Sunday, May 30, 2010

Tender Hearts - Wider Perspective

I was recently listening to NPR (if you don't tune into that channel every once in a while, you may want to try it) and heard an interview with an author who had written a book about his grandson who was autistic. The comment which stuck with me was the recounting of an exchange between the author and his grandson. The author asked the autistic child if he thought he was different from the other children and the child responded yes. When asked how, his response was that he felt he was kinder than most other kids. The author went on to explain that his grandson didn't understand why so many kids were mean, not just to him but to each other as well. The author went on to describe this trait as that of having a tender heart.

For me, I always interpreted a lack of meanness, or in my viewpoint, a tolerance of others, as a result of a wider perspective. I guess I considered it more a mental construct than an emotional one as I viewed emotion in the context of sometimes blinding a person to the logical or rational.

Duly humbled, let me just say this. Regardless of the source, whether you practice random acts of kindness out of an emotional empathy or because you have reasoned that doing good adds to the positive energy slate and doing bad the negative, or just because you are aware of all those less fortunate than yourself and, in thankfulness that you have advantages, you choose to share them with those less fortunate, isn't the world better for it?

Really, don't we need to strive towards treating all people, not just those that agree with us or share our perspectives, as we want to be treated? I am not a Beatles fanatic like some of my age group, but what if they were right when they said that (and I may be paraphrasing here), in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you made. If we are graded at the pearly gates on just that criteria, how would you fare?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Time for Passion

I have heard it said that liberals in general, and compared to today's tea party movement in particular, are not passionate enough about their positions and beliefs. My stock answer has always been that a thoughtful and well reasoned position considers all viewpoints before reaching that conclusion and allows for a change of mind when facts are encountered that prove the original viewpoint incorrect. Conversely, a passionate perspective is often based on emotion, a feeling, or a faith in something not provable with logic. It can be unshakable and uplifting when correct but blind to information that contradicts its veracity.

At least for today however, I will toss away the constraints of reason.

I AM MAD.

Actually, outraged would be a better word. Outraged that more than 5 weeks have passed since the explosion on the deep sea drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico and the subsequent release of literally millions of gallons of oil into the water. Outraged that BP would ever place profit above the lives of those working on that rig, above the lives of millions of sea creatures and above the livelihood of thousand of Americans who are dependent on the sea.

And I am mad at our president, not because I believe it is his fault, but because he has missed an opportunity to talk to us, on national TV. To tell us how many other deep sea rigs are in use today. To tell us how the regulators we depended on to defend our interests against the oil giants failed at this responsibility. To tell us that he will not rest until the leak is capped and accountability is determined. To assure us that this will never happen again, even if he has to close down all those deep sea wells until their safety is assured. And to ask us to redouble our efforts to conserve gas by car pooling, bicycling, walking, using mass transit and yes, driving a bit slower which he would then mandate by reducing the speed limit on our highways to 55 MPH.

And I am mad at the republicans who have the audacity to try to deflect the blame being accorded to BP as if they don't know that we just spent the first 8 years of the new century with a "business is great" president and a "big oil is the greatest" vice president. As if they don't know that the problem with the regulations is the regulators who weren't doing their job, or worse, were acting under the assumption that they weren't supposed to do their job.

And while I am at it, I am mad at the Supreme Court for their decision a few months ago which seemingly granted the right of individuals to corporations. Gee, do you think that more or less influence will be heaped upon our representatives by special interests whose only concern is that their company gets a tax break or a loosening of regulations?

And I am especially mad at those driving the economy of this country. People who have been fortunate enough to have been born with great intelligence, superior knowledge of business and economic influences and who used those gifts to make as much money as they could for themselves to the detriment of everyone else. I can't help but wonder how anyone who makes such decisions can sleep at night. Is that all they have gleaned from their life, that money and possessions is all that matters? The Scrooges of our times.

But I am most mad at my fellow citizens who are clearly not interested in the ecological catastrophe that is taking place. Where are the protests and boycotts of BP products? When I recently drove to New York City on I-78, I set my cruise control on 65 and watched in dismay as I was passed continuously, sometimes on the left and right, by my fellow travelers. Even people with PA Wildlife license plates whizzed be me.

I am mad at them for handing over their money to the sharks, demanding that they produce double digit returns and then acting shocked when the hedge fund managers had to make up financial instruments to satisfy that demand and who consequently created nothing more than gigantic Ponzi schemes which they then bet against! We created the monster to feed our own greed and are paying the price for this deal.

But more than anything I am mad at Americans for taking their democracy for granted. Less than 60% voter turnout at the last presidential election! Perhaps 35% turnout at the recent round of primaries! Wake up!! This is your government. There are people being killed in other countries as they fight for the right to vote, American men and women dying to defend our rights and you don't have the time to vote every four years!! I don't know who first said this but you get the government you deserve. We are neck deep in a situation where corporation bottom lines trump their responsibility to provide Americans with livable wages and safe products and our government oversight regulators have traded their responsibility to intervene on our behalf for sporting event tickets and vacations in the Bahamas.

So, which is it? Are we disillusioned that our individual actions can't make a difference or do we just not care anymore?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Tea Party

In the past week or so, I have sent 2 letters, one to my local paper and one to the Phila Inquirer, concerning the tea party movement. The first was in response to a letter in my local paper, the Perkasie News Herald, written by someone in support of the tea party movement. It can be viewed by accessing the www.montgomerynews.com website, clicking on the Perkasie News Herald icon and going to the opinion section of the April 28th edition. The second letter was written by two gentlemen, one of whom is Newt Gingrich. It was on the opinion page of the Phila Inquirer on May third. My response letter to the Inquirer was not published while my response letter to the News Herald was published in the May 5th edition. I have included both response letters below.

Of course, I understand the anger of the tea party members. Uncertain economic conditions always result in dissatisfaction with the government in charge. The problem is that the recession began during the previous administration. And while it certainly worsened for the first year of Obama's term, there are now signs that the economy is slowly improving. If you are going to assign blame or praise to the president for our economy's condition then don't you have to now give credit where you previously gave blame?

There is also much talk in the movement about deficit spending. Certainly, yearly deficits cannot continue to top $1 trillion per year. But tax receipts always take a downturn in a recession. Our national deficit doubled during President Bush's eight years in the White House and would most likely be as large regardless of who had won in 2008. I say this with some confidence based on a quick look at how we are spending our tax dollars. If you can imagine federal expenditures as a pie chart, by far the biggest slices are monies spent on national defense, social security and Medicare. Until we are ready to seriously talk about reducing these areas of spending, deficits will continue to mount.

And then there is the link to the original tea party, taxes. Strangely, however, most of the middle class paid less federal taxes in 2009. I know that I did. The fact is, if we want to bridge the gap between receipts and expenses, and we don't want to reduce spending in the 3 biggest areas of expense, then don't we need to consider raising taxes? And if we must move in that direction, don't we need to raise taxes on people who are in the best position to give some more?

I would rather not have to raise taxes at all, but I don't understand a movement allegedly comprised of everyday, middle class working Americans who don't realize that their buying power has been eroded in the last few decades while the rich have seen a net increase in their worth. Am I wrong to wonder how the people with the most have been able to distract the people who are suffering because of the growing inequality of income? Am I delusional to think that perhaps the entire tea party movement is one big distraction engineered by the rich and powerful to keep the real problems off the table? Is the fact that it has been fully eighteen months since the near wall street collapse and we still don't have financial reform enough proof?

(Phila Inquirer) To the editor:

I am glad to hear that the tea party movement is moving towards participation in governance in addition to the oft seen public rallies and boisterous town hall meetings. Perhaps they will inspire the current Republican congressman and senators to do more than just say NO.

But when will the tea party movement present some substance to their protests. I read the column by Messrs Gingrich and Waldeck but all I saw was the same old window dressing; they support limited but effective government, reduced spending, lower taxes and a balanced budget. Without commenting on all these items, I believe that the last balanced budget was during President Clinton's administration.

Mr. Gingrich also makes a nice attempt to pretend that the tea party members won't support any party without results but the celebration over recent Republican political victories proves that the Republican party expects and is counting on the votes of the tea party members in the foreseeable future.

When the tea party movement provides some detailed suggestions to decrease spending in the three biggest (by far) government expenditure categories, defense, social security and Medicare, then perhaps they will have earned some sympathy.

(Perkasie News Herald) To the editor:

As a proud liberal let me offer an apology to James Moyer and all the other white people who feel that the liberal media has declared war on the white majority of this country. When we dismiss each other because we are different, or look for the worst in a group of people and judge that group based on those few individuals, we are wrong. For those who think that the majority of people involved in the Tea Party movement are racist just because they disagree with President Obama's policies, that is misguided. We should encourage all Americans to expresses their first amendment right to free speech and assembly. While I disagree with the target of the Tea Party's anger, I encourage them to participate in the discussion of the topics of the day. In a country where we are lucky to get 60% voting turnout for a presidential election and 35% for primaries, etc, we need more people to exercise their civic responsibilities and participate in our governance.

But respect must flow both ways. Mr. Moyer makes his opinions very clear when he describes the "leftist spoiled youth with daddy's credit card and a molotov cocktail", "hatchet-faced Code Pink-O's" and the "leftist loons on MSNBC". Mr. Moyer, they have every right to their opinions as the tea party movement; the disdain you feel for them is the same some liberals feel for those you support. The point is that neither of us should be using derogatory words to describe the other. It progresses the actual debate on the direction of our country not one iota.

So, when members of the tea party movement hold signs depicting President Obama as Hitler, we all should be offended. But if only members of the "liberal" media point out the horrid nature of these signs, those sign holders will only dismiss them as leftist loons. There needs to be a conservative voice to send the message that those signs are not appropriate.

As for the tea party itself, I have to ask; please define "we want our country back". It is a great applause line, but from whom do you want to take the country back? As far as I know, the current President and the democratic majority in Congress was voted there by the American people in the last few national elections. Are you trying to take it back from your fellow Americans?

Or perhaps the current lean of the country is too left for you. So is it the radical liberal agenda that you want to take it back from? The problem is that many liberals like myself do not consider the Obama Administration all that liberal. No public option in our health care reform legislation, increased off-shore drilling, continued wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In our minds, he is governing left of center at best, hardly radical liberal.

Unfortunately, then, some people are left to think that the tea party wants to take the country back from the minority races represented by our first African American President. And, again, while I would like to believe that that is a minority opinion, there is certainly those within the tea party movement who think this way. I saw the results of a recent survey among those calling themselves members of the tea party which indicated that a significant percentage still thought that President Obama was not born in this country. It is too easy to associate this delegitimizing technique with the odious methods used to prevent black americans from voting in the 100 years from the civil war until the Civil Rights Act.

Let me put it this way. The environmental movement is now mainstream. Tens of millions of Americans now think about recycling, conserving energy, protecting the environment. But certainly, within that movement there are fringe elements. If you don't want the liberal media to judge the entire tea party movement based on the "birthers" then you can't judge the environmental movement based on those members who throw buckets of blood on people with whom they do not agree.

So, what are the real issues that the tea party movement wishes to address? If not Mr. Moyer, I hope someone will send in letters in the coming weeks to detail these topics. I look forward to civil discourse and real debate on the issues as we try, hopefully together, to find answers to the problems of the day.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Elitism

When I first lost my job and began writing opinion letters to my local paper, I sent the following in response to an opinion letter submitted by Dr. Van Til. To read the gentleman's letter, you can go to www.montgomerynews.com and search for Dr. Van Til by name and you will see his letter commentary of Jan 27 or thereabouts.

What bothered me most about Dr. Van Til's opinion was the derogatory way that he referred to the advanced education that our president possesses. My limited studies of history reminds me that when certain authoritarian or totalitarian regimes take power, they invariably target the intellectuals of the country as they attempt to eliminate all thought that might run contrary to their new found power. It is an odd combination of traits that we face today, having a president who is more educated than the average person, a thinker. Generally, the educated often disagree with a government's policies yet here we have someone who appears to be trying to think things through and make choices that are good for America, not just today but in the future as well. Still, lets be wary of people who want to discourage thinking and be wary that our president doesn't fall victim to the powers of money that seem to prevent policies that will benefit the everyday citizen.


Dr. Van Til begins his column by claiming that President Obama does not know the definition of middle class and in fact, is not middle class himself, so therefore he can not possibly understand the daily problems of middle class families. Dr. Van Til then makes a reference to an "Ivy League ring or bias" in the president's speeches thereby labelling President Obama as an elite who, again, can't possibly understand middle class woes.

Let's dig a bit further then. If we are to define the middle class in terms of income, we might consider the middle 60% of incomes, with 20% below and 20% above, to be middle class. If we accept that formula, then income between $30,000-$90,000 per year might be a good place to start as defining the middle class. So the President's claim that he would not raise the taxes of anyone earning over $250,000 not only covers the middle class, it even goes beyond it. Sounds like he is focusing on the right income group to me. Of course Dr. Van Til is correct, the president's salary does not qualify him for middle class. How many senators would qualify for that distinction? How many members of Congress? How about you, Dr. Van Til? Should I dismiss your opinion on just that issue?

As for elite, according to the desk dictionary I have at home, "elite" is defined in 2 main ways. First, the best or most skilled members of a particular group. I would think that most people would not only be proud to be considered elite in their particular profession or career but would strive to be so and encourage their children to be so as well. It sounds like a good thing to me yet Dr. Van Til seems to suggest something sinister in President Obama being elite in that he has an Ivy League education. I guess Dr. Van Til is using the 2nd definition of elite, the one wïth the negative connotation; "a small, privileged group". So, yes, I guess anyone with an Ivy League education could be considered a member of a small group, just as anyone with a doctorate (as I assume Dr. Van Til has) could be considered as elitist as well. I would think that Dr. Van Til worked hard to attain his doctorate and is proud of his accomplishments yet he would have us think that President Obama should not be equally as proud and that we should hold it against him somehow. This is especially interesting when we consider that our former President, George W. Bush attended Yale. I don't recall him being called elite. Do you really believe that he had any inkling of middle class problems as compared to President Obama who worked his way up from the middle class to achieve his "elite" status? I would certainly consider the former president much more a member of "a small, privileged group" than our current president.

If fact, now that I think of it, I would imagine that the citizens of our country, both before independence and afterwards, thought of the founding fathers as the elite of their time. They were the business leaders and land owners of the day. Most were highly educated, many in England. Do you really think that the middle class of the 1700's had the time and depth of thought to have developed the Declaration Of Independence? No, it took the "best and most skilled members" of that time to craft such an incredible document. I for one, want my elected officials to be elite in that they are the best people in terms of intelligence, forethought and sympathy for their fellow citizens. If we are electing people who are only elite in that they are richer and more privileged than ourselves, then perhaps we need to do a better job in the voting booth. They are not self-appointed as Dr. Van Til indicates as a reason for some of the current protests.

As for populism, I agree with Dr. Van Til that is defined in many strange ways. And while I did not research Dr. Van Til's examples of populist movements, I do know that governance by referendum or direct vote was not part of the founding fathers original plan. They knew that "popular" movements can make for poor policy which is why we have a representative form of government. They placed more faith that our legislatures would winnow out the good opinions from the bad and create just laws. It took dozens of years for women's suffrage to be granted. Was that a populist movement? If the men of the day had voted directly on granting the right would it have passed? When people took to the streets to protest the various wars that America has fought, were they populist? Did Dr. Van Til have as much sympathy for yesterday's anti-war protesters as he does for today's tea party demonstrators? I certainly applaud any citizen of this country who exercises their right to free speech and assembly, but let's not elevate the opinions of one populist movement over another just because we happen to agree with their position.

Strong, wise governance requires decisions that are sometimes unpopular. Clearly, the final word on the Obama Presidency is far from certain. He has not lived up to his word so far and it is right for all of us to express both our displeasure and support where it is warranted. But it has only been one year. Articles like Dr. Van Til's do nothing to move the conversation forward. It is easy to point fingers and disagree. How about some meaningful debate on how our elected officials can address the problems of the day.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Big Slick

By now, everyone is aware of the massive oil slick moving towards shore from the oil rig that exploded last week. In addition to the tragic loss of life, the ecological impact will most likely ripple through the economy for the remainder of the year. Not to mention the loss of sea life which will occur as a direct result. I know, you're thinking, "here goes another bleeding heart liberal about to attack the oil industry". Perhaps. But is anything I have said so far inaccurate? There was loss of life. The economy will be effected, some more directly like the fishing and tourism industries of the area and some indirectly as the price of seafood increases. And, of course, the cost for cleanup incurred by both the federal and state governments (our tax money) and the oil company itself who may or may not pass along the cost to consumers.

Obviously, we are not in a position to stop off shore oil drilling. One accident should not scare us from any activity, whether it is space exploration or the use of nuclear energy. But there does need to be an accountability when people die in the attempt. Has the technology which allows us to drill deeper and deeper into the ocean's depths outpaced our ability to do it safely? What actually went wrong here? Human error, or is the concept of this deep underwater drilling not thought completely through? If we are to continue to hang our economic future on the idea that we can provide for our own energy needs through expanded off shore drilling, don't we need to know if the drilling can be done safely?

Eventually, there will be some conclusions drawn from this disaster as well as the mining disaster in West Virginia that took so many lives. The proponents of these types of energy sources will do well to become a part of the investigations if they expect everyday Americans to continue to support them. And yes, they will probably take some lumps and be castigated by those who do not support these sources of energy but that is part and parcel to advocating a policy or process that occasionally fails and results in death and destruction. Risk and reward.

For me, it seems more and more obvious that we need to change our dependence on fossil fuels. We are more dependent on foreign sources for our energy than 30 years ago. In my opinion, all 30 years featured pro-business Presidents, including President Clinton. I believe that this nod towards the existing business mind set prevented our country to look into the future and begin investing in energy sources that were cleaner, safer and more sustainable. Yes, it may have resulted in higher energy prices. Perhaps we might be paying $5 or more per gallon of gas like much of Europe. But also, perhaps, we wouldn't have spent a trillion dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last 10 years. Perhaps we would be getting 30, 40 even 50 percent of our energy from cleaner sources. Perhaps we wouldn't be forced to put safety aside to obtain our energy but could have a combination of energy sources including wind, steam, nuclear, coal, oil and solar. A balance.