that, like all tools, it should be used to advance mankind, not be accumulated for its own sake.


But, in the end, it all starts with us.  Like electing public servants that will do the will of the people, keeping our neighborhoods safe and clean, rewarding those corporations and people who do good rather than promote violence and greed, each of us has the responsibility to make conscious choices, and understand the repercussions of those choices. 


I recently heard a phrase on a movie that I know I heard before as I have seen the movie many times before, Bull Durham but didn't really hear.  The phrase was "the world was made for people who are not cursed with self awareness".  Perhaps, with a little bit of effort, we might hear someone say some day, "the world has been remade by those with self awareness".



Thursday, April 30, 2015

God given rights

Protesting against various government actions or laws is nothing new.  In fact, you might even call it  tradition in America, part of the founding of our country.  From marches organized to shed light on a problem, to demonstrations against established policy, to specific reactions to specific instances, Americans have exercised our civil rights to free speech and to assemble since before our founding.


As is true of all people who observe protests without participating, individual reaction and the reporting of these events, depend greatly on one's own perspective of the group and its method of protest, and the actual topic of dissent.  Clearly, the recent reaction in Baltimore to yet another death of a black man at the hands of the police, is viewed by most people, including myself, as an inappropriate response to a tragic situation.  We acknowledge the right of people to be angry at police abuse, but disagree with violence as the vehicle to express this anger.  As is so often the case, a legitimate complaint is overshadowed by the reaction, hence the root of the problem is not addressed.


Perhaps I am wrong in saying this, but it seems that during the Obama Presidential years, there has been an increase in the sentiment that our rights originate from God, not the government.  Whether the upsurge of this belief is related to the misinformation that the president is a Muslim, or merely that, like all Democrats, he is portrayed as proponent of BIG government, especially as it is perceived that BIG government functions by chipping away at our rights, it seems that this sentiment is much more pervasive now than during President Bush's 2 terms, even though provisions of the Patriot Act, which was enacted during his presidency, are considered by some as the most blatant example of infringement of our right to privacy in the history of our country.  


I do not mean to say that the phrase God given rights, or inalienable rights as they are referred to in our Constitution, is something new, only that its use seems to be on the rise.  Clearly, should you have the time and the inclination, research on this topic would produce information and input ranging beyond Aristotle to the ancient Zoroastrian religion, through the Middle Ages when the Magna Carta was used to combat the "divine" right to rule, and culminate in the Age of Enlightenment when minds such as Luther, Locke, Hobbes (among many others) postulated on the concepts of legal rights, natural rights, the difference between them and their source. 


At the end of the day, the question seems to be, what commonalities can be found among this large volume of information.  And, in practical terms, what are we willing to sacrifice in terms of our rights in order to function in a society which includes a myriad of interpretations of what those rights are and what they mean.


For instance, once born, the right to life seems universal.  By definition then, any version of slavery should contradict the right to life as someone under the yoke of slavery does not have the freedom to conduct his life as he wants.  Yet, many of our founders were slave holders.  They considered their slaves as less than human, hence not covered under the inalienable rights they declared existed.  (Or, to be cynical, they knew that slavery, while inherently wrong, was an important ingredient to the economic well being of the times). 


Assuming though, that we have moved on (evolved?) on slavery, the next common tenet seems to be the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, i,e, doing what you like.  Contrary to what might seem obvious, doing what you like is a great responsibility, because it assumes that in doing so you do not impinge upon someone else's rights.  I want to listen to loud music late at night, yet I understand that my neighbor has the right to a good night's sleep, so either I sacrifice my right to loud music at night or I move to a home without neighbors.  This might seem like a simple example, but imagine how this thinking pertains to marriage laws, gun laws, acts of discrimination that one's religion seems to uphold, what to teach our children, how to form our government.  It is so much more complicated than holding a sign at a rally.


Frankly, I am both a huge believer and complete non-believer in the concept of rights as given by God.  A huge believer in that I advocate the least amount of restrictions on one's time on earth to understand our uniqueness, and common ancestry with all other earthlings, to understand how we can optimize our talents while helping others do the same, and to figure our what it takes to be the best person possible while leaving the earth a better place once we are gone.  If there is a creator, I would like to think that philosophy would be acceptable. 


But more likely, we have been left to our own devices.  The rights we create to live for and live by, are our own creations.  Aligning them with god, generally results in rights that are parceled to those who follow a particular religion, or worse, away from those whom that religion has determined to be outside their god's circle of love.  


And, as for our rights not coming from government, but from God, it would be comical, if it weren't so commonly misquoted.  During the vast majority of our history, most humans have existed at the whim of the person, family, or group with the money, power and might.  They were ruled, at best, where ruled denotes some measure of consideration to their needs.  Remember, while philosophers may have grappled with the concepts of freedom and liberty through history, the idea of a government formed with those tenets as its base, is very new to humankind.  You might even say we are infants in terms of our experience with the ideas.  Does that mean that god decided to wait a couple hundred thousand years before deigning us with those rights, or more likely, did it take our species that long to arrive at the point where we were civilized enough to recognize the truth?


Remember that even today, 2015 years since the demarcation of time from BC to AD, tens of thousands of years since the great civilizations of the Far East and the Americas, there are governments that still divide its citizens into those with rights and those without.  Understanding that only through the rule of law where the law protects the weak, the disadvantaged, those without resource and influence, and through the creation of governments which uphold those laws, can our rights as citizens of a society, and as individuals within that society, be granted, and more importantly, defended.


    

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Happy Earth Day

I know I am a day late with this post, but yesterday was one of those days where I worked my full time job (1:00-915 PM) then went straight to my part time job (10:00-3:00AM).  In fact, I apologize again in that I know I often comment on the state of the earth, especially in regards to those who choose to not see the damage we have wrought, but I did not see a label for any previous post that referred to Earth Day specifically, or even the environment, in general.  Hopefully this post will make up for that oversight.


Before I begin, I did a bit of research on Earth Day.  I was looking for the environmental factors present in the 1960's that inspired the first Earth Day in 1970.  Of course, as I have previously mentioned, Rachel Carson's 1962 release of Silent Spring which detailed the widespread damage that had been caused to multiple levels of the food chain and the environment from the use of the pesticide DDT could be argued as the starting point.  But a quick "google" of environmental disasters which occurred post World War 2, includes, but is in no way encompassing, such problems as the Centralia, PA mine fire (still burning today), mercury poisoning from industrial dumping which caused Minamata disease in Japan, dangerous smog levels in most large US cities, including one particularly dangerous episode in New York City in 1966 which killed about 80 people, and the spontaneous ignition of the Cuyahoga River in 1969 in Cleveland from unstable chemical effluents.


If the 1960's was a decade of environmental awareness coming to a head, the 1970's might be classified as the decade where activism began.  Environmental regulations passed in the late 60's were now being used to identify polluters and hold them accountable.  Groups such as the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society and Greenpeace saw their memberships skyrocket, as their visible confrontations with polluters became national headlines.  Also, the iconic picture entitled the Blue Marble, taken by the astronauts of the 1972 Apollo 17 mission, focused attention on the beauty of our planet, the concept that it is our only home, and the fragility of its existence.  


Of course, opposition to this movement was also galvanized, funded in large part by the polluters themselves.  One interesting item I read involved the Communist connection to the environmental movement that was touted by those against these defenders of the earth, as the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin.  It should come as no surprise then that even today, those advocating for the health of the Earth are sometimes portrayed as anti-American and anti-capitalism.  Nor should it come as any surprise that the "debate" over climate change is being waged with science and environmentalists on one side and the fossil fuel industry on the other.


Unfortunately, many of the gains of those early years, were softened during the Reagan Administration, and the uncertain economics of the time.  Jobs became the focus, and the mantra that the job creators (big business) needed less regulation, along with the belief that everyone would prosper if the large corporations prospered (trickle down economics), ruled the day.  (The fact that the  30 plus years since has demonstrated that allowing big business to prosper resulted in a shift in economic strength from the middle class to the rich, is a sad byproduct to all those years of ignoring our environmental responsibility).  The further efforts that continue to be made by our public servants in Congress today to weaken federal environmental laws, fueled by big monied interests and that insidious Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, speak poorly of a generation whose parents recognized the havoc we were causing and erected barriers to reduce that damage. 


Still, all is not lost.  While the forces that would have us continue to rely on fossil fuels for our energy have an advantage, there has been a proliferation of both new environmental organizations, and membership in those groups.  Those under 25 years of age, when surveyed, demonstrate a strong concern for the Earth and a safer environment.  Even the financial industry, historically a bastion for the make-money-however-you-can crowd, has mutual funds for people who care about how their money is invested and are willing to sacrifice returns to support environmentally friendly businesses and innovators. 


And the Earth itself, while certainly bloodied is not bowed.  She has recovered from the ignorance of the original Industrial Revolution when we spoiled air and water for the sake of our mass production businesses.  She took a shot to the chin with the detonation of WW2 nuclear bombs in Japan, and nuclear waste fires and a nuclear plant meltdown in Russia but has managed to recover much of her glory in Japan, and some in Russia.  And, even when she lashes out against us with dangerous storms and tectonic spasms, she always follows up with the promise of a new spring.


So, Happy Earth Day.  For those of you who acknowledged the celebration, thanks.  For those of you too busy to break from your hectic lives, take a look around the next time you are driving past a meadow, or visit a local park.  The grandeur is there to see, if you have eyes to look. 


And, for those who prefer to live in denial, stop cleaning your home, leave the garbage accumulate, dump toxins in your back yard.  Eventually, it may occur to you that, just as poisoning your home environment is not sustainable, neither is poisoning our global environment.  Perhaps then you might alter your view of Earth and see it as our only home, a big, beautiful, blue marble floating in space.