Tuesday, August 28, 2018

300. Column 300 and The End

I wrote my first column for the Lorain County Community Newspapers in 2003.

I was at Ohio State University taking a three-week course that was required to get my license in health care administration. It was a rough time — I was working two jobs through my internship at $8 per hour. I stayed in an awful motel, one that had a weekly rate that averaged out to about $29 per night. It was the only thing we could afford and, even then, when I tried to check in one Sunday night there was not enough money in our account.

However, one evening during the training, my wife called me and told me that my first column had run. It was about “The Starfish Poem,” and how every life mattered. I was so excited.

Fifteen years have quickly passed and this is my 300th column for the local papers. It is also my final column.

The time has come to move on — I feel like I have exhausted my perspectives. While there will always be specific issues to write about, my underlying values and arguments have been well communicated by now. I’ve learned to never say never, so I can’t say that I won’t ever write to or for the paper again, but it is my intention to tackle the next adventures in my life.

My desire to write was inspired by Stephan Jay Gould, who wrote beautifully and intelligently for Natural History magazine. A collection of his essays was required reading in one of my biology classes. I fell in love with his knowledge and brilliance and was envious of his writing ability.

I enjoy dissecting issues and writing challenged me to acquire some knowledge on an issue, consider both sides (or several sides) of an argument, and present a coherent essay on the subject. I tried to tackle the tough issues and in doing so I learned a lot about myself and what I was willing to share publicly.

Writing this column has been a wonderful experience, which has allowed me to grow both personally and professionally. I appreciated all the feedback, positive and negative, and my only hope was that on occasion my views offered some reader reflection and consideration.

I do have a couple of endeavors yet to consider. I want to write a book. I have been taking notes for over a decade but have never consistently committed the time it takes. The book will examine how — through “arrogance, ignorance and indifference” — we have become disconnected from the foundation of society. It will offer in-depth philosophical ideas intertwined with autobiographical experiences. I was making notes about societal fabrication and detachment long before “fake news” became a catchphrase.

I would like to run for political office one day, to put into practice that which I am so passionate about. To test my political philosophies, perhaps.

But I also turned 50 this year and I am acutely aware that there are no certainties in life. There is no longer the feeling of infinite summers, holidays, and time with my family. There is an anxiousness and awareness about time, and a bucket list that needs an increasing amount of attention.

I am motivated by Sir Francis Bacon Sr., who wrote, “Begin doing what you want to do now. We are not living in eternity. We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand and melting like a snowflake.”

In 15 years, it is interesting to know that, as a freelancer writer and due to technology, I never once walked into the newspaper’s office. However, I am grateful to Kathleen Willbond, who invited me to start writing my column, and editor Jason Hawk for his opinions and guidance. I am also grateful for the publishers along the way who printed my columns, even if they were controversial or unpopular at times.

Finally, I want to thank my friends and colleagues who often read and commented on my drafts, and my wonderful wife who not only proofread most of my columns but also provided honest feedback.

Monday, August 20, 2018

299. Ingredients for a perfect candidate

We often hear from voters that they are tired of politicians, particularly career politicians.
There are a few reasons for this, ranging from the desire for some fresh ideas to the fear that longtime politicians get too cozy with special interest groups. Often, I hear that voters want “ordinary people” to represent them.
When it comes to voting for political candidates, what are we really looking for?
I have a few ideas, but it is fair to note that these are just my thoughts and that there are many exceptions, both positive and negative:
  • First is a diverse background. Government encompasses so many areas of business, law, science, engineering, human resources, accounting, and philosophy. Whether through education or experience, I think it is incredibly valuable to have several areas of expertise. Issues are complicated and often engage economic, legal, and moral considerations. So I am weary of a candidate who has done the same job for 30 years. They might be incredibly smart and driven; however, their skills and areas of expertise might be too narrow. For example, the candidate might be a great doctor, but do they have the experience or knowledge to consider issues regarding the environment, manufacturing, or economic development? Our elected officers should represent all member of their constituents — that includes black people, poor people, and service workers as well as rich people, small business owners, and political donors.
  • I think it is optimal to have worked in both the private and public sector. The relationship between the two is an important one and best served by those who have considered the interests of both. This would also include experience with union workforces. Consider a successful businessperson. Whether it is a small business owner, for which voters often share affection, or a wealthy mogul, we have to remember that the primary interest and experience of that business owner is in the private sector.
  • Life experience is crucial and includes things like going to college, getting married, buying a house, and paying taxes. For that reason, I have concerns about young candidates. And it is not because they might not be brilliant and committed, but because, in my opinion, life experience matters. If a candidate has not spent time in “the real world” and done things like buying a house and paying property taxes, then I worry he or she won’t truly understand their constituents.
  • Leadership experience might include things like working with nonprofit organizations or serving on community boards. Leadership is a difficult quality and can be differentiated from advocacy and representation. One needs to understand the role government plays in each of the areas, such as the impact of raising taxes or applying for a grant. And, unfortunately, the truth is that some people are better in supportive roles. For example, in sports there are some outstanding assistant coaches who were awful head coaches.
  • Humility. Serving a community is a tremendous responsibility and public officials need to spend as much time listening as they do talking. The purpose of leadership is to improve the lives of the people in your community, not boost egos or practice narcissism. It is about spending time listening — really listening! — to constituents.
  • You have to be someone who can overcome obstacles. I like a candidate who has overcome adversity at some point in their life. Life is difficult and at one time or another most people have faced some difficult situations. I would rather have someone who took college courses in the evening, overcame financial challenges, or worked two jobs to provide for his or her family, than those who had their college paid for, a job waiting for them at Dad’s firm when they graduated, and a trust fund to buy their house.
  • I like people who “learned their politics.” What I mean is that they identified their political philosophies from their experiences, not simply adopted the platform of a political party. They’ve been downsized from a job or worked with immigrants. They have spent more time in the community, helping people without an agenda, than attending political fundraisers. They offer specifics on how to help the community rather than adopt slogans like, “I am going to be a crusader for the working man!” Say how you will help the working man!
Serving the public is a difficult job that can affect the lives of millions of people. Politicians need to be smart and informed and understand how one issue or interest may affect another. For example, placing a tariff on steel sounds great and rallies the out-of-work steelworkers; however, just that simple action, fair or not, has had a ripple effect throughout the world impacting workers and other industries.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, Americans don’t take voting seriously enough. They don’t learn about the candidates and issues, don’t verify the statements of candidates and special interest groups, and too often lazily re-elect incumbents.
It takes effort and defining your own list of criteria. What are you looking for in a candidate?

Monday, August 6, 2018

298. Picking and choosing customers

A sign in the bakery window could have read: 
“Heterosexuals only.”
Or maybe these might one day be more appropriate:
“Heterosexual Christians only.”
“Heterosexual Roman Catholic Christians only.”
“Heterosexual White Roman Catholic Christians only.”
I have wanted to write about this case for a while and the recent Supreme Court decision regarding the baker who, for religious reasons, refused to bake a custom cake for a homosexual couple, provides that opportunity.
The same-sex couple argued that Colorado law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The Supreme Court ruled for the baker; however, its decision was a narrow one, meaning that it only looked at a sliver of the laws that may eventually be affected. Although those on the right celebrated, the real issue is forthcoming, which Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote about in the majority opinion: “… these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”
This issue affects the rights of private businesses to choose their customers. Usually, they can do so uninhibitedly, except when the party is a member of a protected class. Choosing not to serve someone because he or she is wearing a LeBron James jersey is OK but choosing not to serve someone because he or she is black is not.
Classes based on gender, race, age, or sexual orientation, for example, are protected for two reasons: One, they are viewed as things that people can’t control, and two they are classes that have been frequently discriminated against in the history of this country — often harshly. The trump card, and also a protected class due to previous abuses, is religion, which unfortunately means people can claim almost anything as a “religious belief.”
Of course, it’s generally not good business to start chasing your customers away. But there is the question about the duty to our beliefs and values. If I owned a business, there are certainly people I would be uncomfortable serving. I don’t want the money from people who might hurt children or animals, for example.
Let’s turn this around. Suppose there were two Italian restaurants side by side and, feeling like pizza today, I had to choose. Generally, I like them both but one has a big “NRA for Trump” sign in the window and the other one has a “Health Care for All” sign in the other. Which one am going to choose?
A couple of years ago, when I was looking for a concrete company, I was not too excited when one of the business owners started talking about all the deer he kills. Why do I want to give him my money to support this hobby? Conversely, my neighbor advertised for a Christian landscaper — presumably because he wants to give his money to people who believe as he does.
Truthfully, when it comes to choosing a business, I would rather not know their political or religious beliefs. If I do, then undoubtedly it is going to factor in my decision. Similarly, businesses probably don’t want to know everything about their customers. Are you going to serve those engaged in domestic violence? What about those who kill animals for fun, drive drunk, or are too lazy to recycle? Like the opening paragraphs of this column, that customer list could narrow quickly.
This is a complicated issue. Do I bake cakes or do I only bake cakes for people who share my vision of society? Generally, I have a hard time faulting people who are true to their beliefs and principles. I would not want to bake a cake for a hunting festival or deliver one to a pig roast. Let someone else do it.
The challenge of course, especially when it comes to religion, is hypocrisy. I don’t know the extent of the baker’s faith, but I would ask — does he serve divorced customers, those who have committed adultery, or those who have stolen? Again, ignorance may apply, but before one discriminates based on religion, I would hope for a consistent application of those beliefs (the courts will test that).
For me, this issue presents more questions than answers. Because we do not truly know the motives or the authenticity of one’s beliefs, I believe that businesses should be able to choose their customers (at their own peril) and protected classes should continue to be legally free of discrimination.
The problem, as this case demonstrates, is when two protected classes meet.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

297. What's the point of the game?

A Ponzi scheme needs two actors — a fraudulent businessman or woman who promises high returns for investments into his or her company, and an investor who has been sold the promise of higher than normal (or guaranteed) returns.
Typically, when the money is withdrawn, the early investors receive their high-return money, sparking more investors, while those later investors, as the money runs out or the fraud scheme is exposed, can lose almost everything.
For most, money serves a few purposes. First and foremost, it is a necessity to purchase the essentials of living, such as shelter, food, and clothing. Money also provides security in anticipation of both short- and long-term financial needs, whether it’s surviving a job loss or later being able to retire. Next are the desires — those things we want but neither provide our essentials or security for the future. Socio-economic groups might have differing opinions on the distinction between needs and desires. For some, a television is a desire, for others it is a million-dollar yacht. Regardless, desires are generally regarded as those possessions or services that exceed the necessities of survival.
Finally, there is the money that provides freedom in life. There is another name for it, one that Matt Damon made famous in “Promised Land.” It is the money that comes after the necessities, security, and desires. It is the money that lets you navigate the rest of your life freely. It is the money that lets you quit your job or retire early. It is free of debt or obligation and enough money to do whatever you want for the rest of your life (of course, the less desires, the quicker the freedom).
I think the true winners of our current economic system are those who earn (or inherit, I suppose) their freedom. The game, I think, is to win as young as possible. The younger that you can live your life, the more life you will have to live. The number, of course, is different for everyone and how they live. The money to live quietly on a small farm is less than perhaps for someone who wants to travel the world. Some would like their money to run out at the very moment of their death; others want to leave money to family members or causes they believe in. It’s unpredictable but the point is clear.
Once you have freedom money, by definition, you don’t need any more. You don’t need to work for it, you don’t have to invest it — you’re done. You have enough to live the rest of your life, so why take risks?
And yet.
We see people who have enough money to last the rest of their lives continue to work, to make business deals, to invest it. Some just can’t stop, it is in their nature; some are just incredibly greedy. Some are talked into risky investments, whether it is in the stock market or opening a restaurant. Certainly, some have insatiable desires. It is not unusual to see athletes, movie stars, and successful business people have enough money for generations but lose it all.
This takes me back to the victims of Ponzi schemes. The stories are, on the one hand, heartbreaking, such as hearing about a couple who worked all their lives and saved up a couple million dollars that would easily provide for their retirement, only to lose it all by being conned into a Ponzi scheme.
But on the other hand, I am furious with these people. They are baited by the desire for more money, to earn an unrealistic return on their money. And they don’t just invest it, they invest it all. What is it about human nature that people would risk their freedom money to earn a higher return on money they don’t even need?
Unfortunately, our world is defined in many respects by money. It is an obsessive desire to have more and more — just for the game of it, to impress friends, or as a scorecard on success. It’s like sitting down at McDonald’s for lunch with 64 Big Macs — what are you going to do with 63 of those Big Macs? Invest them to earn 82 Big Macs?
I think, in a lot of ways, people have forgotten the purpose of money. And for most Americans, our financial journeys are tough enough — we make mistakes, we don’t save enough, we don’t set financial goals. It is too easy to buy things we can’t afford. Most of us have fallen into financial traps. It’s hard to reach “freedom” financial status but it is even harder when we are not aware of that which it really offers.
If you get there, enjoy it. You’re free to do what you want, when you want! If your work brings you pleasure, work without the worry of losing your job. Or maybe travel, volunteer, or spend time with friends or family. Or maybe sit peacefully on your porch with your dog, listening to the birds. Or spend your time in a garden growing big, beautiful tomatoes.

It’s your life. Just don’t risk it — never invest it all, never seek suspiciously high returns, don’t open an expensive business. We work to earn the money we need to buy our freedom — don’t be tempted to jeopardize it for money you don’t need.