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.