Monday, December 26, 2011

Merry Christmas

I am blessed today with an empty schedule and a stress free day.  No last minute gifts to buy or wrap, no insane traffic to navigate, no work at the liquor store.  Yes, I did deliver papers this morning but I returned a bit earlier than normal and slept until 9:30.  It was as if I had never left my bed at all.

I took advantage of this time to catch up on some newspaper reading and I opened a few days of mail.   I hope to read some more later and am looking forward to opening the book I received for Christmas and glancing through past editions of Smithsonian and National Geographic, both of which I am a few months behind on reading.

As for the big day itself, it was very nice.  Wonderful quality time with the family, delicious meals and a bit of excitement at gift opening time, even though the kids are far past the Santa stage.   I usually ask people what was the best gift they gave on Christmas as opposed to the best gift they received.  For me, I was very happy with the North Face coat that we gave my daughter.  Even thought she knew she was receiving one, the fact that she wore it the rest of the day indicates that she was pleased.  For my son, two T-shirts with sayings related to Nietzsche was his best gift from me.  He is talking about a minor in philosophy and has already taken a number of classes in that field, so the Tees were appropriate.  But the most appreciated gift was the Kindle that I gave to my wife.  She used it practically all day!!

Speaking of Christmas gifts, I see that our congressmen gave us an extension of the reduced payroll tax for two more months in 2012.  I imagine that it will be extended to the remainder of the year once they return from their winter break (any reason why they can't call it Christmas break, or at least holiday break??).  It is a shame that there needed to be such posturing and political gamesmanship around this vote.  Clearly, a little more money in the hands of working Americans can only be a good thing.  I will never understand the continued devotion of some everyday Americans for the GOP, especially the current version which seems even more in love with the idea that giving all the breaks and advantages to the rich will trickle down to the rest of us.  Some recent letters in the Inquirer included opinions from people who truly believed that the House Republicans wanted the one year tax reduction.  I guess they missed the vote that I detailed in my last blog in which those same representatives voted against the tax holiday because they couldn't stomach the idea of raising taxes on the super rich to pay for it.  Oh well, I promised to avoid political statements on this blog so...

To conclude, I was again extremely grateful and pleasantly surprised about the number of my newspaper clients who chose to send me a Christmas greeting.  For all the horrific stories that are reported these days about man's cruelty to each other, I still like to think that given the choice between good and bad, the vast majority of people choose to do good. 

Here's wishing you a happy and healthy holiday season.  Whether through personal acts of kindness or pay-it-forward types of organized giving or just by holding one's tongue rather than saying something ugly or hurtful, let us all try to keep the spirit of Christmas alive in our everyday thoughts and deeds.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Voting Against Your Interests

Very chilly mornings this past week.  Upper teens and low 20's for my newspaper deliveries.  Stark contrast to last week's upper 50 degree mornings, during one of which I drove with my window down almost the entire route. 

Weekend papers are getting HEAVY, and I don't mean the news within.  I was able to include a holiday greeting to all my customers and have already received return greetings.  Nice!!

I have heard, and I have often repeated, the idea that when middle class Americans vote Republican they are voting against their interests.  By that I mean that they are supporting a party whose policies favor those in the upper income ranges.  The recent wrangling over extending the payroll tax reduction that has been in place this past year is a case in point.  Republicans have either voted against extension or have added other bills in conjunction with the extension that favor big business or big money.  This extension has provided approximately $1000 (based on a $50K income) in tax relief to each working individual.  It is an example of bottom up economics whereby more money in put into hands of everyday people who it is hoped will spend that money on goods and services thereby stimulating the economy or pay down debt.  Two positive goals, I would think.

So, if my premise is true that voting Republican votes against the interests of working folk, why do we do it?  After all, if all middle class Americans, those earning less that $150K per year were to vote Democratic then all Democrats would win with double digit percentages to spare!

(Please note here that I am not in favor of an all-Democratic party run government.  We need a variety of viewpoints represented in our political system because neither party nor economic philosophy has all the answers nor is always in the right.  What I am trying to distinguish is which party currently represents what I term middle class American interests).

As I have stated more than once, I believe the answer lies in our apathetic approach to our democracy in general and our elected officials in particular.  We can quote the latest stat on our favorite sports star, or describe in detail what the hottest starlet wore at last nights gala, but we don't have a clue as to how our congressmen and women are voting.  Sure, we can rely on them telling us that they always vote for family values and jobs and opportunity for all, but when the actual bills come to the floor, what do they really vote for and who do they really represent?

And, while I firmly place the burden on the electorate, you and me, it is also true that the politicians make it difficult to know what they are voting for.  They attach all kinds of riders and amendments to what should be straight forward bills which allow them to say they voted for or against something when it suits their needs.  And, sometimes they can vote for or against something even if the vote is not what they truly believe because they know that the bill won't pass and it allows them to save face when questioned.

Still, despite the games, it is our responsibility to hold our reps accountable.  But how?  For me, I look in the Local section of the Inquirer every week for a summary of the recent House and Senate votes.  This past week the paper listed two major votes in the House and three in the Senate and it detailed our local area's reps votes, local area defined as Pennsylvania and New Jersey for House votes, and PA, NJ and Delaware for Senate votes.  (I am sure there were others as well so with this tool I am limited to what the Inquirer has determined to be "major" votes). 

In the Republican controlled House, two bills were sent to the Senate.  One would bar any new EPA regulation of course-particle dust generated by farming and certain other activities in rural areas.  In other words, it bars the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating pollution.  This vote was along party lines; all area Republican voted for, all area Democrats but one voted against.  The second bill would empower either chamber of congress to kill any new major rules proposed by any federal agency.  Currently, new rules take effect unless congress votes to disapprove.  This new law would require Congress to approve any new rule and would even render the rule unlawful if the rule was tabled (not voted on) for 70 days.  In other words, no action would kill the new rule.  This vote was completely along party lines, Republicans for, Democrats against.

In the Democratic controlled Senate, four major votes.  If you didn't know, the Senate operates under rules which enable the minority party to block voting on a particular bill unless the majority party has 60 votes.  In other words, they vote to allow a vote and if there are less than 60 votes, there is no vote on the bill.  The first vote was an attempt to break the GOP blockage of a vote to confirm the nomination of the Obama selection to head the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.  The Republican party had been dead set against this new federal agency so despite the creation of the department in 2010, there has been no one appointed to head it.  (Elizabeth Warren was the first choice).  All area Democratic Senators wanted to advance the vote, the one local area Republican Senator was against. 

Vote two was a Democratic sponsored bill to extend the temporary lowering of the Social Security payroll tax.  Again, 60 votes were needed to pass, but only 50 were gained.  All area Democratic Senators for, one area Republican against. 

Vote three was a Republican sponsored bill to extend the payroll tax but it included other items that were not in the Democratic bill.  All area Democratic and the one are Republican Senatos against.

The last vote was to end the Republican filibuster against the nomination of a US Court of Appeals judge.  Again, 60 votes needed to advance a vote on the nomination but only 54 yes votes cast so no vote to vote on the nomination.  All area Democratic Senators for, one area Republican Senator against.

So, first, did you know that Senate bills need 60 votes to advance even though 51 is a majority?  Second, does it surprise you that so many votes are along party lines?  Third, do votes to reduce the EPA's ability to regulate pollution benefit everyday people or big business?  Fourth, do votes to temporarily reduce taxes from working class people benefit everyday people?  Fifth, do votes to block voting on nominations reflect your understanding of how Congress should work?  Sixth, do votes to block the nomination of the head of a federal department which will oversee Wall Street and the creators of financial services benefit everyday Americans or big monied interests?

Clearly, I have shown my hand in the above analysis of our area congressional votes.

What is your opinion of which party votes to benefit working class Americans?   

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Labor of Love II

Sorry for the gap since my last post.  The stars aligned in such a way that last Wednesday was the busiest day of the year for both jobs.  I delivered 2 complete sets of papers to most of my weekend customers between 10:00 PM-1:00 AM Wednesday into Thursday then again from 5:00 AM - 8:00 AM Thanksgiving morning.  Also, I spent 14+ hours (each day) in the car picking up and bringing back my son to college last Tuesday and this past Sunday.  The weather and the traffic did not cooperate for either trip.  Needless to say, while Thanksgiving was very nice, both from the standpoint of the wonderful meal and company, I was much too tired to really enjoy it.  It is clear that I need to replace the newspaper gig for something which requires fewer hours.  Hopefully the new year will bring me this opportunity.

I did manage to appreciate the unseasonably warm weather we have experienced this past week.  I believe the temp may have reached 70 degrees one day.  Certainly we had upper 60 degrees for a bunch of days in a row.  Nature also gave us some spectacular sunsets during that streak of warm weather.

My last blog touched on the need for more of us to enjoy our work.  To find meaning in it even if it is below our abilities or is routine in its nature.  Part two of this discussion concerns teamwork. 

I will be the first to admit that I work best alone.  I generally feel that I get more accomplished when I don't have to explain or share a task with another.  Fortunately, my years of working have helped me to improve my ability to both work with others and manage a group in a way that creates a team  atmosphere.  While I can easily revert back to my solitary ways, I do feel that when properly focused I can mesh the variety of skills of each member of a team to create results that exceed what each person might be able to accomplish on their own.  I also, grudgingly, am able to be a member of a team when I am not the leader, although, again, it is a trait that I am far from mastering.

This concept of teamwork is trumpeted far and wide by all types of entities, be it corporations, sports teams, families or even couples.  Yet I am beginning to wonder if there are times when our spirit of American individualism gets in the way of taking full advantage of the power of a true team attitude. 

The easiest example is in the area of sports.  So often fans clamor for the best talent and owners pay huge sums of money to acquire that talent.  Then, at the end of the season, it is very rare for the team with the best players to win the championship.  Each player may be the best, or one of the best at his position, but together the group is unable to set aside their individual needs for big stats and glory and do what it takes to advance the team.  Do you need talent to win in sports?  Of course.  But there is more to it than swinging the best bat or throwing the tightest spiral or throwing down the mightiest dunk.  The really great players make those around them better in addition to displaying their exceptional talents.  The really great managers can take advantage of each players skills while hiding their weaknesses to create a team that excels even with less talent.  And, to me, most importantly, the average players or role players if you will, know their place on the team and play the game within their skill level.  They understand that the team needs each of them to succeed and that it is each players contribution that adds up to that success.  The team becomes more than the sum of its parts. 

The other obvious example is the recent failure of the super committee to provide a framework for spending and debt reduction.  In that case, the team members, all intelligent, seemingly concerned men and women who knew the importance of their task, achieved far less as a team.  They were less than the sum of their parts.  It seems that this scenario is a perfect description of how our elected officials have performed in recent years.  As I have said before, perhaps we need a new bunch of players in this arena.

Lastly, we have the current 99% to 1% demonstrations that have been the focus of the Occupy... groups.  I hear and understand criticism of this movement which reminds the Occupy protesters that we don't want to vilify the super rich of this country just because they are successful.  Being rich should not be a scarlet letter.  Capitalism, for all its faults, is still the best economic system for providing opportunity and upward mobility.  Perhaps then, one of the points of Occupy... should be the team concept.  Sure, those making the BIG decisions, those with the BIG ideas, those with the BIG ambition that create new industries, should be rewarded.  But so too should those doing the actual work!  If the idea is for the team to succeed, team in this case being defined as the American economy, then we all need to contribute and we all need to experience the rewards.  When a sports team wins the big game, do all the players get a ring or a chance to skate around with the Cup?  Yes!  They are rewarded as a team.  Perhaps our message to the 1% should remind them that we all need to be rewarded for our hard work and effort because without the contributions of EVERY member of the team, in the end, no one will win.   

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

End of Occupy movement?

The last few days have featured some significant developments for the Occupy protesters.  In New York City, the home of the movement, a coordinated police crackdown emptied out the encampment in the early morning hours.  While it was stated that the protesters could move back, it was also made clear that they could only do so without their tents, sleeping bags and other overnight gear.  Similar "clearing out" of Occupy makeshift camps has occurred in other cities. 

Here in Philadelphia, there have been calls from those who previously supported the movement for them to leave their current site at Dilworth Plaza due to the construction project that is scheduled to begin soon.  More than one commentator has pointed out that by delaying their change of venue, the Phila faction of Occupy is interfering with jobs that will help the very 99% that they claim to represent.

So, are we seeing the beginning of the eventual end of this movement? 

I would like to think that it is merely the end of the first stage.  This first stage, to get the attention of both the 1% that the protesters are singling out and the remaining 99% that they hope will join their cause, has been successful.  The Occupy movement garners front page newspaper space, time on the talk shows, and a huge range of internet exposure.  Its main message, that our economic and political systems have been rigged to favor those who have the most at the expense of everyone else, has been delivered. 

But what will encompass stage two?

I believe that despite the reams of date that exist which demonstrate that there is undoubtedly a growing gap between the haves and have nots, and that the majority of those in the have not category recognize this inequity, it is also true that the belief in capitalism overrides this acknowledged trend.

As a case in point, my current full time job with the PLCB is fodder for those who believe that the government does not belong, nor is capable of competing, in any free market environment.  Even what many would call the "liberal" Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper, has made its position clear that Pennsylvania should privatize this system.  In this case, the Inquirer fails to make the connection between its often editorialized position that middle class Americans are being squeezed through the loss of jobs which provide a livable wage.  The fact is, should the PLCB be privatized, thousands of livable wage jobs will be lost, along with the health benefits of thousands of middle class families.  One only has to look at the wage and benefits packages of the people who currently work in the retail industry, the supermarkets, pharmacies and department stores, to know that any jobs that are replaced or added with this privatization plan will be jobs in the $10 dollar an hour range with limited if any health benefits.  More squeezing of the middle class, yet all the profit which once went to the state of PA will now flow to businesses and corporations with a history of low wage and benefits compensation. 

So, we cling to the belief that only capitalism with its emphasis on free markets, entrepreneurship, and competition is the best answer to our economic woes.  But here is a surprise.  I also believe that to be true.  In fact, we need people to want to strive to improve their lives and so we need a system that rewards those for doing so.  We need people to believe that the system will work for them.  But most importantly, we need the system to actually deliver on those promises.  And that needs to be the message of stage two.

The facts seem to suggest, that Americans have faith that capitalism will work for them.  Millions of examples of its ability to provide the vehicle for upward mobility and economic comfort abound.  While we might feel justified about vilifying the 1%, it is a much higher percentage of Americans that are actually being rewarded via capitalism, and more importantly, believe they will be rewarded if they put in the effort.  

In my opinion then, the second stage of this movement must

- continue to hammer home the message that there is a growing income inequality in America today.  That more and more of the wealth (and political muscle) is flowing away from the working class citizens of this country and towards those with the most to lose should the trend be addressed. 

- continue to cite research such as that just concluded recently by Stanford University which reports that family incomes in the top 117 metropolitan areas of America have experienced a severe shift in both directions away from the midde class.  To summarize its findings, in 2007 44% of families lived in middle income neighborhoods, down from 65% in 1970.  While some of that shift has been upward, most has been downward towards poverty. 

- limit attacks on capitalism as a system but focus on the abuses that exist in its current form.  Hold the system accountable for actually providing economic opportunities and address those obstacles, whether it be corporate greed, political corruption or citizen apathy, that prevent its proper functioning

- push for political campaign funding reform.  We need to reduce the influence of money on our elected officials. 

- remind the 99% that voting is our best solution to sending a message to both Washington and the 1%.  The alternative, some type of citizen revolt, is not a choice anyone should embrace

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Labor of Love

Unseasonably mild the past few days.  Drove my route with the driver side window down at times.  People wearing shorts and sandals walking around town.  Again with the unusual weather. 

This past weekend, my wife and I received a pair of tickets from friends to see the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra at the Kimmel Center.  In addition to the beautiful music, I was inspired to reflect upon the time and devotion that the musicians have invested in their craft.  At least for this particular performance, the players exhibited a deep respect for the music itself, for their individual expressions, and for the appreciative audience.  It seemed clear that this was not merely a day at work for these people but a labor of love full of meaning that transcended the monetary compensation they were receiving.

How many of us feel that way at our jobs?

As many of you know, I deliver newspapers in the wee morning hours, everyday, no exceptions.  I also work full time in a retail environment.  At times I have been reminded that perhaps I should be employed in work that is more challenging, and am asked if I am bored in these endeavors.  Perhaps I have not attained the professional stature that my parents imagined on that day when I was born.  Perhaps I took the easy route as opposed to challenging myself with studies, or employment that might have better matched my talents.  It would be too easy to shrug away those thoughts with "I guess this was my destiny" or "the breaks didn't fall my way", or "its not what you know but who you know", but I will not use those excuses.  I made my choices and for better or worse, will live by the results.  But, as for being bored, that is one disease that I will not succumb to. 

Boredom is not a product of the act you perform but a product of your perception of that act.  

It is certainly easy to criticize the athlete who takes a game off, then a week, then half a season, or musicians, artists, or entertainers who "go through the motions" after weeks of performing the same songs or show.  We accuse them of a lack of respect for their trade and their talent and themselves.  We think we see what they cannot -  that they have forgotten the original spark that inspired them to pursue those areas of expression and we wish we had that talent (and money) and declare that if we did, we certainly wouldn't be wasting it but would appreciate it. 

But then we go off to work.  We watch the clock, we make plans for the weekend, we chat with our fellow employees, we complain about our employer and our customers and our lives.   We are working for the money, only, yet can't understand why someone making millions of dollars would have a perspective any different from our own.

Whether it is a natural byproduct of the change in the nature of the jobs we perform, jobs that no longer result in a tangible product that we can look upon with pride, jobs that required working with living things such as animals, jobs that included preparing a field, planting seeds and harvesting the crops, whether it is a culture that values money and possessions over honesty and integrity, or whether it is the corporate mentality that provides us with an excuse to gauge everything with the yardstick of the dollar, and enables those in charge to use profit as an excuse to regard labor as getting the most while paying the least, it is clear that pride in our jobs is becoming a lost attribute.

Or perhaps we just don't know what pride in our jobs entails.

Pride in your job means throwing papers up driveways or jumping out to toss one on a porch or double bagging when it is raining knowing that someone might depend on that paper for their link to the world.  Pride in your job is keeping the shelves fully stocked and fronted knowing that small people shop too, and ringing your customer's purchase at the register with a smile or pleasantry.  Pride in your job is picking the orders as quickly and efficiently as possible knowing that someone is dependent on that product arriving as ordered.  Pride in your job is cooking fast food properly and serving it hot and fresh knowing that the hungry person on the other side of the counter is pressed for time.  Pride in your job is sweeping up at the end of the day so the next shift whether it is you or not, can start with a clean work area.  Pride in your job is examining the monetary ramifications of an investment or mortgage in light of what is best for your clients and not just for the commission it will generate for you.  Pride in your job is accepting the honor of representing your country as an elected official then doing your utmost to fashion policies and laws that benefit the everyday people you represent and not just the ones with money and status.

Pride in your job is performing at a rate beyond the mere salary or status assigned to that job.  It is YOUR job and a reflection of YOUR character.

And, amazingly enough, pride in your job, laboring with love, makes the day pass easily and takes the work out of working.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Another Special Day

About 340 days ago I published my initial blog entitled A Special Day to commemorate both New Years Day and the numerical oddity of 1/1/11.

Well, here we are in the same year and we have another repeating number in the date, 11/11/11.  Knowing that next year will bring us 12/12/12 and then nothing similar until 2/2/22 which will mark 10 years between these special days, I thought it appropriate to touch again upon the topic.

In the original piece, I commented about the 10 year+ span between the two 2011 dates, next year's 2012 date and the 2022 occurrence from the perspective of how our lives might be different.  To hammer home that point, think about how life has changed just since 1/1/11 for the following people.

Herman Cain
Jerry Sandusky
the victims of Sandusky
Joe Paterno
all the Japanese people living near the Fukushima nuclear plants 
the couple hundred American soldiers who have died in Iraq/Afghanistan
the families of those soldiers
the Occupy Wall Street protesters
Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou
All the Greek people facing significant cuts in their pensions and salaries

Such dramatic changes and the corresponding stress and anxiety as compared to the often heard complaint about the routines that we all face in our daily lives.  Sometimes hectic, sometimes boring but still routines.  It makes one wonder that if push came to shove, would we choose to continue our routines or choose the thrill of having our lives turned upside down?

Of course, one could say that one man's hectic schedule is another's boring routine.  Regardless, it is important to take time to step back and look around.  One of my favorite movies is Ferris Bueller's Day Off.  At one point in the movie, he looks at the camera and says something to the effect that "life moves pretty fast and if you don't stop and look around once in a while you could miss it".  I have been fortunate enough that I have found the time in these last 10 months to NOT miss

My daughter play water polo
My wife find a new job
My son start to mature at college
My dad battle back from a fractured hip
My yearly family vacation in the Poconos
"Good mornings" to the dozens of deer, rabbit, fox, skunk, cats, cows and even 2 horses that I have met on my morning route
Moon lit pre-dawn mornings
Spectacular sun rises
The first growth of spring in our backyard
Summer barbecues (cooked by my son!!)
The first frost on the car windows
October snow

Nothing spectacular as compared to running for president or fighting on foreign soil or living in a tent in a park in New York but all events that can enhance the answer to "what's new?"  It is certainly better than "nothing", or "same old thing" or my least favorite, "same shit, different day".

Finally, let's not forget that today is also Veteran's Day.  Or, more importantly, let's not forget the actual veterans that served their country.  Especially those just returning from our most recent foreign conflicts.  It is bad enough that we send, mostly kids, off to hostile environments, but when they return to face high unemployment, foreclosed homes, divorce, children they never met, poor medical facilities, and a group of politicians that say all the right things but do very little to smooth their transition from the military world to the civilian world, well, it makes one wonder if we should stop pretending that we honor their service and sacrifice and admit that they are merely hired guns.   




Monday, November 7, 2011

A Liberal and a Libertarian (finale)

Delivering the papers in temps in the upper 20's the last two days.  Brrrrrr. 

Started my new job this past week -- well, similar job but at a new location.  Very excited about all that I may be able to accomplish there.  Hope the slight bump in income allows me to reduce or eliminate the necessity for delivering papers which in turn will provide more time to blog.

Perhaps I wasn't quite fair to my libertarian friend in my last blog.  His opinions are just as valid as mine (although perhaps less well thought out).  Oops, did it again!

What it seems to boil down to is that we disagree on who to trust, or more precisely, who to trust less.  He does not trust politicians in general, and our elected federal officials in particular.  He sees POWER as their goal more so than public service.  He trusts the business world to provide the necessary goods and services in a way that provides jobs and economic growth, and trusts that the market will sufficiently penalize those businesses that produce shoddy goods, provide inadequate services and/or compensate their employees poorly.  A business will fail when its finances become unsustainable while a government can borrow or print more money when its finances are unsound. 

I do not trust businesses in general and corporations in particular.  I see PROFIT as their goal more so than providing quality products and services to their customers.  I trust in our elected officials, who we individually vote for in our democratic electoral system, to enact policies that will assist the citizenry that is most in need of help, and regulate business by providing guidelines that attempt to penalize those that take advantage of their employees and/or customers, and guarantee that the shared resources of our country are not polluted (air and water) nor inequitably used to enrich a small percentage of the population.  When our government fails to ask as its citizens require, we can replace it with new representatives.

Obviously, there are both good and bad politicians, good and bad businesses.  The danger at hand seems to be that those with PROFIT as their goal are using said profit to influence those with POWER as their goal and have combined to turn both our democracy and our economic system into one which unfairly rewards a small percentage of Americans to the detriment of the majority.  Regardless as to whether you want to call it the 99% or the silent majority or the backbone or the heartland of the country, we are under-represented in the halls of Washington and the board rooms of corporate America.

The tea party crystallized the distrust in our government by focusing on its size.  Bigger is worse, I guess.  Yet the movement fails to apply the same logic to our corporations.  This, I believe, is, or should be, one of the messages of the Occupy Wall Street Movement.  Not necessarily that business is bad, but that these huge corporations are an issue.  Is it a coincidence that top end executive pay has increased hundreds of times in the past 30 years while average working class salaries have stagnated?  If our largest corporations, especially the financial ones, are too big to fail, and if our elected officials have put into power people that have spent significant time working for those financial institutions, have we reached the time when our fears of big government and our fears of big business have been realized.  It is a win-win situation for the POWER and the PROFIT hungry and a lose-lose situation for the rest of us.

Still, I would be remiss if I didn't remind everyone that each of us are as much responsible for our situation as those hated politicians and corporate execs.  We want our 401K statements to reflect increases and we want our social security checks to keep on coming.  We want oil to be the cheapest in the Western world but refuse to see the connection between our obscenely high defense budget and our federal deficit.  We want to be able to tweet our next Occupy sit-in to everyone on our friends' list but forget that the phone was most likely manufactured by workers making dollars a day for corporations making billions of dollars a year.  We want lower medicare deductibles and cheaper medicines and longer lives but forget that as our population ages, the demographic shift is stressing the programs designed to provide such benefits.

So, perhaps we need to remember that democracy and capitalism are the worst government and economic systems yet invented, except for every other one.  That the systems are only as good as the people in charge and those involved.  That criticism of government is just as necessary as criticism of big business when either one loses its focus.  That, just like the recent "transfer-your-banking-business-to-a-credit-union-or-smaller-bank day, we can all make a difference, one vote or one act at a time but that it starts with that (hopefully) smiling face you see each morning in your mirror.     


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Liberal and a Libertarian II

An unusual snow storm hit the east coast the past weekend.  We received about 6 inches of snow here but some parts of New England saw a couple of feet of the white stuff.  Strange how we keep seeing weather related stories that lead with "unexpected..." or "unusual..." or "record...".  How much more evidence do we need to accept that climate change is happening? 

My conversations with my libertarian friend will most likely cease as I have been transferred to a new store.  It is a promotion so I am glad but I will miss working and discussing the topics of the day with him, especially as the election cycle continues to bring such a wide range of viewpoints and material to review.

One topic that I need to amend from my first Liberal and a Libertarian blog is concerning taxes.  I misunderstood my friend's position of taxes from the tax rate standpoint.  He is not in favor of the progressive tax system whereby those earning more pay a higher rate.  He is fine with a tax rate that only kicks in at a level of livability, for instance $50K for a family of four, but he would prefer the same rate to be applied regardless of income whether it be $50K, $500K or $5 million per year.  Sort of a flat tax but with consideration for size of household. 

In our last discussion of potential tax reform (something we certainly agreed needs to be addressed), we came upon a compromise plan that did not satisfy completely but did move the discussion forward.  These numbers are not set in stone, but the idea was to continue tax deductions for the lower income earners (unlike the 9-9-9 plan of candidate Cain).  These deductions, certainly number of dependents, probably mortgage interest and education expenses, perhaps state and local taxes, medical and charitable itemizations, would phase out as income increased.  Again, the actual income levels are open for debate,  and a yearly adjustment, up or down, would be required based on a cost of living index, but we were both willing to accept deductions which decreased for every $50,000 of income.  

100% up to $50K per year
90% from $50-99K
80% from $100-149K, etc
down to 10% for income from $449-$499K
and no deductions for those reporting an income of $500,000 or more per year.

As for the flat tax rate, given that some income earners are able to itemize, the same rate for everyone would not actually be the same rate given that someone with an income of $48,000 who can deduct 100% of deductions would lower their taxabe income to $28,000.  This persone would now pay a lower effective percentage after deductions than someone with an income of $480K who can only subtract 10% of their deductions or as compared to someone earning $800K who can deduct nothing. 

At this point, whether it be a 15% flat tax for everyone (or 9% or 20%), the idea was that once income reached a certain level, the tax percentage was paid.  Period.  No complicated rules or clever accounting.

Question?  Is there any chance a plan like this can be implemented?  It seems to give no side everything, simplifies the tax code, and reinforces the idea that while the government needs to collect taxes it needs to do so in a relatively fair and equitable way which provides some upward mobility for lower income earners without unduly restraining the motivation for ambition, innovation and growth.
As for disagreement, the two biggest areas were business and health care.

In the eyes of my libertarian friend, there should be very little if any restrictions on how someone chooses to run his/her business.  He should be able to hire whom he pleases.  Pay what he deems fair.  Provide or not provide health care, or any benefits for that matter.  In an ideal world, employees will take jobs for those with compensation packages that are attractive and not apply to those employers with sub par offers.  The market would rule.  Employers who treated employees fairly would get the best people and thrive.  Employers who treated their employees poorly would see high turnover rates and poor work performance.  Inevitably employees would help determine appropriate benefits by moving towards employers who offer the most inclusive benefits. 

Additionally, without government interference, there would be no need to lobby for special rules or exemptions for one industry over another.  No corporate lobbyists flying our elected officials to the Bahamas on "fact-finding" trips (did you ever notice that they never fly to Alaska or Greenland for these trips?) because there would be no reason to affect government policy.  To be honest, I have to wonder if merely eliminating all work rules would remove the necessity for all that corporate shenanigans?  Of course, we would also have to dial down the environmental laws, but what is a bit of smog or dirty water if we can rid Washington of all those special interest lobbyists for the business world?  There is certainly some envy in some parts of the west over the current Chinese version of capitalism.  We could have that too, as long as we are willing to turn a blind eye to $5 an hour wages, few if any work holidays, reduced heat in the winter, no air conditioning in the summer, effluent dumping in our neighborhood creeks and rivers, and just a bit more acid rain to help scrub away the dirt and grime on our roads and bridges. 

But wait, I thought employees would only work for employers who did the right thing?  Oh, that's right.  That only works when there are jobs to be chosen from.  In a high unemployment time, like now, we would just have to take what we could get.  We just need to have faith that once the economy recovers, all those low paying job holders will see an increase in pay as employers become flush with excess money.  (I guess the $2 trillion dollars that is supposedly on the books of our biggest corporations isn't quite excess enough). 

As for health care, again, the ideal world awaits us.  Since even fewer employers will provide health care coverage, you can pull up those boot straps and get your own.  And, as long as one stays healthy, premiums will be affordable, if you choose to buy coverage at all.  Of course, since you are on your own and there is no "group" to buffer the costs of health care should you get sick, be involved in an accident, or begin to age, you will pay the market price.  Can't afford it?  Well, I guess you should have been more careful and avoided that accident, or ate better foods so you didn't get sick, or made sure you were born to parents with better aging genes so your health remained good over time.  Cancer, diabetes, disabled in an accident?  If insurance companies had to cover the cost of all those people who fell victim to these problems, how would they make a profit?  Clearly, in a market driven economy, the sick must pay more for health care and health care coverage just as you would for any consummable or service. 

But then again, perhaps we can reverse the recent increase in life expectancy.  Without environmental regs, there should be more pollution so that will reduce the number of seniors.  And, less health care coverage will mean less health care services so people will begin to die younger.  So perhaps a truly libertarian viewpoint will work; each person is responsible for themselves, and those that can't provide are left to their own devices.  Survival of the fittest.  Darwinism wins again!  Put that in your creationism pipe and smoke it!



Friday, October 28, 2011

To Vote or not to Vote

First morning in the 30's today.  Possible snow tomorrow morning. Yikes.  (I have used that word a few times lately.  Kind of like it).

This past Monday's Phila. Inquirer had an interesting juxtaposition of lead articles. 

One recounted the lack of faith in either American political party in this current election cycle.  Republican voters are dissatisfied with their cast of candidates while Democratic voters are disappointed with President Obama and the economic direction the country has taken since 2008. 

The second lead article portrayed the hope and excitement of the Tunisian people who were voting, at a 90% pace, in their first free election. 

Clearly, if given the option, most Americans would express preference for our democratic process as opposed to a totalitarian regime or military dictatorship.  We pride ourselves in the belief that we invented both democracy and capitalism, and seem more than willing to spread the good news of both systems to the far corners of the world, even if by gunpoint if necessary.  So why are we so complacent in exercising our voting obligation?   

Notwithstanding the current Occupy Wall Street protests, we decry the proliferation of money in our political system, cry foul when we hear of elected officials riding on corporate jets to "meetings" in warm climes (why don't they ever fly off to Alaska for these "research meetings"?), and shake our heads in disgust when we hear of another Wall street insider fraud scheme or another round of obscene bonuses paid to the CEO's of corporations recently bailed out by taxpayer money, yet we continue to shy away from the polls as if voting itself is the cause of our ills.

We watch without response as our representatives in Washington routinely pass "defense" spending bills that include the building of infrastructure and schools in Iraq and Afghanistan, while cheering the same politicians who propose plans to balance our state and national budgets by slashing education budgets or eliminating the Department of Education.    

If we are less than excited about our choices for this next election, perhaps we need to take a few moments, put down the sports page, the TV remote and the I-phone, and spend some time finding a candidate and/or party that we do believe in.  And, if that candidate or party lets us down, find another.  Perhaps we should pretend that participating in the electoral process, local, state and federal, is actually important.  That knowing the names of the people who represent us is as good a conversation starter as the judges on American Idol.   

Perhaps we should remember that the alternatives to free and fair elections are being jettisoned in countries all over the world, in some cases after dozens of years of the killing of those advocating democracy.   Is that what we need, to have to fight for the right to vote all over again?  

And speaking of voting, why are we suddenly so focused on making it harder to vote?  Shouldn't we be promoting policies that encourage voting?  Perhaps make it a weekend long event?  Or, gasp, close all our schools and businesses for a day and make voting the focus of all activity.  We know that sex is used to sell everything, perhaps the right marketing campaign featuring just enough titillation and call for patriotism will work. 

I keep hearing that our government doesn't work any more.  Or that our political system is broken.  When only 1 in 3 people can expend the effort to vote, when more people watch the Simpsons than a political debate featuring the (possible) future president of the country, when the understanding of civics is considered either the study of underwear of a course on operating a Honda, then what is broken is the American belief in its greatest export; democracy.  And that is truly a sad state of affairs.


Friday, October 21, 2011

A Liberal and a Libertarian

This past summer I became acquainted with a young man who is a libertarian.  I know he is a libertarian because he sometimes wears a T-shirt that defines and spells out, in syllables the word libertarian.  I also know because he has more than once uttered that famous libertarian phrase

Republicans stay out of my bedroom,
Democrats stay out of my wallet!

During the initial phase of our discussions, we often focused on topics in which we disagreed.  Business related items and the recent health care reforms were front and center.  But recently, we decided to broach subjects which produced an agreement, if not in total then at least an agreement that could create a "bipartisan" response.  Here are a few of those topics.

Gay Marriage.  This was a no brainer.  Any person who values and reveres the Constitution of the United States would be hard-pressed to find justification for preventing two consenting adults to marry.  It is such a basic tenet in our belief in the individuals right to "pursuit of happiness" that only a strong discrimination against who and how someone chooses to express their love prevents this from passing the way of intolerance that discouraged ethnic intermarriage, religious intermarriage and interracial marriage. 

Abortion.  Again, consensus.  While neither of us encourage abortion as a means of birth control, and had not (to our knowledge) has a sexual encounter that led to an abortion, we were clearly on the side of a woman's right to choose.  Again, considering that abortion is currently legal in America, and considering the alternative of unsafe, "back alley" procedures, and tens of thousands of unwanted children, it seems completely arbitrary that America would continue to treat abortion as anything other than a woman's right to decide issues related to her body.  As a side note, we postured (rather cynically, I admit) that if men could bear children, abortion would not be as important an issue.

Taxation.  Surprisingly (to me), my libertarian friend was not opposed to taxation.  He understood the need for the government to have money for national defense, and to assist its citizens when they were in need.  He even agreed with our current progressive tax system which has higher tax rates for those earning more incomes.  He could not see the logic of a flat tax which asked someone making $20K per year to pay the same rate as someone earning $200K or $200 million.  We both felt that taxation was a method to raise the necessary capital to run a country, not a way to punish those just starting out or of a limited earning capability.  Of course, we do not see eye to eye on many areas in which the government uses our tax money but at least we could agree to debate where to spend the money as opposed to whether we should tax at all.

Religion.  No surprise here that we saw too much religion in our politics but not enough spirituality.  Who can sleep with who, which religion is Christian and which is not, what does the bible say, etc, are not topics that belong in our political debates.  Strangely, we both noted the strange bed partners that many who expouse the most "religious" beliefs and their overwhelming support for military solutions to the world's problems.

War.  Constitutionally, the duty of our government to protect the citizens of our country is undeniable.  Whether we should be spending upwards of 25% of every dollar we collect in taxes, and approximately 65% of the discretionary money available in our national budget was something we both questioned.  Too many foreign bases, too many military actions, too many lost lives, too many big budget war toys that we will never use, too much wasted resources outside our country while our infrastructure slowly crumbles and our citizens remain unemployed.

Individual responsibility.  Surprisingly (to my friend), I advocate individual responsibility first and foremost.  Are you doing all that you can for yourself, your family, and your country?  Have you exhausted all resources before looking to the state for help?  I know that liberals are accused of expecting the government to help everyone, to provide equal results as opposed to equal opportunity.  I am able to acknowledge that there are times when we go too far to create a more equitable life style when a libertarian acknowledges that there are times when working class people lose their jobs through no fault of their own, when disease and accident prevent people and families from living the American dream and, yes Virginia, when corporations and businesses operate under the maxim "let the buyer beware" thereby justifying all the corner cutting and inferior products they produce in the name of profit.  We agreed that both regular people who sometimes give in to the easy way out and let someone else provide for them and the people with the resources and the ambition who ignore their place in the family of man are at fault when it comes to forgetting the importance of individual responsibility.

If my new libertarian friend and I can find common ground in discussing the topics of the day and together develop solutions towards solving those issues, why can't our elected officials in Washington do the same.  Do they not represent a range of viewpoints just as he and I do?  If they cannot, perhaps we need to elect a new bunch that can.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Death Less Noticed

Rain returned this week.  Nothing like the drenchings we had a month or so ago, but still enough to require double bagging of the newspapers.  Fortunately, the temperatures were mild so I was able to deliver in my shorts and sandals a few of the days.
And again, so many deer this week, including a family of three on the front lawn of a house in a neighborhood that I would not consider rural in the least. 

I mentioned in my last blog that the remarkable Steve Jobs died last week.  Clearly, his mark on history will be far reaching.

Perhaps even as important but far less publicized was another death, that of Frank Kameny.  I was completely unaware of Mr. Kameny's existence let alone his importacne in the gay rights movement.  As someone who likes to think that I am cognizant of the "players" in today's society, it disturbed me that I was so ignorant of this special person.  And makes me question just how our awareness of what is news and what is not reported is so influenced (and so controlled) by the very media outlets that we depend on for our information.

As I read the one column obituary of Frank Kameny, I was struck by the length of his battle to gain equal rights for the gay community and the changes that have occurred since he "came out" after being fired from his government job in 1957 (yes, over 50 years ago), and the apparent anonimity in which he operated. 

As early as 1965, he was included in a small group which staged a protest outside the White House during President Johnson's (yes, Lyndon Johnson) term.  He founded and cofounded many advocacy groups which fought using legal means as well as civil disobediance to bring light to gay discrimination in the military and other government agencies.  I can only imagine his amazement and satisfaction when, in 2009, he stood in the Oval Office when President Obama signed a directive extending benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.  This past May, his papers became part of a Library of Congress exhibit on US constitutional history.  At this solemn occasion, he was hailed as the Rosa Parks of the gay rights movement.

Whether he was the ultimate behind-the-scenes force for the gay rights movement or someone whose contribution was not fully
understood as it occurred, or simply that his cause labored in the darkness of the deep rooted discrimination against gays that permeated our society until recently, I find myself saddened and disturbed that only in his death did I know of such a person.

In honor of the progress that has been made in the past 50 years, and as a reminder to those that have used religion to suppress the rights of minorities of all races, creeds and preferences, I submit a story I wrote a few years back which described the struggle surrounding another, perhaps future debate regarding rights, in this case marriage rights.

                                                                               The Debate

The debate had raged in the streets and in the Senate for the past 6 months. Parties on both sides of the issue had dusted off their tried and true arguments while painting the position of the other side in an unflattering a picture as possible.

While the specific point of the law was new, the nature of its meaning was as old as humankind itself. Those in favor cited progress, the evolving nature of society, compassion for everyone and the obvious as well as hidden discrimination that the law would eliminate. Those against the pending law cited tradition, values and the very real possibility of the end of the human race.

On Intervision, from the driest of business shows right on down to the trashiest talk shows, representatives from both sides of the issue could be seen on a daily basis, sometimes cajoling, sometimes imploring the viewing public that the bill must or must not be defeated. Every institution had weighed in, every level of political agenda was heard from, every citizen-based organization was involved. Finally, after 6 months of posturing and propaganda it was decided that today’s session in the Senate, in the presence of the world ruling counsel and with what was expected to be the most watched Intervision broadcast on record, a decision would be rendered.

At 10:00 the Senate was called to order.

The pending law was read aloud, simultaneously translated into all the languages of all the world’s peoples. Immediately, both sides as represented in the Senate scrambled to position their speakers in a beneficial sequence, as the tradition of alternating presentations would be followed. This pattern of speeches, one for, one against the new law, continued for 4 hours as was the custom. As the end of the 4 hours neared, tension in the room began to climb as did viewership of the preceding.

At exactly 2:00, the last speaker was cut off, her final words inaudible to both those in attendance and those on Intervision. All eyes turned to the seven members of the ruling counsel.

Surprisingly, counsel member #3 stood up. He was a very old Senator; in fact, his exact age was not completely known. He was not known for his speaking abilities; in fact, no one present could remember the last time he spoke publicly. But it was known that his influence was great and that his opinions, invariably made known behind closed doors, often ruled the day. The air was still, all eyes were upon him as his voice, quiet yet clear and strong, spoke these words.

“My fellow humans. Today we make a decision that will change the very course of human destiny. It is not a decision to take lightly but not unlike similar decisions made years ago by our predecessors. I know of what I am speaking because I was present for some of those momentous choices.”

Counsel member #3 paused. He looked at each of the other six ruling counselors, then gazed out at those in attendance, and finally his eyes locked on the nearest of the Intervision transmitters.

“Just as it was decided a dozen generations ago that marriage between the races of our world should be recognized, just as it was decided 2 generations ago that marriage within genders should be supported, now it should be our decision to pass this law legalizing marriage between sentient species.”

And so, in the year 2060, the people of earth and the beings of Vega officially began the first of the universe’s joined species.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Jobs and Jobs

Cool, crisp mornings last week, then a slow warming to the point where I was able to deliver my route in shorts and sandals this week, culminating in 2 days of clear skies filled with the light of a full moon.  And deer everywhere.

I have been reading some commentary on the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon that has spread to many of the country's major cities.  Of course, the comments are skewed based on one's political and social bias.  One of the more interesting comments, directed to the protesters, was nothing if not succinct; get a job.

With unemployment in the 20-25% range for young people, perhaps that is part of the reason for these demonstrations.  Many recent college graduates are finding themselves in the unenviable position of facing $40, $60, $80K dollars in school debt, in competition with dozens, if not hundreds of other similarly positioned people, clamoring for every job, and feeling betrayed by the system which promised them opportunities that have not appeared.  Of course, there are many jobs to be had in the service sector, but $10 an hour does not cut it for those who believed that a college degree would set them on a better road than their non-educated counterparts who settled for the local burger joint or big box department store job.

And then there is Steve Jobs, the genius of our time who helped transform, in literally one generation, our method of communication and entertainment.  When I was in my mid-20's, computers were confined to large, sterile rooms on college campuses or large corporations.  Then, when you could first purchase a personal computer, you needed to go through a series of steps to get it to work, and, invariably, you found it necessary to call the support line to may it start.  Some people were just starting to carry beepers, which still required you to find a phone to call the source of the beep.  Music was confined to tape decks, vinyl records and a new, smaller thing called a cassette tape.

Now, my daughter has a phone upon which she can access her grades via the Internet.  Thousands of songs are contained on a devise that fits in a back pocket.  And, although Jobs was not the brains behind facebook or twitter, we are able to communicate with people experiencing earthquakes in Japan or the Arab spring in Egypt, as the events take place.   The world eems much smaller yet the hopes and dreams ofr our young are even bigger than ever.

Perhaps then, it is only through the energy and protests and dissatisfaction of the status quo that is represented by those involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement that people like Steve Jobs find a market for their brilliant ideas and innovations.  And, perhaps it is only because of the truly unique individuals like Steve Jobs that new generations are able to make their mark on society.  It is a necessay and symbiotic relationship that would not exist without both sides of the equation.

So I say, march on young men and women.  Let those in power know that you expect more of them than they seem willing to give.  Remind those who possess the trappings of material success that it is not the bling that produces happiness.  But more importantly, when your time has come and you are beginning to attain your dreams, don't forget the reasons for today's unrest or tomorrow's generation of protesters might be at your door.      

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Killing Abroad

Cool and rainy weather these last few days.  The calendar says October so I guess upper 50's should be expected but wasn't it just a few days ago that it was 80 degrees?  Is this the end of shorts and sandals for 2011? 

While not as heralded as the death of Osama bin Laden, there was another assassination of a key al-Qaeda leader this past weekend when Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a drone strike.   Al-Awlaki was the very visible leader of the Yemen faction of
al-Qaeda, a branch which has upgraded both its reputation and its activities in its violence against America.  To some, he was the heir apparent to bin Laden, as the center of the radical Islamic movement has shifted away from Iraq and Afghanistan towards Yemen.  He was fluent in English which enabled him to penetrate an audience not easily reached in the past.    

And, al-Awlaki was a US citizen.

For most people, killing this terrorist was a no brainer.  He had long ago dissolved his connection to the United States by calling for violence against our country and its citizens.  He has been linked to various terrorist plots and actions including the Ft Hood shooter and the Christmas Day bomber.  All crimes that say treason in big, bold letters.

Yet, he was a US citizen.  This simple fact was enough to cause the Obama Administration to request the justice departments Office of Legal Counsel to issue a memorandum (same office that, under Bush II, ruled that water boarding was not torture).
In the end, it was decided that there was no way to arrest and try the man so that in his case specifically, assassination was legal.  Of course, we all know the power of precedence so to me it opens the door for other overseas killings of American born enemies of our country. 

The danger is whether such a precedent could be used to authorize the killing of an American for other reasons that might be considered treasonous.  Perhaps someone plotting a cyber attack on our financial or military computer systems.  That would be pretty serious, so would it also justify suspending the constitution?  How about using it to authorize the killing of an enemy with American citizenship within our borders?  Someone who has been linked to a credible attack on a nuclear reactor?  Do we kill him/her outright also?

What is ironic is that most people who have been quoting the constitution when attacking Obama are generally quiet on this one, even though, clearly, due process of law as guaranteed by the constitution has been waived for this particular American citizen.
(Although I did see that Ron Paul was quoted as saying that Obama could be impeached for this act; could be but shouldn't be was his statement, I believe.  Another reason that Mr Paul can not win the Republican nomination as when his opponents hear that he is defending the rights of an American terrorist, he will be pilloried).

Obviously, in an ideal world, we hunt down the likes of al-Awlaki and bring him to justice through a military or civilain trial.  Perhaps he is killed in the process of that arrest so our legal conscious can be clear, but there is no middle ground when we target and kill someone with a missile shot from hundreds of miles away.  There was no intent to capture, only kill.  And for those killed with him, whether guilty by willing association or merely the driver who drew the short stick, I guess we don't even blink an eye as they were not Americans.  (One was a Saudi national; funny how so many terrorists are Saudi Arabian by nationality or supported with Saudi money). 

State sponsored killing to insure the survival of the state.  If you were against state sponsored torture to insure the safety of Amerians, should you also be against killing?  If not, then are you not accepting the premise that it is OK to kill but you can't beat them up?   And if you are OK with torture and killing because they are obviously our enemies, then are you OK with suspending the right to trial for other "obvious" miscreants?  Mass murderers?  Child molesters?  How about admitted frauds, like Bernie Madoff?  Everyone knew he was guilty of massive financial fraud and was responsible for the loss to hundreds of people of millions of dollars; should he have been convicted and sentenced without trial?   

It is certainly a tough call, but if we are to be a nation of laws, don't we need to apply the law to all of our citizens, even those we abhor?

Another, less obvious side of the story is the ever increasing use of drone strikes by Obama.  Effective use, some might say.  Again, not much flack from the right for this upswing in remote killing of our enemies.  I guess this is the kind of thing that a liberal president can do without fear of repercussions.  Can't work to form a policy that will provide health insurance for all Americans, but he can kill as many terrorists in whatever way possible.  The fact that al-Qaeda has suffered great losses in its leadership cadre, that our troop presence in Iraq continues to dwindle and that there is a plan to withdrawl American troops from our expensive and (in my opinion) wasteful war in Afghanistan is given short shift when compared to the daily difficulties of our economy.  Again, people vote with their wallets so Obama will need to win his re-election, not on the strength of his actions as the commander in chief (an area that many said would be his weakness) but on his ability to get our economy back on track.

Strange how politics works.  Supplant the constitution to kill an enemy and you are praised.  Expand the reach of government into the life of a particular American via a complete disregard of the laws of our nation, and you are a defender of the freedom of our country.  As is always the case, we must constantly be vigil of what we wish for; we just might get it.       

Money, money, money

I have recently begun some new corresponces centered on discussing economics.  In today's heated political environment, a chasm exists between the two camps as to the best method of circumventing our current economic malaise.  Even the prospect of the Super Committee to draft a proposal that will be palatable to both sides while still actually accomplishing something seems remote.  In my corrresponces, I have played the role of defender of government intervention to stimulate the economy.  I unquestionably believe it is the government's role to provide money/stimulus when the private sector is unable (as in the case of the Great Depression) or unwilling (as I believe is part of our problem today). 

There seems a strange juxtaposition of morality prevalent in today's discourse.  We have those who honor the sanctity of life by advocating the elimination of abortion in our society but who don't seem to extend that same honor to those whose only crime was to be born in a country other than America.  We have those who would stand at attention in an airport as a group of soldiers passed by in recognition of their bravery yet would hurl hateful epitaphs at the funeral of one who died for the very freedoms that they cherish merely because of who that person chooses to love.

And then there is money.  I am sure that most of us would seek justice against those who would steal lunch money from smaller schoolmates yet at the same time we frequently repeat sayings such as "Let the buyer beware" when faced with the sad story of someone who invested their savings unwisely or purchased an advertised product that was faulty.  We seem all to willing to admire those who are materially successful regardless of how they accomplished such success.  In the ultimate example of greed over man, there are many who have no qualms with the thousands of Wall Street derivative brokers who made untold millions of dollars pedaling financial instruments that held no value.  Even when the buyers of these worthless funds turned out to be the pension funds of working Americans resulting in the net loss in the billions to these retirement accounts, there were those who fought every and all regulation changes designed to try to prevent such future occurences.  Their belief in capitalism and the right for an individual to attain wealth seems to completely obliterate their examination of the methods one might use to become wealthy.

And then, of course, is the obvious teachings of Christ who equated the chances of a rich man to reach heaven with those of a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.  Do we just not believe that particular parable, or do we believe that God has altered the game so that those with the most money get the best seat in heaven?

Anyway, I would certainly prefer that the movers and shakers of this world, those with the best brains and the most ambition, the real job creators among us, would voluntarily come to the conclusion that a sustainable economic system builds from the bottom up and that no amount of trickle down will work if the tricklers are too consumed by attaining wealth, and those to be trickled upon believe that they might one day be a trickler so let there be no restraint.  In that  vein, I thought it relevant to reprint my story The Change for any new reader of my blog who has not encountered it as of yet.   

                                                                          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”, the star athlete 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.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


I first heard Cat Stevens' song Father and Son, in the late 70's.  I am pretty sure I owned the 8-track tape, although I can't say on which album the song was contained.  I do remember that my reaction to the lyrics and sentiment was immediate and extreme.  And, of course, I identified with the son.

Recently I heard the lyrics again.  My reaction was no less immediate or extreme.  But I was forced to realize that my identification had changed.  I was the father now. 

How did that happen? Where did the time go?  All questions for some future blog.  For now, Father and Son.


It's not time to make a change,

Just relax, take it easy.

You're still young, that's your fault,

There's so much you have to know.

Find a girl, settle down,

If you want you can marry.

Look at me, I am old, but I'm happy.

I was once like you are now, and I know that it's not easy,

To be calm when you've found something going on.

But take your time, think a lot,

Why, think of everything you've got.

For you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.


As a son, I was never a fan of the lines, "It's not time to make a change, Just relax, take it easy."  To me, youth is exactly the time for change, exactly the time for restlessness.  I was certainly restless, searching for the changes that would help me understand myself, my world and my part in it.  Now, so many years later, I am still an advocate for change.  Not just for the young but for all ages.  Stagnation remains my least favorite state, the status quo my always questioned foe.

"You're still young, that's your fault, There's so much you have to know."  These lines could certainly not be understood then, by me, as they cannot be understood now by our sons (and daughters).  Only through the eyes of time do we realize all that we did not know when we were young.  I often tell young people that they have the luxury of selfishness at this point in their lives but it is a luxury that slowly fades as we move from children to child caregivers.  And like all luxuries, it is frequently taken for granted.

I can clearly remember the day, alone in my basement apartment that I prayed for a young lady to enter my life.  Of course, in retrospect my prayers may not have been driven by a spiritual need, but fortunately for me they were answered anyway.   So, I heartily concur with the lines

"Find a girl, settle down, If you want you can marry."

I especially like the option of marriage as opposed to the command to get married.  It is the finding of the partner that is so critical.  As for the settle down part, I would encourage a nice lengthy unsettling time filled with curiosity about each other, maybe some travel, and an openness to the new.  Discovery on ones own is wonderful, but with a partner, well that is priceless.  Now, of course, I hope my children think that I feel that

"...I am old, but I'm happy."

The easiest thing for parents to say, and probably the least effective is

"I was once like you are now, and I know that it's not easy,"

But we will say it anyway; just try to limit it to once a week.

As for

"To be calm when you've found something going on."

Forget it.  Harness those emotions, perhaps, but fore go calm.  Be loud, be obnoxious, be boisterous when you've found something going on.  Like those young people protesting on Wall Street this past week, like myself when we clambered on buses and went to Washington DC for anti-nuclear power rallies, voice your opinion.  There is plenty of time to be calm when you are focused on your family and getting a good job and paying the mortgage.  (I think they are the calm activities?!).  Even if you are uncalm for the wrong reasons, when you don't fully understand why Wall Street's denizens need to be protested or why nuclear energy has problems, eschew calmness even in the face of corporate talking heads and your best friends' father who works at a nuclear facility.

"But take your time, think a lot"

Take your time evokes the same image as be calm, and I won't have it.  I like "think a lot" but wonder if that is my bias as a result of aging (perhaps maturing is a better word here).  Think a lot as opposed to just following the herd, but not if it begets a reluctance or inability for action.  I think that our current president thinks a lot, perhaps as much as any we have had in the recent past.  But maybe the thinking is getting in the way of action on his part to make his thoughts into policy. 

"Why, think of everything you've got" is another line that I believe virtually impossible for the young to comprehend.   They lack the experience to compare and contrast.  I didn't respond to it then and I would avoid that line as a parent now.

"For you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not."

That must be the most depressing line of the song.  It is surely the leading cause of the young's avoidance of growing up.  Let's hope that while the dreams may change, they are still alive.  I see far too many people in their 40's and 50's who have lost their dreams and/or not been able to formulate new ones.  It is no way to live; one might even say not living at all.  I have been fortunate in that I rediscovered my dream of writing and, unlike dreams that require physical prowess or energy, writing only requires a bit of time and thought.  You will still be here tomorrow, and bring your dreams along is my advice.



How can I try to explain, when I do he turns away again.

It's always been the same, same old story.

From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen.

Now there's a way and I know that I have to go away.

I know I have to go.

All the times that I cried, keeping all the things I knew inside,

It's hard, but it's harder to ignore it.

If they were right, I'd agree, but it's them They know not me.

Now there's a way and I know that I have to go away.

I know I have to go.

As a son, and like so many other sons, I found it difficult to "try to explain".   Not because my parents wouldn't listen, they were extremely open to my thoughts.  It was more because I was convinced that their time was not my time, as I am sure my children think today.  At the least, we need to be open to their explanations, even if they don't make sense or are immature.  After all, they are children.  What we must not do is "turn away again" and allow them to think our response is and will always be "..the same, same old story."  Our worst response, one which will drive them away both physically and emotionally is similar to the "children are best seen and not heard" philosophy that some of our parents were raised by, or, as Cat Stevens says "From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen."
"..there's a way and I know that I have to go away.  I know I have to go."
This is one of those lines that reminds me how immature my understanding of life was in the heady times of my youth.  For a short period of time, "I have to go away" meant literally, leaving the earth.  I was far too important to just go away by moving out.  I had to go away permanently.  I am not talking about an actual death wish, but I certainly engaged in some activities that were less than healthy.  It was mostly subconscious of course, but so clear today.  Luckily, the "go away" part became a lust for travel and then finally just moving out.  In the song, Cat Stevens does not seem to sing that line with any malice, but I am sure that "going away" for some sons meant hurting ones parents in the process.  When Kevin Costner in "Field of Dreams" recounts leaving home he remembers it as "I packed my things, said something awful and left".  Consciously or subconsciously, all our sons and daughters dream of going away, which includes leaving the stifling influence of their parents behind.  Knowing we smother them, even if with love, might make their going easier.  It will certainly make the coming back more comfortable when they pass from sons to fathers and daughters to mothers.
"All the times that I cried, keeping all the things I knew inside,
It's hard, but it's harder to ignore it.
If they were right, I'd agree, but it's them They know not me.
Now there's a way and I know that I have to go away."

I don't remember crying all that much as a young adult.  Strange, but I seem to be more prone to tears as I age.  Is it that I ignored all the things I knew inside as I navigated the seas of expectations involved in being a spouse, an employee, a father?  Is it that I now understand who I am and hence the line "it's them They know not me" has finally come to be an actual fact? 

Perhaps it is the arrogance of experience that tells us that the young can't possibly know who they are because we are still trying to figure out ourselves to this day.  Or perhaps the young do know who they are but the answer is even more disturbing for us because they know who they are not - us.

For me, Father and Son evokes all the emotions of growing up, and growing from knowing everything, to thinking you know something, to knowing how much you never knew, to just being happy that 

as Cheryl Crowe aptly stated

it is not knowing what you want its wanting what you've got.