Monday, September 29, 2014

The curiousness of politics



Not sure if curiousness is a real word.  As I type it the automatic spell check is not highlighting it, but it sure seems like it may be made up - or has been made up in the recent past.


I just finished watching the end of an HBO special on Nixon.  I didn't see it all, but I did see enough to feel an inspiration to post.


What struck me to write was the realization that Nixon won reelection in 1972 by a devastatingly huge majority; 63% of the vote.  I assume all or the vast majority of the electoral college.  (Perhaps McGovern won his home state).  Yet, Congress at the time was controlled by the Democratic party.  Similarly, President Obama recently won reelection by a comfortable majority yet the House is Republican controlled, and there is a very real possibility of a Republican controlled Senate after the 2014 midterm elections.


Curious how the nation has changed.  We elect a Republican to run the country in 1972 yet rely on the Democrats to run congress at the same time.  Other than a brief blip called Jimmy Carter, this pattern continued through the Reagan and Bush 1 years.  One may say that at that time, we preferred a more conservative, traditional approach to running the country but wanted a more liberal perspective in terms of creating laws and allocating our monies.


Fast forward to Obama and, other than the first two years, he has had a Republican controlled House the last four and will so again in the next session.  (Control of the Senate has not followed control of the House as closely, but other than the current 6 year run of a Democratically controlled Senate, the pattern has been similar).  So, it seems we prefer a more liberal viewpoint to preside over the presidency but seem more conservative in our approach to establishing laws and spending money. 


In 1972, despite the daily protests in the streets over America's involvement in Vietnam, Nixon bombed the heck out of the country, even, infamously, over the Christmas holiday of 1972.  I don't know this for a fact, but I assume the Democrats in Congress were in tacit agreement with Nixon's handling of the war. 


Similarly, President Obama has presided over an unprecedented increase in the use of unmanned drone bombings in Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan, and now in Syria and Iraq as we chase down the ISIS scourge.  While I do see some politicians from both parties questioning the use of drones, it says it all when Congress refuses to vote on the current campaign against ISIS.  Republicans who support military action don't want to be on record of agreeing with anything Obama does, and Democrats who are against it are not to eager to disagree with their political leader. 


It strikes me that when it comes to war, presidents generally have the support, spoken or unspoken, of Congress.  And Americans, despite believing in our Christian heritage, and despite being the most generous nation on earth, are always willing to authorize killing when a case can be made for the evil nature of those we are attacking, regardless if the case has any merit.  The fact that we continue to cling to the notion that might makes right when our spiritual leader preferred "turning the other cheek" says it all.


So maybe the title of this post should be the curiousness of American politics; or merely the curiousness of Americans.


Finally, and I am not about to quote Nixon because I have any love lost for him, but the HBO special ended with a quote from his farewell speech to his staff.  He said it, I assume, from a very personal perspective, consistent with the egocentric personality that enabled the bugging of the Democratic office in the Watergate Hotel at a time when he fully expected to win at least 60% of the votes.  But what he said should resonate nationally, especially considering our reaction to the horrible events of 9/11/01, the continued incendiary actions from a small minority of the Muslim community, and the recent beheadings of American journalists in the Middle East.


Nixon said
 
"Always remember others may hate you but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself."


Perhaps he was reminding those who served him in the White House and the country in general, that it is OK to be hated by those who do not, or refuse to, understand you.  Or, that it is OK to be hated by those who may even envy you or wish to bring you down out of jealousy.  But to return that hate only serves to justify their hatred, and not only brings you down to their level, but inspires actions that beget further hate, or worse, inactions when a dissenting action is required.


In the end, Nixon was on record as despising all kinds of people, all kinds of Americans that disagreed with him and his policies, or engaged in activities that he did not approve of.  If you listen to any of his tapes you are left with the impression of a brilliant politician with a huge persecution complex.  


Yet those words, "those who hate you don't win unless you hate them" should be a reminder to all of us who are all too willing to give credence to the vilification of a religion or culture or race or ethnicity, and to tolerate the killing of our perceived enemies.  And, whether Richard M. Nixon is watching us from above or below, he may be wagging his finger in rebuke and warning that our problems may be self inflicted, our potential for destruction may be self generated.   
  

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Conservatives and Conservationists

I watched the Bill Maher live show on HBO the other day.  One of his bits talked about conservatives and their apparent lack of concern for conserving our environment.  Of course, if one were to research the conservative movement in America (and the world for that matter), it is clear that the basis of belief for conservatives has nothing to do with the environment.  Still, it made me think how the words conservative and conservationist have the same base, yet if describing a person or their perspective would rarely be used in conjunction with each other.


The Merriam-Webster definition of conservationist is as follows


someone who works to protect animals, plants, and natural resources or to prevent the loss or waste of natural resources


While the M-W definition of conservative is


believing in the value of established and traditional practices in politics and society : relating to or supporting political conservatism


I would surmise that at some point in America's history, there were people who believed in the value of established and traditional practices and those practices included a respect for the land.  After all, early Americans depended on the earth for their daily food and water, there not being supermarkets and malls at the time.  I imagine that Americans of the 18th and 19th century especially, made it their business to make sure that they could provide their families with fresh meat, home grown fruits and vegetables, and pure water.  And, if someone were to shoot all the animals in the area, or poison the ground or water, they would have been upset.  Their traditional practices included taking care of the land in hopes that the land would provide sustenance now and in the near future.  In essence, many people may have claimed to be both conservatives and conservationists.


Now, of course, most people don't hunt for their food or grow it in their backyard.  We have a system which, to tell the truth, is more efficient at providing nutrition for the ever increasing population of our nation and our planet.  (I acknowledge that there is hunger and poverty, too much of it.  But most of it is caused, in my opinion, not due to a lack of food, but due to improper/unequal distribution, and more critically, greed).


Unfortunately, the down side of this improved ability to grow food is that we have concentrated all the growing in smaller areas.  We became dependent on chemicals to enhance the efficiency of the soil.  And, since we now needed to move the food to the consumer, we needed to improve our transportation systems.  In so doing, these new systems needed fuel, and we chose to obtain this fuel via digging holes in the earth, and polluting our air and water with the soot and effluence that came as a byproduct of "producing" energy rather than harnessing energy from the sun, the wind, and the water. 


In the meantime, the business community, generally an institution that would tend to be happy with the established and traditional practices, and especially large and successful business entities, turned to politics to help them maintain those practices.  So, while we accept a certain amount of pollution as long as the coal fired electric plants continue to enable us to turn on our lights, the conservative tends to work to maintain that established practice.  Whenever a proposal emerges to penalize a polluter, or cause that business to spend money to reduce or eliminate that pollution, it is the conservatives of the nation who balk at unnecessary government regulation.   Of course, hypocrisy rears its ugly head when those same conservatives are profiting at the lack of pollution controls, or do not live in the areas being polluted.


In the meantime, the conservationist is the one pushing for those pollution controls.  Unfortunately, there may still exist a bit of hypocrisy when those demanding more stringent pollution controls or a reduction in the use of coal to generate electricity complain when an increase in their energy bill occurs. 


Perhaps I have overly simplified it, but that is how I see it.  The business community turns to the conservatives, in our case the Republican Party, to counter the efforts of the conservationist, who believes that the established and traditional practices (of the business community) choose to sacrifice (and/or exploit) the animals, plants, and natural resources of the earth.


And, as always, there is a solution if we were to choose the path of cooperation rather than confrontation.  To read about one particularly hopeful effort, click on the following link.


http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/can-world-really-set-aside-half-planet-wildlife-180952379/


And, for all you conservatives who believe you are conservationists, who vote Republican in every election, you may want to check the voting records of your party.  Whether it is removing the teeth from the EPA, relaxing water regulations for the fracking industry, decrying enhanced scrubber technology for coal fired plants, or just turning a blind eye to those mega corporations who send their jobs overseas where no one cares if the local people are poisoned, it is always, always, always the GOP proposing the bills and defending the polluters.






Monday, September 8, 2014

Another look at The Future

A month or so ago, I mentioned that I had borrowed The Lapham's Quarterly called The Future from my son; this morning I finished reading it.  Believe it or not, I was continually impressed by how much this collection provided a wonderful perspective on man's history.  As quoted by someone in the book, "the vision of the future is shaped by the present".  Since all the future essays in this quarterly were written in present times that have passed... history.


I was particularly interested in two things I read in the last few days.


One was about how end of the world prophesies were both prevalent and powerful in the years leading up to 1000 AD, not unlike the recent surge that occurred in the time just before the year 2000.  So often we think of the past, especially the past encompassing the years 500-1500 AD, as times when barbarism and superstition ruled the day.  Clearly, logic and reason, compassion and empathy were less a part of the dynamic between the haves and have nots, the ruling class and everyone else.  But there were many individuals before the Age of Enlightenment, and before industrialization, who wrestled with the BIG concepts, whose early musings and insights led to the eventual breakthroughs that mark how we live today.  In terms of predicting and preparing for the end of the world, it appears that leading up to the year 1000, the world itself was influenced by the thinkers of the day into believing that 1000 years was the extent of man's existence as determined by the divine intervention of the Son of the Creator.  Whether it be 1000 years from His birth or death, each approaching anniversary produced the same reaction; the End is Near.  Obviously, the end did not occur but in not happening, this non-event led to what one essayist describes as a world wide change of perception.  Rather than marking time from the past to the inevitable end, viewpoints changed to a belief in the future as an amenable event that could be affected by those living it.  This was a huge paradigm shift that gave the impetus to the belief that the institutions of the day, the religions, the governments, the economic as well as social structures, could be influenced by man, not preordained to exist by the Creator.  It was if the world looked around at the lack of an ending and said, OK, let's make things happen ourselves.  Assuming this interpretation is anything close to true, imagine how powerful was that shift in thinking, s shift which occurred in a time that we dismiss as the Dark Ages.  Again, our egocentrism leads us to believe that nothing crucial happened before "recent times", and that everything about today is the ..est of all time.  Such a disrespect for history is this viewpoint, and such a shame that we assume that understanding the past is irrelevant.


Which brings me to a quote by, of all people, Sigmund Freud. 


"The less a man knows about the past and the present, the more insecure must prove to be his judgment of the future".


I would even take it a step further.  The less a man acknowledges the importance of the past, the more fearful will be his outlook of the present and the future.


From denying the age of the earth and the evolution of man, to dismissing the lessons of the downfall of the great civilizations, we seem to be surrounded by people who prefer controlling how we think than helping us to learn to think.  I have a friend, my brother, who has been reading one book each about the United States Presidents, starting with Washington.  (I believe he is on his 21st President or so).  In reading about these men, my brother will often enter a conversation about a topic of the day with an insight into how it was perceived by one of our past leaders.  Inevitably, the debates of that time were very similar to the very debate of today.  The problem still existed, both sides still had their points, but nothing had been learned.  Now, my bother is a smart guy but he is no genius.  I say that, not as a shot against my brother but as a challenge that anyone can enlarge their knowledge base if they read.  With the information technology at hand today, it is not that difficult to develop one's own opinions from fact and research rather than sound bites from TV and radio that emanate from those with agendas not related to educating you but to keeping you fearful and ignorant.


Certainly the past does not have all the answers.  But in ignoring what has happened, and reducing the past to insignificant events that have nothing to do with today, we bring life to the oft repeated saying "those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it". 


Even more troubling, with all the bad news that is heaped upon us in the 24 hour news cycle that has become our media, we are rapidly becoming afraid of the present.  It doesn't matter that actual crime is down, we are constantly bombarded with reasons to fear our neighbors, although it is not our actual neighbors that are demonized but those "others" that can take the form of other races, other religions, other cultures.  Even our government, when politically expedient, is to be feared.  Should we condemn the recent actions of ISIS?  Of course.  But do we equate their ability to do evil with the fear associated with the Cold War and the very real ability of both the United States and Russia to create a nuclear wasteland of the earth?  Is Putin a jerk for invading the Ukraine?  If I was a Ukrainian who preferred self rule, I imagine I would be upset.  But to think him the next Hitler, and that France or England or Germany is next on his list is absurd.  Sadly, it is more likely that an American will die because of poor maintenance of our infrastructure than an ISIS attack or Putin's plan to annex the Ukraine yet they are the fears that drive our politics, not to mention our stock market.


The future is tomorrow, and all the tomorrows to follow.  As I talk to those I encounter in my life, there are too many of us who fear that tomorrow will be the same as today; or worse, as Janis Joplin once said, "tomorrow never comes, it's all the same f...ing day". 


Finally then, are we so fearful of the present, and hence the future, because we are an aging society, and that with age comes the twin fears of no longer being young and the inevitable death?   Is it a grand conspiracy controlled by the powers that be who prefer to maintain the status quo and so use fear to keep us from questioning the chips that seem to fall in the direction of the few? 


I would imagine that over the course of history, a large percentage of people, when pressed for an opinion, would have expressed the belief that mankind would not last another 1000 years.  Even today, I would bet that less than 50% of those asked would believe man will someday mark the year 3000.  Yet, up until now, those predicting the end have been incorrect.  In reading The Future, there have been visions of what might come that were relatively accurate, as well as those that were completely wrong.  I imagine that in 1000 years there will be a similar distribution of accurate and inaccurate prognostications.  I just hope that there are more positive descriptions, utopias, and forecasts of what will come than negative, so that when the math is done the people of the year 3000 will consider us a happy, forwarding looking bunch, and not the gloomy, fearful group that we seem to be at this moment.     


Monday, September 1, 2014

Happy Labor Day

I posted a blog about Labor Day three years ago, so before I started this particular entry, I reread it to see the particulars of that post and to decide the direction of this one.


That post revolved around the fact that, due to the prevalence of service industry jobs in America today, so many more people are working on Labor Day that in years past. 


Of course, nothing has changed since then in terms of more people working on Labor Day.  In fact, the trend is getting worse with more employers opening their stores on other "national" holidays, i.e July 4th, Thanksgiving and Christmas. 


Still, there is good news.  After peaking in October 2008 at 10%, unemployment has dropped to about 6.2% as of July, according to the Bureau of labor Statistics.  So, in theory, as the availability of labor begins to equalize with the open or newly created jobs, pay rates should start to increase as employers will find it harder to keep good employees who may now find better paying jobs, and/or find new employees for new positions.  Also, a possible consequence of the health exchanges will be that some people will no longer have to stay at poorly paying or unchallenging jobs, as they are less tied to their employer for reasonably priced health care insurance.  We may see an increase in new start up companies, as well as an increase in those deciding to pursue income from non-traditional jobs, as I discussed in a recent post about work pyramids. 


Unfortunately, the bad news is that many employers, especially corporations, will first move their jobs to states with lower standards of living, or countries with very low salary expectations and little or no environmental and work force regulations which protect their employees.  Taken as a whole, it seems that the continued state of working Americas living in poverty may continue for some time.


And that is bad news for all of us.


As long as the American consumer, those people who do two-thirds of the buying of goods and services, continues to struggle from one payday to the next, our economy can't possibly recover fully.  As long as the benefits of what marginal economic growth there is stays in the hands of the few at the top, we will continue to see stops and starts in GDP growth. 


Which brings us to the hot topic of late, raising the minimum wage.


I did some brief reading about the effects of raising the minimum wage in terms of potential job loss.  Many economists believe that low pay jobs will be the most at risk should minimum wages increase.  Makes sense, since it is those very jobs which pay the least.  Others believe that such job loss will be matched by an increase in spending money for those at the bottom of the pay scales, which could result in a demand for some goods and services (more job openings) and perhaps even a reduction in government assistance for those making more money (lower government expenditures).  Still others believe that any increase in wages, if not resulting in job loss, will automatically be passed along to the rest of us as consumers thereby causing prices to rise and negating any increase in pay. 


Talk about the circle of life.


For me, it is worth the risk to increase minimum wages, gradually, so that the market can accommodate the increase.  I like the idea of an increased minimum wage, in stages of 75 cents per year for four years to reach the $10.25 mark, by the year 2018.  The key though is to tie continued minimum wage hikes, after that, to a standard that does not need future legislation.  Cost of living would be good.  Increase in CEO pay might be better.  If the market can "bear" CEO pay to increase by some estimates up to 700% in the past 35 years, compared to 10-20% for the average worker, then I imagine that the smart men and women that run our biggest companies can figure out a way to increase worker pay similarly without causing job loss.  Or perhaps, just increasing CEO pay at the same rate as average worker pay will be sufficient to raise all of our salaries without adding to inflation or job loss.  Better yet, perhaps CEO's and those at the top of the pay scale, entertainers, sports stars, etc, those making over $5 million a year, could live on that money in ensuing years and take no more pay raises for a bit, instead passing all that money that would be given to them anyway to those people who do the actual work in America. 


Can you imagine?  All those hypocrites in Hollywood, on Wall Street and in Washington DC, putting their money where their mouths are and sharing their fortune with their fellow working class Americans.  (See the story, The Change which I wrote a few years ago and can be found on this blog and in my e-book on Amazon.com)


Oops sorry, I digress.


Anyway, happy Labor Day.  For those of you who had the day off, good for you.  Perhaps, rather than assuming all the Wa-Wa's and grocery stores and shopping malls will be open for you next year, you can make a New Years resolution to NOT shop on national holidays in 2015.  Perhaps then, all American workers will actually have off on these holidays.  And, while you are at it, make it known that everyone should get paid to not work.  Seems like the least we can do for the American workforce on Labor Day.