Thursday, December 6, 2012

192. Be willing to pay a fair price

In an amusing MetLife television commercial, an executive for the company-- who is boasting about the cheap insurance rates they offer--argues with Lucy of the Peanuts that while it is inexpensive, it cannot be five cents. "Not everything can be five cents," he says.

As we continue to endure a number of debates about unions, strikes, plant closures and "right to work" amendments, I find credence in the argument that not everything can be five cents. While people are often quick to takes sides--maintaining an inherent bias toward supporting business interest or worker's rights-- there are additional factors that are often not considered. Mostly specifically, I wonder if we are considering the true costs of our products.

Consumer pressure to keep prices low affects labor costs throughout the supply chain--from production to distribution. And our taxes, through government subsidies, particularly in agribusiness, works to keep prices low. It's impossible, as I have written before, no matter the economy of scale, to produce and sell a double cheeseburger for less than a dollar.

Thus, the cost we are willing to pay affects everybody and everything that is needed to produce, distribute and sell a product.

Company disputes about production costs are really about profit. Even slight increases in costs can dramatically affect profits. Employee wages are like most economic factors--subject to supply and demand. Corporations will pay the least amount the labor market will provide. And with high unemployment, and the availability of outsourcing, recent trends have indicated record corporate profits and record low worker wages.

Likewise, each employee-- turned consumer-- has an interest in making as much as possible, while paying as little as possible for goods and services. His or her salary goes further when prices are kept low. It's a personally relative function--and it's best when my company pays high wages and the companies I purchase from pay low wages.

So what can be done?

First, executive compensation must be reduced. In many corporations and industries it continues to be excessive--unfair to both employees and the consumers. Reasonable executive compensation would still permit all the available luxuries available in life.

Second, prices should be increased slightly to reflect domestically-made products, increased worker wages and the cost of healthcare. For example, couldn't Wal-Mart slightly raise prices to pay its workers fairly without affecting corporate profits? Papa John's said that it would have to raise pizza prices fourteen cents to pay for healthcare for its employees under Obamacare.

Third, consumers need to be willing to pay those slightly increased prices to ensure that all Americans have fair wages and healthcare. Lower prices mean lower wages-and what happens to our middle class if workers' wages continue to hit record lows? Who will buy the houses or cars-or take vacations? We need to close the gap between the best paid workers and the lowest paid workers.

Finally, shareholders have to accept a reasonable return on their investments. The pressure placed on management to continually increase profits and raise stock prices is unsustainable and harms everyone in the supply and distribution chain. Under that pressure, of course management is going to choose to outsource and fight to keep wages low. Isn't interesting that in this difficult economic time that the stock market has continued to do very well?

I understand that it is not quite as simple as I suggest-and that there is also a supply and demand curve dependent on price. However, as John Schnatter, Chief Executive Officer of Papa John's said, it's not a competitive disadvantage if everyone has to do it.

It is a change of mindset-- and paying a few extra cents can have widespread benefits. It's the same philosophy that asks consumers to support small businesses-even if prices are slightly higher.

The true cost of a product-- to me-is one that includes fair domestic wages and the cost of healthcare for all or nearly all of the employees in the manufacture, distribution and sale of a product.

Sorry Lucy, MetLife is right-- everything can't be five cents.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

191. What would you rather have?

I am reading a book about the declining wealth of the middle class, entitled, "Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class," by Robert H. Frank and I was intrigued by a couple of sociological ideas about comparative and absolute wealth. I have often considered the difference, but had not succeeded in developing a definitive perspective.

The author asks in regards to absolute wealth versus comparative wealth whether you would rather have a 3000 square foot house when others in your community have a 4000 square foot house, or a 2000 square foot house when in others in your community have a 1000 square foot house?

I immediately thought, as probably most would, that I do not care what other people have, I will take the house with 3000 square feet. It is nicer for me, and considerably bigger than the 2000 square foot house. And, I thought, I do not find any satisfaction in being "better" than anyone else.

However, that seemed too easy, and I knew there was more to consider.

Sure enough, I discovered how this hypothetical fails when I considered a simple experiment that the author informally conducted about comparative "wealth" with his sons. It is an experiment that we know to be inherently true and one we have probably indirectly experienced on many occasions, but never so simply stated.

The author has two sons and one morning gave them both a full glass of orange juice-which of course they enjoyed without complaint. The second day, he gave both of them a half glass of orange juice. Again, despite being only half full, neither son complained. The third day, he gave one son a nearly full glass of orange juice, but gave the other son a glass only three-quarters full. Now we have a problem and the one son asked, "Why did he get more than me?"

No fair, right?

Thus, it was not more or less orange juice that created emotion; it was comparative amounts that raised a complaint. The one son felt there was no reason that he did not deserve the same amount as his brother.

This is what we experience in reality, isn't it? If you work harder than the person doing the same job as you, don't you think you deserve more than him or her-regardless of how much you are being paid. After all, we see football players making millions of dollars willing to holdout rather than be paid less than someone who is less talented. Many of us sigh with envy and disgust--don't they realize how well they have it, we ask?

So our comparative value is as important, even if most of us would say we would gladly choose the 3000 foot square house over the 2000 square foot house. Because, at some point it's inevitable we'd reference ourselves to a neighborhood "slacker" and feel that we "deserve" a bigger house than him or her. In the end, isn't that capitalism defined-rewarding hard work?

Of course, the real world does not work like that. Hard work is important, but there are many other factors that determine wealth-the largest being opportunity through one's family socioeconomic status. Some people have a head start on the path to success, while others are destined to fail. There is also luck and good fortune. Thus, some people are going to get a stellar education, take over the family business, receive a sizeable inheritance or win the lottery. It's the socioeconomic lottery.

While I think most people accept these advantages in life, what should bother people, and is dangerous to our country from an economic standpoint, is when comparative wealth reaches exponential levels. Few argue that that those at the top, with the most responsibility, should not be well paid. The question is how well? Do they deserve to be paid $15 million dollars per year when the average salary of the other employees is $15 per hour?

My argument from a comparative standpoint is that it is impossible to "deserve" that much more than one person. It seems philosophically ridiculous that our society pays our president less than $500,000 per year, but pays 24 year-old quarterbacks upwards of 15 million per season (in fact, Michael Vick, a convicted felon, just signed a six-year $100 million dollar contract). And we have not even mentioned the wealth of the super rich-the four hundred billionaires among us.

Exponential differences in wealth are dangerous to a country--it skews power and influence, and it affects the quality of life for the middle class. It also confuses priorities, creates disconnect and rewards greed-prompting overextension in trying to "keep up with the Joneses." Few are really talking about socialism; we are talking about the difference between an orange orchard and orange peels.

190. Taxes don't follow opinions

In 1846, Henry David Thoreau was arrested and spent the night in jail for not paying his poll taxes over the course of the previous six years. For Thoreau, it was a matter of principle and he refused to pay his tax in protest of the government's role in slavery and the Mexican-American War.

While the incidence in part provided some background to the brilliant essay on civil disobedience, it also offers insight to the accountability of how our tax dollars are spent. Thoreau was not willing to support a government which engaged in activities which offended his conscious.

Many others have made the same connection.

If I could pick and choose where my tax dollars end up, I would certainly prioritize--and likewise, I would rarely approve any of my tax dollars being spent on war.

Since we are not afforded such discretion, all of our federal tax dollars, unless specifically designated, go into a large fund which supports all activities of the government. That means I pay for things I do support and those which I adamantly do not support.

Considering the number of taxes collected by our federal government, the amount of our taxes spent on any one government activity is probably quite small. Sure, I pay the president's salary, and for a bridge, or a tank--but individually it is probably not more than a few cents--or maybe even a fraction of a cent.

So while collectively the American taxpayers fund a lot of government activities, our personal contributions to any one particular activity is relatively small.

This point is particular to the obsessive and largely fiscal conservative disdain for paying welfare benefits to the less fortunate segments of our citizenry. The argument usually stems around the fact that "they got an education and they worked hard for their money," and do not feel that it is appropriate giving it to "lazy people who play the system." The stereotypes, often including offensive racist and prejudicial attitudes, only get worse from there.

The projection of exaggeration seemingly insinuates that these hard working people are each supporting dozens of lazy families for years on end. Understanding that each of our tax dollars is spread thin across the federal budget, I wondered how much people are really paying for welfare benefits. My inclination was that indeed it was severely exaggerated, but I wanted to understand.

Fortunately, the federal government now has a website which projects how each of our tax dollars is actually spent. The website entitled "Your 2011 Federal Taxpayer Receipt" allows users to put in their financial information to estimate how much of their taxes go for generalized federal expenditures.

Not surprisingly, and again depending on individual income and deductions, around 25% of our taxes is spent on national defense. This includes costs like military wages, operating expenses, research and weapons.

Job and Family Security, which includes a host of social programs, including what is commonly known as food stamps and temporary assistance for needy families, totals about 19%. The food stamp and temporary assistance programs, which many find most offensive of the social programs, only totals $44 for a family of three making $50,000 per year.

While these are just estimates and the actual amount moves with changes in income level, it is hardly the individual burden that many suggest. I have always considered this expenditure of my tax dollars to be a worthy social cost. After all, there may be a time in which I ask for the same consideration of my neighbor.

Certainly, I understand there are people who abuse the system--lazy folks who do not deserve the help. While opportunity and good fortune may fluctuate, all of us should be asked to make an effort. I would also protest my dollars being spent on those who do not at least try. Unfortunately, this determination is made on a sliding case-by-case basis, and I am willing to provide the support however it ends up.

And, to the parallel fiscally conservative argument about the wealthy paying more taxes, if I am ever very wealthy--through either hard work, or risk investment, or good fortune--I am happy to pay more taxes. Personally, and regardless of how much I pay, I would rather that more were spent on food stamps and less on national defense, but I am not ready to spend the day in jail to insist upon it.

In fact, to rest the conscious, I will take someone else's share of the job and family security--and he or she can pay for the tanks.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

189. The big pitch job is ridiculous

I have added my name to the long list of people who just want this election to be over with.

Whereas 2008 brought tremendous excitement, starting with the Democratic primaries and through the general election in which we saw some welcomed diversity in both parties, the 2012 election will be remembered as bitter and hostile. It is not to say that 2008 was not exhausting, it was, and the nomination of Sarah Palin added some heated conversations. The distractions and passion of that election nearly cost me a year of law school--as I was glued to the political television networks and had many time-consuming debates with family and friends.

But, this year it seems different. While there is still passion, the arguments have become cliché and exaggerated. Every campaign comment is analyzed, spun and reanalyzed. Very few minds will change and I often throw up my arms in despair when people insist on voting against their own interest.

I have been less engaged and often avoid social media and political conversations. Others have shared the same sentiment.

Leading the discontent is the seemingly never-ending string of political advertisements. With a total cost of the election approaching maybe 6 billion dollars, up to 2.5 billion will be spent on the presidential election. Often the commercials run back to back--Obama, Romney, Mandel and Brown--and they target the small percentage of undecided voters. For the rest of us, the commercials have become background noise and largely ignored. The particularly vicious and deceitful commercials, often funded by political action committees, will round out the last week leading up to the election. For example, and of particular annoyance, are the disingenuous advertisements of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

I have to admit that I was wrong in that I thought the political advertisements, specifically the money spent by corporations for Republicans, would have more of an impact. It seems that even the undecided voters might be tuning them out-there are just too many of them and I think people are unsure of what to believe.

In addition, I think people are starting to believe that the process is just too long. With the maneuvering for the Republican nomination beginning last year, the primaries in the spring, the conventions in late summer and the debates in the fall--people only have so much time to invest. The political junkies love it, and I share some strong opinions, but the road is long--with campaign peaks and valleys, and controversy, and polls--and more polls. And it is a disturbance to the job duties of the President and members of Congress--they have to spend too much time campaigning.

It also seems that people have lost faith in the system--the promises and broken promises; the political spin and gamesmanship. Many are beginning to realize that politics and politicians are subservient to corporations and their lobbyists--and the polls and their financial supporters. Voters have little to say after the ballots have been cast. The hypocrisy and lack of principle is often blinding and discouraging.

Finally the issues--we have heard enough about jobs, taxes, healthcare and debt. The economy is an incredibly complex and intricate system. To think that one candidate, despite the claims of both candidates, can simply flip a switch and make everything okay is ridiculous. Supporters make arguments they do not even understand. How many can name five economic factors-let alone explain what they mean? Taxes, healthcare and the debt are real issues, and they separate many of the candidates, but we have heard it all already. Either you are for asking the wealthy to pay their fair share, or you are not. Either everyone should have access to healthcare or they should not. Either you believe the debt reduction numbers work, or you do not.

Either way, I am tired; I just want this to be over. In the presidential and senatorial races, I strongly believe that the Democratic candidates, from a character standpoint, are much stronger than their Republican challengers. But people vote like they do for a variety of reasons.

Whoever wins, I am ready to cast my ballot and move on. There will be more battles to fight, more causes to advocate-I am not giving up on those things I believe in-but I am ready for this election to conclude.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

188. There are limits to 'suggestions'

With the election only a few weeks away, we are starting to hear the same sort of stories that we heard in 2008. We are hearing stories of employees who are receiving the unsolicited recommendation from their employer as to who they should be voting for in both the national and local elections. In some cases, it is just a suggestion as to which candidate might best represent the company's interest; in others, it is an employer threat that if the wrong candidate wins there might be employee layoffs.

There are some rules, but generally the employer is free to communicate its opinion on how its employees should vote. I have seen emails from a local company where the employer has sent out a notice to employees with voting recommendations stating that "employees have asked which candidate we should vote for." Many other companies have formed political action committees--with the sole purpose to get their candidates elected.

It has also been reported that Koch Industries President Dave Robertson wrote to employees, "At the request of many employees, we have also provided a list of candidates in your state that have been supported by Koch companies or by KOCHPAC, our employee political action committee." While it may be true that some employees inquired, the company-wide communication is certainly mostly unsolicited (of course, if you work for Koch Industries, need you really ask?).

Wealthy Republican Westgate Resorts CEO David Siegel made similar news and took that to a new level when he wrote a threatening to employees that if they voted for Obama they may lose their job, "What does threaten your job however, is another 4 years of the same Presidential administration. Of course, as your employer, I can't tell you whom to vote for . . . ." Later though, he makes the significance crystal clear, "If any new taxes are levied on me, or my company, as our current President plans, I will have no choice but to reduce the size of this company."

With the availability of jobs still quite tenuous, it is natural that employee would want to do what is best for their company and family. Few are willing to risk their job and will be inclined to protect their own financial interest.

To be fair, at times it does matter and one's organization should indeed be considered when voting. For example, the healthcare law affects many organizations and whether it remains or is repealed can have a real impact on their viability. Medicaid eligibility will be expanded, and organizations that provide Medicaid services certainly have an interest in keeping President Obama. Conversely, financial institutions impacted by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act may want Romney elected to minimized the increased regulation on Wall Street.

So the question the employee must consider is whether a CEO who communicates his or her voting recommendation is considering the company's interest, the employee's interest, or his or her personal interest?

Each organization is different, but CEOs usually make a lot of money, and it is no secret that Romney and the Republicans want to continue the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Republicans also usually favor deregulation and free trade and this might mean more opportunity to outsource jobs and factories--employing the cheapest labor available, capitalizing on weak environmental regulations and moving profits overseas.

Conversely, from the employee's perspective, Obama and the Democrats have supported healthcare reform and labor unions. They want to let the Bush tax cuts expire and use that money to pay down the debt and lower the taxes on the middle class. It also wants to stop the outsourcing of American jobs by lowering corporate taxes and closing the corporate loopholes that incentivize it.

While I think the employer is in a position to unduly influence its employees with its voting recommendations, and that the tactic is usually disingenuous and should be avoided, the employee has a responsibility to learn the issues and decide which candidates represent his or her social, moral and financial interests. The employer's opinion should be one of many--taken with a grain of salt and with the understanding that the employer has its own interests at stake. Employees ought to consider the big picture and all interests involved-and then make his or her decision.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

187. Candidates: Please, at least be consistent

Ralph Nader, while not shying away from his criticisms of President Obama, called the current Republican Party the worst in history. I am not sure how Nader defines "worst," but I would suggest that, from the national races down to the local level, there is indeed a disconnect and a lack of a consistent message within the Republican Party.

It is certainly a time of turmoil as the party searches for an identity, a political philosophy that integrates both social and fiscal conservatism. While I had noted the paradox a few years ago, the party continues to digress into a montage of unprincipled ideas and convictions. There is an attempt not to alienate social conservatives and their agenda, while at the same time fighting for fiscal conservatives who despise spending and taxes of any sort. Where the middles class fits in this is anyone's guess.

The infamous 47 percent comment aside, there seems to be some serious disconnect at the national level and the Republican choice for president. Romney who was born wealthy and Ryan who married into wealth do not seem to understand, or respect, the working class. They vigorously maintain their support of the wealthy at the expense of the middle class under the guise of fiscal conservatism. Romney was a moderate before he was a conservative. Ryan vacated his economic principles for Romney's. Conservatives hate Romneycare, but so does Romney, sometimes. Romney was against the bailout but now takes credit for it. It's so confusing to figure out where they stand.

Even locally we see the sacrifice of principle in the chase for votes. To the extent that I know him, I really like Republican candidate for County Commissioner, Phil Van Treuren. However, even he spends his time courting Democrats--with partisan parties and campaign flyers detailing his union heritage. So I wonder how he voted on Senate Bill 5 last year--did he support his union roots or his Republican governor? His five point plan was less than engaging--not hiring family members is not an economic or political principle; it is a feel good distraction absent of Republican or Democratic ideology. It's too much boots, mirrors and nebulousness.

Here are some other examples of party conflict:

• Republicans, and particularly the Tea Party, want government accountability and transparency, but Romney draws the line in the sand with his tax returns. It is an act of arrogance and if he is willing to hide information before he is elected, what happens after he is elected?

• Many Republicans were repulsed at Todd Akin's comments about "legitimate rape," but not all. Rick Santorum recently said this on offering support of Akin in his Senate race in Missouri, "The entire Republican Party should stand up and say, 'You know what? He's our candidate, it's too important for the future of our country not to have a majority of the Senate in this upcoming election."

• Many conservatives find that money spent on foreign wars and national defense is warranted, even if the amount spent on our military budget far exceeds that spent by most other countries. The debt incurred, which should offend fiscal conservatives, in case we need to attack another country is acceptable; providing food stamps to the poor and people who had their jobs outsourced, which is foundation of social conservatism, is not.

• Elected fiscal conservatives, such as Tea Party Republicans, are placed in a quandary when federal funds are available for their community--do they stick with their principles or accept the funds for their community?

• Republican teachers and firefighters also faced a dilemma over Senate Bill 5 last election--did they support their union and their personal interest or their Republican governor?

• In support of corporations, Nader noted the irony when Romney attacked the 47 percent he said do not pay taxes. Nader wrote, "'Hey, Mitt, why start with the 47 percent? Fully 100 percent of the nation's 500 biggest corporations are dependent on various kinds of corporate welfare -- subsidies, giveaways, bailouts, waivers, and other dazzling preferences -- while many pay no tax at all on very substantial profits." Nader, continued, "Mr. Romney doesn't understand the double standard where government checks, whether already paid for or not, to people are called "entitlements" while far bigger checks to corporations are called ‘incentives.'"

• Most seniors have worked hard all of their lives, but now due to the cost of healthcare and evaporating pensions they are forced to live on a fixed income and on the benefits of Medicare. Although many seniors are socially conservative, they also make up a significant part of Romney's 47 percent.

The Republican Party needs to take a stand and adopt a consistent political message or split up into two or more political parties. Candidates, whether Democratic or Republican, are to present to the country, or their community, their ideas, values and beliefs. Constituents base their votes on those principles--no fair if we cannot identify them.

There is a spectrum of political ideology in this country, but when there are only two political parties, we are forced to fit into one of them-and they are forced to chase voters that they do not fairly represent. We need more ideology, more integrity and less campaigning.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

186. Let's not repeat years 2000-2008

Sometimes I wish we could experience parallel universes. For tough decisions, it would be insightful and interesting to witness the consequences of each possibility as they are played out in front of us. One of the unsettling and intricate parts of our lives is never knowing what "could have happened."

We have all probably done this from time to time. We wonder what if I would have done things differently--would I have gone to a different college, for example. Would I have met different people, leading to a different career, a different job, maybe even a different spouse and family?

A simple example in sports is the decision by a manager to give a player "a day off." One could easily wonder, what would have happened if he or she would have played? Would it have affected the outcome of the game, would the player have had the best game of his or her career--or the worst game, or maybe suffered a career ending injury. We just never know.

In analyzing the performance of President Obama and his quest for reelection, I find myself asking similar questions. Thus, if we could go back to 2008 and change the way everything happened--I wonder how things would have turned out. What if we had elected John McCain, or if Hillary Clinton would have won the Democratic primary? Moving forward, what about the decisions President Obama made--the stimulus package, passing healthcare reform and the bailouts? How has that affected where we are today?

To be fair, and I know Republicans are tired of hearing this, by 2009 the economy had been completely obliterated. We were losing more than 600,000 jobs per month, the auto industry and financial industry had failed, the housing market collapsed, manufacturing was in dire straits, and we were running up an incredible national debt with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Personal finances were equally devastated-in addition to job losses, people found themselves with credit card and student loan debt they could not repay, upside down on their houses (which until then had been for many their only real form of savings), and they could not afford healthcare, or worse they had accumulated a significant amount of healthcare debt. Many had no choice but to choose bankruptcy.

We were, in the opinion of many, on the brink of financial collapse and potentially another major depression.

President Obama and Congress enacted a number of financial programs in an attempt to improve the economy. While the economy is ridiculously complex and there is only so much any one entity can do, programs such as the stimulus package, Obama care and downsizing government were embraced and ratified.

While no one can suggest that the economy is not better than it was four years ago, many feel that it has not improved quickly enough-particularly in consideration of President Obama's election. (Of course, for many, no matter what the president did, it would not be enough). Unemployment, though it has leveled off, is still too high, the housing market is only recovering slowly as the inventory of foreclosed houses dries up, and we still maintain considerable national debt. Interestingly, despite the effort to limit the influence of corporations and initiating financial reform, Wall Street and the stock markets are doing just fine.

What we do not have are parallel universes to judge the president's performance in comparison to what John McCain would have done, or even Hillary Clinton. Things might be much better, worse--or, about the same. Maybe President Obama saved the country from a devastating depression; maybe he missed an economic opportunity to improve the country. Nor do we have a crystal ball to see what will happen over the next four years if President Obama is reelected, or if Mitt Romney wins the election.

And this is a big decision; we must decide who we want to lead the next four years. It is not a referendum on President Obama; we cannot simply elect the "other guy" simply because we are not completely satisfied where the economy is today. We have to choose the candidate who we believe will make things better over the next four years. And of course, we must also consider the social values of both candidates-we do not live in silos.

We know where we are going with President Obama, and I expect that if reelected the economy will continue to improve--maybe even significantly as many are waiting on the election to move forward. Romney is an uncertainty. His policies are similar to those of the Bush era--most notably continued tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation. More concerning, he seems to lack social values and his opinion on major issues changes as necessary. Unprincipled people cause me anxiety because they often end up being subservient to the influence of others-such as the interest of major corporations, Wall Street and the wealthy.

Regardless of how anyone decides, I hope that it is an informed decision. We cannot forget to ask which candidate and which party represents our financial and social interest. I hope people do not vote "anyone but Obama," without considering just who that anyone really is. We do not live in parallel universes, we do not get a "do over." And we definitely do not want to do 2000 to 2008 over again.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

185. Sports: Faithful Begets Violence

I recently found an "autobiography" that I had written when I was in fifth grade. As part of the assignment, we had to prepare a collage, in which the thing most important to us was placed in the middle.

In the center of my collage was a Super Bowl ring. In the explanation, I offered with complete seriousness, that if I did not win a Super Bowl ring, my life would be a failure. If that was not ambitious enough, I also planned on becoming a world class boxer, and winning a gold medal in the Olympics.

But the dream was not just a grade school whim, made after watching a Browns game or a Sugar Ray Leonard boxing match. It carried into high school and college, where my desire for greatness switched to baseball.

I watched "The Natural" probably over two dozen times, and the Roy Hobbs exchange with Iris Gaines about being the "best there ever was," was forever engrained in my head.

Roy Hobbs: I coulda been better. I coulda broke every record in the book.

Iris Gaines: And then?

Roy Hobbs: And then? And then when I walked down the street people would've looked and they would've said there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game.

Already indoctrinated into the sports world, I was obsessed, like LeBron James, with winning a championship--and being the best. And then? What do you mean "and then" . . . what else is there?

As I have reluctantly given up my dreams of being the best there ever was in sports, I have followed a number of sports as a fan. Unfortunately, the only way I am getting a Super Bowl ring now is to buy an NFL team--and who has a billion dollars laying around for that?

But even my desire to be a fan is waning. As a country, and throughout the world, we have lost all perspective when it comes to sports. We want championships--and we do not care how they are obtained. We do not care what a championship might cost or who the players are.

We will pay twenty dollars for a beer or eight dollars for a hot dog. It is almost offensive in these economic times that fans would be willing to pay those prices so that billion dollar owners can afford million dollar players.

We will root for athletes who have committed deplorable and nearly unconsciousable acts, like Tiger Woods and Michael Vick. The city had its heart torn apart when LeBron James left Cleveland to assure himself of a championship (for how could he be "the best there ever was" without a championship?) But most would welcome him back in an instant.

When teams win (or lose) cities are vandalized by their fans. Fans even attack opposing fans-how dare they express passion for their team in our stadium? Somehow destruction and violence has become synonymous with faithfulness and celebration. It is not just in the United States either; soccer fans around the world are pretty serious about their "football" as well. Fans sometimes simply lose their minds.

I still like sports-there is something about the dedication and sacrifice of an athlete that appeals to me. I enjoy the competitive fire, the heart of persevering in the heat of battle or against the odds. As fans, we can still follow and root for our teams. Sports talk is fun, watching sports can be an engaging social event-there is nothing wrong with tailgating or family outings. But at some point, it needs to be just a game again. I am not a "loser" just because I am from Cleveland and Cleveland cannot win a major championship. While sports may be an escape from our daily life challenges, it might be better balanced with other important social issues and needs.

And the fans need to realize that they control everything about sports. It is a market economy and they are the customer. They control whether there is a salary cap in baseball, an NCAA football playoff system or how much money the players make. If it is unreasonable, or unjust, fans should stop supporting it. At some point, one would think that the growth of sports, and the unconditional support of its fans, is unsustainable.

I remember when Ohio State won the national football championship in 2002. I remember the elation, and celebration with my family and friends. It was one of the best games I had ever watched. But about an hour after the game, I had an "and then" moment. But for me, there was no "and then," I was just a fan. My life did not stop and I had to get up and go to work the next day-just like any other day. Well . . . almost like any other day.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

184. Know facts before opposing the plan

Many have seen the Jessica Simpson commercial for a high definition television company where she is talking about the new 1080i. In the commercial she famously says, "I don't know what it is, but I want it."

I thought about her funny line and how it might apply to the healthcare reform law. It seems that many people are saying, "I don't know what is in it, but I hate it."

The law is confusing, but misinformation is rampant. People hate it, all of it-and it is unconstitutional? Do people even hate the part that prohibits the denial of coverage because of preexisting conditions? Which part is unconstitutional? All of it, really? And now it is a tax and people hate it even more. Others hate it simply because it is associated with President Obama and they hate everything he does (even if Romney did nearly the same thing in Massachusetts). They want it repealed--and the vicious debate will continue.

But what do people really know about the law?

A Kaiser Family Foundation quiz highlighted some of the public misinformation about the healthcare reform law--to the extent that less than one percent of the public got all ten basic questions about the law correct. Worse, about one-third failed to answer even half the questions correctly.

More than half the respondents still believe that the healthcare reform law includes Sarah Palin's infamous invention commonly referred to as "death panels," in which a government panel would make end-of-life decision for people on Medicare. The misconception was named PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" in 2009. Only 45 percent answered correctly that death panels do not exist in the healthcare reform law.

The question however that received the lowest percentage of correct answers was whether the healthcare reform law requires all businesses, even the smallest businesses, to provide health insurance for its employees. Only 25 percent of the respondents answered correctly that this is not true (though 65 percent did correctly note that the healthcare reform law will provide tax credits to small businesses that do offer insurance to their employees).

A close second was a question related to the creation of a government run insurance plan to be offered along with private plans. While there was talk of a public option, only 27 percent answered correctly that the law does not create a new government-run plan. This misconception might be related to PolitiFact's 2010 lie of the year, which was the conservative talking point of a "government takeover of healthcare."

The newest healthcare misconception will undoubtedly stem from the overall favorable Supreme Court decision on the healthcare law, but a ruling that calls the individual mandate a "tax." Despite the fact that this penalty will affect only a small few, it is another reason to dislike this law.

Dick Polman of the Philadelphia Inquirer recently wrote,

"Obama's supposedly sweeping tax - his penalty for noncompliance - will be levied on a grand total of 1.2 percent of the American people. So says the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, in its projections for 2016. This means that 98.8 percent will not pay a cent, because virtually all Americans (a) will already have health coverage, (b) will have obtained coverage for the first time, thanks to federal subsidies and tax credits, or (c) will be exempt from the penalty, because of economic hardship or religious beliefs. The penalized 1.2 percent will be those Americans who can well afford coverage but simply refuse to buy it."

And really, isn't this what people have been asking for? Aren't people tired of paying for the uncompensated care of others?

In its relativity, the opportunity to insure more Americans and decrease the cost of healthcare is a small price to pay. According to The Office of Tax Analysis, even if you included every tax in this bill--such as taxes on medical supplies, tanning salons--it still falls way short of the 1982 tax hike initiated by Ronald Regan.

I've never liked the entirety of this law; I think the healthcare system is broken beyond repair. I have always favored national healthcare and removing profit from the system-particularly those sought by insurance and pharmaceutical companies. I think we need a nutritional revolution that focuses on prevention, which would save the healthcare system billions of dollars in chronic care. However, this law makes a bad system a little better. Many people were dying because they did not have access to medical care and many others were going bankrupt because of the inability to pay medical bills.

I heard a group of small business owners make the valid argument that health insurance was never meant to pay for every checkup or pair of glasses. Like car insurance, it was to pay for major expenses, not every oil change. I agree, but the problem is that we are way past that-people simply do not make enough money to even pay routine healthcare expenses out of pocket. It is too expensive. People would wait until the illness becomes severe enough, or sufficiently chronic, to warrant insurance coverage. Unfortunately, the best way to handle the cost burden of healthcare is to share that cost through an insurance program--or national healthcare system.

I do not love the healthcare reform law, but I certainly do not hate it. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but we all should at least understand the basis of that opinion. Sure, it is cute when Jessica Simpson acts uninformed about the latest television technology--but there is no humor when it is about the healthcare needs of millions of Americans.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

183. Call me, just not when driving

Cell phones continue to be the subject of controversy. From safety, etiquette and cultural perspectives, society continues to be at an impasse as to how to handle the mini-computers that take up so much of our focus.

Manny Acta of the Cleveland Indians called this the "head's down" generation, referring of course to consistent attention given to people's phones. Cell phones are an ageless phenomenon, but it is true that it exemplifies that generation.

I freely admit that I like my phone. I enjoy getting emails and texts. It is a convenient way to get a quick response from family and friends. Texts are often the best way to reach people. I imagine that letters would now be a nearly unbearable wait for a response. Many grow impatient even waiting a day for someone to answer their email.

I often check out Facebook from my phone; in fact I rarely do it on my computer. I also like Twitter; I can quickly sort through interesting and relative news stories . . . without all the annoying "coming up" segments on the network news stations. I like being able to check the scores of baseball games and tennis matches; I like being able to look up birds on my Audubon application.

It is convenient to have my calendar available and an endless list of contacts. I expect to have "everything" in my phone.

Thus with the ability to connect to friends and family, access my calendar, look up my contacts, surf the Internet, engage in social networking and download any of thousands of applications-the world is at my fingertips. I get it, I really do.

However, I do have limits. I do not carry it with me at all times; I check it periodically (much to the annoyance of some).

For example, I rarely take my phone into dinner. I do not take it on dog walks or nature walks. I enjoy building the relationship-enjoying the moment-with my dog. I want to hear the birds chirping, the water running. I do not want my phone interrupting my workouts; I can return calls, emails or texts when I am done.

Like many others, these limits are magnified when it comes to safety and consideration. We all probably have a mental list of annoying or dangerous phone experiences.

In a shopping center parking lot, I saw a woman trying to dial her phone as she was pulling out of her space-I wondered if she could not dial before she pulled out, or after she was out of her spot?

We have all probably seen someone sitting at a green light, as they are finishing a text message or email. When we see a car on the road traveling ten miles below the speed limit, chances are they are decelerating in proportion to the focus on their phone. And then there is the gradual drift to the right-thank goodness for rumble strips.

I see people ignoring their dog as they text away on its walk. They are completely oblivious to their environment-potential dangers, like other dogs or cars.

The texting ban recently enacted is a step, at least in awareness if nothing else, that is directed toward the dangers of driving while texting. It is a mental and physical distraction-and very unsafe. It is not just accidents; it affects all areas of driving-consideration of other drivers and watching out for children or animals.

Many people do not put their phones down-ever. Not the minute it takes to pick up their child from daycare, not even on that long trip to the mail box.

My concern is that people are going to miss a portion of their life-really living-by spending so much time on their phones. At sporting events, people are missing the most exciting portions of the games with their heads buried in their phones. At dinner, couples sometimes do not even speak to each other-the attention on their phones and their thumbs flailing away. Sometimes we do not enjoy the moment; we enjoy photographing or sharing the moment through social media.

We all probably know people who live "virtual lives," those who live their lives through their computer or phone experiences-a step away from reality.

I am not going to go "the good old days," I already admitted that I like my phone. I am not against the appreciation of technology. But it is concerning that so many people are addicted to their phones.

In fact, we almost did not renew our phone contract; it can actually be a burden-always being expected to be accessible. It can also be a distraction; surely I can check the scores later or watch the news. When my phone was broken for a few days, I almost enjoyed the peace . . . the focus. And it is expensive; we have seemed to come to accept that cost-the necessary equivalent to our water or gas bills.

Last week a pregnant woman walked right in front of me in a parking lot, not even a glance away from her phone to make sure I had stopped. Sure, she had the right of way and had I hit her it would have been my fault. But being right is of little consolation if you and your unborn baby are lying in a hospital. How did she know that I did not have my head down, equally distracted on my phone?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

182. Sky is bright, beautiful now

Ozark Sky Way was his racing name, though he is known as "Sky" these days. From the dog tracks in Alabama, Sky is a beautiful, brindle-colored greyhound who came to Erie Shore Greyhound Adoption of Ohio last year looking for a home to live out his "retirement."

My wife has long admired these beautiful animals, and always wanted to care for them after they were unceremoniously discarded by their racing organizations. Like many people, she believed that they needed large amounts of space to run around in, but that is not actually the case. They are often described as "couch potatoes," despite the ability to run up to 45 miles per hour. It is recommended, however, that they live in a home that has a fenced-in yard due to their speed and attraction to small animals.

We started inquiring about the possible adoption of a greyhound last December; we have only had one dog since we lost Easton last February. The more we learned, the more remarkable we found this breed to be. Unfortunately though, the more we learned, the more we were disgusted with the way they are bred, raced and then tossed aside when they no longer have the ability to make money for their owners-either through racing or breeding.

We've only had Sky for a couple of weeks and it's been a transition. He frolics and "roos" when he gets excited-with his long legs and tail moving in every direction. Petey, our American Bulldog mix, is a bit intimidated by his size and speed. Sky is sweet, engaged and learning to assimilate into our home.

Like racehorses, greyhounds are meticulously bred and their linages carefully documented for generations by the National Greyhound Organization. We saw several hounds as they came to the adoption agency from a track in Florida, there was Cameron, Pearl, Sammy and Blazer-just to name a few. They come in near racing condition, very thin, with bulging hind quarters. A breed dedicated to the optimization of speed.

Also like racehorses, owners do not have an interest in "retired" animals. These animals are a business and an investment. According to Retired Racing Greyhounds for Dummies, a good place for first time owners like ourselves to begin learning about the breed, before the 1980s nearly all of the greyhounds were killed after their racing career. It states that, "it was estimated that 60,000 Greyhounds were being destroyed each year."

Things have improved since then and now up to 18,000 Greyhounds are made available each year for adoption-though this is still more than the number born every year. Through the hard work of as many as 200 adoption agencies these animals are made available throughout the country. As of 2010, eleven states have expressly banned dog racing, and there are fewer than ten states with operational dog tracks.

But there are still issues and states of denial within the racing community. The Greyhound Racing Association of America claims, "it's easy for extreme animal rights groups to misrepresent the facts. Often, people are led to believe these campaigns are about animal welfare, but in fact that's not the case. These groups oppose all animal use, whether it's for food, clothing, medical research, entertainment or any other purpose. The same people who oppose greyhound racing think it's wrong to eat a hamburger, wear a leather jacket or go to the zoo."

I do oppose using animals for any of those things-and I am certainly morally against exploiting animals for profit. But, changing the subject, and the using the label of "extreme," is an attempt to avoid the issue.

Just this week there were two reports concerning the welfare of greyhounds.

The first was out of Ireland, where a mass grave of former racing dogs was discovered. The Greyhound Rescue Association of Ireland (GRAI) believes, however, "this to be only the tip of the iceberg. Last year there were 3,271 registered greyhound litters in Ireland. A conservative average of seven pups per litter makes 22,904 dogs, however less than 16,000 greyhounds were registered that year to race at 12 months old. Taking into account the number of greyhounds that retire each year due to age or injury GRAI estimate between 8,000 to 10,000 greyhounds disappear every year."

More sad news was reported by the Houston Chronicle which stated that, "Scores of racing dogs have become ill and six have died as a yet-undiagnosed illness, possibly canine influenza, swept through kennels at La Marque's Gulf Greyhound Park." It seems that the illness is contagious and very dangerous-particularly for dogs who spend their youth confined in kennels. The dog owners noted that the situation was "financially devastating," but that their concern was for the dogs.

Considering that both stories were widely reported in the media, I am assuming that the welfare of these dogs is of interest to more than just those "extreme" animal rights groups. Last weekend we took Sky to a "Meet and Greet" at the Midway Mall, and the love of dogs seems to be a universal language. It was fun to meet such a diversity of dog lovers.

April just happens to be "adopt a hound month" and it is a chance to learn about these amazing, but unfortunately exploited, dogs. It is also an opportunity to consider an alternate form of entertainment. It eighteen races, Ozark Sky Way only won one race; now retired, Sky is on track to win our hearts.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

181. Genes or what's in the jeans?

We often hear, when it comes to analyzing the risk for a chronic disease or medical condition, about the role that family genetics or family history plays in increasing risk. In fact, it is often described as one of the top risk factors for heart disease and some cancers.

However, is that really what is going on? Is it really genetics, or is it related to diet and lifestyle--or maybe the combination of the two?

According to Dr. Pam Popper, of the Wellness Forum in Columbus, Ohio, the role of genetics has been overstated, "In fact, research has shown that the role of genetics in health outcomes is actually quite small," she said.

Dr. Popper continues, "Diet and lifestyle are the biggest determinates of disease, not genes. This does not mean that genes are not important, and many people do carry genes that predispose them to develop certain diseases. But whether or not these genes are expressed is determined by the choices you make. You cannot choose your genes, but you can choose your diet and lifestyle habits, which then in turn, impacts genetic expression."

It makes sense that if family members share the same diet and lifestyle of their parents that they would also be susceptible to the chronic disease of their parents. In other words, if eating a high cholesterol and high fat diet were factors in my father developing heart disease; would it not also be a factor in me developing heart disease in the future since I grew up eating like my father?

The danger in identifying genetics as a risk factor is that some people throw their hands up in the air and dismiss accountability. It makes making bad decisions easier, as one could reason, "I am predisposed to this condition, and it really doesn't matter how I live or eat--it's not my fault." Or it could suspend the adoption of an uncomfortable healthy diet out of the fear that the changes will be all for naught due to the genetic predisposition.

Conversely, it may lead to overconfidence--for if unfavorable genes are of considerable risk, then favorable genes should offer a degree of heredity protection. But that has not proven to be the case.

For example, Asian women, living on the traditional Asian plant-based diet, have one of the lowest breast cancer rates in the world. The Asians had long lived a relatively closed society--and one might surmise that they are genetically predisposed against cancer.

However, when Asian women come to America and start eating the high-fat, highly-processed American diet, which often contains a large percentage of meat and dairy, they begin to develop breast cancer at rates similar to American women.

Information on the Susan G. Komen website confirms this trend, "Immigrants in the United States usually have breast cancer rates similar to those in their home country. Over generations however, the daughters and granddaughters of immigrants take on a risk similar to U.S. women." Specifically in regards to Asian breast cancer rates, "When Asian women migrate to the U.S., their risk of developing breast cancer increases up to six-fold. Asian immigrant women living in the U.S. for as little as a decade had an 80 percent higher risk of breast cancer than new immigrants."

This seems to offer further credence that it might be diet and lifestyle which is the predominant cause of chronic disease-and not just genetic predisposition. In regards, to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, perhaps we should be "eating for the cure," not racing for it. After all, the answer seems to be right there on their website, yet they do not seem to advocate a plant-based diet as a primary method of prevention? (Instead, they partner up to sell pink buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken.)

Genes are certainly important and cannot be discounted in many circumstances, but I agree with Dr. Popper who summarizes, "having a gene is not a life sentence. . . . If you go through life thinking that genes are responsible for your health, you are a helpless victim. But if you know diet and lifestyle determine your health outcomes, you get the control back!"

Thursday, February 23, 2012

180. A moment can change your life

For me, one of the interesting things about the Super Bowl, beside the commercials, is the legacy left on the players and coaches. In a "win-at-all-cost" sports society, the label of "Super Bowl Champion" or "Super Bowl goat" lasts seemingly eternal. Unfortunately, often the margin between victory and defeat is ever so slight, because one play, sometimes even a few inches, can change the outcome of a game or a career.

There is a difference in a moment that changes the course of the game and one that changes the outcome of a game. The former often happens early in the game, and may affect strategy or momentum, but ultimately does not by itself decide the game. The latter has a direct result in the outcome of the game. In other words, had that one moment, that one play, or those few inches, gone the other way, the outcome would have been different.

Not surprisingly, this Super Bowl had its share of moments. There were many plays that changed or could have changed the course of the game. The Giants fumbled several times, and the one time the Patriots recovered it, they were penalized and the turnover was negated. There were also plays that changed the outcome of the game--the most obvious being the pass that Wes Welker dropped in the fourth quarter. Had he made that catch, it is likely that the Patriots would have won.

The fate of a team often lies on these moments, and some of sports' greatest achievements relied on some good fortunate. These "game changers" are often the result of a bad bounce, bad call, or bad play (like missing a kick or dropping a pass)--something the benefitting team did nothing or very little to cause. In another word, "luck."

Looking at this playoff season in particular, both the Patriots and Giants had some breaks along the way. It's easy to look back, such as if Tony Romo of the Cowboys connects with a wide open Miles Austin in their regular season game against the Giants, the Giants likely don't even make the playoffs--and none of this ever happens. Other moments include the two 49er fumbled punts against the Giants and the field goal miss by the Ravens in the AFC Championship game against the Patriots. Today Eli Manning is a hero and maybe even a Hall of Famer, but he could have easily been sitting at home watching the entire playoffs on his couch.

It's these moments that change the outcomes of games that can frustrate sports fans, and Cleveland fans are no stranger to "The Shot," "The Fumble" and "The Drive"--all of which changed the history of Cleveland sports.

Conversely, through Browns-colored glasses, it seems that the Steelers have had their favorable moments over the years--some of which changed the course of the game; others that changed the outcome of a game, or even a season. The dropped pass by Jackie Smith of the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII, the Immaculate Reception, the bad call against the Oilers the 1979 AFC Championship Game, more bad calls in the Super Bowl against Seattle and even Arizona, and of course, the pass Dennis Northcutt dropped that cost the Browns a playoff victory against the Steelers in 2002.

Teams will often say that the game should not come down to one play, but it often does. What often also happens is the overreaction of winner and loser. Some will humbly admit that the ball bounced their way, but few apologize for the spoils of victory. I always thought that if the game is close at the end, we risked a bad break determining the outcome.

And, every year, despite the fact that the losing team made it to the Super Bowl, and may have been champion except for a couple of key plays, we see the post-game overreaction. I suppose it is a result of the stage they are playing on that we often experience the exaggeration of the loss.

Sports are often a microcosm for life. We all have moments that change the course of our lives-the chance meeting of our spouse, the car accident that would not have happened if we did not have to go back in the house for our keys, or the winning lottery ticket we purchased with our last dollar. These are things we likely could not have controlled--but yet affected the course of our lives. Fortunately, in most cases, we have time to affect the outcome of our lives--and have that Super Bowl moment.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

179. Self-promotion fuels campaigns

Generally speaking, I think every elective office should be contested at the end of each term. It is true that it is a burden for politicians to stop and campaign every two to four years-while they and their staff, and even their programs, live in uncertainty-but political office is a representative position. It is supposed to be about what the people you represent want. Elections are the exchange of competing ideas, electing the person who has the ability to present, and ultimately deliver, the community perspective that most represents his or her constituents.

In this respect, I am glad to see that there will be competition for the county commissioner positions next fall. I think I have met all of the candidates and both the incumbents, and think they are all good, quality candidates who genuinely want to see the best for the community. I am looking forward to a practical and specific exchange of ideas and am not writing here to endorse any of them.

And, as with any election, let us hope that it is this exchange of ideas to an informed public that decides the election-and not the typical clichés, philosophical generalities, marketing gimmicks or grandstanding.

The truth is that campaigners are salesman; they are selling both a vision and themselves. We need to remember that fundamental concept when they campaign for our vote.

John Maxwell, a well-known speaker and writer on leadership agrees, "All leaders are salespersons. Though they may not be peddling a product, leaders are selling a picture of what the future could be and should be. They seek to persuade others to buy-in to a particular vision."

The question is which vision we will support.

It seems that every candidate is running on "fiscal responsibility," so much so that it is a non-issue. After all, nobody ever runs on fiscal irresponsibility. Asking if a candidate, in the current economic climate, will work to conserve resources, is like asking a car salesman if the car comes with tires. It falls into the "duh," category.

Unfortunately, many campaigns today are managed with an aim in manipulating voters rather than presenting real ideas to voters on the community's most difficult issues. Campaigning often falls back on banalities, like "fiscal responsibility" which means nothing until we understand how that is going to be accomplished. Where everyone wants small government (myself included), nobody wants the consequences of small government when it affects their individual interest. For some this interest is social services, others safety or infrastructure. The truth is that it takes very little skill to balance a budget if there is no consideration for the consequences. Any child with an elementary grasp of mathematics can cut programs and budgets to make revenue equal expenses. Promoting fiscal responsibly simply by cutting expenses is taking the easy way out.

What we need today are skilled leaders who can deliver us out of the current economic climate of stagnate revenue growth. We need practicality, experience and specifics more than we need the marketing of ideology.

Ultimately though, part of the sales job for all candidates is marketing. This combination of self-promotion and media-seeking gimmicks probably has the most influence in determining who wins an election-but says the least about the ideas, integrity and character of a candidate. Self-defining adjectives (always three-apparently two does not say enough and four must be arrogant) is utterly worthless in assessing a candidate. So are fancy websites, crisply-printed campaign flyers, television advertisements, cute slogans and conversation props. I want someone who is real, not someone who is trying to sell me a car. I appreciate candidates who are good listeners, but I also want to hear their ideas-real ideas. Voters need to do their research and not be limited to party affiliation, family name or good looks.

Real leadership is the ability to make difficult things happen. We need people who will go out into the community and pick it up by the boot straps. We need leaders who will fight to bring businesses to the area; who will go out and get public and private grants when they are available. We need people who will get sales tax increases passed when they are necessary. We need people who will do the right thing, even if it might be unpopular at first.

Leaders have conviction and believe in what they are doing; they believe in their ideas, ethics and morals. They feel this conviction is best for the community and they seek the community's endorsement. There is always room for compromise, but I am cautious of those candidates who play both sides. It feels like I am being sold snake oil.

A leader, to me, is someone like Dan Martin, who fought to bring a recreation center to Amherst. He could have walked away when voters decided they were unwilling to pay for it. He could even have been condescending or spiteful. But Martin was neither. Not only did Martin not accept the answer that voters delivered; he used other community resources and compromise to find another way. He got it done when many would have just given up. He delivered his vision and conviction-and the community will benefit from it.

In this way, I want to know how candidates are going to make it happen. I want to know the skills and experience they have in reaching out into the community and improving it. Experience matters and ideas alone do not make a candidate qualified. Finally, what I want is elected officials who are committed to the area. I do not want candidates looking to make a career of politics, and using Lorain County as a stepping stone.

Let us choose the most promising leaders, based on experience, skill, education, vision and conviction, for all of our elected positions, and not just the best campaigner.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

178. Taxes must be the same for everyone

Starting with the Tea Party and then with Occupy Wall Street, there has been a movement to consider both the economic distribution of wealth and the amount of taxes that are paid. The Tea Party wants to lessen the amount of taxes that Americans pay, which would subsequently result in a smaller government, while Occupy Wall Street is looking for a more equitable distribution of wealth and protests the excessive economic control and earnings of corporations and their stockholders.

The two issues have collided on Mitt Romney, as his wealth, and taxes he pays on that wealth, has come into question by Republicans and Democrats alike. The consensus, if there is a non-partisan one, is that it is fundamentally unfair for the country's wealthiest individuals to pay a smaller percentage of taxes than most middle class Americans.

In some ways, many of us have Romney to thank for this debate, as we have been complaining about it for years.

The argument has always been that we are anti-capitalists or envious or that we are attacking success-calling it "class warfare." It has never been about any of those things. The issue has always been about fairness. In addition, it is bad for our economic and democratic system to have so much wealth in the hands of so few people. For some reason, people excuse great wealth and inequality, but it drives them absolutely crazy to see someone on welfare.

Romney has finally brought the discussion main street, and across party lines. Unfortunately, we really cannot expect wealthy legislators to create laws that increase their tax burden without significant pressure from the populist. Those in Congress, particularly the Republicans, spend a considerable amount of energy on keeping taxes on the wealthy as low as possible-but this time it is Republican presidential candidates making an issue of Romney's low tax rate.

It seems to be ignored that the very wealthy often earn their money exponentially-and with significant tax advantages. They often earn more in a day than many middle class Americans make in a year. They do not work harder than middle class Americans-they just have more opportunity and advantages in the creation of their wealth.

Edward Kleinbard, a law professor at the University of Southern California, agrees, "The most affluent Americans in recent years have pulled away from the rest of us, and the reason is at least in part that they are able to compound their wealth at very, very low tax rates."

Warren Buffett, who has challenged Congress on the low tax rate for the wealthy, commented on the way Romney makes his money, "He makes his money the same way I make my money. He makes money by moving around big bucks, not by straining his back and going to work cleaning the toilets or whatever it may be. He makes it shoving around money. I make it shoving around money."

And, there is the misconception. While the very rich have obtained their wealth in different ways--some have worked hard for their success, while others simply inherited it--they usually earn a disproportional amount through investment.

Buffet makes a similar point, "If you look at the 400 highest incomes in the United States, they average $220 million. Something like 90 of them are effectively unemployed. They have no earned income, and that number has gone up over the years."

Buffett does not blame Romney but rather the system, "It's the wrong policy to have. Nothing wrong about [Romney] doing that. He will not pay more than the law requires. I don't fault him for that in the least, but I do fault the law that allows him and me, earning enormous sums to pay over all federal taxes at a rate that is about half what the average person in my office pays."

Kleinbard also commented on how the wealthy, like Romney, can use the current system to avoid other taxes. "The returns also demonstrate how, using sophisticated estate planning, Romney has been able to give millions of dollars to his children free of estate and gift taxes, because of a legal structure known as a ‘grantor trust.'"

The numbers are staggering and I have presented them often in this column. It is time to move to a more equitable system of wealth distribution. That is not socialism-I am not advocating the creation of a single class. What I am advocating is that the disparity between the very wealthy, the one percent, and the middle class and poor be reduced a bit. People who do not work hard do not deserve the same success or financial rewards as those that work hard and made the sacrifices of their success.

However, at the same time, the people who are very successful should never pay a smaller percentage of taxes than those who are modestly or less successful. That is just ridiculous.

I have never favored a flat tax, but considering the tax advantages of the wealthy, maybe it is time to tax everyone the same-and that includes all forms of income. This would include employment income, investments, gifts, estates, inheritance-everything. No more loopholes. If someone even finds a dollar in the street, it should be reported as income and taxed.

I'm kidding, sort of.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

177. Seculars know good, evil, too

I was disappointed to read syndicated columnist Cal Thomas' attack on not only the late Christopher Hitchens, but also on non-theists in general.

While Thomas acknowledges that Hitchens was smart and witty, he seems to take joy in suggesting that he has now realized the errors of his ways-engulfed in the ultimate punishment for a secular belief. "Hitchens now knows the truth and that can only be the worst possible news for him," Thomas writes.

Then Thomas lays out his case against non-believers.

Thomas criticizes the celebration of life and implies selfishness. He writes, "Some people exist, however nervously, believing that this life is all there is." He quotes the late singer Peggy Lee as proof who said, "Is that all there is? If that's all there is to life, then let's break out the booze and have a ball, if that's all there is."

It is true that non-believers believe in life. We believe that we all share this moment in time on this planet. This philosophy often embraces all life as precious, not to be needlessly wasted or suffered or destroyed. Many non-theists are vegetarian and vegan--unable to even kill an animal. And, Hitchens himself took some criticism from secular humanists when he embraced the Iraq war-since many of us rarely support the idea of war.

Next, Thomas proceeds to present many tired clichés and amateur philosophical arguments about morality and belief--none less convincing than using the Bible, and religious quotes, to prove the foolishness of one's non-belief. It must not occur to Thomas that a Muslim, through Koranic verse, could easily prove Thomas' foolishness in not believing in Islam. And so on.

Thomas writes on the metaphysical burden of evidence, "I have always found atheists to be interesting people because they just may be the world's smallest minority group, one that gets smaller still as its members pass on and meet God face to face. Still, atheists demand physical proof of God's existence, as if they could bring God down and make Him into their image. What kind of God would that be? He would be their equal and, thus, not God at all."

For atheists, it is not about demanding physical proof; it is about rejecting the probability that God exists. For agnostics, they are comfortable admitting that the existence of God is unknowable. Neither atheists nor agnostics wish to make God, if he exists, to be their equal-only to tip the balance of reason about his existence in is his favor.

Furthermore, and from a comparative perspective, atheists and agnostics wonder how people know their religion is the "right" religion. People from many different religions seem to be pretty certain that they have found the one and only true God. Certainly, the odds are that if I grow up in America, I will be a Christian; in Iran a Muslim.

Thomas insults atheists and agnostics when he reasons that they have no reason to engage in charity, "Why contribute to charity, or perform other good deeds?" He further reasons that only God can motivate the true purpose of charity, "Without a source to inspire charity, such acts are sentimental affectations, devoid of meaning and purpose."

To me, charity is inspired by the benefit it delivers. I could perhaps argue that when non-theists act kindly or charitably, it comes with genuineness and without the hope of eternal reward. In 2006, I was the president of a secular humanist group, which is comprised of mostly agnostics and atheists. Not only was this group highly educated and well read, they were among the nicest, kindest and most generous people I have worked with. They often donated anonymously-not seeking the recognition, in this life or the next.

Secular humanists believe that moral principles are tested by their consequences. In many religious moral perspectives-bad acts do not necessarily preclude eternal consideration; they can be redeemed through confession and forgiveness. However, it is rather unconvincing to suggest that only religion may define good and evil. Secular Humanists, although diverse, have a doctrine of their own entitled, "The Affirmations of Humanism." I doubt many people would take issue with more than a couple of these assertions-as kindness, consideration and responsibility are a vibrant theme.

Of course, there are non-theists who have acted immorally or unethically. But that list is certainly not limited to non-theists. For Thomas, his generalizations about non-theists, based on prejudice and obliviousness, fails miserably.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

176. Nature answers own questions

One blistery day last winter, sometime in early January, I ran up to the store to get some things for dinner. When I returned, I came into the house to find my wife consumed in tears. Obviously I was concerned; now what happened I wondered?

Her voice was barely audible through her trembling, but she told me that the deer out by the feeder had a broken leg. She was crying because she thought the deer was in pain and suffering.

She was right; the deer's leg was severely broken at the knee. Watching her struggle to walk and eat brought tears to my eyes as well. It was pathetic-she had obviously been hit by a car, or brutally injured in some other way.

I had actually heard about this deer from my neighbor-he told me he saw her over the holidays. He said he called the authorities for help, as he also believed her to be suffering. I did not immediately tell my wife, as I knew it would break her heart. Part of me hoped something happened to her and the suffering ended--and my wife would be none the wiser.

But nothing happened to her and she often returned to our feeder. Usually by herself, but not always, she limped to our feeder for food. While her walk was hobbling, it is interesting that she could run on three legs when frightened.

We watched her when she came, week after week. Both inspiring and difficult, we wanted to make sure there was food out there when she came by. We get lots of deer, sometimes as many as twenty at a time. They tear up the far back yard, creating a muddy oasis, but we do not care--the grass, or something green, comes back each spring.

Last year was particularly awful-mud, rain, ice and snow. My wife pays the animals particular attention in the bad weather, "I feel so sorry for them," she repeats with each snow or ice storm. To ensure that our injured deer got food, we often made several trips to the feeders each evening. The other deer would come eat all the food, and nothing was worse than watching our injured deer stumble up the long path only to have her realize that there was no food for her. By then, it was too late--if we tried to take out food, she would scurry off on her three good legs.

However, the other deer eventually uncovered our prejudicial intentions-and used it against us. After they ate all the food, they would move into the brush--camouflaged from our vision-and wait for us to take out more food. We would no sooner be back in the house when they would return to eat again. Eventually, the deer grew arrogant, or tired, or smart, and would simply lay in the back yard, in the snow and mud, and wait for their feeders to be refilled. We care about them too, and their hunger, but nothing made us feel better than when our injured deer showed up with a full share of corn waiting for her.

Eventually spring came, then summer, and we did not see our injured deer anymore. While the deer come in the summer, it is not as frequent. This past summer, we often saw three young deer pillaging with four male turkeys in our backyard. We still feed them, but less frequently.

The absence of our injured deer led us to speculate what happened. Did she die, or was she taking a different path--as many of the other summer deer seem to do? One reflection, however, was consistent: Animals are amazingly tough, resilient and enduring. No matter the situation, they struggle to persevere. They do not complain--for who would listen? They live in a world that humans can no longer imagine--where survival is a daily endeavor. They exist cautiously, ready to run, or fight, at any moment. The search for food is exhausting, competitive and tenuous.

A couple of weeks ago, as the cold weather moved in, I believe I saw our injured deer--she graciously returned, wobbling to our feeders once again. This time the tears were that of joy. Her leg is still badly broken, irreparable, and still hard to watch, but perhaps a bit improved. She has a distinctive kneel when she eats. What a tough girl we thought!

As humans, it is difficult to know what an animal is thinking or feeling. Is she suffering, would she rather be humanly euthanized? It is not necessarily humane to put an animal down simply because it is difficult for us to watch-to remedy our suffering. Does she simply accept the broken leg and live her life the only way she now knows? Is she just happy to be alive? Only our injured deer knows the answers to these questions.

But ultimately, without human intervention, her fate is for nature to decide. The only thing we can do is buy more corn--hopefully a lot more corn.