Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Supreme Court considers Gay Marriage

Happy Easter everyone!  Despite being a lapsed Catholic, I am deeply appreciative of the example that the life of Jesus demonstrates for us; a life of love and tolerance to all people.  Whether you believe he was the son of God or just an advanced spiritual soul who represents the best that humans can achieve, here is hoping that his story continues to inspire the rest of us to be the best person we can be.  (By the way, I just realized that the phrase his story is the word history with a space between his and story.  Makes you go hmmm).

Towards that end, the Supreme Court considered legal arguments this past week on two laws which address gay marriage in America.  The first is related to the challenges to the federal Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, and is a relatively modest one of whether the federal government must provide benefits to same-sex couples married in states that allow such unions. The case did not directly concern whether there is a right to same-sex marriage in other states.  Two federal appeals courts had struck it down, and the court almost always reviews decisions from lower courts invalidating federal laws.  Conventional wisdom held that this "stepping-stone" case would set the stage for the bigger battles ahead. 

But, rather than waiting for a decision in the DOMA challenges, the court also chose to hear the more ambitious case which involves a challenge against California's proposition 8 which bans gays marriage.  This law was struck down by a lower court which, in essence, ruled that the law violated the United States Constitution's guarantees for equal treatment under the law. 

I have more than once stated in past blogs that I believe that gay marriage is the civil rights issue of our generation.  Consequently, I have no doubt that sometime in the future, perhaps as soon as 20 years from now, we will look at all this topic and shake our collective heads out of embarrassment that we allowed such blatant discrimination.  That we behaved so unlike Jesus's teachings dictate.

Curiously, on a recent two hour car ride with my 21 year old son, we discussed the Supreme Courts upcoming ruling on gay marriage.  I expressed the concern that there were too many Catholics on the court and that their decision would reflect their religion as opposed to their interpretation of the law.  He rightfully called me on my prejudice, reminding me that whatever their ruling, the justification would most certainly be based on law, and that, and he was adamant about this point, we must certainly believe that their decision would be based on laws and reason or our faith in the ultimate court of our country would be tainted, if not forever lost.  While I reminded him that past Supreme Court decisions legalizing discrimination based on color were, in fact, upheld, he again, reiterated that even those odious decisions were based on the laws of the time and had reason and logic as a basis, however wrong it appears in the light of history.

So, that being said, how might the Supreme Court rule in this cases.  One interesting bit of dialogue that came from last week's proceedings suggested that perhaps the court decided in haste to rule on same sex marriage, that they should have waited until they ruled on other cases which might establish precedents leading up to the BIG decision.  As I just recently learned, apparently the court's choice of which cases to hear, is determined by four votes.  In other words, a majority does not have to decide to hear a case.  Since the current Supreme Court is composed of 4 conservative justices, 4 liberal justices, and one whose vote swings between the two, Justice Kennedy, it is interesting to wonder which "side" decided to hear the same sex ban case.  Or, did Justice Kennedy himself provide the 4th vote for one side of the other?   Did the conservative justices draft Kennedy in hopes of swinging him now, when popular support of same sex marriage is beginning to become the majority?  In other words, establish a precedent before the issue garners overwhelming popular support.  Or, did the liberal justices approach Kennedy to help establish once and for all that denying marriage to two consenting adults in America is contrary to both our beliefs in the rights of the individual and the those rights as granted by the Constitution itself.  (Since the information specifying who voted to bring this case is not available for public eyes at this time, I find discussion of who may have voted to do so an interesting side light to the case itself).

Anyway, I strayed off topic.  How might the Supreme Court rule?  I think it is a slam dunk that the Court will rule that withholding federal benefits to those married in states that allow gay marriage is unconstitutional.  This will follow other states rights interpretations that have emanated from this Court.
I expect that once ruled, other cases will follow that build on that decision, eventually leading to rulings that disallow any federal law that treats benefits to same sex couples in a way that is different for heterosexual couples, married or not.  Which, hopefully, will eliminate the incredibly unfair treatment that partners and children of same sex relationships experience in areas ranging from medical visitation rights to estate tax laws.

But, the tricky question of whether the Constitution of the United States guarantees the rights of the gay/lesbian community to marry the person they love?  I think this decision will be more of a backhanded decision rather than a straight forward yes.  It is my belief that the Court will decide that states cannot disallow same sex marriage.  Just as there used to be laws against interracial marriage that were ruled to be in violation of the Constitution, the Court will rule that there cannot be laws that rule against same sex unions.  Perhaps this is the same thing, but, legally speaking, the Constitution does not guarantee anyones's right to marry, as far as I am aware, so the ruling must fall on the what you can't do as opposed to what you can. 

That being said, I am not sure that this particular Court will make that ruling now.  I don't think they can rule that marriage discrimination is legal, so there may be some intermediate step that they take.  They may decide that each state can decide the issue for themselves, but that decision might not necessarily be a ban as enacted at the polls but may include the right for a particular states' Supreme Court to rule one way or another.  In other words, bans that are the result by referendum or legistative act must still be upheld by that states' highest court ruling.  A sort of kick the can down the highway approach.

However, should the Court rule against marriage discrimination, and returning to my son's point, there will most likely be a dissenting view of these rulings.  What form will it take?  What laws will be referenced as precedent, what logic employed to fashion a multi-page paper on why these decisions are wrong?

Since I cannot adequately present such a defense, perhaps those reading this post will provide me with some logic.  How does barring same sex marriage make sense legally?  How does allowing same sex marriage violate the reason that laws exist; protection of a country's citizens.  My initial perspective is that such logic will have to reference religion so I am eager to hear dissenting viewpoints on this topic.

In the meantime, here's hoping that the Supreme Court finds the wisdom to make the right decisions in these cases, and if that right choice includes a religious component it will reflect the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount when he offered us the Golden Rule:

In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Bigger may not be better

There is a series of commercials being run by a communications company that capitalizes on the belief that faster is better, bigger is better, doing more than one thing at a time is better.  These commercials feature a man sitting at a school table with 4 or 5 young children, perhaps 5 or 6 years old.  In each case, the man asks a question of the kids and they respond.

My perception is that most people have a similar reaction to these commercials as I did; cute.  Out of the mouths of babes, kind of truths.  The old proverb, you learned everything you needed for life in kindergarten.  I guess it plays on our belief that there are simple answers to the complicated aspects of life.  Chances are, most people do not think anything more of these ads.  Perhaps that is the issue that needs to be addressed; why don't we think beyond the obvious, but that is grist for another blog.

My focus here is the belief that bigger is better.  There is ample evidence that the forces behind the tea party phenomenon and the concept that drives the attacks on the size and influence of the federal government have life because of the belief that bigger is not better.  That we need a smaller federal government, a decreasing influence by the government over our lives.  I understand this viewpoint when it comes to all of us being more self-reliant, and less dependent on our government for food and shelter.  What can we do for ourselves should be our first thought as opposed to what can I get from someone else, especially Uncle Sam.  Safety nets used as a bridge between jobs, or to attain medical services when need outstrips resources, or to improve the daily lives of children whose only crime was to be born in the wrong economic circumstances, should be just that, safety nets, not a way of life.  Scamming as a way to earn one's living, whether the victim be an elderly neighbor or uneducated immigrant or government agency is wrong.   My problem with less government is that some forces behind this push are doing so, not because they believe what I have detailed above, but because they seek a free hand to conduct their business in any fashion they feel will deliver the biggest profit.  Regulations that keep them from polluting our air and water as a matter of convenience become the target but always cached in the all American axiom that what is good for business, helps America.

What seems odd about the bigger is not better when it comes to government crowd, is that they don't seem to apply that same patriotic fervor in the area of business? 

When one huge corporation merges with another, generally speaking the stock of both companies goes up.  The business perspective says that duplications of effort, whether in the area of accounting or transportation or sales, will be eliminated, thereby reducing costs, thereby increasing profits.  In other words, jobs eliminated means a stronger bottom line.  Is this good for America?

If a town changes from one with dozens of small businesses on main street to one with a Walmart superstore, does that improve the community? Do the previous store owners now work at Walmart for lower pay, less benefits, and less job satisfaction?  Is bigger better merely because prices are lower? 
Is the tenet, what is good for business, good for America true, if the business employs low wage labor selling imported products made by even lower wage labor?  Of if that same business demands low margin pricing from its vendors regardless of the fact that those vendors must now reduce cost, frequently labor costs of its own employees, to provide that price?

And what do we do when those same big businesses, those that promote less government in the form of less regulation yet also demand special tax breaks for moving their company into a state or community in exchange for the promise of jobs?  Does this not place the concept of competition in the free enterprise system on its ear if they are rigging the contest by having tax advantages that their smaller competitors do not?  And, if they can make a corporate decision to limits hours to less than 30 to reduce the cost of benefits, does this not improve their bottom line by passing the burden of their employees medical insurance needs to both their employees and the government agencies which will need to supplement those costs?   How much does the success of a company like Walmart cost the American economy in government assistance for its employees, and suppressed wages for its employees and those of its vendors?

The truly sad part is that it is precisely the consumer's shopping choices to spend their limited dollars at these big box stores that enhance the cycle of degrading middle class salaries. More small business lose out, more people have less money to spend since they must take lower wage jobs, more vendors must keep their labor costs down to afford the privilege of selling their products to these big box stores, allowing those huge corporations to keep their prices low thereby attracting the consumers who don't have much choice but to buy the least expensive products available.

Which then brings me to bigger wages.  Why is it OK for wages at the top of the scale to have continued to rise while those in the middle and below have barely stayed even with inflation? Why do CEO's make hundreds of times the salary of their employees now where they made only 20, 30, 40 times a mere 30 years ago? And, does that trend make America better or worse?  Bigger companies need smarter CEO's and more intelligent decisions to navigate such huge corporations in today's economy.  I understand that, but if the cost is to suppress the salaries of everyday Americans, then is the country better for having to require to pay for such geniuses, hence to have such huge corporations?

I am willing to listen to those who claim that big government is an issue that needs to be addressed as long as they do not use that same big government to gain competitive advantages in the market place, or want to gut environmental regulations that keep America from looking like a 3rd world country with polluted rivers and skies, and as long as they are willing to apply the bigger is not always better philosophy to the business community as well.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Birthday activities and news

Yesterday was my birthday, number 55.  A quick calculation yields the fact that I have been alive for a bit over 20,000 days.  Considering that one or two days is such a small fraction of the overall 20,000, it is important to keep one's perspective at the events of any one day, knowing the number of days that have preceded and the number of days to follow. 

That being said, I decided a few weeks ago to continue my recently revived tradition of not working on my birthday.   In fact, I decided to not work at the liquor store on my birthday and today, and to not work tonight at my 2nd job.  My hope was to get some things done that I have had to put off. 

As is true of most plans, I didn't really get anything done that I wanted.  Other priorities trumped my plans, including driving my son 2 hours each way to his girlfriends house so they can return to college together, filing our 2012 federal tax return, walking the dog, and having a nice take home dinner and movie with my wife and son.  As always in life, we must be flexible to changes.

Unfortunately, the bad news that I have received during these two days, the news that will challenge my ability to change, is that my job will most likely be eliminated soon.  As a state worker, my employment is subject to our elected officials, and those public servants are in the process of taking Pennsylvania out of the wine and spirits business. 

I would like to think that this decision, which effects me so personally, would make me just as unhappy as a taxpayer, and a concerned citizen for our decreasing access to good paying middle class jobs.  Certainly, when our elected officials make decision that effect us directly, we are more involved, more informed.  But I believe that my past blogs discussing the slow decline of the American middle class, would have spurred me to compose this blog, perhaps with a bit less urgency, but composed none-the-less.

So, why am I against the government getting out of the liquor business?  Certainly, I am aware of the problems that exist in the current PLCB system.  But they do not seem any different than those I have encountered in my past jobs in the private sector.  Mistakes are made, inefficiencies are revealed, decisions are made to address those problems and solutions are put into place.  In the end, I expect that, just as a private business is evaluated on its profit margin, level of customer satisfaction, employee loyalty, advancement opportunities, etc, so might the PLCB have been evaluated. 

Profit?  Every year $75-100 million is returned to the state coffers in profit.

Customer satisfaction?  The vast majority of my customers express their gratitude for the assistance they receive at my store, from choosing the appropriate libation to finding an item I do not stock at a neighboring store 

Employee loyalty?  It is not even worth comparing the turnover rate at the PLCB when compared to most retail businesses.  I have worked with dozens of people with 25 or more years of experience, something you will not see at your local pharmacy or department store.  That loyalty is also reflected in the low theft rate, a rate that most retail outlets would die for.  Of course, that is what happens when you pay your employees a decent wage.

Advancement opportunities?  After working 20 years part time, I went full time 3 years ago and am now a manager at a store.

Anyone not familiar with the PLCB might now ask, why change it then if it works so well?  One answer comes from those who believe that the government does not belong in the regulation and sale of any item.  That the selling would best be accomplished via the free market system.  I can't say that I can argue against that concept.  For the most part, the free enterprise system works well and if we were starting from scratch, I would be on board.  But in this case, we have a system in place that works.  A few thousand Pennsylvanians have a good salary with good benefits while working for an organization that generates a profit for the state.  It seems like change for the sake of change.

My other answer as to why change, the one that will sound cynical and conspiratorial is that the private sector forces at work to make this change are only interested in the profit that they currently don't have, and those politicans who are voting for the change are expecting their own share of that profit or have already received large "donations" to vote in this fashion.   Obviously, other than a well groomed sense of cynicism when it comes to big business buying legislators, I have no direct proof, yet.  But, as the details are released, as the licenses are sold, it will be curios to see how many are gobbled up by corporations and businesses that have a strong presence in the halls of Harrisburg.

For my part, I will continue to work hard at my store and root out the details of this privatization plan.  Perhaps I will be proven wrong and myself or some of my fellow PLCB employees will get a shot at a license and ownership of a store.  Sadly though, I know that in the end, many of those people whom I have worked with over the years will be out of work, or worse, doing the same job with lower compensation and less benefits for a business or company that values its profit over their well-being and loyalty.

Still, I am ever hopeful that humans will continue to evolve towards an understanding that might does not make right, that making millions of dollars does not make one rich, and that leaving the world a better place, regardless of the scope of one's world, is the point of this life.


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Fracking, poverty, and sharing the wealth

Been busy the last few weeks.  I generally try to post on my day off from work, but last week Nora and I went to the Philadelphia Flower Show on that day.  We had a great time!  Took the train in, walked the show, stopped at the PLCB exhibit to sample some new wines and liquors, took the train home.  For those of you who have flower shows in your area, I highly recommend spending some time at one, especially now, coming out of winter as we are. 

I was also busy with birthdays.  JW turned 21 last Tuesday, Rachel turned 18 two days previous.  While JW is away at college, we did have a family birthday celebration at our house for Rachel.  My how the time has passed.  Soon, Rachel will also be away at school and it will be Nora and I again, with Bubba, of course. 

Despite my lack of posting, the blog continues to be accessed at an increasing rate.  Over 2100 hits in February, already over 1000 this month.  Thanks to all those who are just discovering my blog, and to those who were there "in the beginning". 

March's National Geographic had an interesting article about fracking.  Since it was called The Promise and Risk of Fracking, I was hoping for a pro and con opinion piece concerning this important subject.  Here is a link to the article.

A number of details struck me as I read the article.  Clearly, this new found energy source is an important discovery for America.  Think about the savings we might find if we reduced or eliminated our need for oil.  Would we even have troops in the Middle East?  Would we have spent money on the Gulf War or the Iraq War?  Would we worry about ignoring the human rights violations of our Saudi friends if we didn't need their oil?

And, what about the jobs, temporary as they might be?  Jobs mean reduced unemployment rolls, increased tax revenue.  Two important ingredients towards reigning in our growing national debt.  Of course, like all situations in life, there is never only a good side to consider.  So many small towns will be affected by the influx of big rigs and mostly male labor camps.  Will the benefits outweigh the costs for these towns?  For those whose homes stand on the land under which this new found energy is buried?  What of those who choose not to rent or sell their rights?  Do they even have a choice if they are surrounded by the noise and development of their neighbors' YES to these lease rights?

And, once the gas is extracted, what responsibility do the oil and gas companies bear for the eventual abandonment of those small towns for a rush to the next boom town, or boom mineral, or boom discovery.  If the example of the coal industry's use and destruction of the land and towns and those people promised jobs but not told about black lung, short life spans, and the economic devastation when the coal runs out, then perhaps we need to weigh those costs to our bottom line calculations.  Short term vs long term thinking.  If it is true that corporations are more concerned about short term results, then who is going to present the viewpoint of the longer term?

It is a complicated issue.  Both sides have data and positive reasons to support their perspective.  As we continue researching the pros and cons of fracking let's keep in mind that all decisions have consequences.  Allowing important decisions to be made and environments to be altered in ways not fully understood must be made by the people who will be affected the most.  That means giving them all the data, including what, exactly, is being pumped into the ground beneath them.  And, perhaps, providing them with a bit more compensation so that when the boom ends, they will have a rainy day fund with which to rebuild.

Which brings me to poverty.  March's Smithsonian had an interesting pictorial viewpoint of the Earth with regards to how developed or undeveloped it is.  But in this case, development was measured in terms of income, life expectancy, literacy.  The map iteslf was titled "Illuminating Inequality".  Of course, the United States and much of North America was a bright yellow, the highest level of development.  Europe, Australia, the same.  South America featured much yellow but also much darker shades.  Africa, as you can imagine, was mostly darkly shaded.  Why is it that while Americans routinely throw out hundreds of pounds of food per year, millions of children die of starvation and malnutrition?  After all, we are all riding together on this spaceship we call Earth.  Yet we create artificial boundaries to justify keeping to ourselves, or keeping from others, the abundant natural resources that Earth has to offer. 

If we can't create a plan to share the wealth which is resulting from the fracking revolution, share the wealth with fellow Americans whose land is being mined to produce this energy, then how can we even approach the thought of a plan to distribute the wealth of this planet to all its inhabitants?

Where does our short term and long term thinking take us within the scope of such a plan?

Or, at the end of the day, is it better to eschew the trappings of the modern world and stay apart from them, as detailed in Smithsonian's article about the lost tribes of the Amazon.  People who have purposefully chosen to stay isolated.  People who saw other tribes swallowed up by the modern world, and made extinct by the process.  When all is said and done, when we are finally visited upon by our alien neighbors in space, will they find grand skyscrapers, high speed railways, and other magificent man-made creations, or isolated populations of small bands of people who survived our selfish rush to more, more, more.