Thursday, January 30, 2014

State of the Union 2

I finished yesterday's post on a significantly negative note; that the SOTU is all about money with people a distant second.

I also mentioned in yesterday's post how confusing it seems that despite the incredible gains made in our economy since the desperate days of October 2008, most people are dissatisfied with the economy and the direction of the country.

It dawned on me last night at work that perhaps I am forgetting a critical aspect of the interpretation of such data.  For me personally, like a slight majority of Americans, I generally approve of the job that President Obama has done.  Whether you want to play the "it-would-have-happened-anyway" card, or the even more tenuous, "a different president would have made a bigger difference", the facts are that life has improved for many Americans, and that there is cause for congratulations.  For instance;

we have far less soldiers in harm's way overseas

we have ended the odious don't-ask, don't-tell philosophy for gays in the military

more gay Americans can legally marry the person they love

our retirement fund accounts have recovered much of their 2008-2009 losses

if you are sick, really sick, there are no longer caps on the benefits we will receive to battle your illness

if you lose your job, you have a much better chance of affordable health coverage compared to your previous options of COBRA, or being rated individually with the chance of denial or very high premiums if there are any pre-existing conditions

That being said, and while you know I remain an optimist, there are signs of major issues facing America that are not being addressed, or actively being ignored.  So, perhaps, a certain percentage of those saying we are heading in the wrong direction, are not blaming President Obama and his policies for this state, but all the players who govern America, and who run its businesses.  This might explain the difference between those 70+% who are dissatisfied with our direction, and the 50+% who approve of Obama's efforts.  In other words, like my wife who supports Obama but is terrified at the way of the world, there may be 20% of the population who believe he has not done enough, has not addressed the biggest issues, perhaps even, has not been liberal enough. 

I know the Republican party steadfastly believes that all 70% of those dissatisfied with the direction of the country think that we need to turn to the right but I don't agree.   As proof, I would offer the 2012 elections in which a middle right GOP candidate lost decisively to a middle left candidate.  In which the GOP lost two Senate seats (from 47 to 45) and 8 House seats (from 242 to 234).  Also the fact that Congress, both houses, have a dismal approval rating tells me there is no conclusive data to suggest that all the blame is placed at Obama's feet.  Additionally, and most damning, those same polls that detail the lament for the wrong direction, give the GOP very low marks in terms of trust to make things right.  And while Obama receives poor marks for flexibility to work with Congress, Congress receives even lower marks.  Finally, if you check the history of these moving in the wrong direction polls, you will find that Americans have been saying it for about 10 years now. 

So, perhaps we need to rethink our conclusions.

Perhaps, what these polls indicate is that America is unsure what direction to go.  On one hand, we know what worked in the 50's and 60's, how post war America led the world to recovery.  But competition was slight then.  Europe and Japan were devastated and China was still living in the dark ages.  Once the world gained its foothold, once China began to harness its resources, once the advances in communication and transportation burst on the scene, the labor market changed drastically.  Suddenly, goods could be manufactured anywhere (lower labor costs), and moved anywhere (lower transportation costs), and America's advantages dried up.  At this point, our choices were to lower our own wages (demonizing unions was a big part of that ploy), or create economic bubbles that would spur growth but not be sustainable, hence the frequent ups and downs. 

Hard work, individualism, entrepreneurship, invention, forward thinking, all characters that made America dominant are now shared by those in many other countries.  While our recipe for success may still be similar, we are not the only cooks in the kitchen.  We require some out of the box thinking, some challenges to the "it-worked-before" mentality.  We need to change yet, as is natural, we are hesitant.  Half of us clings to the old tried and true ways, while half discards the old to seek the new.  Unfortunately, in seeking the new, mistakes are made.  There are no guarantees.  Sometimes things need to be tweaked a bit before working fully but we seem impatient for the quick fix.  I've heard more than one pundit claim the Obama experiment had run its course, even back in 2010 when the GOP took back the House, as if two years could fix 30 years of problems.   The Affordable Care Act is a failure, I hear so many of the GOP claim yet it hasn't fully been implemented yet.  If we were to judge all long term solutions on its first few years, we may have discarded many great changes in their infancy, and lost out on those positive effects. 

And, as you know I join my fellow Americans in blaming our elected officials, yet if we don't know what we want, where we want to go, how we should get there, how can our leaders take us.  We seem bent on electing two drivers with opposite senses of direction for our national ship of state and then wonder why we are treading water.

America is in transition.  I would like to think that in 20 years we will have maneuvered our way into a position to determine our new direction, will have made a choice as to where we wanted to go and then elected people to take us there.  But as long as we have a significant population who want to go backwards to a time in their minds when America was always right, choices were black and white, good and evil, we will continue to struggle and continue to be dissatisfied with our country's direction. 


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The State of the Union

I must confess, I did not watch the President's State of the Union (SOTU) speech last night.  Nor, of course, did I watch any of the three Republican responses.  But I did watch a few shows yesterday which presented some data and possible talking points of the SOTU, plus I watched a few shows this morning which presented reactions to the speech.

First, two interesting facts. 

Unemployment began rising in 2008, then rose quickly through 2009 into 2010, topping at just over 10%.  It has declined slowly since, falling below 7% in December 2013 for the first time in 6 years.

See link below

The stock market declined steeply beginning in October 2008, reaching its low point of the recession of 6547.05 in early 2009.  It is currently trading a bit over 15700. 

See link below

Clearly, these are only two measurements of the economy.  But, at first glance, one might say fairly conclusively that our country is better off today than in January 2009 when Obama took office.  Yet, and despite his re-election just 14 months ago, his approval ratings are below 50%, and he seems to be given very little credit for overseeing the recovery to date.

Another measurement I just thought of might be housing starts.  Here is a link.  Again, dismal numbers at the peak of the recession, slow but gaining recovery, especially in the last 18 months.

Not only is there a lack of respect for the recovery, but a majority of Americans feel the country is on the wrong track.  So, what explains the disconnect between our seemingly improving economy and people's perceptions?

An easy answer might be that people are not feeling the advantages of the recovery.  Wages are certainly not increasing.  In the private sector, profits seem to be flowing upwards, to either executive pay or to improve profits.  In the public sector, unions continue to be on the decline in terms of membership and influence, resulting in layoffs and give backs.  Even pensions, promises to workers made by local, state and federal governments, are being subjected to possible reductions and eliminations.  So, simply stated, people do not feel a part of the recovery because their buying power has, at best, stayed the same, but more often has decreased.  The good news here is that if you looked at your IRA statements for 2013, you should see at least 20%, perhaps as much as 40% increases in the value of your investments.  Good for the future but no help today, of course.

So, if there are signs of recovery but everyday Americans aren't feeling it what is going on?

As you know, it is my belief that our current form of capitalism is not working to the advantage of middle class Americans.  I believe that it started in the 1980's with Reagan's famous trickle down economic theories, continued with Bush 1, flourished under Clinton via large scale trade agreements and the now famous repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, continued under Bush 2 and his doubling down on corporate tax breaks, then finally peaked with the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling that granted individual rights to corporations.  

One thing that I heard both Dems and the GOP say today is that we must provide more jobs that pay a living wage to more middle class Americans.  Considering that we have so many people employed in retail and service industries, I don't see an easy solution.  Raising the minimum wage will only help a small percentage of workers unless the rate increases to $12 per hour.  To me, the minimum wage isn't the problem, it is all those people who work 40 hours a week and earn between $9-12 per hour and are expected to shelter, feed and provide opportunity for their family, not to mention participate in the economy.

The minimum wage issue is a distraction to the real problems facing middle class Americans who can't earn enough money to move up the economic ladder, especially in the face of all the multi-million dollar salaries going to those in the financial, entertainment and health care industries.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, income inequality is a serious issue in this country.  As long as we allow those on top to prosper at the expense of the rest, allow our political discourse to be driven by those with the most money, allow our votes to be bought by the promise of short term rewards over the longer term, as long as we, the people, continue to hue and cry over those in Washington but vote in alarmingly low percentages, we will not begin to broach any serious changes to improve the lot of the middle class.

The State of the Union? 

$$$ before people 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Just Finished "Death"

I mentioned a few months ago that I had begun the most recent Lapham's Quarterly called Death.  I just finished it over the weekend.

Such a wonderful compilation of thoughts about this topic.  There is no way to properly give it justice other than recommending that you read it yourself, but I will attempt to convey a few of the thoughts that crossed my mind as I read.

First, there was much humor in the magazine.  While it certainly includes many essays from the perspective of death's finality, it also shows a remarkable range of thoughts in which death and the circumstances of some deaths, can be humorous.  Sort of like the axiom that we shouldn't take ourselves too seriously, there were many who applied this same thought to death.

I was also struck by the insights provided by writers from hundreds, even thousands of years ago.  I think that we often consider all those who came before us, especially those born in the time before the great industrial and technological revolutions of the recent past, as stupid, or at least so much less evolved.  I also feel we look upon them with a bit of pity as well.  What they couldn't do, didn't know, etc.  Yet, some of the more insightful reflections about death came well before the 1600's, even in times BC.  It reminds me that man has considered his immortality since day one, has lamented that his time is so short, has continually strived to find elixirs and potions to extend his youth.

This thought then flows seamlessly into the realization that despite our extended life expectancy, we strive more than ever to live a longer, higher quality life.  Of course, that in itself should be expected, yet perhaps we have entered the realm of absurdity in recent times.  I am lucky that I still feel relatively young, have been told by friends that I look a bit younger than my age, so perhaps I am disingenuous when I laugh at those commercials that tell men that their problem is low testosterone, and by rubbing something under their armpits they can be young again.  I imagine that for some, an ideal existence would be to look twenty for eighty years then just die.  Perhaps that means it is getting older that we fear more then dying.

For me, I certainly would prefer more life.  I want to see my kids find happiness, in love, in work, in family.  I want to continue to write, perhaps even see one of my posts go viral some day.  I want to still be awed by the full moon rising over the horizon or a beautiful sunset over water or an open field.  I want to be there when my wife is able to stay home and tinker in the yard or create beautiful stain glass art in the basement.  I want to travel a bit more. 

But today, as I sit here typing away, I don't fear death.  While there are things I still wish to write, places I still want to see, experiences I still wish to have, while I certainly would prefer to live longer, I don't fear the nothingness of death, or the judgment of heaven or hell, or the chance I might come back as a slug. 

Perhaps that is the secret of life.  Knowing that all men die, knowing that you will someday die, accepting that regardless of wealth, fame, intelligence or education, death is the one experience that we all have in common, that unites us as fellow travelers in time.  And that living, truly living one's life as fully and with as much love as possible, is the one and only way to cheat death. 

Finally, a copy of the letter sent by Jack Kevorkian to the Chief Justice of the United States about assisted suicide was published towards the end of Death.  I was unaware of the point made by Kevorkian in this letter and it struck me hard.  He stated that by giving people a way to kill themselves, making it legal for someone to end the tremendous suffering they may be experiencing, just this act of having a way out can give people the strength to continue to live.  In other words, it is sometimes easier to endure one's hardship when one feels they have some kind of control over its existence.  To Dr. Kevorkian, the idea that someone's suffering has no end in sight and that they have no option in ending it is as horrible as the actual suffering itself.   In makes me think that those who are against assisted suicide for humane reasons, either have not yet experienced the suffering that those who see to die endure, have not seen a loved one endure such pain, or do not fully understand the meaning of what it means to be humane. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Staying Hopeful, and Crying

Now that the holiday rush has ended, I have spent a lot of time doing nothing, as opposed to working.  It's funny, I can fall asleep at the drop of a hat, anytime during the day, yet I am getting so much more sleep than during the holiday season.  It almost seems as if it doesn't matter, 4 hours of sleep or 8, I feel the as tired, or as energetic, depending on the circumstances.   The only difference is that I am dreaming/remembering my dreams more frequently since I am sleeping more.  Perhaps the perceived need for sleep is all in one's head.

With all this time to myself, I have been reading my favorite magazines (Yeah), and watching more TV (Boo).  I have also been chatting with my wife, Nora, about my recent blogs claiming the continued evolution of man, and my optimism about this progression.  Our discussion was especially pointed during and after we recently watched Gasland 2.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with either Gasland 1 or 2, they are documentary films about fracking, specifically about the victims of this new technology.  From tap water that easily catches fire to little or no land rights to the land beneath one's home to the many ways the energy industries in conjunction with bought off government representatives and regulators, the Gasland documentaries paint a dim picture of man raping our planet, abusing the rights of ordinary citizens, and placing industry profit over the health of the planet and its inhabitants. 

One particularly disturbing scene showed ex-Pa Governor Tom Ridge, now a spokesperson for the gas industry, denying the proof that fracking has caused the poisoning of wells on the The Daily Show.  While, I know that this program is a comedy, it was still very disturbing to see and hear laughter concerning this topic while countless families are being forced out of their homes because of the unhealthy conditions caused by fracking.  Even sadder, the victims must remain silent once they accept the industry payout for their homes, and so the fracking moves on to the next town as if nothing bad has occurred.

As Nora said more than once, some of these energy execs would f**k a snake for a profit.  The revelation that they often employ ex-military who are experts in PSYOPS (Psychological Operations) to isolate the victims within their communities, while rewarding those who benefit from the drilling, says much about how far they will go to obtain methane from the ground.  The parallel to the cigarette industry that denied the dangers of their product for thirty years is revealed in the similarity of some of the advertising campaigns.  I understand how Nora can watch something like this and conclude that we are slowly killing our planet, that money is more important that people, and that those with the power and connection do anything they want, with no consequences.   It makes my belief in man na├»ve at best, downright stupid at worst.

Yet there is the article in the December Smithsonian on the 2013 American Ingenuity Awards (  People in various fields of work who are creating new ways to understand our bodies (Natural Sciences -- Michael Skinner), new ways to explore the universe (Technology -- Adam Steltzner), new ways to improve our health (Physical Sciences -- John Rogers), and new ways to understand where we came from, who we are, and where we are going.  Most conducting their research or working at their craft behind the scenes, generally unknown, certainly invisible to the mass media and its obsession with everything bling.  Perhaps that is the only way these kind of achievements can be attained.  Would these people change their research, their methods, if they were in the limelight, if they answered to the vagaries of what is hot, what is commercial?  It makes me wonder how I might change my blog if it were to suddenly be viral.  Would I write to my audience?  To maintain my audience?

There are also the various citizens of the year that were named end of December, early this year.  Regular people who go the extra mile to serve their fellow man.  Again, little of no financial reward, perhaps a few minutes of local TV time or a quarter page of newsprint on page 20 of the paper.  Just service for the sake of others. 

As I mentioned above, I have also been watching a bit more TV lately, especially movies.  Of course, Hollywood is expert at heart tugging story lines.  The relationship between caddy and golfer in The Legend of Bagger Vance in which the sport is secondary to the metamorphosis of the man who finally overcomes the mental images that have haunted him since the Great War.  Or Mr. Hollands Opus which details the story of a music teacher about to be retired due to budget cuts.  He thinks his life a waste until an auditorium filled room of his ex-students bids him farewell by performing the symphony he has worked on all his life.  

But that is not real life you might say.  Art imitates life I would answer.  Even if there are not thousands of men and women alive today who successfully struggle to overcome their horrible experiences in war, or if there were not thousands of art and music teachers who have put aside their personal ambitions to inspire the youth of America to understand that while earning a living is important, the colors that make life worth living is found in the arts, the simple fact that someone could imagine these movies and their plots proves that there is hope for man.

Which brings us to crying.  I am not sure when it started but a I have become a crier.  Not a wailer, but certainly I am often teary eyed.  During the course of our recent conversation, Nora asked me about this.  I think she suspected that I cry at movies because I am sad for myself, having a rather mundane job, no longer able to afford to travel, as opposed to living the life of a successful writer.  To be honest, there may be something to that, but mostly I think I cry so easily because there is so much good to cry about.  So much to be inspired about, to be hopeful about.

And, yes, I cry for you Nora.  You, who along with our daughter took an abandoned cat to the local vet in hopes of finding her a home.  You, who miss our kids when they are away at college.  You, who recently made cinnamon rolls from scratch.  You who exude so much love despite having had such negative life experiences as a child.  I cry for you because I don’t want you to let your fear of man’s greed and hate and ignorance overcome your natural love of life and family. 

And yes, I cry for my children, for all children, in hopes that they will also be able to continue to see and experience the wonderful thinks of life.  To remain hopeful that their generation will leave the earth a better place, make is so there are less people being abused by those in power, those with money, those born to advantage.  To have children of their own, an act in itself that one might consider the ultimate hope for the future, and instill in those children the same hope for the betterment of the next generation.


Thursday, January 2, 2014

Happy New Year

It has been quite a while since my last post; possibly the longest I have gone between posts in the short history of this blog.  Of course, the holidays occupied so much of my free time, "free" time being defined as the time when I wasn't working.  But, as usual, all the presents were purchased and wrapped, all the cards were sent (although I must confess to sending more emails as cards this year than last), the tree chosen and trimmed, the kids picked up and brought home, etc, etc. 

I've mentioned in a few previous blogs that my interest is waning in writing via this medium.  I expect this is a "phase", as I know I have much more to say.  It used to bother me when more than a week would pass between posts; now I don't give it much thought.

The good news is that I received an actual royalty check from Amazon for my e-book, Short Stories and wurdsfromtheburbs.  10 units sold, direct deposit for $3.60 hit my bank account on 12/30.  I was surprised that they would deposit such a small amount, perhaps they do that to clear the books at the end of the year.  I would have preferred an actual check as I probably would have left it uncashed, framing it instead for posterity.  I have told a few people about the check, laughing it off as if I am unconcerned about its size.  But truly, it doesn't matter that only 10 units have sold so far.  I waited my entire life to publish something, not knowing how eagerly I awaited the event, and now that it is done, everything else is a cherry on top.

For those who have purchased my book; thanks so much.  For those still interested, google my name, Joe Pugnetti, and you will see a link to it on Amazon, or, if you have a kindle, search for my name and there it is, only 99 cents.

I know I will be inspired to continue this blog, whether it be weekly or monthly.  I still have many story ideas to bring  to fruition, and I plan to e-publish a follow up to book number 1, with the title of More Short Stories and wurdsfromtheburbs.  (Obviously, I can continue the pattern for quite a while, i.e, Even More Short Stories...,  Still More Short Stories..., A Bunch of Short Stories..., etc).

In the meantime, I promised some proof that man's next big step forward would be spiritual, and that the step is already happening.  I plan to take a bunch of days off in the next few months so I should be able to deliver on that promise shortly.

In the meantime, I hope your Christmas was wonderful, your New Year has started off healthy and happy, and that this post finds your spirits high, eager to be a part of the coming revolution.