Friday, January 27, 2012

Atlas Shrugged

Last week I drove my son back to college for the spring semester.  It is a 6 1/2 hour trip each way for those who have not read my blog in the past.  During the drive, we discussed a number of topics.  I was pleasantly surprised that he is very well read, certainly more so than myself at that age.  For those of you who think that today's young men and women are all about texting, video games and everything electronic when it comes to social interaction and entertainment, perhaps you need to look past the fact that they make use of what is available to them, just as we would have done if these devices were around when we were young, and actually try to engage a young person in a meaningful conversation.  Perhaps you will also be pleasantly surprised. 

Anyway, one of the topics we broached was Ayn Rand and her philosophy of the virtue of selfishness as brilliantly depicted in her novel Atlas Shrugged.  The popularity of her writings seem to ebb and wane as a new generation comes of age.  I read her books when in my twenties and again in my forties.  Lately, the rise of Ron Paul's libertarian viewpoint and the current popularity of some high profile conservatives who quote Rand's characters when bemoaning the "welfare state" has again brought her writings into the discussions of college dorms and "individualists".

And, of course, her philosophy is enticing to the young, and those who are successful.  It glorifies individual accomplishments.  It presents a viewpoint that anything is possible if those with the talent and drive are left to their own devices, without interference from the state as represented by those who cannot do for themselves but need to leech off those who can.  It plays perfectly in to the minds of people with above average talent, above average resources, above average opportunities, and those with the bulk of life still to be lived. 

For those who have never read Ayn Rand, in a most simplistic summary, the characters of Atlas Shrugged, those with the greatest talents and ambition, remove their skills and abilities from society.  They take blue collar jobs working in the fields they love, but do not lend their ideas to these endeavors.  Manual labor only.  Perhaps this is a stretch, but sometimes I detect a bit of this thinking when I hear people declare that by taxing the rich we negate the incentive for the "job creators" of our society.  As if, if they cannot make gobs of money, they will withhold their skills and settle for only piles of money.  Curiously, in my readings of Atlas Shrugged, I don't recall money being the end game for those noble characters.  They loved their work; monetary rewards (and public recognition) were a byproduct of their efforts.  Expected, perhaps, but not the driving force behind their energy. 

In a previous blog, I mentioned the importance of pride in one's work.  The characters of Atlas Shrugged demonstrated a pride that bordered on arrogance, at least to those who didn't share as strong a sense.  If making money is the only goal of one's work, does not the actual work get lost in the process?  For those at the top of the economic ledger, is creating jobs part of their calculation when creating and running a successful business or is it only creating and maintaining a profit?  If the former, it seems hard to marry the current state of unemployment when corporate profits and investment income is soaring.  If the latter, then perhaps those who espouse the "trickle down" economic theory should at least be honest with themselves (if not the public) and admit that their character pales when compared to those of Ayn Rand's novels.

Here's a thought.  Perhaps we need a few days of "Joe Public Shrugged".  A few days without TV because all of the people behind the camera choose to shrug.  A few days without Starbucks because all of the servers decide to shrug.  A few days of trash on the sidewalk, no policemen walking the streets, no firefighters to answer the call, no newspapers delivered, no supermarkets open, no one to walk our dogs or babysit our kids, or move the masses in buses, subways, trains.  Perhaps we need to send a wake up call to the Atlases among us that there are far more of us than you and if we were to shrug in unison... well, what a day that might be.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Farewell PeeWee

Last week we experienced the loss of my daughter's pet ferret, PeeWee.  As my wife will readily tell you, I am not a "pet person", and, compared to my wife and daughter, she is correct.  Still, the tears I shed in the vet's office when my daughter and I made the decision to put PeeWee to sleep, as well as those I made in our backyard as we said our goodbyes and put him into the ground, were real.  Not necessarily tears for PeaWee and how I might miss him, but for my daughter who had lost both a beloved pet and a playmate.


Wikipedia defines Empathy as the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another.

We are in the midst of a very intense nomination process for the Republican party.  While I am not a registered Republican, I am following this process very closely as it is certainly possible, a 50-50 chance if you believe those who claim to know, that the next president will be from this party.  As I have listened to those with a vested interest in the nominee, I have heard many characteristics which a successful candidate should possess in order to gain the faith of the Republican voter.

Some extol the virtues of the businessman who can provide a plan to create jobs.

Some want a leader with a vision to make this century another "America's century".

Some prefer a fiscal conservative who will reign in spending and reduce our national debt.

A man of faith and values is sought by some.

An independent thinker who will shake up Washington is what others seek.

Economic knowledge, leadership, fiscally responsible, high values, family centered, independent.  Sounds like a recipe for a strong president.

Yet I wonder if the the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another, should also be a desirable quality in a president.

When I hear nominee Romney recount his days at Bain, the private equity company he headed, I am struck by the ease in which he was able to make decisions regarding the buying and selling, and/or break up of companies.  The fact that thousands of average working class folk lost their jobs with the execution of these choices while Romney and Bain made millions of dollars makes me wonder where his empathy is for the American family who is negatively affected by those choices.  Is "It's business, not personal" to be the catch phrase for our new president when he puts profit before people?

When I hear nominee Santorum defend his assertion that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is an important step towards reestablishing values in America, I wonder where his empathy is for Americans who have committed their love and energy to another person only to be told that since that person is of the same sex, they cannot marry, they are not "kin" should a life ending decision need to be made, they cannot expect equal treatment under the laws of our great nation.  For them, the pursuit of happiness clause in the Declaration of Independence just does not apply.

When I hear nominee Paul disavow the letters sent out in his name that questioned the need for the Civil Rights Act I wonder where his empathy is for those Americans who were denied jobs, housing, education, etc, because their skin color was different. 


It is very easy to feel sorrow for those we love, those we agree with on the important topics of the day. But to feel empathy for those with a different economic status, a different sexual preference, a different skin color requires an advanced sense of compassion.  A presidential sense one might say.



Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Do you believe? (2)

My first "do you believe" touched on the messages of those classic Christmas movies, goodwill to our fellow man, and the false importance of money and possessions in our lives.

This post reflects on a recent survey I encountered where people of varying income levels were asked if they are optimistic or pessimistic about their personal future and about the national future as a whole. 

As expected, there was a ratio equating more optimism with the higher income respondents.  And, it being the start of a new year, there was a higher percentage of people with an optimistic outlook across all income groups; if nothing else, Americans are a positive group despite personal and/or national economic problems. 

What intrigued me was the stark difference between the optimism felt by people for their personal future as opposed to what they felt for the nation as a whole.  Across all income levels, individuals were more optimistic by at least 10, sometimes as much as 20 percentage points for themselves as for the country as a whole.  In other words, they felt their own lives would improve but did not think the lives of their friends, neighbors, and fellow Americans were likely to improve as well.

Is this common?  Do we always think we can beat the odds on a personal level but do not think the same for others?  From a historic perspective, was the idea that our country as a whole had a bright future more prevalent in the 1950's?  1970's?  1990's?  Did we more closely tie our personal optimism to our optimism about our country in past decades?

I titled this blog, Do you believe? because I lean towards the concept that believing that "things will get better" is as much a part of the solution to making things better as any other factor.  The psychology of believing in one's future, in one's country's future goes a long way towards overcoming the everyday problems that life brings our way. 

Is your cup half full or half empty? 

Don't get me wrong.  I certainly don't mean to suggest that putting on a happy face is enough to solve the problems of the day.  Real problems require real solutions but perhaps finding those solutions is more easily accomplished if one believes there is a solution to find.

The second part of the equation is a belief in each other.  If we feel confident that we can tackle our own issues but less confident in our family, friends and neighbors then we might tend to address the problems individually rather than collectively.  I understand that we are a capitalistic society with a strong avoidance mechanism of anything that smacks of socialism, but man is a social animal.  While we may still tend towards the occasional tribalistic actions, we still prefer to live in communities, among others like ourselves. 

The idea that we can tackle our own problems by ourselves, belies the obvious fact that without the help of each other, no serious problem can ever be solved.  We need each other.

Need a job?  Well you need an employer to hire you.  Sick?  You need a doctor's advice.  Sad?  You need friends, loved ones, perhaps even a professional to help you see and feel the love that exists, and provide a door for you to cross towards that love.

I am sure that there is no provable way for me to substantiate what I am about to suggest, but I would imagine that a correlation exists between those nations/civilizations that saw the greatest advancements  in the welfare and happiness of its citizens and the simple act of believing in each other.  Whether these accomplishments centered on achieving a higher standard of living or defeating a power mad lunatic, it was through the accumulated efforts of each and every person and the belief that someone "had my back" that made those achievements possible.

Do you believe?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Do you believe?

Continued strange weather since my last post.  Delivered the papers with 10 degrees registering on my car temp indicator one day last week, then with temps in the low 40's one day recently.  Despite that one arctic blast, mild winter continues.  60 degree afternoon in January!!

Now that the holiday hubbub has passed and we are all settling into our personal routines, I am thinking of two posts called "Do you believe?"

One of the Christmas traditions that many people share is the viewing of the classic movies, A Christmas Carol and Its a Wonderful Life.  

At out house, we usually watch the 1951 black and white version of A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sim in the lead role which we own on laser disc.  (Yes, we are one of the handful of earthlings who have a working laser disc player).  Sim's range of facial expressions as his life is presented by spirits past and future are unrivaled by the more modern actors who have been cast in this role.  And, of course, Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey elicits our sorrow, pride, fear and pure joy as the importance of his life is revealed via the hole his absence in life would have created. 

Whether liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, of the 1% or 99%, I am sure that tears are shed by all  who watch when Scrooge transforms into a man of goodwill, and when the entire community of Bedford Falls arrives at the Bailey residence to save George from bankruptcy.

Whether through the intervention of the spirits of Christmas or an offbeat angel named Clarence the lesson is clear that mankind is the business of all and happiness is found in the joys of life not the size of one's bank account.

But do we really believe in these lessons?

As a nation, we recently saw the passage of a defense department budget with little of the political infighting that has marked all the other votes on spending.  A spending plan that calls for over $100 billion dollars aimed specifically at the war in Afghanistan and another $500+ billion for the remainder of the department's needs.  Over $600 billion for war!  Yet at the same time, monies totalling 1% and less of this amount, funds for school lunch programs, public broadcasting, assistance for the long term unemployed, and other programs that assist those with the least are held up in committee or flat out denied under the guise of fiscal responsibility. 

We hear politicians, economists and political pundits who decry raising taxes a few percentage points for those with the most to give yet push the decision to the edge when the question of continuing just $20 a week extra for the average working class American comes before them. 

We read about energy plans that allow large sums of profit to be gained for out of state corporations in trade for some short term local jobs, and long term environmental damage and ecological uncertainty. 

We regularly read about the stagnation of the earning income of the middle class, yet still debate whether Wall Street regulations need to be stricter, whether the United States Consumer Financial Protection Bureau needs to have someone in charge, and whether income inequality is not a major factor in the ongoing recession.

We know that without good paying jobs, America will never get a handle on its debt, yet our corporations operate with a profit first mentality that treats labor cost as a liability and our elected officials, thanks to last year's Supreme Court ruling that gave credence to the buying and selling of our congressmen, are bombarded with unregulated donations from these very same monied interests.

Proposals to lower minimum wages, allow children to work more hours at lower wages, strip unions from collective bargaining rights are proclaimed as the way out of the woods, yet a cap on salaries for millionaires and billionaires is treated as a page from the book of Marx.

So, do we really believe that Scrooge and Mr. Potter were the bad guys of those Christmas classics?  Or is the new Mr. Scrooge who gives to his community and shares his wealth, and the well meaning but poor George Bailey just card carrying socialists who hate capitalism?