Monday, August 29, 2011

A Jumpstart to 9/11 discussions

A clear and pleasant day after the hurricane weekend. If nature was a person one might say she was a bit bipolar these last few days.

As I have mentioned in past blogs, I read Smithsonian Magazine. In the August edition were two especially interesting articles. The first was written by Joseph Lelyveld and is about the upcoming 10 year anniversary of 9/11. Here is a link to the article.  

The second was about the remarkable job that the country of Finland has done in turning its Soviet era public school system into one of the more successful systems in the world as ranked by the internationally recognized PISA tests. 

Mr. Lelyveld's article on 9/11 may not be an easy read for many people. It will most likely make you angry, not just at the perpetrators of that horrendous day of carnage, but at our leaders reactions since then, and at ourselves for ceding responsibility to understand what and why 9/11 occurred and how we as a nation should respond.

Similarly, the article on Finland's rising public school system may also cause consternation as the public school system in the United States falls far short in comparison.

I find a connection to the two in the way we have prioritized our resources to address the two issues of national security/defense and education and how the recent debt debate has touched on this prioritization.

For my home state of Pennsylvania, the 2011 budget deficit was bridged through many funding cutbacks.  Most notable in these reductions was the almost $1 billion that was removed from the education budget.  As education makes up a large percentage of a state's budget, it is not surprising that it could be a source for savings.  But when the new governor is handcuffed by his campaign pledge to balance the budget without raising taxes despite the potential winfall that exists under the state in the Marcellus Shale formation then the question of priorities is raised.  This is even more apparent with the recent onslaught of publicity painting state employees, especially teachers, as the culprit in the budget shortfalls.  Take away their bargaining rights, prevent them from calling a strike, reduce their pensions, etc, etc.  But lets give a pass to the top 1% wage earners for fear that they will take their money and go home and to the big businesses who will reap millions of dollars of profit from our state lands.  We are so convinced that money is the only reason the super rich and big corporations will invest in/create jobs, yet we expect our teachers whose salaries have finally reached the level of other educated professionals to do it for the "satisfaction".  Because teaching is a noble profession.  Does that mean that running a high tech corporation or oil and gas conglomerate is not noble?  That they won't do it for the satisfaction of knowing that they are advancing the cause of America by being successful and hiring others to help them be successful? 
It seems it is always about money, the super rich create jobs, the huge corporations will take their business elsewhere if we tax them, the CEO's need to make 8 figures so we get the best minds in place.  And then we talk about education and we are less interested in getting and paying for the best people to teach and more interested in keeping our taxes low. 

And then there is the war on terror where it has seemed that money is no object.  Over a trillion dollars spent since 9/11; literally billions of dollars a day.  Mr. Lelyveld sights numerous stats on, not only the material costs, but the human costs as well.  We are so eager to get our taste of revenge that we have missed the reality of the horror we have created in those faraway lands.  And, when our brave soldiers are killed by those relatives of the ones we have killed, we condemn their revenge forgetting that our revenge is part and parcel to the same cycle.

The really incredible part of the 9/11 story, the most compelling and ironic part, is that the very same people who push for intervention in other countries to depose those evil dictators and grant everyone the pleasure of democracy, whether they want it or not, are the very people who pissed away our federal budget surplus of the late 1990's yet are today, the most vocal for  slashing spending. 

Money for guns, OK, money for unemployment assistance and jobs training, nope.

Money for bombs, you betcha, money for programs that feed children, not so fast.

Money to kill terrorists, a no brainer.  Money to educate our childrens' brains, not affordable.

Anyway, regardless if you agree with my post, take the time to read the two articles mentioned above and form your own opinions on our priorities.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Old Testament thinking

The wettest month on record for Philadelphia and its suburbs going out with a bang as hurricane Irene roared through the area. To be honest, I thought that the rain we had two weeks ago today was more of a pain than today's rain. Even though on that day I was able to deliver all my papers after a slow start while today I went home after less than half of the deliveries due to rain swollen streets, I was far more bothered by all the rain then than today.

Still, I am not so self centered to dismiss today's weather event even though it didn't seem as severe for me as for so many others. While I am certainly not the most empathetic person that I know, I do attempt to gauge events with an eye towards others perspectives, not just my own.

Which brings me to an article I read in today's Inquirer concerning climate change in which the author offers a number of reasons why the United States should be looking forward, even be excited about the effects of climate change. His points, of course, center around the economic "opportunities" that climate change will present to the US which may well enable us to enhance our geopolitical power. The last sentence of his next to last paragraph sums it up nicely.

"Rather than our doom, climate change could be the centerpiece of ensuring a second consecutive American Century."

Is it me, or does this attitude embody the ruthlessness of competition gone amok? Is it any clearer how far our selfishness can take us that someone will look for a economic silver lining in the face of world wide problems?

In essence, the author concedes that climate change is occurring (quite a departure from the typical conservative approach of denial), and that regardless of whether it is man made or not, it is irreversible, so let's embrace its effects and figure out how to make money from it!

Never mind the tens of millions of people in those countries that are already hot and dry and for which this climate shift will condemn so many to starvation. Never mind the fact that almost a billion people on our planet still have to walk outside their homes for water and that this number will surely increase as their environs feature less potable water. Never mind that as the oceans warm, weather violence will increase thereby causing tremendous loss of life and property. Never mind even that as the climate changes, various food chains may be interrupted and thousands of species of plants and animals will go extinct. Don't worry about any of those because while "those" people, animals and plants might suffer, we just might be able to increase our wealth and stature. Sort of like being king of a shit pile, I guess.

There was a time in mankind's initial history that our unit of reference was our tribe. Everything was about our tribe, our 10, 15, 20 people. Anything and anyone outside that tribe was a threat. Gradually, our "tribe" expanded to our community. Then our state. Our country. Some people look at organizations such as NATO, the European Union, the United Nations, etc, as proof that we are seeing the beginning of the next step in increasing the size of our tribe. That, while the process is still in its infancy, we are on the road to a time when our tribe will be planet Earth.

For some, the concept of a unified earth is science fiction at best, a threat to national sovereignty at worst. Yet, I am sure that the idea of fifty united states making one great country would have seemed just as far fetched to those who lived in the "new world" of the 18th century. And I am equally certain that 15th century residents of France, England, and Spain would have deemed the idea of a unified Europe as ludicrous.

To me, the writer of that article embodies what I like to call Old Testament thinking. In this case, "Old Testament" revealed in the attitude of everyman for himself although at least the author has assumed a tribal level the size of the United States. He has defined greatness as the potential economic and geopolitical status that America could achieve in a time of tremendous and dangerous environmental changes.

Too bad he can't see that history will more likely name the next century after the country or organization that expends its energy towards solving the human crises of inland water shortages, coastal flooding, food distribution shifts, etc, that climate change will bring.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Solutions 1

An amazing two mornings recently.

The first featured a full moon set in the west with an intense bright orange pre-sunrise to the east. My neck ached from all the swiveling as the sight lasted briefly.

The second was yesterday morning. A torrential downpour virtually from the moment I left my house at 3:00 AM until almost 6:00. I was trapped at the warehouse for a while as I did not dare try to load the car with the papers. The rain on the warehouse's tin roof was a constant pounding. Once I finally managed to load the car, my shirt was soaked completely through so I delivered the route topless. For the first 30 minutes on the road, each lowering of the window, even if for only a second or two brought in much wetness. Thankfully, the main downpour subsided but it was still a wet and uncomfortable delivery.

I recently watched a "panel discussion" type show in which one of the panelists claimed that America seems to have lost its enthusiasm for the future. Te speaker claimed that when he was young, there were all kinds of indications that Americans were eager and ready for what was on the horizon. He specifically mentioned the space program and its promise of new understandings of the universe and our place in it. Then yesterday, strangely enough, I watched most of the movie Back to the Future, and I was reminded of how the generation of the 50's had all the great technologies of today ahead of them and, seemed to know that those advancements were coming. Seemed, in a way, to believe that they deserved them but more importantly, were going to make sure that the future was bright. They would make it so.

Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

Then, today, there was a report that Warren Buffet is downright mad at those defending continued tax breaks for the super rich. I believed he used the word coddling, as in why are we coddling the people who are benefiting the most in these difficult economic times.

Is our selfishness the root of our problems? Have we become too concerned as to what we can get from society, what freebies we can grab, what monies we can finagle, what resources we can twist in our direction? As opposed to what we can earn. And what we can do to help others find the time, resources or opportunity to earn for themselves as well?

When the sports page discusses how much a wide receiver on a football team is worth, $40or $50 million and when the business section reveals the salaries of the top 100 CEO's in the area and details that their compensation grew by 8% in a time when the economy was stagnant, yet at the same time teachers, firefighters and police officers are losing their jobs, what does that say about us?

When that same paper also reports that literally thousands of children are dying from starvation in Somalia and that the resources of yet another third world country are being stripped and exported to its larger neighbor, but few if any letters to the editor or pundit opinions reflect this human catastrophe, what does that say about us?

We hear from some politicians that America is the greatest nation on earth, ever. Is or was? What will we be in 10 years, 20 years? What are we striving to be? And how will we measure our greatness or lack of it? By GDP? By number of fighter bombers?

Where is the national discussion on character? On vision? Where is our plan to eradicate disease or hunger? Where are the talks that get beyond 401K's, corporate bottom lines and compensation packages, and discuss job satisfaction, living wages and equality in benefits and opportunities, not just for those like you but for all Americans, and all humans. Perhaps our most important national deficit has nothing to do with debt but more to do with our inner strengths?

The greatest nation on earth must include a nation united in its vision for the future. Or at least united in the belief that we should have a vision for the future. But the future needs to be one which we create for ourselves, one day at a time. Each person, looking in the mirror, and saying yes, I made the planet better today or no, I was selfish and only sought my own rewards but tomorrow I will do better.

Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

Platitudes are easy to come by. You will read them here, you will encounter them in all media, you will be bombarded with them during the next 15 months leading up to the 2012 presidential election. But platitudes are all we will have, a collection of meaningless words, if we don't begin the task of identifying what it will mean to live in America in 2015, 2020.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Solutions; A Beginning

Last week I posted the thought that I should begin a series of blogs that would offer solutions to the problems we face. I also asked if, given the difficulty in making a comment on a blog, I might generate more feedback if I published an email address.

Then, of course, S&P lowered the credit rating of the United States and all hell broke loose on Wall Street and around the economic world. As I am writing these words, trading day four of the post-credit-rating-decrease world, the DOW is up over 500 points, which follows, in order, a drop of 600+ points, an increase of 400+ points and a drop of 500+ points. Literally, trillions of dollars lost, then gained, then lost again.

Perhaps then, the epitome of capitalism, the stock markets, is a good place to start when discussing solutions.

Those who know me have heard me say that I would not want to win one of those high end lotteries which can reach $100, $150 million dollars. I always say that it is too much money to have all at once and that I would prefer only a few million at most. Generally, that statement is met with disbelief. Most people react by saying that they would want as much as they could win. Some even comment that I am not being honest with myself when I say such a thing.

Perhaps I distrust myself to handle such a bonanza in a responsible way. Perhaps I know that many personality types can easily lose themselves in the excitement of having so much money and eventually become a slave to the money rather than the master.

Or perhaps I truly believe that money and material possessions are too big a distraction from what is really important in life.

Don't get me wrong, I need money just like the next guy. It provides me with this computer with which I can express myself, my home in which I am sitting, the food which my stomach is currently wondering about, clothes, entertainment, utilities, transportation, a veritable list of items that help make my life easier and help make my family more comfortable, even happier. Certainly between having no resources and having sufficient resources, I choose the latter.

But when does sufficient become unnecessary? When does having enough shoes become an excessive amount? 6 pairs? 26 pairs? 260 pairs? Is there a limit on the amount of anything one can possess upon which time any amount over that number is wasteful? Does this hold true for money as well?

I had always thought that the people who moved institutions as large and powerful as the stock market tended to be more cold and calculated than most. Less driven by emotion, more by knowledge and facts. Yet, given the wild swings of the stock market this week, I am beginning to wonder how people with advanced degrees in economics, business, finance, can sell everything on Monday, buy everything on Tuesday, sell everything again on Wednesday then buy again on Thursday? What facts and information have come to light that would generate such instability? Or is my original premise wrong? Perhaps they are not as unemotional as I think? Or perhaps they are so consumed by having money that they have lost the understanding of its purpose. That money is a means, not the end itself.

The general response to "there should be a limit on what one can earn" is that if we take away the incentive to earn an unlimited amount of money then the movers and shakers of the economy will just stop working. Anyone familiar with Ayn Rand's book The Fountainhead, has read how the world could degenerate into a place where exceptionalism is suppressed and mediocrity is rewarded.

But what some people who currently quote Ayn Rand fail to realize is that her heroes did not pursue economic gain for its sake, they sought rewards for their contributions, their superior contributions. They did not seek the rewards as an end, their love of the work in which they engaged was their main motivator; the money was secondary. They were ruthless in their pursuit of perfecting their particular craft, architecture in the case of Howard Roark. But ruthless in the pursuit of money, specifically money on Wall Street, seems to include, no, perhaps require, a pursuit that causes incredible gains for some, incredible loss for others. Does taking advantage of another person in the name of money remind us of Ayn Rand's characters or merely people who have lost their sense of humanity?

So, what is my solution? Well, it depends on the defined problem. I believe that our main problem, is that we have lost sight of money's purpose. We pursue it as an end rather than the means to sufficiently provide for our needs. That we have allowed our belief in capitalism, especially given its success in providing sufficient resources to so many people, to become a belief in whoever gets the most toys wins. Therefore, we need a paradigm shift, either about our chosen economic system, or about our own priorities of money and its importance in our lives. No easy feat to be sure.

Moving forward, I have decided to publish an email address for readers to use to contact me outside this blog. It is:

I look forward to any and all comments.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Solutions; Prologue

It is easy to point out faults and problems, especially when it is others faults and the problems are others' doing. While I have often indicated that we, as a whole and including myself, are part of the problems of today, I also can easily fall into the trap of being negative, pointing fingers, accusing others of not caring, at best, or being purposefully misleading at worst.

So perhaps it is time to put my money where my mouth is and discuss solutions. The question is, where to begin. In some cases, solutions are not offered because a problem is not being recognized. I believe that is the case with our current form of capitalism.

In some cases, the solutions are known but the will to effect them is lacking. We know that we can't continue to run large deficits, and most people/economists believe that a combination of tax hikes and spending decreases is required. History demonstrates that this has worked in the past and was used by administrations of both parties to address growing deficits.

In still other cases, the solutions are as disparate as Americans themselves which means one man's solution is another man's root of the problem. On the surface, most people might agree that earmarks are bad for the federal budget and would be a great place to start cutting. But an expenditure that provides much needed jobs for a particular congressional district or state, an expenditure that would have occurred anyway, provides that particular representative with ammunition for ads touting how he/she has improved the lives of his constituents. For those who now have a job, his earmark is a godsend and can lead to re-election. For those living in another county or state, it is pork and should be eliminated.

But I digress.

I am tempted to provide my email address in this space. I rarely receive comments to my blogs, and, while I know my audience is small, there are some readers. My impression is that adding a comment to a blog is a tedious process so perhaps I would receive more reactions if my email address was known to those other than my direct acquaintances. Is this wise?

Here are some of the topics (in no particular order) that I could address in future blogs. For those that already contact me, please let me know your thoughts on whether publishing my email is a good idea, and if so, if it will matter anyway.

And, let me know what topics (listed here or not) you might like to see discussed from the standpoint of possible solutions as opposed to what I imagine can sometimes seem like only negative comments.

The Deficit
The National Debt
Gay marriage
Voter apathy
Washington politics
The next president
The Environment
Divorce Rates

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

An unexpected waterfall

Suddenly it is dark for most of my delivery route on the weekdays. I imagine that the tipping point occurred during my vacation as I was beginning to notice less daylight two weeks ago. Strange, as I initially enjoyed delivering in the dark but as the days lengthened I became used to having more light and enjoyed that even more. Does it mean I am more flexible to my surroundings or just wishy-washy in my opinion as to which I like the best.

Speaking of wishy-washy, it is clear that the recent debt debate was politically motivated. It is easy enough to review past votes on the debt ceiling to see that for the most part, Republicans voted to raise the debt ceiling while Bush II was president while Democrats voted against it. The fact that our national debt doubled from 2000 to 2008 seems lost on those Republican reps who voiced outrage at the recent sharp increases, and just as equally lost on those Democrats who knew that we were spending too much money (specifically on unfunded wars) and raising too little revenue (see Bush tax cuts) during those years but now suddenly preached anarchy and economic collapse if the ceiling was not raised.

When will our politicians begin making decisions which reflect what is needed to solve America's problems? Perhaps when voters, the most wishy-washy bunch of all, begin to understand that America's greatness is not in its military power or rich Wall street hedge fund managers or even in its multi-national corporations, but in our middle class. Those earning between $40-90K per year, the people who work 30, 40, even 50 years, some for themselves, many for small businesses. The people who lack special organizations and high paid lobbyists.

The people who, if they spent even 1/10 of the time that is spent watching American Idol or sports or sitcoms or action movies, on understanding the beauty and power of our three branches of government. Perhaps if we could name the nine members of our Supreme Court, or three or even four members of the president's cabinet just as easily as we can name the members of the Jersey Shore cast or their favorite sports team then we could make decisions in the voting booth that would reflect an understanding of our place in the world and our economic future and we might elect leaders who could distill those disparate voices into policies that, while they may not match perfectly with each individual's desires, they would match closely with our collective needs.

Speaking of needs, we were treated with a waterfall over our retaining wall last Friday. Unfortunately, the waterfall was caused by a burst pipe which ran from the street to our home. With the help of our neighbors we still had water for the week, and with the help of a plumber, backhoe operator and the backs of four hardworking, middle class Americans, our pipe was replaced and the water flowed under the retaining wall rather then over it.

I have not received the bill yet, but it will certainly exceed my emergency fund. So I will be required to increase my household debt. It is a good thing that I don't have a balanced budget requirement in place or I would have had to wait, perhaps the rest of the year to have saved the money to replace the pipe. I wonder how those who are clamoring for a balanced budget amendment for the federal government will react when they have their own unexpected waterfall, either personal or federal.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Losers/Winners in the Recent Debt Ceiling Battle

A very relaxing and enjoyable vacation last week. On the way home, I felt a bit sick to my stomach. It is not uncommon for me to experience a wave of nausea as my body reacts to my brain's thinking that vacation is over, what didn't I do, and how long will it seem before next year. The feeling seems especially acute when adding in the fact that there will now be many a morning in a row when I will arise at 3:00 AM as opposed to the schedule of the past week.

Amazingly, though, my first day back, Saturday, felt pretty good. I might even go so far as to say I felt happy cruising the area with my latest audio book on the radio, the windows down and the streets deserted. No problems waking up, no excess sleepiness at work. I continue to be surprised by my reactions to life's events.

As it appears that the debt discussion talks have resulted in some type of compromise, I expect there will be many a pundit telling us who won this battle of wills between the president and GOP congressmen. I don't know the exact details of the deal, but I won't let that stop me from proclaiming my own winners/losers.


All those involved in the discussion. From the president on down to every individual senator and congressmen, they all proved themselves to be more interested in being elected than governing. At one point during my vacation, I envisioned a class action suit in the name of all Americans who may have (and still might) find higher interest rates when borrowing in the near future. The defendants would be above mentioned elected officials. I also thought that perhaps a (recall them all) website might be in order to begin a nationwide recall/impeachment of the lot.

Every concerned citizen in America. Rather than a serious debate about the problems facing us, we were left with one finger-pointing-diatribe after another. By "walking out" of discussions rather than working through differences. By grandstanding, by sound bites designed to scare rather than educate, by our elected officials doing everything to distance themselves from blame but not nearly enough to create a plan to address our problems.

Every apathetic citizen in America. As opposed to those described above, and despite the seriousness of the past month's debt ceiling/deficit debate, there were still many people who did not follow the progress (or lack of it). They had given up on our Washington representatives, given up on our political system sometime in the past. It is a shame that they don't realize that giving up, saying that one vote doesn't matter, proclaiming that "they are all the same", is as significant a factor in the current state of politics as the extremism that seems to have become the only opinions being expressed in our media. Apathy is not a pretty thing.

Our great system of governance. Perhaps the biggest loser of all. For all the talk about how awesome our founding fathers were in designing our system with its three branches of government, we find ourselves, amazingly, considering the horrible instances of the past that chipped away at our trust of government (see Watergate, run-up to the Iraq War, abuse of power, scandals, etc), facing a new low in respect by our citizens for our leaders. Approval ratings are in the dumper for everyone involved, and expectations that a real plan will emerge from all this jabbering are practically nill.


Sorry, I can't think of any.

What is truly disconcerting is that for all the whining and complaining and unhappiness we express at our elected leaders, we are barely achieving a 50% turnout for the big elections, 33%, or less for the rest. We are getting the government we deserve by allowing small blocks of voters with specific agendas choose representatives with limited perspectives on how to solve problems. With votes based on litmus tests, whether the test be about abortion or war or gay marriage or social security, we elect people who do not have the information, or desire, to extend their knowledge to the vast array of issues facing America today. So they vote as a block as their party dictates. No vision.

But then again, perhaps they only reflect their constituents.