Thursday, December 9, 2010

Unwinnable debates

In today's Philadelphia Inquirer there was a commentary about Sarah Palin and her ability to frame a debate, in this case the debate over American exceptionalism, so that it is difficult if not impossible for the opposition to "win" the debate; how did you win a debate in America where you argue against American exceptionalism?

The main point of the article was that Ms. Palin was displaying exceptionally good politics. The writer's counter point to Ms. Palin's skill was to recount President Obama's mishandled answer to a reporter's question on this topic when he was in France when the president said that he believed in American exceptionalism just as he suspected Brits believe in British exceptionalism, Greeks in Greek exceptionalism, etc. The writer also took a poke at the president for his belief in a nuclear disarmament.

The following is my response to the editor who wrote the column.

Dear Sir:

I read your commentary "Exceptionally good politics" which was published in today's Philadelphia Inquirer.

I assume you used the phrase "good politics" in discussing Sarah Palin's clever use of American exceptionalism to trap liberals into arguing the unwinnable because that is exactly what it is; politics. It doesn't solve any of the problems of the day, doesn't improve the employment picture, address the budget deficit, offer insight into halting climate change, suggest ways to solve the immigration question, etc, etc. No, it just proves that she is adept at sound bites and misdirection. I guess if that is all it takes to plow fertile political ground, we are all in trouble.

What is truly ironic is that Ms Palin is idolized by the Christian right. (She recently spoke at a local Christian school where she touched on the concept of American exceptionalism). My understanding of the teachings of Christ indicate that pride is one of the seven deadly sins. Perhaps, it wasn't that President Obama failed to understand the question about American exceptionalism, but that he understood fully the lessons of his Christian teachings concerning pride coming before the fall.

Sadly, Ms Palin and those who swim in rose colored memories of the past, are the very people who prevent America from solving our problems. They wrap themselves in the flag, blame gays, poor people and foreigners for our troubles and never once look in the mirror at the real culprits. We are all at fault for the problems of the day and only by working together can we solve these issues.

As for the fairy tale of nuclear disarmament, I feel sorry for you that you don't believe in it. Truly exceptional people dream the impossible and strive to make it so. To me, the vision of planet earth without war achieved in part by the example of the United States makes the goal of "good politics" seem incredibly average.

Joe Pugnetti

Monday, December 6, 2010


It was announced today that Jason Werth, a baseball player who helped the Phillies win the World Series in 2008, signed a free agent contract with another team. The deal was for 7 years, $126 million dollars. Reaction has been diverse, but the consensus is that Jason, having already won a World Series ring, signed with a perennial losing franchise because they offered the most money, period. While the sheer volume of money seems surprising (Jason was a very good player, but not a great player), most comments give Jason (and his agent) credit for getting his big payday. After all, who wouldn't try to get the most money they could if someone wanted to overpay for their services?

Perhaps that is the root issue of our problems. We believe so much in capitalism and the opportunities that it provides that we are blind to the shift in priorities that have taken place in the recent past.

Don't get me wrong; I enjoy sports. In fact, I probably spend too much time watching sports on TV and I enjoy talking sports with my friends. When I was able to attend Eagles games through my previous employer, I did so happily. I appreciated seeing a game in person and participating in the cheering, booing and general camaraderie of the moment. Clearly, I am as much at fault as anyone in driving the value of professional athletes' services through the roof.

But I would also like to think that I have this part of my life properly prioritized. Proof can be offered that with my recent early morning work requirement, I missed many of the Phillies playoff games and the 2nd half of all of the Eagles prime time games this year. As this happens more often, I find that it is becoming easier to walk away from the games. I would hope that I have and will continue to walk away when my family needs my time, as opposed to the "fan" who can't be approached by their spouse or children when the game is on.

Flash to the current debate over the tax cuts and unemployment compensation. Republicans want tax cuts for everyone, even those earning in the top 5% of incomes. They don't think it wise to raise anyone's taxes in a recession despite the added billions of dollars this will add to the deficit. Extending unemployment compensation however, is not OK with them unless we cut spending somewhere else to compensate for the added cost. Democrats want to raise the taxes of the rich but continue giving unemployment to people who have been receiving this aid for 99 weeks already. Each political party uses the rising deficit as a defense when the spending is for something they oppose but what do they value?

I believe that there is plenty of money in this country but that it is being disbursed in an extremely inequitable fashion. It is documented fact that the standard of living for the middle class (as defined by an income in the $40-90K range) has stagnated, while the rich have become richer and the poor have become poorer. What does that say about our values?

I don't consider rich people immoral or greedy bastards. I don't think Republicans are stooges for the wealthy or unfeeling for the plight of the less fortunate. Nor do I believe that Democrats are only concerned about the downtrodden and don't legislate with an eye towards those that control the purse strings of business. Neither party is consistent in how their values decide their policies.

In the end, the problem lies in the answer to the question; who wouldn't go for as much money as possible? If we all agree that we would do the same as Jason, then the fault lies squarely at our feet. When we begin to demand that decisions be made with regard to people and not just profit, when material possessions and obsessions become prioritized behind a happy family, good friends, strong neighborhoods, equality for all people regardless of how they might be different from us, then perhaps, contracts like the one Jason Werth just signed and debates that pit aid for the less fortunate against less taxes for the super rich, might be a thing of the past.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


I recently saw the Clint Eastwood movie "Hereafter". Before seeing it, I wondered if one of Clint's motivations for such a movie is his advancing age. I have spent some time ruminating about death and what is to follow, but I have found that it can be difficult to broach the subject with most people, especially the young (defined as under 40 or so).

Anyway, it is a huge subject, so any attempt to say something important in a 2 hour movie is certainly a challenge. Frankly, I was pleased with Clint's attempt, but not blown away. Perhaps because I have spent time thinking about the subject myself which made it hard for the movie to present any new information.

The main point I took from the movie is that there is an afterlife and that there is much scientific proof of its existence, in addition to all the religious myth. Clint presents a place where the awareness of the ex-human still resides and can be accessed by certain humans who possess the gift (or curse). The story follows a few recently dead people and those they left behind and attempts to portray that those who have passed can and sometimes will communicate an important piece of information that can help the survivors move on.

It is not a dramatic movie in the sense that there is a climactic scene of revelation, but it is certainly an interesting flick and one I would recommend.

Since I was raised a catholic, I have presumably incorporated the heaven and hell version of life after death. Unfortunately, I often wonder if the popular perception of heaven and hell is accurate as I am convinced that the vast majority of people believe that they are going to heaven. One could argue that if life on earth is a test for the eternal thumbs up (or down) that there would be a stricter criteria to pass. (I am only referring to those that believe in heaven and hell although I would imagine that whatever your religious point of view, I would bet that more often than not, you believe you are going to earn the "reward"). In other words, does God grade on a curve?

What if God is more of a socialistic bent, meaning he rewards or condemns an entire generation or society as a whole? Was there spiritual progress or did mankind go backwards in its treatment of each other? Perhaps the entire society is judged based on how the least among them were treated by that society?

More likely, we will be judged individually, but again, what is the criteria. How much money we made? How many people we helped? Will it simply be as is the lesson from "Its a Wonderful Life"; were those you encountered better off for meeting you?

For all the talk about the United States being a Christian nation, it seems that our obsession with money and wealth suggests that we believe that our eternal judgement will be based on material possessions. No, you say?

Think about it for a minute. Is not success measured by your bank account and by how much money your job pays? When was the last time you saw a social worker being interviewed about the record they just set for helping the poor in their neighborhood? Do we flock to seminars which will teach us how to invest wisely and beat the market or to those that teach how to help find shelter for the homeless?

As self proclaimed Christians, one would think that our role model would be Christ, a person who spent his ministry with the outcasts of his time while reminding the rich that their chance of reaching heaven was the same as the chance of a camel passing through the eye of a needle.

Perhaps that is why it can be so uncomfortable to talk about what follows this life. It might sound harch, but perhaps the hereafter may not be all that accomodating to a population where money is the first priority and the welfare of mankind barely a speck in the rearview mirror.

Monday, October 25, 2010


I recently watched the movie Invictus. For those of you who have not seen it, I recommend it highly. In a nutshell, the story is based on the newly elected President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, and his use of the South African Rugby team to unite his country.

For this blog, I would like to touch on two of the main themes which I took away from the story.

First and foremost is the portrayal of Mandela's understanding that he must convince the black citizens of South Africa to forgive the white minority for its years of Apartheid. In one scene, he responds to his security staff's request for more men by assigning a number of white officers. When the chief of security rightly points out that these men were most likely active in the arrest and harassment (and possibly worse) of blacks, Mandela asks him to forgive them and that only through this most powerful weapon, forgiveness, can the country be united. Later in the movie, when Mandela hears of a decision to suspend the rugby team (the Springboks), its colors (green and gold) and its national anthem (an Apartheid inspired song), he pleads with the committee to reconsider their vote. He explains that the team is part of the identity of the whites and that by denying them that identity they are acting no better than those who promulgated the awful Apartheid system. He tells the committee members that they must be better than their enemies and that, in fact, the white minority are no longer the enemy but partners in the new South Africa.

Perhaps we should all consider this example when we next seek revenge against someone who wronged us. Whether it be on a personal level or country on country, the world would be such a better place if we acted to unite rather than fight.

The other main point is that when Mandela is reminded that he is risking his presidency because the very people who elected him want an end to the Springboks,
Mandela responds that the moment he worries about losing his elected position is the moment he loses the right to be the leader. He also says that sometimes the people are wrong and that it is his job as their leader to show them the correct way.

Of course, I know this was a Hollywood portrayal of Mandela and was certainly enhanced to make him appear bigger than life, but from what I have read the description of his capacity for forgiveness and for his great sense of responsibility to unite all of South Africa, I would bet it is not too far from the truth.

Is it at all possible for our current president to act this way? We know he has the capacity to discern right from wrong. His push for more equal access to health care, his attempts to reign in the powerful money makers of Wall Street, his forward looking policies of creating green jobs and preserving our environment, and his moral (yes I said moral) understanding that discrimination against gay Americans violates our great founding documents all indicate the possibility of greatness. But to be called a great leader, one must take the populace forward, sometimes by telling them that they are wrong. And not just by saying it, but by telling us why through the use of plain words and personal examples. My bet is that for those on the fence, those that sense there is a rightness to Obama's agenda, this approach will be enough to earn him their respect and support.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Doing what we have to..

More than a month has passed since my last blog. Economic conditions were such that it was necessary for me to take a part time job; I am now delivering the Philadelphia Inquirer. (Yes, I am aware of the irony). This particular job requires me to awaken by 3:00 AM, drive to the warehouse in Doylestown to pick up the papers and do some prep work then I drive back to the Perkasie area and service my route. The route entails much more driving that I expected, and is taking much more time than I anticipated, but is paying more money that I was looking for so the trade off is equitable. And since the work is done in the early morning hours, it doesn't effect my full time job as those hours are diverse, ranging from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM to as late as 1:15 to 9:15 PM. The key seems to be to maintaining the discipline of getting to bed by 9:30 (yes, even if the Phillies are on TV). Also, on most days I can sneak in a nap before going to the full time job. While it makes me sad that I have less time to write it is necessary so that we can stay economically comfortable.

A recent survey of Americans tried to establish the point where the happiness derived from income levels off. In other words, does more money make you happier. The research study questioned tens of thousands of people from all economic strata and established $75000 as the level of income where happiness does not improve commensurate with an increase in income. If you google "money and happiness" you will see many reports on this study and you can choose any of them to get a slant of its meaning. If you have read my story The Change, then you know where I stand on this issue.

For us, before losing my job in January of this year, we were above that magic number and we were comfortable. We had paid down many debts and did not find too much month at the end of our money. Since then, we have fallen below that level and have found it necessary to examine very closely all monetary outputs. While I have never been a pursuer of money for its sake, I have certainly experienced more angst this past year as I try to maintain my family's standard of living with creative economics. But in the end, the numbers are the numbers, hence this second job.

Like any new job or new experience, delivering newspapers before sunrise has presented a number of surprises. First and foremost, there is a lot of wildlife out there that we never see in the daytime. Deer everywhere, especially in those new cookie cutter developments. Also, skunk, raccoon, possum, mice, moles, cats, dogs and cows. I can't see into the trees for fear of hitting one of the above (or a tree), but I would bet that there are many fowl about as well.

Also, I am beginning to like the dark. There is much less traffic, which enables me to drive on all parts of the road, but the dark itself seems much more comforting that I ever thought. At times, I resent the appearance of the sun as it brings out obstacles to my pleasant morning.

Finally and much to my surprise, people still tip their newspaper carrier! In the four pay periods I have earned so far, I have received tips amounting to about
$75. It makes me mad at myself that I had not tipped my carrier before I began delivering my own paper but provides further proof that people are mostly considerate and good hearted. For those of you who have tipped in the past, whether it be your newspaper carrier or some other service provider (especially those unseen providers) congrats on your generosity. And for those who haven't, perhaps you might want to consider showing your gratitude in the future.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Blame Game

As I have said many times before, I read the Phila Inquirer with special concentration on the commentary/opinion section. One opinion columnist that I respect and admire is Trudy Rubin. She demonstrates a strong understanding of our efforts and policies in the Middle East and, generally, maintains equanimity in her evaluation of the administration in charge, regardless of political party. The following is an email which I sent to her today.

Mr. Rubin,

While I agree with you that the anti-Muslim rhetoric is dangerous, I think we need to blame liberals as much as conservatives for the escalation, or more precisely, liberal politicians who are more concerned about winning an election than they are about stating the truth.

It is easy for you and I to write/blog that the current anti-Muslim trend runs contrary to our respect for individuals rights (freedom of religion) and the constitution (separation of church and state). But rather than taking a strong stand with facts and clear cut points of reason and fairness, many Democrats are straddling the line for fear of losing their seats in November. Even the President has waffled in his public statements on the issue.

The truly sad part is that this current blame-the-Muslims-for-everything is just an extension of the blame-the-gays which results in the anti-gay marriage movement or the blame-public-employees trend which pits everyday working Americans against their neighbors (who make about the same amount of money).

When an economy is struggling, it is easy to gain a following if you can find a scapegoat, so all of these dramas exist to distract Americans from the real source of our problems. The fact that our deficit is growing due to the Bush tax cuts that reduced our national income, the unfunded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the shift of income from the middle class to the very rich and the aging of our nation is ignored because that would require us to face the hard truths about capitalism's problems, the militaristic streak of our politics and the notion that we have a divine right to an ever increasing standard of living.

You mentioned President Reagan in today's column. He is considered the saint of conservative politics yet everyone forgets that his approval ratings in his first term were even lower than President Obama's are now and that he doubled the national debt during his eight years in office. However, he slayed the communist dragon so today's conservatives/republicans have taken a page from his playbook, replacing the evil Soviet empire with today's bogeymen. It is clear that they will not only not work with President Obama but will do everything in their power to see him fail. And the Democrats, rather than standing up to them are caving because, unfortunately, they are really not that much better as they too are more concerned about staying in power than they are about governing.

Finally, the real fault lies with the American voter. And again, you won't hear many politicians or pundits blaming us. We cheer speeches that anoint us as the greatest nation in history then disprove that point by denying our fellow citizens the basic need for access to adequate health care and by encouraging legislation that defines marriage in a way that prevents some of our population from enjoying the emotional and economic fruits of this institution. We have such compelling issues to address and the best form of democracy in which to address them, yet we are lucky to see 30% turnout at primaries and get all excited if we reach 60% for November elections.

Anyway, this turned out to be longer than I expected. If you are interested, I have included a link to my blog of 9/12 and perhaps I will use this email to you for today's blog (I hope that is not a problem for you).

Thanks for whatever feedback you might provide,

Regards and respect,

Joe Pugnetti

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Testing the Strength of our Freedom

This past Friday there was a huge amount of coverage allotted to the pastor in Florida who was planning to burn a Quran to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. On one morning show (Morning Joe?), I heard comments by Pat Buchanan suggesting that the President use his executive power to block this pastor from executing his plan. Further, Mr. Buchanan stated that the president would be derelict in his duty to protect American soldiers if he did not prevent this burning as it has been expressed by more than one military leader that this horrific act might inspire terrorists to kill American soldiers. In other words, he was suggesting that the President suspend the First Amendment to justify government intervention to block the pastor's actions.

Let me make this clear. This pastor's planned act is reprehensible. It continually amazes me how God is used to justify the worst things imaginable. But should we deny him his right to express his opinion? Do you not think that somewhere in the United States, a Quran was burned yesterday anyway?

When asked how the Quran burning was any different than the controversy over the Mosque, how each could be used by terrorists to foment hatred for America and lead to the death of American soldiers, the advocates of preventing the Quran burning did not have a compelling answer. Both situations are being used to justify attacking Americans. Further, one might even say that the continued questioning of President Obama's religion (is he a Muslim or not?) could also be used as motivation to harm Americans. And clearly, the many articles written by columnists such as Charles Krauthammer who repeatedly claim that we are at war with Islamic extremists, could easily be interpreted by those very extremists that their belief that we hate Islam validates their killing of American soldiers. So, should the government act to silence all those voices, all those opinions that could be used to inspire acts by our enemies?

How many rights do we sacrifice in the name of protecting our freedom?

Is it our goal to repress any act which will inspire our enemies to violence? Perhaps we should stop killing innocent civilians in faraway countries. Don't you think that the simple fact that we have killed upwards of 75,000 civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan might be causing some of the hatred towards America? I think that the fact that we have people in this country who are looking askance at Muslims because of 9/11 might give you some idea of how the people in those countries might feel about us.

Is it our goal to prevent Americans from dying in Afghanistan? Perhaps we should bring them home! I can't imagine a more direct way to prevent their death.

Our core beliefs are being tested. Do we only grant the important freedoms embedded in the constitution to those that agree with us, or to all people? Do we prove the worth of our form of government, one based on principles and laws by upholding those principles even when they are used to express opinions that are repugnant to us?

The ironic thing is that many of the countries with which we disagree, have governments that are religion based. We are appalled at the expression of those religions that treat woman as second class citizens and outlaw ideas that are not derived from their respective holy books. Yet at the same time, we have a movement in this country to define marriage so as to prevent a certain population from enjoying its benefits because of an interpretation of our holy book, the bible.

Lead by example. Isn't that what we strive for as parents? Perhaps we should evaluate our own actions as a country through this same prism.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Labor Costs and Jobs

This past Monday was Labor Day. My original intention was to post a blog discussing labor and jobs in some fashion but I changed my mind when I was inspired to write about the presidency.

Fortunately, a letter in today's Inquirer brought the topic back to center stage. The following is my response to an article written by Kevin Hassett called "Americans make too much". In it, he makes the valid point that salaries can and do interfere with the hiring practices of employers. He posits that if American workers' wages were lower then employers would be able to afford to hire more people. And, with more people working, more money would be spent for the products and services that employers make/sell. Here is my response sent to the Inquirer today:

To the editor:

According to Kevin Hassett in "Americans make too much", more jobs would be created if employers were able to pay everyone less money. My experience with the various companies that I have worked for over the years, both public and private, indicates that labor costs range from 40-60% of fixed costs, so his assertion that if we kept that figure static but decreased wages per person, employers would have the luxury of hiring more people. And, of course, more people working will result in more people spending which will generate demand for the products and services that the employers are selling, completing the cycle. Sounds logical.

What amazes me is that Mr. Hassett targets the salaries of the lowest wage earners. He seems to believe that simply having a job equates to having the money to buy. I guess he is unfamiliar with the working poor in this country who have one, two, sometimes three low paying jobs just to make the bills. I am sure that they would laugh at his belief that by lowering their wages, their participation in the economy will somehow increase.

Perhaps Mr. Hassett's theory would be better served if he targeted those making $5, $10, $20 million a year, or more. Reducing those salaries, even by $1 million per person, and again, assuming our premise that overall labor costs would remain static, would allow for higher salaries for the rest of the work force. Now, the everyday family might just have that extra money to upgrade an appliance, eat at a local restaurant, or by that new car, thereby generating more demand for products and services creating the demand for more jobs.

Isn't it clear that we have lost so many jobs in America precisely because employers have turned to cheaper labor, both in this country and especially abroad? Is it Mr. Hassett's intent to reduce our standard of living to that of China in pursuit of everybody having a job?

Full employment should certainly be our goal. But full employment that results in the continuation of income inequity that streams more money to less hands, is not good for everyday working Americans or for the long term recovery of our country.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Presidency

Today I caught the last hour or so of the movie "The American President". For those unfamiliar with the storyline, Michael Douglas plays the president who is in his third year of office. He is facing declining popularity numbers as well as an aggressive candidate who is using character attacks to position his own presidential run. One of the main attacks involves the fact that Michael Douglas (a widower) is seeing Annette Bening, an environmental lobbyist. There are a number of topics touched upon in the story, but the one that always sticks with me culminates in the scene where Michael Douglas finally decides to confront the Richard Dreyfus character who has been questioning his family values (for sleeping with Annette Bening while raising his daughter) as well as his patriotism (he is a member of the ACLU). In the scene, Michael Douglas is addressing the White House Press Corps and he summarily dismissed those character attacks while discussing the nature of both the Presidency and American Democracy. Of course, the movie has a Hollywood ending and we are left with the feeling that Michael Douglas will re-elected and will go on to govern in the people's best interests as opposed to governing to stay elected.

After the movie concluded, I immediately though of our current president, Barack Obama. I would think that most people would agree that he possesses a strong intellect. I am no expert on the presidents but I would imagine that his IQ, college and post graduate degrees and ability to command the English language, would rate him in the top 25% of presidents, if not higher. And I would also like to think that most people would agree that he worked as hard or harder than anyone to attain the measure of success he has achieved. He was certainly not born into privilege! To me, his story is an example of what most would consider one of the strengths of America; anyone can be president. His story is not just incredible from the historic standpoint of being the first African American President, but to have a Muslim father as well? It is truly a testament to both American Democracy and the voters who were able to look beyond what makes him different and connect with what makes him similar. Finally, I would like to think that most people would acknowledge that he has a vision for our future. His progress with a more universal health care system, his commitment to reducing nuclear weapons in the world, his push for cleaner energy sources and reduced environmental damage all point to a deep love for our country and its citizens and, on a bigger stage, the world and all its inhabitants.

So all that being said, why has his presidency been so fraught with pitfalls. Why are people still questioning his birth, his religion, his dedication to family values, his very patriotism? I certainly believe there is a tinge of racism involved, but we proved we can get beyond that ugliness by voting for him, so there must be more to it than that.

Perhaps the answer is that he is governing to not lose the next election rather than as a reflection of his beliefs. Like the American President, he has stopped listening to his heart and mind and is paying too much attention to polls and critics. Perhaps he needs to answer the voices of dissent by taking positions that he believes in as opposed to positions he thinks we want to hear.

For instance, when he first said that he thought that the Islamic Community Center should be built in the area of the 9/11 tragedy, he was reflecting a constitutional belief in the separation of church and state. But then he backtracked.

When he says he believes that gay marriage should be legal, he is reflecting his belief in the words of the Declaration of Independence which say that all men are created equal and have an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. But then he backtracks to a water downed version of civil unions only.

When he advocates equal access to health coverage and care, he is reflecting his Christian values that profit should not be more important than the health and welfare of people. But then he cuts deals with the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries.

When he negotiates historic treaties to reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons and admonishes those rulers and countries who use war and violence to get their way, he is reflecting the basic teaching of love; do unto others... But then he escalates the war in Afghanistan and authorizes more drone bombings in Pakistan.

For me, I know Barack Obama will be a good president, certainly better than our last. But the first sign indicating that he might not be a great president occurred when he disavowed his promise to only use matching funds for his presidential campaign when it became clear that he would be able to raise even more money without that restriction. His first compromise, in this case the ideal that money should not be the source for one's ability to be elected.

Until President Obama internalizes the concept that great presidents are not defined by their longevity but by the principles from which they govern, it won't matter how the next few years transpire.

I know there is a risk to this strategy. In may be decided, in both the November 2010 elections and/or in the 2012 presidential election, that the American electorate are not in agreement that his vision matches their own. But if that be the case, wouldn't it be better that a lost election be about the American publics rejection of a clearly defined set of beliefs and vision as opposed to a lost candidacy due to an attempt to fashion the message in the least controversial way.

While I am disappointed with the percentage of registered voters and the actual voting rate, I still believe in both our system of government and the American voting public. While we may not always make the right choices we generally make them for the right reasons. Perhaps both President Obama and all those seeking election should show they believe in us as well by stating their positions, defending them with words and deeds, and allowing us to prove the strength of our beliefs and vision.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

More about War

I am fortunate that most of the opinion letters that I send to the Perkasie News Herald are published. While I am not receiving much feedback from those letters, I know some people are reading them. The following is the letter I sent today.

To the editor:

In addition to the Perkasie News Herald, I am an avid reader of the Philadelphia Inquirer. I make a point of reading the opinion page, especially the readers' opinion letters that are published daily. When a letter writer has supplied their e-mail address, I will contact those readers with whom I disagree. I have started a number of correspondences in this manner and have exchanged numerous, civil e-mails in discussion of the topics of the day.

One such letter recently suggested that we should have bombed a city in Afghanistan (after telling them which city) after the 9/11 attacks rather than spending so much money and losing so many American lives. My response to the writer was as follows:

At first glance, the newspaper supplied title to your letter almost made me skip down to the next letter. But, as I have made an effort to read and respect everyone's opinion, I pressed on and read yours.

The jist of your letter seems to be that we should have used the full strength of our missiles and long range offensive weapons against our enemies rather then spending billions of dollars and wasting thousands of our own young American lives. Your premise is based on the reasoning that by demonstrating our willingness to use the sheer destructive power that we possess, our enemies will think twice about future attacks. It seems based on sound logical thinking.

I see a few problems with the idea.

1. By warning Afghanistan ahead of time, the truly guilty for the attack of 9/11 will surely flee, leaving only the poor and innocent to be slaughtered by our weapons.

2. While this may save thousands of American lives, what about the thousands of Afghani lives that would be lost. Are their lives worth any less because they happen to live in Afghanistan?

3. While the terrorists who perpetrated the 9/11 attack were Muslim, the vast majority of them were from Saudi Arabia, as is Osama Bin Laden. In fact, many people believe that most of the funding came from the Saudis oil wealth. Shouldn't we then be bombing Saudi Arabia?

4. If we had bombed Afghanistan as you suggest, isn't it possible that this attack against innocent civilians would have galvanized those radical Muslims (and perhaps some moderates as well) in their belief that America is at war with their religion?

Not knowing you, I am assuming that your letter reflects an understanding that we have wasted a huge amount of money, time and American lives in the past nine years in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I also assume that you are angry that all those resources have done little to exact revenge against the monsters who planned the attack. You lament our apparent impotence at gaining justice.

Perhaps it is not the method of how we seek revenge but the need to seek it that we should be questioning. Hatred breeds hatred. Let's not forget that we supported the Taliban in their war against Russia and that we supported Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran. To many people of that region, we are only concerned with our interests, and we will use and/or kill anyone who opposes us. To think that we were brutally attacked on 9/11 for no reason, does a disservice to our intelligence. Revenge is what keeps this conflict alive. Turning our back on revenge, may be the only way to break the cycle.

Many of today's pundits believe that we are at war with Islam. The justification for waging that battle is the belief that Islam is at war with America. But if we continue to kill Muslims (remember, we have probably killed 75-100,000 of them since 9/11) in the name of rooting out terrorism, what other conclusion will some Muslims come to than that we are at war with them, therefore they should kill more Americans. And so it will go on and on.

How about if we show them that Christianity means more than just loving those who think like us, look like us, believe in the same things we believe. How about if we show them that the spirit of Christianity demands that we love our enemies as well. That we try, through examples of love and tolerance, to prove that we really believe in the teachings of Christ.

How about if we save all that money and all those lives by not seeking revenge at all?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Off to College

This past Saturday, I drove my son, JW, to begin the next stage of his life at Allegheny College. My, how college has changed over the years.

As an incoming freshman, he was required to be there a full five days before classes started. Both of us wondered what he would do for those five days but it was clear upon our arrival that Allegheny (and I would imagine, most private colleges) knew what they were doing. Right off the bat, they were organized. At the curb in front of his dorm we were greeted by a team of young adults whose sole purpose was to get his stuff out of my car and into his room. They reduced our 35 minute loading process to about 5 minutes to unload.

The orientation packet he received (one for each of us) clearly spelled out his agenda for arrival day right through to the first day of classes. Not that every minute was scheduled, but there were activities and meetings designed specifically to help him ease into this new life by bringing him together with his future class mates, dorm mates and teachers. There was also a concise but practical list of must-do's which included picking up his meal card, finding his post office box and submitting the paperwork for his work study job. And, of course, another guided campus tour to help him see the campus from the eyes of someone who has lived there for a year. I was impressed with the process and the people. And, to be honest, I was envious of this adventure that JW was about to begin.

After completing all the main tasks of the day, we spent some time with his room mate then had our last meal together, at least for a while. As he had two planned activities that first evening, I said goodbye and confidently left my first born to start his adult life.

So often when we drive a long distance, the trip towards our destination seems much longer than the trip home. In this case the opposite was true; it took forever for me to get home. Perhaps because it had been such a long day, or that I was traveling home alone. But, more likely it is because the son I left last Saturday at college would never be the same again, and I will dearly miss him.

Monday, August 23, 2010

In Memorium: Blackie

About five years ago, a black cat crossed my family's path.

It was a bitterly cold winter night when the cat appeared at our front door. He seemed friendly enough but since he was missing one of his canine teeth we weren't sure if he was just recently lost or had been in the wild for a while. That first night, we put him in our barn with some milk, a box and a blanket. The next night he was in our downstairs bathroom. Within a week, we had taken him to the vet for his shots and he was part of the family.

Since that time, we all grew to love Blackie despite and because of his active nature and frequent vocalizations. He was a wrestler who took on all comers. Whether wrestling with our other cat Sweettart or myself, he attacked with gusto but never malice. He was very affectionate, not necessarily a lap cat, but he always wanted to be with people. On the arm of a chair, walking across your keyboard, on a chair at dinner or just on the floor in whatever room was occupied, Blackie was there.

His need to be with people was reflected in his dislike for closed doors. Whether in the middle of the day or middle of the night, if you were in your room with the door closed he would meow outside of it until it opened. Yes, even the bathroom. At that time, he might or might not stay to visit, but that was his choice, not yours.

He loved going outside, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for an hour but he almost exclusively stayed in our yards, especially the back yard where he could sniff the large variety of plants, roll in the patch of cat mint or lounge in the sun on the walkway. His love of the outdoors made going in or out a door a challenge as he developed a knack for hanging just far enough away to lull you in and then, boom, out he went.

When we went out as a family, he was at the front door when we returned. None of us were sure if he greeted us because he missed us or wanted to go out, but he was always there, nevertheless.

Unfortunately, as it is with pets, time began to catch up with Blackie. Visits to the vet became more frequent. When we had to put him in the hospital one day, we feared the worst. The first few times we visited, he could barely lift his head and even though he purred the entire time we were there, we were not hopeful. Then, on day five he began to eat. When we visited, he was able to walk around a little, and he even spent a few minutes cleaning himself. But, as sometimes occurs, it was his last good day. His temperature spiked, his kidneys began to fail and we were forced to make the decision to let him go.

Since he loved the back yard so much, we decided to bury him there. We placed him in the ground after an emotional ceremony, each of us tossing in some dirt through our tears and sobs.

Now, less than a week later, our home has changed. When I came home from work today, I didn't have to check if Blackie was lurking to dash out the door. There was no meowing at the bathroom door when I showered this morning. When I dangled my hand over the living room chair earlier tonight, no one pounced. And now, as I am keying this post, there is no distraction.

Blackie will be sorely missed.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Mosque

There has been a lot of talk lately about the proposed building of an Islamic community center two blocks from the 9/11 site. Many people have expressed concern that it is insensitive to the victims' families of this horrible event that anything associated with the religion of the perpetrators of this odious act should be built within such close proximity. While I can understand why many Americans might be hesitant to accept an Islamic center (including a mosque) near the site of one of the most horrific events in our history, it surprises me that the rhetoric and vitriol have reached such levels. There are certainly Islamic fundamentalists who seek the destruction of America. But to condemn the billion (?) of so members of the entire religion seems un-American to me. The letter below was in response, not to someones opinion against the plan, but to thank the Inquirer for publishing an article that attempted to shed light on the hyperbole surrounding the proposal.

My experience so far with letters to the Inquirer have shown me that they need to be relatively short and to the point. I would have liked to expand my thought about fear and its seemingly far-reaching effects on our populace and hence our debates.

What do you think? Are we more fearful than in the past? Or is it my bias that the things we seem to be afraid of are not worthy of our fear? When we were afraid of a possible nuclear war with the Russians that seems more legitimate than being afraid of the Taliban.

Or, to be more conspiratorial, perhaps fear is the tool that our politicians use to distract us from the real problems that we face. Perhaps by demonizing the gay community or illegal aliens or the entire Muslim community, it enables our leaders to avoid the real problems that face our society.

Or maybe we just don't want to face the truth that we are all responsible for our problems so it is easier to blame someone else.

To the editor:

Thanks for publishing Stephen Salisbury's column concerning the proposed Islamic center in New York City. It was nice to gain some information about this issue that was fact-based rather than an ideologue tainted opinion. However, it surprised me that he did not mention Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf whose current Mideast mission was reported on page 3 of Saturday's Inquirer. Perhaps if the general public was aware of Rauf's position (with both the Bush and Obama administrations) "as a symbol of American religious freedom", and his connection with the proposed Islamic center there would be less room for our politicians to fan the flames of hatred and then take advantage of the public's fear of the proposed community center and mosque.

Which makes me wonder; when did Americans become such a fearful populace?

Whether it is in discussions of this mosque, or gay marriage, or national health care, or immigration, or even the deficit, it seems that so much of today's discourse centers around reasons to be afraid. Whether the fear leads to hatred of merely gives that emotion legs, our culture seems to have reached a point where we give into these emotions much more readily thereby enabling politicians and pundits to direct our feelings at their targets du jour.

Despite our faults, we are still the greatest country in the world. Perhaps we would be better served if we acted as an example for the positive through trust and cooperation rather than reacting to today's important challenges through the prism of fear and hatred.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Change

Recently I have become aware of a challenge put forth by Bill Gates (I believe) to motivate the richest people of the world to donate 1/2 of their fortunes to charity. While I applaud this effort, it is not quite the same as the premise in the following story which I wrote unaware of this donation challenge. Again, I think that it is a tremendous idea for those with more to willingly give to those with less. But wouldn't it be more effective if those with such mega-billions had shared those great earnings with the employees of the companies whose hard work helped them make those fortunes? Personally, I would cap salaries at a level that should easily allow most people a standard of living that is sufficient for a comfortable way of life. However, as that would require more government intervention than most Americans are willing to allow, I would prefer that we embark on this path on a volunteer basis. The following story reflects that hope.

The Change

Strangely enough, the change had begun from the actions of an athlete. Not one of those athletes who points to the sky whenever he performs admirably but clearly one whose spirituality matched his athletic prowess. He was twenty-eight years old, just in the midst of his prime, as he was reminded incessantly when he first proposed his idea. In the previous three years, he had led the league or been close to the top in every category that mattered, and it was expected that the negotiations for his next contract would set a new standard for compensation. When he first mentioned the plan to his agent, she immediately appealed to the his wife, mother, and teammates, even going as far as bringing in star athletes from other sports to talk some sense into him. But to no avail. He was adamant that it was time for someone to make a stand and who better but someone who could maximize the effect.

The process, as all significant social and economic changes are, was gradual and not readily noticed by the populace. In fact, at first the trend was a positive one. Starting after the second of two great world wars, there was impressive growth. And for the first 40 years or so, this growth penetrated virtually all levels of society. Within two generations, the ideas and ambitions of the best of the population helped drive the development of a thriving middle class whose labor made those ideas and ambitions come to fruition. This symbiotic relationship, while not completely inclusive of all people, for the first time bridged many of the gaps that had excluded women and minorities.

But the growth was unsustainable. In retrospect, it seemed obvious that a slowdown or a time of flat growth was inevitable after such a meteoric rise. But expectations had risen as well and so rather than taking a breath and revising expectations, the country's leadership continued to stoke the belief in unfettered progress. When natural resources seemed to be straining, new technologies were developed to enhance the processes. When investments could no longer rely on new ideas and hard work to produce the required gains, new financial vehicles were created which traded on expectations, opinions and trickery. When people working together for a common goal no longer resulted in enough profit, influences were popularized that inflamed class warfare and class envy even as jobs were moved to areas and countries where labor was cheaper and profit could be maintained.

Some said it was a purposeful slide, orchestrated by the haves to keep the have-nots in line and confused about their degrading state. But if the truth be told, it was everyone, rich and poor, liberal and conservative, who let it happen. Rather than looking in the mirror in acknowledgement of individual responsibility, they continued to buy when they should have saved, to waste when they should have conserved, and to believe the easy answers rather than demanding that someone tell them the hard truth. And so, a mere four generations after the biggest surge in opportunity and standard of living ever experienced in history, the trend began to reverse.

Where once school age children could by a ticket for a ball game on a sunny summer's day, now only the well-connected or lucky employees of a large corporation could afford to attend. Where once anyone could attend a college, even if just the local community college, now only those with status or money could attend an institute of higher learning. Where once, everyday people visited other parts of their country or even foreign lands, now only the rich even had vacations, let alone the money to spend on one.

“I don’t want the money, at least not just for me”, he began. “I expect you to spend the hundred million dollars you are offering me but I only want fifty of the hundred million. The remainder you must split amongst all the non-players in this organization, all the people who work at the stadium, all the faceless workers who set the stage for this sport”.

It took the organization a few months, but eventually they executed his request through direct bonuses and a trust fund to disperse the money over the course of the next four years as the contract stipulated. The owners and CEO did their best to keep the news a secret, but the secrecy did not last long. Surprisingly however, there was no need for the concern that drove their desire to keep the news from reaching the public. While there was certainly discord from many camps, the fans of the city quickly expressed their support. And the workers who had benefited from this unusual arrangement, displayed a new energy and pride in their jobs.

Later that year, two other athletes in a different city demanded a similar contract but went even further. One of them took the same tact with regards to splitting the money but the contract of athlete number two required the “excess” money to be applied to a lowering of the ticket prices. As a result, a few Sundays after the contracts were signed, a standing room only crowd included thousands of fans who had not seen a game in person in their lifetime.

From there, the trend spread to all of the other major sports. While competition on the field was still as intense as ever, the competition for innovative ways to share the wealth was just as feverish. Days featuring free food for all children in attendance, then games with free attendance for the children and their parents from entire elementary schools, then sporting events with no money changing hands at all. This is not to say that profit was removed from athletics. Business was still conducted, profit and loss still evaluated. But the idea that this was a game, played to entertain the everyday citizens who made the city work, became just as important.

Due to the overlap of friendships among many star athletes and those in the entertainment business, the change next penetrated that industry. The first star to embrace the notion reduced the face value of the tickets for his 20 city tour by 50% over the previous tour. When some scalping was reported by some fans at the third stop of the tour, the entertainer made a 30 second commercial asking those responsible to stop while also asking his fans to stop paying the extra money. For the most part, his plea worked and three other big name acts matched his 50% reduction of tickets.

Of course, at this point the movement was still a minor ripple. But as even the smallest pebble will create a wave that while tiny will still reach as far as the eye can see, news of these actions reached all levels of society. In the next year, a weekly series TV star took a 50% pay “diversion” which was passed along to the innumerable people who toil behind the scenes of every successful TV show. This same decision was quickly copied in short order by three movie stars, a radio talk show host, two television news anchors, and even an author who needed all her creativity to match the generosity of those who came before her.

But the tipping point occurred when the CEO of one of the most profitable and influential companies in the country called for a press conference one beautiful spring afternoon. With press from all over the world in attendance, he calmly walked to the podium and made the following announcement.

“Friends, family, members of the press, and those of you watching me live on the internet. As you know, in the past 2 years there have been some recent decisions by some high salaried individuals to share their compensation. This was accomplished in various ways, sometimes by strictly improving the salaries of the various support staffs, sometimes by passing along the difference to their fans and customers, sometimes a combination of both. Regardless of the method, the intent was the same; to reverse a trend that had led to an ever increasing income inequality in our country”.

“When I first became aware of these individuals and their actions, I was skeptical. I had become so used to gauging everything by profit and loss that these actions seemed ludicrous. But, as you all know from my history, I am nothing if not interested in new ideas, new trends, new ways to improve my company. So, about three months ago, I held a weekend long meeting with the top minds in business today. We started with the premise that this trend might be bad for our companies and business in general. We studied the available numbers for those companies which had been affected by the change and found very little difference in profit. Salaries, which are always a significant percentage of a company’s expenses, had only changed by distribution, not quantity. But the biggest surprise was that in some cases, profits had inched upwards. How could that be? These companies were paying well beyond market value for all but one position yet profits were not affected”.

The CEO stopped, took a short sip of water, then smiled.

“So we went beyond the numbers and talked to the people involved. Those that had given back some salary were proud of their achievements. A few of the individuals told me that they still had plenty of money but were experiencing much more satisfaction from their lives. It wasn’t more money they needed, just more happiness, a feeling that they had made a difference. And on the other side, those everyday employees who had been taken for granted, felt more appreciated. They knew the support nature of their roles but had grown frustrated that no matter how hard they worked, they couldn’t get comfortable. There was always a lagging bill, always something out of reach. But now, they had that extra buck to get to a movie or replace an old appliance or spend a Sunday at the beach”.

“And then we discovered something completely unexpected. The communities where these people lived were also experiencing an upswing in business. All that money that had gone exclusively to the top earners in the past was very rarely spent in the local area of the company. But a huge percentage of that diverted money was now staying in the communities. In short, it seemed to be a win-win situation and it made us reevaluate our original premise that perhaps those companies were not paying salaries beyond the market value of the work but were investing in their employees and the communities in which they worked and lived”.

At this point, about a dozen men and women approached the podium. For those familiar with business, they were witnessing an unprecedented gathering of the movers and shakers of the industry. They exuded confidence and comfort. They seemed relaxed while still possessing an understanding that they were about to expand the change into a country wide movement.

"Behind me you see many faces that you recognize. They are the faces of people who have accomplished a great deal in their lives. By any current standard of success, whether you use wealth, influence, power or possessions, they would be considered some of the most successful people in the country, if not the world. Together however, we have concluded that we may have missed the boat in some respects. We placed too much emphasis on personal wealth and the profitability of our companies, and not enough on the welfare of our employees and the communities in which we operated. We bought into the rationalization that we were providing jobs and forgot that if the jobs did not provide our employees with an acceptable standard of living, then we were not providing enough. In short, our bottom line focus sacrificed people for profit".

"As you know, our influences extend beyond the direct holdings of our organizations; we sit on the boards of dozens of other corporations across a wide spectrum of industries. After hours of meetings with these boards, we are here to publicize a few simple changes to the operations of those businesses. A list of these companies and these alterations is being passed around now so you can see how widespread the change will be and so you can publish the names in hopes that those businesses not on the list will seek to follow our example. As you can see, the change will include a reduction of our personal compensation so everyone will know that we are so confident in this strategy that we are starting with our own salaries".

The CEO stepped to the side of the group and raised his arm in their direction.
"We have accomplished a great deal during our business careers. But too much of it has centered on ourselves at the expense of our fellow man. Today, we chart a new course where our accomplishments are shared more equitably with the people doing the work. A course which values the welfare of all our employees on a more equal footing with that of the corporation, and values the people of the community in which they live as an extension of those employees."

With that, the CEO and the group of individuals with him departed the room. And while there was no instant revolution, the pendulum had been stopped. Over the next twenty years, the income gap between the top and bottom salaries began to diminish. The definition of rich no longer just included material possessions. While wealth still existed, excess wealth was definable, and avoided. Not because of a law but because it did not lead to the advance of the community. Business schools began teaching the concept of equitable compensation not just because it was fashionable but because it created a more motivated employee who produced a better product or service. Those in the entertainment industries accepted less compensation, not because they did not value their work but because they valued it as they valued other public servants; teachers, firefighters, police officers, and social workers. And so it didn't come as a big surprise when just three generations later, the definition of success had evolved from making a million to making a difference.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Special day, special visit to the doctor

Today is a special day in general for all of us, and in particular for me. It was special for us all in that today is 8/9/10. This type of numeric sequence only happens 12 times each century. After today there will only be four more this century, 9/10/11, 10/11/12, 11/12/13 and 12/13/14. Then we will have to wait until January 2, 2103 for the next cycle to start. Chances are, none of us will see that day so I hope your day was as special as the date.

To mark this special day, I did my 50+ year old duty and had my first colonoscopy. While certainly the drink was no pleasure, I did not find the experience to be as horrible as I was lead to believe. I did manage to get some sleep last night, I did not have an accident on the way to the doctor's office and the procedure itself was a non-event. The IV drip was inserted, the anesthesiologist asked me a few questions, in went the knock out cocktail and the next thing I remember was my name being spoken to wake up. So, if you have reached 50 years of age and are avoiding this procedure, I happily recommend you take the plunge. Oh, and in case you are wondering, no polyps!

Of course, the purpose of this post is not to report on the status of my bowels. (Sorry, perhaps one should not use the word bowels in a blog). The bigger picture is the medical care I received as well as my overall impression of health care, health care workers and the health care insurance industry. (Back to bowels again?)

First, my current job as an employee of the state of Penna has afforded me with what has so far been very good medical benefits. While these benefits don't even remotely make up for the drop in salary that I have taken, they certainly provide relief from the constant flow of statements and bills that I received with my former employer. For this particular procedure, no copay was required. As I would consider a colonoscopy a routine screening for mature adults, I like that concept. To me, money should not be an obstacle for anyone to engage in this procedure. Like a mammogram or pap smear or EKG, I would hazard to guess that these kind of preventive tests save big bucks as opposed to a diagnosis of cancer or heart failure after the damage is done. I would ask all of you who have had any of these procedures (regardless of the outcome) to think what it would mean to you and your family if you were unable to afford it and found yourself on the short end of an unfortunate diagnosis. It still boggles me why anyone thinks universal health care for all American citizens is somehow a threat to our democracy or way of life.

As for the care I received today, it was excellent. No, I didn't have my own personal recovery room and they didn't serve me a mimosa after I awoke, but all the people I encountered from the nursing staff to the doctor proved to be health care providers, emphasis on the provider. The before-nurse made me feel comfortable, the nurse who started the IV was pleasant and competent (no resticks), the anesthesiologist answered my questions, the doctor quickly explained the process and asked if I had questions and the after-nurse was compassionate and personable. It was truly a successful team effort.

Of course, as I lay there with my legs up trying to exhaust my excess air, I thought about these people and I couldn't help but wonder if they understood how much their positive, caring attitudes really made a difference. And if their compensation was in the least bit equitable.

Don't get me wrong, I expect the doctor and anesthesiologist to earn a better living. They have advanced degrees, higher education debt, much higher liability insurance and they walk a tightrope where an honest mistake or accident can cause death in their patient. But what is that worth? Ten times more money? Thirty times? A hundred? And what about the nurses? They are the first to arrive at the facility and the last to leave. They are face to face with anxious, nervous people at their most vulnerable and are charged with not only preparing them for the procedure but to chat and distract them while doing it. In my case, I spoke to the doctor and anesthesiologist for about 5 minutes of the 45 conscious minutes I was with the team. That leaves 40 minutes for the support people. What is that interaction worth?

In the end (oops), I am grateful for the experience, and the time I spent with all of the health care providers I encountered today. When done properly as it was for me, their service is priceless.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Gay Marriage

Today's Phila Inquirer had a nice pro and con reaction to the federal judge's ruling which struck down the California law which outlawed gay marriage in that state. In reality, his ruling seemed to indicate that the law contradicted California's constitution that guaranteed equal protection under the law. His ruling basically says that the anti gay marriage law did not present any facts that proved that gay marriage is harmful to society but instead reflected a religious bias against homosexuality.

I sent the following e-mail to the writer in support of the referendum which had been voted upon by the citizens of California and banned gay marriage.

Mr. Donovan,

I read your entire article looking for logical, legal reasons why the gay community should not be entitled to marry just as I did while reading the companion article written by John Nichols in support of the ruling. At this point, I am more inclined to lean towards
Mr. Nichols presentations than towards your own, but perhaps I missed something in your column.

I am sure you are of sufficient intelligence to know that our founding fathers did not create this as a true democracy but as a representative republic. My impression is that they did not trust the everyday person's ability to separate emotion, myth and religious bias (yes, I used that word on purpose) from logic and reason. And, while they had not progressed past the opinions of the time which did not believe that blacks (and woman for that matter) were deserving of the right to vote, they at lease gave us a framework that would provide us with the building blocks to evolve to that point. You must realize that if popular vote was all that mattered, the election of 2000 would have produced a different result. And that so many of the great steps forward that this country has made in the past 200 years towards a true reflection of "all men are created equal" would have taken much longer if we had been dependent on the populace to come around to that way of thinking. Towards the end of your article, you say that this ruling "will be a monument to the ruling elite's arrogant ambition to frustrate the will and the wisdom of the people". Based on the founder's creation of the three branches of government and the concept of checks and balances, should I infer that they shared this arrogance that you imply?

In that vein then, you equate the judge's ruling as "activist" in that it contradicts the popular vote. This theme runs throughout your article as you cite many surveys about gay marriage as well as other popular votes that have taken place throughout the country whereby the people have expressed doubts on legalizing gay marriage. You do touch briefly on the subject of children raised by gay parents and the possible problems that this environment will cause but not with evidence that it is bad but with a backhanded attack on the data that currently, does not support either position, good or bad.

My impression is that marriage, as defined by one man, one woman, does not include a reference to children yet that seems to be an important aspect of continuing to deny same-sex marriage. I would logically lean more towards this position if you denied marriage to heterosexual couples who did not have children, or heterosexual couples who were on their 3rd marriage with 8 variously conceived step children, or heterosexual couples who were alcoholics or drug addicts or heterosexual couples who provided insufficient love and support for their children, or etc, etc.

In the end though, I would ask you if you believe that gay people are born that way? If not, then that view contradicts most evidence in support of gay at birth. My personal experience with gay people, while a very small sample, certainly agrees with this belief. And, while I have never seen this question asked, I would bet that a majority of Americans, if asked to vote on that question, would lean towards gay at birth. Once that is admitted, then one must assume that, as you say, "every human being has a male and a female parent" which means that gay people spring from heterosexual parents. Nature overcomes nurture.

Finally, for me then, the moral aspect of the issue is the most compelling argument to allowing gay marriage. God created them just as he created heterosexuals. They are a minority but so are left handed people, superb athletes, and those with blond hair and blue eyes. Would you deny any of those groups the right to marry?

It is my firm belief that in fifty years, this discrimination will be looked upon by our grandchildren with the same shock and disappointment that we feel when we see the "colored only" signs from images of the 1960's. In the meantime, I hope you remain open to debate and discussion on this issue. Towards that end, I am certainly willing to continue this discourse if you are willing.


Joe Pugnetti

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Justifying War

I read an interesting article in the Phila Inquirer yesterday. It discussed the upcoming 65the year anniversary of the use of atomic weapons to hasten the end of WWII. It struck me that the writer of the article was using an ends-justifies-the-means defense of the use of these weapons just as I have used that theory as the basis for The Archives. I sent the following e-mail to the writer in hopes of beginning a personal correspondence with him about mankind's continued use of force and killing to improve the world. Please feel free to add your thoughts as well.

Mr. xxxxxx,

I recently wrote a story (which I have attached) set in a futuristic world where all people and nations are at peace with one another. However, the peace has resulted from an external threat as opposed to a unification based on mutual respect and love. I won't give away the ending twist but you will probably be able to guess it before you read it based on the remainder of this e-mail.

One of the comments I received about my story was that it reflects a classic ends-justifies-the-means scenario.

Which brings me to this e-mail. One could debate that your article also reflects an ends-justifies-the-means defense of the mass killing of tens of thousands of Japanese civilians in order to save thousands of American soldiers.

In my story, literally billions of people are sacrificed to enable the future existence of humanity. The most compelling discussion I had about the story centered on the opinion that there is no way to know the aggregate potential of all those killed, a potential which may have included someone who may have found a cure for a horrible disease, or someone who may have written an inspirational story, or someone who may have been able to unite mankind in a peaceful way without the sacrifice of life.

So, I would ask you the same question. How do you know what potential was killed by the detonation of those bombs? What disease may have been cured or story may have been written or leader who may have developed but was not due to the tremendous amount of loss of life which occurred on those fateful days?

Don't get me wrong, I am not debating your point of view that the bombs were necessary. In my story, I have only fictitiously killed the innocent to evoke a better world. Having to decide to do it in real time, is, as they say, above my pay grade. But perhaps that is the point; how does one get qualified to make such decisions. And from that perspective, perhaps no one has the moral authority to send young men and women to fight and kill the young men and women of other countries. Labeling them Nazis or Japs or terrorists, doesn't change the fact that they are people with the potential for good as well as bad.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Deficit

I haven't posted in 2 weeks; sorry. I usually at least post on my day off from work but last week I spent the day taking Rachel to New York for the last meeting before the IMTA show. After the meeting, she and I walked around mid-Manhattan for a bit, including a walk past Times Square. The amount of people and activity in this area, and New York in general, on a Wednesday night was incredible. I can see Rachel living there some day even though even she is surprised by the number of people out and about in the streets. But such life and activity!!

I had another letter published in the News Herald 2 Wednesdays ago. As I have said, I am impressed by the energy of the tea party movement even though I generally disagree with some of the movement's positions. One of the main focal points of the movement is the growing deficit which I address in the letter to follow. One simple yet glossed over fact that I do not mention in this letter is the data which shows that much of the national deficit has been generated during the years of republican administrations, yet it is the democrats that are labelled as the party of irresponsible spending. Since the Reagan years, only during Clinton's terms has their been a budget surplus.

To the Editor:

A number of weeks ago, I challenged someone from the tea party movement to detail some specifics of what we should change to improve our country. While I would hope that many conversations took place, I didn't receive any feedback on my blog and didn't see any information in the form of a letter to the editor.

So I am taking it upon myself to touch on one of the topics that I believe has been a rallying cry of the tea party movement.

The Deficit

Despite what some might think, liberals and democrats are also concerned with the deficit. While I would agree that our elected officials sometimes forget that the money they spend belongs to the country, not them, I would also like to think that they truly feel there is a real need to engage in deficit spending.

Perhaps it would be easier to understand if we made it more personal. Let's place ourselves in the position in which deficit spending might occur.

For the most part, we are keeping up with our bills. But then the refrigerator dies. If it was the dishwasher, we could probably do without it for awhile, but not the fridge. So we break out the charge card and buy the best value we can. Yes, we have added a new monthly debt to the budget but we are still comfortable. Unfortunately, an unexpected medical or dental bill occurs soon after. Again, we can't put it off and so another new bill is created. And, since all bad things happen in threes, the car will cost about $700 to pass inspection. So we engage in deficit spending and hope that we will be able to get through those debts before something else occurs.

Now, imagine you lose your job. All your budget planning goes out the window and you are faced with a difficult debt problem. What was once somewhat manageable is now out of control.

Our current national deficit problem is not unlike this personal scenario. We had a small yearly budget surplus just 10 years ago. (Although we did have a national debt). Then, in quick succession we had the dot com financial bust and the terrorist attack on 911. Soon after 911, we went to war, on two fronts, and the yearly and overall deficit began to grow. But, most believed it was worth it. Then came the housing bust and the financial meltdown. But again, we spent the money (Wall Street bailout and stimulus package) because we thought creating more debt was better than allowing a possible depression.

Like the family above, we thought we were handling all the bills in a reasonable fashion but could not have counted on all those lost jobs. Remember, lost jobs mean lost tax receipts for the government and an already growing deficit blooms out of control.

In retrospect, perhaps we should have ended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and spent the money in this country. But would we be safer today or less safe? Or perhaps we should have allowed more of the big banks and financial institutions to go bankrupt and scuttled the stimulus package. But would we have more closed businesses, more unemployment and even less tax receipts?

It is easy to look back in hindsight and criticize, but when the refrigerator dies and your teeth hurt and the car has mechanical problems, you address them as best you can.

To me, it is as much a question of where to spend our money as how much. My impression is that the tea party movement is OK with spending money on the wars but not on corporate bailouts or health care. OK, we can certainly debate that, but let's not pretend we can reduce the budget without making some hard choices.

Personally, I am OK with a little deficit spending. I have faith that the recession will continue to fade, people will start working again, the tax rolls will improve and the tipping point will swing in the other direction. In the meantime, I encourage the tea party movement and its members to stay energized, stay involved. And let's hope that all our refrigerators, teeth, cars and jobs remain in good working order for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

More on gun control

If I haven't mentioned this before, I have recently begun e-mailing the writers of Phila Inquirer opinion letters when those opinions differ from my own. The goal is to (hopefully) engage in some interesting and civil correspondences. So far it has been very enjoyable. In the last few days, I have engaged in conversations with two individuals who are in support of the recent Supreme Court ruling.

Today I sent a letter which included the following paragraphs. This is not the full letter because I removed those things which I wrote in my last blog.

"..I think that at the end of the day, both our positions rely on people doing the right thing. You mention road rage in that you think that more people with guns won't necessarily result in more shootings. I think that assumes that people will not act in the heat of the moment and will resist expressing their anger with a gun. That is a pretty hopeful position.

I believe that we are evolving as a society to the point where concepts like might makes right and the use of violence to get what one needs (either individually or collectively) will be selectively removed from our DNA as these concepts lead to death, not life. If that sounds Utopian, perhaps but isn't it just a bigger perspective of people doing the right thing?

Or, perhaps I can put it another way. More citizens carrying guns aims to reduce crime through fear; fear by the criminals that their victims will shoot back. How about an approach that tries to reduce crime through appealing to citizens' respect for laws with an understanding that this respect will be good for everyone? Sort of a positive spin as approach to the negative of fear?

If you Google "murder rate for Chicago" you will see that the murder rate has dropped significantly in the last 30 years. I am not saying that the gun ban had anything to do with that fact as the drop in the murder rate is true nationwide. Perhaps it reflects our growing civility, our evolution that violence is not the answer to any problem.."

If you watch the news today, it seems filled with the horrible things that we do to each other. One might assume that we are becoming more violent, less loving and tolerant. But perhaps the fact that we hear of these stories, the killings, the rapes, the cruelty, is because it is not really commonplace but out of the ordinary. In other words, for most of us, life is stressful and complicated but we are not worried about dying from one day to another. Like passing a car crash on the highway, we are compelled to look, but fortunately we generally lead non-violent lives but are morbidly fascinated by the violence committed to and by others.

One of the justifications that is used for more right to carry (a gun) laws is that criminals ignore laws anyway so it is only law-abiding citizens that are obeying; the old, when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. Yet data on murders committed via guns, indicates that in a high percentage of times, the victim knew the shooter (or actually owned the gun themselves), not to mention the tragic deaths of children who find guns either loaded or unlocked or both.

Clearly, gun possession and use was an important part of the daily lives of Americans in the 18th century. While there is no way to know, I would speculate that the use of their firearms was more to provide food than for self defense. Daily shootouts in the town square make for a great movie but is that a true reflection of pioneer life. I don't begrudge people who still hunt for food. I don't understand it, but I believe in their right to engage in pastimes that they enjoy. But to have to hunt for your food is not a requirement to the vast majority of people in this country today.

Going to town on one's horse with a gun at your side was a commonplace occurrence in those times. But like the horse, we don't need to go to town with our gun anymore.

As I have said in my previous blog and my letters to my new correspondents, isn't it worth trying to outlaw guns in a locality just to see if it would reduce killings?

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Activist Judges

This year, I have been doing my best to stay current with the work of the Supreme Court. I have read more about the individuals and the rulings of the Supreme Court in this year than in my entire lifetime. I am not proud of the fact that I have been so disinterested in this branch of the government, but I think it reflects a similar attitude among most Americans, even those more involved than myself. We focus most of our energy on the executive and legislative branches than the judicial. If anyone would like to offer an opinion of why this is, feel free.

The Supreme Court does not rule on many cases in a given year; sometimes their refusal not to hear a case is as important as actually ruling on a case. Other than the occasional ruling, most decisions are not front page news. I read the Phila Inquirer and generally have to look carefully through the first section of the paper to find information on those decisions. Most of the talk of the Supreme Court, other than during the time of a nomination for a new judge, centers around one side or the other (of the political spectrum) claiming that a recent decision demonstrates an activist judge. In most cases, this is considered a negative description of that decision.

Again, I am no expert but I have done a bit of research lately. What confuses me is that an activist judge is generally defined as someone who rejected past rulings or precedents in support of something not in current law or, in the opinion of the talking heads, against the constitution. But if they always ruled in favor of current law, how would anything change? Was it an activist court that allowed the separate but equal laws of the Jim Crow years or was it the one that struck down those laws as discriminatory?

Clearly, the laws of the land, hence the rulings of the Supreme Court, will be effected by the moral and social standards of the day. To me, this evolving set of standards should also apply to our interpretation of the constitution. Some of our founding fathers bought and sold slaves. Being wrong on that count, does not make their work on the constitution and declaration any less inspirational. But perhaps it does show that as our society changes, so might our laws.

The two recent Supreme Court rulings that disturb me the most are centered on individual rights and the right to bear arms.

My understanding of the Supreme Court's decision on donations by corporations is that corporations are allowed to donate as much money as they want to those running for office because not allowing them to do so violates their rights as individuals to spend their money without constraint from the government. The justices for the ruling were conservative and sighted first amendment rights; those against it were more liberal and expressed concern over the effect special interests are having on our elections. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, how can one defend their position as reflective of the founding fathers? I don't believe the concept of the corporation existed then. So we are left to interpret what we think they might think on the issue. But wouldn't that interpretation reflect not only all the intervening years of the buildup of big business and the changing face of how we elect our officials, but also the individual stances of the judges as well? Is it a coincidence that the judges for the ruling tend to be aligned with a political position that favors big business while those against tend to align themselves with a political position that suggests that the everyday people of this country are losing access to their government? It is one reason why, despite applauding the tea party movement for its energy, I sometimes question their true motivations. I know that the movement is against government bailouts and wall street handouts, so why wouldn't that translate into outrage at a ruling that allows even more money to flow from the recipients of those bailouts?

The most recent ruling concerning the right to bear arms was centered on the gun control laws in Chicago. The ruling, again 5 conservatives to 4 liberals, struck down the current laws by claiming that cities and states do not have the power to restrict gun ownership, only federal laws may do so. The Second Amendment is paramount. I do not own a gun and can't imagine I ever will, but I am not so arrogant to believe that my beliefs should prevent free citizens of this country from their beliefs. However, I would be more sympathetic to gun right activists if they would admit that requiring a background check and compulsory training before ownership would make sense. Also, reporting the loss or theft of your gun might be wise. And possessing semi-automatic weapons anywhere other than a war zone is probably not a good idea. But rather than working to create reasonable gun control laws we have people clinging to a belief that because our founding fathers used guns to fight for their independence and hunt for their food, we should avoid all gun controls. Perhaps it is just our way of coping with a changing world. What we don't understand or agree with, we shoot. But seriously, is that what we want. Everyone toting a gun in the neighborhood, just in case their is a crime? As it is, innocent bystanders are hit by gunfire, even when the shooter is a trained policemen. Do you think collateral injuries and deaths will go up or down if more people are firing away? Guns for self defense? I can understand it, but when faced with the data that shows that many times more people are killed with their own gun (or that of someone they know) as compared to a someone committing a crime, I wonder what it would be like if no one had a gun and I can't blame a city like Chicago who feel that they must try anything to stop the bloodshed? By the way, did the laws work? Did murders decrease? Shouldn't that have been one of the criteria for the decision?

So, in the first of the above two cases, I feel that the Supreme Court acted in an activist way, overruling precedent (and congressional laws) in the process. This activist ruling makes it harder for regular citizens of this country to express their disillusionment with the current election process that includes such huge amounts of money. In the second, they were not activist as they used a strict interpretation of the constitution to strike down the gun laws of Chicago. But to me, this required an interpretation that reflected the reality of today, not that of 250 years ago.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Big Chilling

A few nights ago, I watched the movie, The Big Chill for the first time in quite a while. (As a side note, I believe this was the 2nd movie my wife and I saw when we first started dating, the first being Star Wars, Revenge of the Jedi).

For those who have never seen The Big Chill, or don't remember the premise, in a nutshell, it details the forced reunion of a group of college friends after one of their group commits suicide. The music, of course, is dated if you are younger than 45, classic if of a more mature age. There are a number of interesting topics touched on by the friends as they grapple with their friend's death, their (mostly) disconnected lives since then, their current situations and the effect of their "histories" on their memories and the meaning of those times.

Although I am a college graduate, my Big Chill group includes friends I spent time with in the early to mid 80's. While a few did attend college, the core group only visited those attending higher education and only as an extension of our primary activities; rock concerts, parties, jobs for money, parties. To this day, I think of those friends, stay in touch with a few on an irregular basis and, occasionally, live in the past of my Big Chill group.

But I digress.

The reason for this post was to discuss the scene in the movie when the group reviews their hopes and dreams of those college days and how their current life choices reflect on those idealistic times.

Quick side bar here. Was this movie based on a book? If so, I would love to know if someone has read it as i would imagine the idealism that they only allude to in the movie is fleshed out more considerably in the book.

Anyway, it is idealism that is the point of this blog. In the movie, it is clear that the lawyer and the writer admittedly compromised their ideals for material comforts. The Kevin Kline character is unabashedly rich but I don't sense he was necessarily as idealistic as the other members of the group. The "druggie" seems to have maintained some idealism but uses the excuse of a narcissistic world to justify his continued use of drugs. Finally, the friend who has killed himself is portrayed as the most idealistic (and smartest) of the bunch; there is a scene, I think at the funeral where someone says he was too good for this world. And we know what happened to him.

In retrospect, perhaps I should be insulted by the portrayal of idealism in this movie. Although, as I look around at America today in light of the extreme greed, both individual and corporate that seems to rule the day, perhaps this portrayal is accurate. What happened to the challenge posed by our first "young" president who asked us to think about the country first and ourselves second. While so many took up his challenge and became teachers and social service providers, it is also this generation that has promulgated the obsession for "wealth" that led to our buying things on credit that we couldn't afford and creating financial instruments that were built on debt.

Some see a similar seed in President Obama's vision, but the ground upon which his words are spread seems less fertile. What is good for business, is good for America seems to be the rallying cry even as the gusher in the gulf continues to spew thousands of gallons of oil into our environment.

So, is idealism dead like the character in the movie? If not, what signs point to its existence? Solar panels on your roof or a hybrid car in the driveway? Familiarity and patronage at your local businesses, even if they are a bit more costly than the Wal-Mart SuperCenter? A portfolio that purposely posits social causes and green technology over profit? A job that provides spiritual compensation as well (or instead of) material rewards? Priorities that put the reduction of human suffering over the accumulation of natural resources, or land, or influence?

Perhaps the start is to at least acknowledge that we would like to return to the idealistic roots of our youth. If not, then let's hope that idealism does not go the way of the dead friend in the movie.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Line

I would imagine that if you asked the next 50 people that you encounter, 49 of them, if they answered seriously, would say that, all things being equal, they expected to go to heaven when they died. I have always thought that most people are good. My days of hitchhiking confirmed that belief, and my experiences at work, and in my community have done nothing to change that opinion. But what if we are wrong? What if the creator expects more us?

Less scrambling for wealth and more helping those less fortunate than ourselves. Less trumpeting ways in which we are better than others and more recognition that the birth lottery was good to us, how can we progress the lives of those not so lucky. Less finding reasons to distrust, isolate and kill, more searching for ways to bridge our differences; more love, less hate.

What if, at the end of the day, it is simply a matter of how many we've helped, not how much we've earned?

The Line

The rain pelted the windshield making visibility very limited. There was no place to pull over, so the driver of the car continued on, slowly. At a blind curve, two headlights lit up the night, temporarily turning the darkness into light. The collision occurred almost simultaneously as the driver's eyes recovered from the sudden light allowing him no time to react. The car teetered momentarily at the cliff's edge, then slid down the ravine into the shallow water below. Funny, the man thought, no pain.

The line stretched on in front of me to a point where I could still make out the colors of clothes but not the faces of their wearers. There was little chatter around me but it all sounded forced like the interactions one hears in an elevator. I chose to remain silent, only nodding my head at the woman in front of me when she turned around and smiled the smile one sees in line at the grocery store. Or at a funeral.

Gradually, we shuffled forward. We didn't seem to be moving very quickly yet I didn't sense the impatience one usually feels from a group stuck in a slowly moving, long line. I wondered if they all felt as I did, a feeling that the time would come, soon enough, when I would find myself at the front of the line. I heard a short, suppressed laugh in the distance behind me. It was a laugh that seemed to have been stopped short, not just by its owner but by the group as a whole, as if to remind everyone in line that this was not the place for laughter.

After a while, more than minutes but less than hours, I was surprised to find that I had a folder tucked under my arm. I glanced around me and noticed that everyone else also carried a similar folder. No one had opened their package and I followed suit.

More time passed and I was beginning to hear the words being spoken at the front of the line. Well, not really actual words, but voices. Soon I realized that every other voice seemed to be of the same pitch and eventually I understood that each conversation featured the voice of someone in line, like me, and the response from the person who was waiting for us. All of the conversations were brief.

For the second time since I had found myself in line, I was surprised. This time, my surprise was the result of realizing that there were two additional lines leading away from the front of the line in which I waited. How could I have missed them before? One moved very slowly and was extremely crowded. It disappeared into the distance and I got the sense that it did not end just out of sight. The second line was sparsely populated and the people moving within it were free to stride or trot or walk casually as they felt. I noticed that all those around me were also aware of the two lines. I imagined that they wished as I did, to be allowed to join those in that second line.

When I turned my attention back towards the front of my line, I could now clearly see the people as they approached the man whose voice I first detected. He was tall and lean, clothed in loose garb. There was nothing special about his clothes but he obviously commanded the attention of each person who approached him. As each individual personal drama played out, the tall man nodded, each person opened their folder, glanced at the words inside then handed the folder to the man. I heard each person say something, heard his voice respond, then watched as the majority of them walked off to the first, much longer line.

I was getting close now. I should have been close enough to hear the words but for some reason I could not. Yet I could tell that most of the conversations were not ending in the manner that was anticipated. While there was no anger being expressed, there was clearly disappointment of the kind that comes when an outcome is exactly opposite of expectation.

Then, despite the fact that I felt that I had been in line for quite a while, I was suddenly at the front of the line. It reminded me of the conversations that I had had with my grandparents when I was a young adult and they in the twilight of their lives. Time can seem interminable, they all said, yet the your life can seem so short, and the time of inevitable death can seem so sudden.

I looked up at the man at the front of the line. He was taller than I had calculated while I was standing in line. But it wasn't his height that was his most striking feature. It was his eyes. They were direct, compassionate, and sad. I had seen similar expressions during conversations where tragic news was being relayed. But his sadness went beyond the sadness that comes from just bringing bad news; his sadness seemed to reflect a responsibility in that he had provided the way to avoid this bad news but it had been ignored. He was obviously reading judgements yet these judgements were far from the judicial impartiality that we expect in our courts. He was visibly saddened by the decisions he was rendering.

I opened my folder and found one piece of paper with a sentence in very large print. It said, YOU MAY ASK ONE QUESTION. Below that line were other words in a language that I did not understand but clearly conveyed something to the man.

"How do you earn the right to take the second line?", I asked.

"You made your choice of which line you would walk every day of your life. You earned time on Line Two every time you performed an act of kindness, doubly so when done for someone you didn't know or who was different from yourself. You earned time on Line Two when your life reflected the spirit of your beliefs, when you were nice when it was hard to be nice, and when you defended someone being treated unjustly. You earned time on Line Two when you used the abilities that you were born with to help those less fortunate than yourself."

"You earned time on Line One when you made choices to benefit yourself regardless of its effect on others. You earned time on Line One when you used your religion to define who to love and who to hate. And you earned time on Line One when you did nothing even though you knew what was right but deferred action to someone else. You earned time on Line One when you used the abilities that you were born with to help only yourself."

"I told you how to live, did you not listen? So many men carrying the message of love, did you not heed them? So much suffering to help ease, did you not see it?"

I reflected on my life in an attempt to calculate which line I had earned through my actions and inactions. I glanced up at the man at the front of the line and moved towards the line he indicated.