Sunday, August 23, 2015

Jimmy Carter and Donald Trump

I was fortunate enough to have time today to relax at home and read the Sunday paper.  I was hoping that I would encounter something that inspired me to post.  As is usual, I found a few interesting articles in the opinion section, one concerning ex President Jimmy Carter and one about presidential candidate Donald Trump.  (There was also two opinion letters from readers about Trump; what an amazing range of responses does he generate!!)

In 1976 when Jimmy Carter was elected president, I was just graduating from high school.  During his term, I experienced (in no particular order) a trip to Montreal for the 1976 Olympics, a semester of college at LaSalle, my first full time (40 hours) job at McDonalds, and my first attempt to live on my own.  While many of my friends went off to college, I eschewed what I considered another four years of droning, and made a number of cross country trips, some via bus, some via my thumb.  I earned my travelling money by working a variety of jobs in manufacturing and retail.  In retrospect, one might say I was "finding myself". 

The country too was experiencing change.  Interest rates were high, as was unemployment.  Urban unrest marked the evening news.  The Iranian hostage crisis was endless.  Recurring energy crises  revealed our vulnerability to foreign countries interests interfering with our own. 

At the time, many considered President Carter the worse president in a hundred years, perhaps ever.  Certainly, the events of those four years, especially his perceived ineptitude in returning our hostages, did not contradict such a harsh appraisal.  If there ever was a four year time when both the domestic and international situation was so negative, it would be hard to find one.  Consequently, it didn't take a rocket scientist to predict that Ronald Reagan would defeat Carter in the 1980 presidential election. 

And, it could be said that had Carter disappeared into historical oblivion (as it seems that George W. Bush has), no one would have blamed him.  But, as the article I read about him indicated, Jimmy Carter was a humanist first, president second.  He believed that as president, one of the most important aspect of his job was to make sure that all Americans, especially those with the least, had a voice in government.  As president, he took his responsibility, what he might call his Christian responsibility, to work for those "on the margins" very seriously even to the point of taking on corporate interests.  While it is certainly debatable that the ills of America in the late 1970's were all his fault, there is no question that he continued his work to provide for those with the least once his days as president ended.

With the revelation that Carter has cancer, and the knowledge that his time on earth is drawing to a close, we may soon see a reevaluation of his presidency, but more importantly, a celebration of his life and his work for humanity.  Perhaps the importance of the Camp David accords will be revisited, especially in light of the continued unrest in the Middle East.  Certainly his work in Africa to combat malaria will be praised.  I know that whenever I saw him on TV, he always seemed to be espousing understanding rather than war, discourse rather than violence. 

Was he a good president?  Perhaps not.  Was he a good human being?  I expect he would be more concerned with the answer to that 2nd question, and I expect that his legacy will confirm that answer to be a resounding yes.

Which brings us to Donald Trump.  I have watched some of his TV interviews, read some of his campaign speeches and proposals.  Perhaps I am biased, but he seems merely a caricature of a candidate.  A created persona designed to attract a certain voter who perceive that there are serious problems, but expects simple answers.  Someone more interested in placing the blame, usually on "them", rather than forcing Americans to look in the mirror and face our faults. 

I recall that, on one point in his presidency, Carter went on national TV and told us in no uncertain terms that we needed to change the way we consumed energy.  That we needed to rethink our relationship with oil.  That we needed to conserve and sacrifice.  His new policies were a failure, in that he was not able to inspire Americans to reduce consumption nor was he able to work with Congress to develop an overall energy policy.  When Reagan offered another opinion, that we were the greatest country ever and that the Soviets were the evil empire, we embraced the shift of blame away from our mirrors. 

As it turned out, Carter was wrong when he predicted that we might run out of oil in the 21st century.  Since 1976, the adjusted for inflation cost of gas at the pump has risen and fallen drastically, but we still debate energy policy, whether to drill in the Arctic, whether to require more stringent coal emission standards, whether to force more transparency regarding the "fracking" cocktail being used to energize the natural gas industry.  But one might wonder what America might be like today had we listened to President Carter and embarked on a national energy policy to find alternatives to the fossil fuels.  Solar panels on every home?  A middle east policy that did not require the defense of oil fields in its computation? 

Donald Trump would have us believe that we need to reevaluate the 14th amendment granting citizenship to anyone born on American soil.  That we need to pass the sins of the parents onto those born of foreigners.  That we need to charge all our institutions, government, education, business, with the job of identifying those here illegally and removing them.  Sort of like a national network of snitches.  That border states and cities should be able to suspend the fourth amendment and conduct illegal search and seizure operations against those who may be foreign born.  And that all these illegal, dark skinned, immigrants come here to take our country away from us, despite overwhelming proof that they come here for a better life for themselves and their children. 

I would imagine that should Carter and Trump debate, Trump's bombastic responses would be more popular than the thoughtful approach that Carter would offer.  Perhaps even that many would consider Trump a better president.  But I can't imagine that anyone would view Trump as a better human.  And it makes me wonder why it is that being a better human does not seem to be a highly valued trait in today's politics. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Gay Catholics, and other odd labels

I haven't thanked my Norwegian friends lately.  While my blog has been getting a steady audience of 60 visitors a day, more than half are from Norway.  This has been a trend for almost a year now.  I have no explanation, don't see a pattern in terms of topics that are attracting this interest, and have not received a comment from a Norwegian (to my knowledge) as to why they are attracted to my posts, but I am still grateful. 

Somewhat along that line, I recently had a conversation with a relative in which he said that he was thinking of ways that he could bring new meaning to his life, or more precisely, justify his existence.  While he is certainly not old, he is closing in on retirement age, and seems to be thinking more about life's meaning, his life's work to date, and whether he has given back enough compared to all that he has received.  (As a side note, I can imagine that the entry into heaven may depend on whether one has given more than one has taken).  A question occurred to me after this discussion with him, a question as to whether it is worse to wonder if you should be doing more, or if, while engaging in an activity that you deem worthwhile, wondering if you have made a difference in that effort.  I occasionally question whether anything I write here matters, or matters to anyone but myself, but the discussion mentioned above, coupled with the Norwegian connection I seem to have made, help me to get over such self doubt...mostly.

The Inquirer had an article this past Sunday about a split in the gay Catholic community.  In a nutshell, it was detailing a difference of opinion about addressing gay issues within the Catholic religion, especially in light of Pope Francis' statement about not judging others, and the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage.  You see, the World Meeting of Families, which is occurring in Philadelphia in conjunction with the Pope's visit, is a time for the Catholic family to get together and discuss the issues which concern it the most.  The controversy surrounds the lack of meetings being held to address issues important to the gay community; more precisely that out of dozens of events only one, one-hour session is planned. 

Now, one might say, hey, you can't be gay and Catholic.  The lifestyle conflicts with the teachings of the religion.  I am sure that there are Catholics who feel that even one session is one too many. 

I recently spent an evening with someone with whom I was acquainted but had never spoken with at length.  At one point during the visit, he and I had a span of one-on-one time.  During that time, we delved deeply into one another's religious views.  He was very clear in his dismissal of religions, even to the point of having a negative opinion of the current pope.  But he was aghast at my recent effort "An Atheist for Christ", in that he is fully convinced that Jesus died for our sins to enable us to live in eternity with God the father.  For him, nothing else mattered other than believing Christ died on the cross.  At one point he called my life hopeless, because all I had was my life on earth while he expected eternal life due to his belief in why Jesus lived and died.  He seemed surprised that I would not want to live forever, to see again all those I loved who had passed, and to be comforted by the thought that I would see again all those still alive that I love once I die.

If one cannot reach heaven by good works only as I have heard said, if the litmus test for eternal life is believing that Jesus died for our sins as virtually all Christians are taught, then one's gender preference is not important.  It seems to me that Christians who believe that those in the gay community commit sin when they express their physical love, or wish to marry someone of the same sex, are also expressing a belief that Jesus only died for some sins, but not all sins.  That his death only cleansed sins that they deem forgivable. 

Are there other sins that Jesus's death does not cover?  Pedophilia?  Killing one's own children? 

It seems to me that once we assume that Jesus was the son of God, his death, as commanded by the Creator of all things, would be powerful enough to cover the gamut of man's indiscretions.  Perhaps that is why so many people have become lost in their religion, have become victims of the dogma of religions, have enabled the term religious war to not only have meaning, but be waged on a moment by moment basis.   They have lost touch with the true point of Jesus' life and death.  Rather than focusing on the BIG idea concerning Christ, they get ambushed by the little things and choose to focus on superficial traits and preferences that only exist to show the wide variety and combinations that God uses to create the individuals that make up humanity. 

It seems such a shame that the true glory of God's creations, the wonderful differences among us, are used by religions to create wedges between us, to separate us into the saved and unsaved, the forgiven and unforgiven. 

Finally, as I have said before, perhaps we can only understand the true nature and meaning of life without the stone of religious dogma in our eyes. 


Thursday, August 13, 2015

The GOP debate

The first GOP Presidential debate occurred last week while I was on vacation.  That particular night, I was by myself, so while I watched much of the debate, I didn't see it all as I was free to channel hop.
Afterwards, while discussing the debate, a friend of mine asked me if I was going to post something about it.  My first reaction was negative, in that, while it was certainly entertaining (Trump may not bring much substance to the proceedings but he sure brings interest), there were few statements beyond what we already knew of the participating candidates.   

As it was, our conversation was limited to the exchange between Governor Christie and Rand Paul about the balance between providing our intelligence agencies with the tools necessary to fight terrorism and our rights of privacy as citizens.  Strangely, at least to me, Christie seemed to have won that brief exchange, despite the fact that most Americans as well as our elected officials in Congress, are not happy with the extensive spying on American citizens that was authorized under the Patriot Act, and carried out by the NSA.  One might say that Christie's perceived advantage in that exchange proves either that Rand Paul is not ready to be president if he cannot come out ahead when debating a topic for which he represents the majority opinion, or that a good politician can turn an unpopular position into a plus for him if he/she is loud and on point.  Or both.

A topic that I did not discuss with my friend was the statement by Scott Walker (I believe) that he would support the use of the Constitution to defend the rights of the unborn.  In essence, that a fetus should be given the rights of a person, at the moment of conception.  (If I misunderstood this position, please, someone, correct me.).  I found this very disturbing.  Imagine a world where the unborn can sue his mother for smoking a cigarette or running a marathon.  Or a world where the accidental death or murder of every child bearing aged woman, would require an autopsy to check for the presence of a fetus, to add that entity to a wrongful death case or a murder charge.  While I am sure that Walker believes that abortion is murder, his perspective falls dangerously close to a belief that a mother is merely the vehicle for bringing a new life into the world, and that the new life is the more important part of that equation.  It is bad enough that so many conservative pundits label birth control as a way for sluts to avoid conception, have much to say about out of wedlock babies being the fault of the mother with very little comment on the man's role, and support aggressive anti-abortion tactics that mandate intrusive medical procedures to "show" the fetus, and restrictive laws that make providing an abortion very difficult, now we see the true nature of the woman's role in this conservative world, a role more akin to the barefoot and pregnant stereotype, as opposed to a role where a woman has control over her body. 

But I digress.

I thought I would wait to comment on the GOP debate, as there are so many yet to come, and the field so vast that it seems futile to find any meaning in this first one.

But today I finished the Philanthropy edition of Lahpam's Quarterly, and in reviewing all the great essays, I remembered one written by Peter Singer from his book Practical Ethics.  In a nutshell, Singer argues for "effective altruism", the notion that people should do the most good they can by helping the ill and desperately poor.  But he goes further than just encouraging active assistance.  He believes that those who do not help are murderers by default, for not helping.  What he terms, the moral equivalent of murder.

I thought of the GOP debate in this light, not because I am a liberal and a registered Democrat, as I know that once one starts down the road of condemnation by acts of commission and omission, no one, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat, religious and atheist, is blameless.  But what made me make the connection was what was not discussed at the debate. 

Did I expect a question about global warming?  No, but when the vast majority of scientists agree that the climate is changing, when record highs and lows, record rainfall and drought, extreme weather of all types are happening on almost a weekly basis, yet the top contenders for president are not asked about climate change, even if it is a hands up, do you believe it exists, do you believe it is caused or being accelerated by man, and what if anything should we do, then that condemns millions of poor people in the world to death by starvation or disaster. 

Or income inequality.  Do the wealthy in America control more of the economy than they should?  Do they have more access to our political system than is safe?  Strangely, Donald Trump has made the point that since he is so rich, he won't have to take money from big donors and grant exceptions to those with the most.  He even made a point to confirm that he has given large sums of money to candidates from both parties in the past to "get what he wanted".  Yet, he wants us to believe that if he is elected he will stop playing the game that he has played all his life.  Does he also offer ways to eliminate everyone else who is elected from playing the game?  Campaign reforms that give all potential candidates a set amount of money to campaign with, no donations from other sources, no spending personal money?  Or an executive order reversing the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling?  After all, Trump will run the government just like a business, whatever he says goes.  King Donald.  Will he call a meeting with all the CEO's of the biggest corporations and command them to raise wages or "your fired".  No, no real solutions.  And, when he made his comments about politicians being at the beck and call of the rich, there wasn't much blow back from the other candidates.  To be sure, income inequality will not be addressed, and by that omission, millions of working Americans will continue to struggle with poverty wages. 

How about the effect that our military spending has on our national debt?  At least I heard some comments about balancing a budget, every governor on the stage said he had done it, even though all states require a balanced budget by law so all they did was obey the law.  I guess I must be electable too since I obey all the traffic laws.  But all of them (except Rand Paul, and we all know he is soft on terrorism now), want to increase military spending.  More boots on the ground in the middle east.  It is not enough that we spend more than any other country in the world, over $600 billion a year, on "defense", more than the next 19 (I think it is 19) countries combined, most of the GOP candidates think our current president leads from behind and is not respected by our enemies.  So, of course, lets bomb some more people to get their respect, and place more American lives at risk to show we are the world leader.  In the meantime, since more military spending means less spending in other areas, our transportation infrastructure will be neglected, our schools will continue to produce mediocre talent, more tax breaks will be given to big business while less money will be spent on the American people who are suffering, and again, the needs of millions of United States citizens will be neglected.

As I said, however, those of us on the left share the blame as well.  When we bemoan the fate of the poor, yet purchase the biggest jar of mustard ever created only to throw out a third of it when it turns bad, when we decry the oil industry for polluting our air, yet drive everywhere, even when we could walk, when we shed a tear over the latest small, neighborhood business to close, yet brag about the one stop shopping we did yesterday at the big box store, when we live our lives without a notion of the consequences, we contribute to our shared ills just as those who actively suppress wages, pollute our environment, and engage in unethical business practices.

And lets not forget how we invest for the future.  It is easy to condemn a particular industry's negative practices, but not as easy to move our money away from those profitable companies and accept less return in our portfolios.

The GOP debate and the moral equivalent of murder.  I am looking forward to episode two, as well as the Democratic version when it begins later this year.


Thursday, August 6, 2015

Almsgiving, Charity, Assistance

When I turned the page and found the next article in Philanthropy to be written by Andrew Carnegie, my perception of him via his association with the “barons of industry” in the early 1900’s, led me to expect a viewpoint that might be derogatory towards the concept of philanthropy.  But, again, Lapham’s surprised me.

While it is certainly true that Carnegie gained a portion of his wealth by unscrupulous business deals, government favoritism, and poor wages paid to his employees, it is also true that he made good on his belief that, should one accumulate great wealth in this life, he should engage in an active, planned effort to leave this earth with a significant portion of that wealth having been spent in the pursuit of improving the condition of the public.

So, while his view of almsgiving, which might be defined as money given without any strings attached, was that it was not only non-productive, but actually bad for the receiver, he was also just as harsh in his perception of the man who dies with great stores of wealth, never having used any to advance the cause of men.

In essence, the foundation of his belief was that no one is better to decide how great wealth should be spent, as the man who earned it himself.  His disdain for public as well as private charity that handed over money as if the receiver earned the right to it through his/her misfortune was clear.   It wasn’t that he was against all forms of welfare, or almsgiving as he might define it, but that he was judgmental of the actual good such giving provided. 

He was just as negative about leaving great fortunes to one’s children or future family as to charities or causes run by foundations or bureaucrats, who were more likely to spend the money with little appreciation of the work entailed to earn it (family), or who would disperse the money with little consideration for the priorities of the benefactor. 

For Carnegie, providing a little extra money, whether via better wages or direct payments, was of limited use as, in his mind, those with the least were in that predicament due to poor decisions or an inability to think productively.  In effect, he recognized, even embraced his responsibility to ease the pain of mankind, but thought it best that he decide how best to ease that pain.

In that vein, Carnegie funded the building of thousands of public libraries where he thought that all men would be able to access the knowledge to improve their condition in life.  He also encouraged other wealthy men of the time to follow suit by funding parks and other types of recreation areas to benefit man’s spirit.

And charity, where it occurred, should always take the form of assistance that is directed to those that will help themselves.  Again, to harken back to a previous post, charity in the form of helping a man learn to fish rather than merely giving him fish to eat. 

I am less antagonistic towards charity as almsgiving as Carnegie.  I believe there are times when giving without expectation of a return is acceptable, even when that return might be the receiver improving their situation on their own.  I would, however, prefer such charity to have a definitive end, whether it be public welfare in the form of a check, or private charity in the form of food or other such material gifts.  In effect, yes, you need help with no strings attached, but such help, assuming no permanent disability is involved, will end at an appointed time.  While I generally abhor the easily labelled “takers” that the far right loves to demonize, I do agree that generational welfare where those that might benefit as children whose parents get assistance, expect the same assistance in adulthood, must be ended.  Especially when such generational almsgiving permeates an entire community. 

To me, if more people of wealth accepted their responsibility to improve mankind’s condition, as Carnegie did, the world would be better.  Conversely, if more people of want considered charity as assistance as opposed to almsgiving, there might be less need for charity, and more desire to be charitable by those who perceive there is appreciation rather than entitlement.  And best of all, when someday our attitude towards the rich includes a judgement based on how one attained wealth so that those who abused the environment, or mankind to gain riches are considered pariahs as opposed to role models.

But make no mistake, all of us have and will most likely again, experience a time of need and dependence on our fellow man.   Whether from infancy when our parents fed, clothed and protected us, or our teachers who presented the lessons of life, or the mentor who showed us the ropes, or the investor or bank who believed in our vision enough to provide material resources, we all require the aid of others.  Wouldn’t it be that much more sweet if success was less defined on a person to person basis and more defined in the aggregate, whether that aggregate be local, state, country, hemisphere or planet.  

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Iranian Nuclear Deal

I caught a bit of President Obama's news conference regarding the recently signed nuclear deal with Iran.  I found it very interesting on a number of fronts.

First, I happened to catch a question asked by a general, don't recall his name.  His question, to paraphrase, was, Why are you content to let Iran hold 4 American hostages?  I am often amazed at the lack of respect this president has received, from questioning his birth straight through to claiming he hates America.  But here is a general, a man, I assume who may not demand his troops to like him but does demand their respect, publicly disrespecting his commander in chief.  Amazing.  To Obama's credit, he chastised the general telling him he should know better than to assume that the President of the United States is content with American hostages, then rephrased the general's question as, why did we not link the release of those hostages with this deal, a much more reasonable question, which the president then answered.

Anyway, before posting I googled pros and cons of the Iranian nuclear deal.  I found the following article, from a source that I generally find at odds with my own perspective.  See below.

Perhaps the question we should debate first is, why negotiate a deal with Iran at all?  One easy answer is that we negotiated with the "evil" Soviet Empire through both the SALT and START treaties.  In the name of mutual assured destruction we engaged in a decades long cold war that happily never ended in destruction.  Was it the treaties, some ratified, some not?  Was it the process of negotiation whereby the two sides came to know each other a bit better?  My point is that diplomacy is a far better way to get one up on your enemy than open warfare. 

The deal itself is full of compromises, no friend to the GOP presidential field, many of whom have already vowed to defeat or undo the deal before even knowing all the details.  The main points of the deal, as are understood currently, is that we have traded the relaxation of economic sanctions for the legal right to inspect Iran's nuclear facilities.  I thought it interesting that Obama emphasized the legal part of this deal, as it has always seemed his goal to get a signed treaty that can be used to justify future sanctions or other actions with legal backing, should Iran violate the treaty. 

The down side is that the inspections do not appear to be spontaneous, in that the inspectors can not show up without notification.  Also, by eventually relaxing economic sanctions, there may be more Iranian money to fund actions against United States interests, especially Israel.  From what I can gather, these are two of the more important details that opponents are unhappy about.

Curiously, I wondered what the viewpoint of the Iranian citizen was of this accord.  Of course, we have long ago labeled Iran as an enemy, but the fact is that before the revolution in the late 1970's, Iran was very westernized.  It had a vibrant middle class, with an emphasis on education and advanced degrees.  While this middle class has been hit hard by the policies of the various Ayatollahs, there are still millions of Iranians who would prefer a normalization of relations with the western world, especially in the areas of commerce.  My understanding is that they are for any treaty that presents Iran as a willing partner with the world in solving problems.

Unfortunately, Iran also has a large percentage of people who are hardliners.  Who hate America and consider her their enemy.  Like those in America who believe that only with force can we "control" Iran, there are those in Iran who believe that only with force can they fight to retain their sovereignty.
Considering that those extremists in Iran see some American politicians and pundits who blithely talk about "nuking" them, it is no wonder that we are not to be trusted.  And, of course, the GOP reps and senators who some time ago sent Iran's leader a letter telling them that Obama shouldn't be trusted, doesn't help. 


Obama said this treaty isn't necessarily about trust, admitting that it is more of a hope that Iran will comply with its tenants while leaving America and its allies with a legal document against which to hold Iran accountable should they renege. 

But really, how far can we trust a country that we call our enemy, and they us?  From that respect then, perhaps the only basis for negotiation is to make sure that both sides get some of what they want.  Mutually assured satisfaction (MAS) if you will.  It seems to me that only when both sides have something to gain can a baseline agreement be reached.  After all, we wouldn't have signed a treaty that allowed for no inspections, why would we expect Iran to sign one that did not relieve sanctions? 

Now, I know that many people are against this treaty precisely because Obama is for it, but some truly do not like it on its face value.  That is fair, but why is it that they fail to admonish the old saying, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar?  Perhaps in the long run this is a good treaty, or at least a good start.



Monday, July 13, 2015

Pa State Budget

After Tom Corbett was elected governor, I wrote a post about his first budget.  That was 2011.  At the time, I was saddened by the deep cuts the first Corbett budget offered as a way to balance the state's income and revenue, but not surprised, as he ran on a campaign of no new taxes.  What surprised me was the general sense of outrage over that budget, and the next 3 budgets, that helped lead to the first incumbent governor to lose a reelection bid in PA history. 

I say surprised because he told us he wouldn't raise taxes, we foolishly believed that was the solution to our problems, then gnashed our teeth over the cuts that were passed.  Of course, since we seem to be stuck in a no win battle of raise taxes or cut benefits kind of thinking, no new solutions were offered either.  So, for 4 years we passed a balanced budget only to find ourselves towards the bottom of lists such as state revenue growth, job creations, and education funding. 

Now comes the 2015-16 budget battle between newly elected Democratic Governor Tom Wolf and the increased GOP majority in the House and Senate.  In some ways, I admire Pa voters for choosing a new leader while presenting him with a similar arrangement of house reps and senators.  Not sure if we meant to do that, not sure if we are actually thinking that when we vote, but by electing a DEM Gov and a GOP controlled legislature, we are saying to our public servants, Hey, we aren't sure what we want, but we expect you to work together to find common ground between our own schizophrenic needs and wants, and make the best choices possible for all of us.

So far, unfortunately, neither side has acted as adults.  Wolf's budget is unanimously voted down due to a clever politically motivated approach by the GOP, then the GOP budget is vetoed by Wolf.  One might say, score 1-1; or one might say score 0-2 where 0 represents the citizens of PA, and 2 represents the bullshit of PA politics.

Admittedly, Pennsylvania is a difficult nut.  A huge portion of our state population lives in or near a city, while a majority of state reps and senators come from counties that are rural.  The phrase Pennsyltucky has been used to describe this dichotomy.  It takes quite a balancing act to understand the opinions, perspectives and needs of such a diverse population.  One might even say it takes a lot of compromising so that each position gets a bit of what they want.  And, while compromise is an extremely dirty word in our national political debate, it is only a bit less dirty in our state debates.

As a tax payer, a parent with one child still in college and one a recent graduate with large college debt, and as a public employee with a job in the oft maligned PLCB, I believe I have a rather unique perspective.  Here are my thoughts.

Education funding should be our top priority.  When we continue to allow wave after wave of urban children leave school early, or graduate with inferior skill sets, we create future expenses that cost much more per individual whether it be through incarceration, public assistance, or reduced tax revenue.  Funding needs to be from stable sources and needs to be equitable in its dispersion.  There is a new formula recently proposed that, with a few tweaks, should be enacted so that so school systems with the least ability to generate revenue, get a bigger share of state aid.

Just as important, since less money is finding its way to the classroom, pension reform goes hand in hand with education funding.  The fact that it is through poor, past legislative decisions and the refusal by the state to always pay their legal obligations to the pension fund that has created this mess seems lost in the solutions.  That being said, there will need to be a reduction in the multiplier which is used to calculate pensions.  We can't continue to promise money that is not there.  Of course, those about to retire must not be affected, but for those decades away, a new formula needs to be enacted.  Perhaps even an option to take the money already invested, and opt out of future contributions and a future pension.  Personal choice.  And, however the details shake out, the state needs to recognize its debt to the pension fund and find a (hopefully) temporary revenue source to erase that debt.

There is also a huge need for transportation funding.  Literally billions of dollars are needed to fix our infrastructure.  Inevitably, higher taxes will be required.   A small increase in the base income tax rate, in addition to a sliding tax rate not unlike what many states have in place will help.  Also, while I have said many times before that the window to tax the Marcellus shale boom has closed somewhat, an extraction tax needs to be enacted.  For now it will not provide as much revenue as needed, but the cycle of high oil prices will certainly return again, and perhaps this tax will become a more productive source of revenue in the future.  I am not a big fan of applying the sales tax to more products and services as it tends to fall disproportionately on the lower income brackets, but there are luxury products and services that could be removed from the exempt list.  Perhaps even an increase in the liquor tax which began as the Johnstown Flood tax.  Clearly, the tax money no longer goes to anything related to Johnstown, but is a stable revenue source for the state.  Lets rename it what it is, an alcohol tax, increase it by 2%, and earmark the money for education or transportation or both.

Speaking of the PLCB, Pennsylvania is one of only two states that controls the sale of wine and spirits.  It is a system that was historically poorly run with little concern for customer service.  When I first was legally able to drink, the state stores were of the "conventional" model.  That meant you stood on one side of the counter, told the clerk what you wanted, and he picked your product for you then tallied up the total and collected the money.  Now, 30+ years later, wine and spirits shops are self service.  There is a website which provides information on store hours, product availability, an online store, monthly wine club subscriptions, and even advice on mixing drinks and hosting parties.

Even better, the PLCB generates millions of dollars in profits in addition to the taxes that are automatically collected.

Still, product availability is restricted to the 600 or so state run stores.  Legislation that will allow for direct wine purchases by Pennsylvanians from out of state wineries and vineyards while also offering separate liquor licenses to existing beer distributors and restaurants to allow their patrons to purchase wine and spirits will increase revenue while improving convenience.  Additional legislation that frees the PLCB to expand hours when and where necessary, vary profit margin by product, and other such common business practices will also improve customer satisfaction while increasing revenue.

If we want to allow beer and wine sales in grocery stores (I would not include spirits at first), then we need to make sure that this decision will create jobs, not just convenience. New items in convenience stores do not require new employees, but getting new product to those new outlets might.  That is why maintaining the PLCB's wholesale system is key.  This will force importers to find new ways to get their product to market, resulting in the need for sales, warehousing, and transportation positions.  As a PLCB manager, I am less concerned about losing our monopoly as I am about losing much needed state revenue.  A compromise approach (oops, there is that word again), that maintains the state presence in alcohol sales, while creating more outlets for the consumers seems the best of both worlds.  And, again, an increased revenue stream that can be earmarked for specific needs helps eliminate the yearly wrangling over what benefits to cut or what taxes to raise.

Also, what about more cooperation between the business sector and government?  It is so often presented as an adversarial relationship but the truth is that with cooperation both sides win.  Don't all business owners want our schools to produce smarter kids, don't they want safe roads to more their goods, don't they want a strong middle class to purchase their products and services?  And, don't politicians want successful businesses which means a bigger tax base along with less need for public assistance?  You would think that such intelligent, innovative people who can build businesses and win elections would also realize that we succeed, or fail together. 

Obviously, there are no easy answers.  But solutions come more readily, if priorities are set and referenced with each possible answer.  Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, sometimes sacrifice is required.  We can't eat our cake and have it too.  Sometimes we must decide to forego satisfying a need now, for a more complete satisfaction in the future.  I truly believe that most Pennsylvanians accept that philosophy, but don't often trust their public servants to use additional money (the sacrifice today) for a better tomorrow.  Frankly, the performance regarding the 2015-16 budget does nothing to alleviate that concern.  Let's hope that compromise becomes the buzz word in Harrisburg over the next few months, and that common sense, and common goals are the methods used to craft the 2015-16 state budget.   


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Gandhi and Pluto

The July edition of National Geographic has, among others, two articles I found very interesting.  One concerns the legacy of Gandhi's teachings in India today, the other the long awaited fly by of Pluto by the New Horizon spaceship.

I am not sure if the connection that occurred in my mind between the two articles would have happened had I not read them consecutively, but a connection nevertheless sprang to me as I walked the dog.

Is it possible that other forms of life in the universe will only be discovered when mankind begins treating the forms of life on earth with respect and equality?

The Gandhi article recounted what many consider his penultimate action, the 1930 Salt March.  For those of you unfamiliar with this event, at the time, there was a tax on salt production, proceeds of that tax going to the coffers of Britain, as India was still part of its empire.  Gandhi's decision, in retrospect, to stage this march to the sea where he would illegally (not pay the tax) produce salt, is genius, but was not universally supported by those advocating for Indian independence.  As is so often the case with leaders who talk the talk but do not walk the walk, Gandhi understood that the way to reach the common people was to relate the need for freedom to their lives.  As Gandhi said, other than water and air, salt was the commodity most required by Indians considering the extremely hot weather of the country.  Noble concepts were one thing, salt was a part of everyday life.

What is so amazing about Gandhi was that his focus on salt, so basic yet so powerful, was just a part of his message.  During his walk, he stopped at some of the poorest villages in the area, and went out of his way to challenge the caste system by inviting the "untouchables", not only to be part of the walk, but as a symbol to those Indians who supported the caste system so they might understand that the meaning of freedom was not just freedom from British rule, but freedom from poverty and social injustice for all Indians.  To further that ideal, he encouraged spinning of cloth, not just, again, as a protest against Britain, but to encourage everyone to wear khadi, to look the same, as an analogy to his hope that by looking the same, everyone, high born or low, might be treated with similar fairness.

The thought that started the connection to Pluto, was Gandhi's belief that religions are not for separating men from one another, but to bind them.  He revered Jesus, could quote verses from the Bible and Koran, and was a devout Hindu, but he also knew that true independence needed to be founded on a democracy based on laws not religions.  Considering the misguided attempts by fundamentalists in many corners of the planet to fashion their governments from specific tracts of their religious tomes, Muslim and Christian, it is not surprising that Gandhi's dream is still illusive, both in India and in much of the world.

Perhaps, if we were to judge our religious leaders on their similarity to Gandhi, his lack of material possessions, his time spent among those with the least, his efforts to promote equal treatment of all people, we might find those leaders to be without moral high ground, and it might explain why too many of those leaders advocate messages of blame, isolation and hatred as opposed to unity, community and love.  It is far easier to get rich when your message promotes friction than it is when you advocate for tolerance and peace.

And, perhaps, despite our best efforts to find life in the universe, despite the myriad of vessels we have cruising through the solar system and beyond, despite the radio and TV signals that even now communicate how we live and how we die, we have not found life outside planet Earth because we haven't learned how to treat life on planet Earth.  Whether it be the animals that we slaughter for their skin or their bones, the sea creatures we poison via our dumping of trash in the oceans, the birds we kill by belching toxins into the air, or the people we dehumanize due to their skin color, gender, age, or any other trait that is deemed different, our lack of love for life on this tiny blue ball spinning anonymously in the cosmos, might be the reason for this lack of success.

There are those who worry what life from afar might do to us, but perhaps they have not come forth because they worry what we would do to them.  Based on what we do to each other, it would not be surprising.


Marriage Equality

For those of you who like numbers, my last post was the 250th of this blog.  Congrats to me??

After the historic Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, I sent letters to two local newspapers.  Neither was published so I thought I would include the longer version in this post.

To the Editor:

This past Sunday, I was fortunate enough to read a pro and con opinion article in regards to the recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage.  I generally attempt to read both sides of an issue, when possible, as I believe it is important to read (or listen to) those with a different perspective on an issue.  This is especially true when considering the proliferation of extreme positions that seems to pass for rational discussion in today's media. 

In this particular instance, the person representing the negative perception regarding the gay marriage decision, Mr John Yoo, makes a salient point about the give and take between our three branches of government.  He emphasizes the desirability that big changes be made law through the voting booth, either directly by state referendum or in Congress through direct representation.  He rightfully states that decisions made in our courts should have a legal basis, not be founded on popular opinion or religious background.  Yoo's disagreement seems based on the fact that not all states have legalized gay marriage and that the current GOP controlled House of Representatives, an elected body, does not support this change.  He calls it a short circuiting of the political process.  Oddly, he does not reference the religious background of the four dissenting Supreme Court justices, nor the religion based opposition to gay marriage in his article. 

Did our founders not wish a separation between church and state?  It seems to me that laws preventing gay marriage are not based on legal reasons, but on social mores and religious teachings.  In this case, I would argue that a decision concerning an issue such as this is precisely the type of debate that should occur at the highest levels of the judicial system, so that the law, period, is considered, not reasons based on emotion and prejudice.

Noah Feldman, the person agreeing with the decision, states it very clear.  There is a guarantee for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness imbedded in our system of laws, and denying an American the option to marry the person he/she loves, runs contrary to that great principle.  When Feldman compares this decision with the high court's decision to rule against laws that prevented interracial marriage, it becomes a slam dunk. 

Hopefully, just as the sentiment against marriage between the races has evolved, so to the discriminatory bias against marriage between genders will fade, and those who purport to be defenders of God's view of marriage, will eventually embrace the spirit of their religion that emphasizes love above all else.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


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.