Thursday, January 31, 2013

196. So Armstrong lied. Do you?

Most of us are familiar with the common quote about cheating: "If you are not cheating, you're not trying hard enough."

Perhaps tongue-in-cheek, or maybe a form of justification, some have interpreted the axiom to mean that we should do everything in one's power to emerge victorious. Leave no stone unturned-after all, it is only cheating if you get caught.

Lance Armstrong's admission to taking performance-enhancing drugs comes on the heels of the vote by the Major League's baseball writers not to yet enshrine into the Hall of Fame any players from the steroid era in baseball. For all those involved, or thought to be involved, there is controversy, embarrassment and disgrace.

But if cheating can lead to embarrassment and disgrace, why do so many people do it?

Unfortunately, there are many incentives to cheat. Obviously, the most powerful temptation to cheat is money. Those who win, or who get into the best schools, or get the best jobs, often stand to financially gain from their cheating. There is also fame, ego and competitive spirit-which might be particularly tempting if one believes others are cheating.

We are obviously aware of the cheaters who grab the headlines, but what other cheaters?

We learned about high school students who paid to have others take their SATs--which would allow them to get into the best schools or maybe even receive a scholarship? And about the students who plagiarize their papers or work together on on-line exams to pass their classes or improve their grades?

The competition for employment is steep and one employment recruitment firm estimates that up to 40 percent of all résumés include a lie or embellishment.

And what about those who cheat on their income taxes, who knowingly and purposely evade paying the amount of taxes owed? Nobody knows exactly how many people cheat--maybe 30-40 percent--but the amount is estimated to cost over $250 billion per year.

Of course, the major league of immorality sometimes includes government, corporation and political cheaters.

Corporations are often fined millions for breaking the rules to gain a competitive and financial advantage. Cheating might entail anything from failing to adequately test a drug to bribing legislatures to get favorable laws passed.

On a global economic scale, the stakes are high and "economic hit man" John Perkins, wrote, "This empire, unlike any other in the history of the world, has been built primarily through economic manipulation, through cheating, through fraud, through seducing people into our way of life, through the economic hit men."

Capitalism, for many, is winning at all cost.

The consequences for large scale cheating in business or politics include the world's most heinous crimes--from destroying the environment, bankrupting nations, exploiting workers and, of course, death.

In this sense, it seems that the extent we are appalled with Lance Armstrong is a bit excessive. After all, he is probably right that if he did not cheat-when many others in his sport were cheating-he would not even be Lance Armstrong. He was just the best cheater, wasn't he?

If some weekend softball players are willing to use an illegal bat to hit a large ball tossed underhand simply for bragging rights, or maybe to decide who buys the first round of drinks, imagine the temptation to create a competitive advantage in a sport of cheaters, in which the winner stands to earn millions.

Certainly, I am not defending Armstrong. He lied for a long time and hurt a lot of people--he deserves to suffer the consequences of his intentional and calculating actions.

But let us not lose perspective.

We embrace a society that not only rewards success, but is obsessed with it. The intense pressure to win, to be successful, provides an incentive to cheat--especially when competitors cheat. Competition, in most areas of American society, is fierce and often the margin between winning and losing is razor thin--yet, the financial difference is often measured in millions. The best are rewarded with fame and excesses, even worshipped; others may struggle to survive.

Sophocles said, "I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating." Today, that perspective might require a paradigm shift.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

195. We don't like Congress, now what?

Recently, in frustration with the Republican-led House of Representative's decision not to vote on whether to provide disaster relief to the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said, "It's why the American people hate Congress."

Hate is a strong word, but the current Congress did end with an approval rating of about 18 percent, and, in fact, Congress hasn't had an approval rating above 40 percent since 2005. There is much to be considered in these types of polls, but every once and awhile I get a chain email pleading with Americans to vote out "everyone" in Congress. The continued fighting between political parties on major economic issues and polices--like the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff--are testing the patience of the American public. With such a meager approval rating, voting members out not only sounds like a good idea but a plausible one. Thus the question is, if we are so unhappy with Congress and its members, why do we continue to reelect them?

To answer this question, I think there are at least two reasons why members of Congress, even an unpopular one, are reelected time and time again. The two reasons, not mutually exclusive, are the political advantages of incumbency and the lack of choice from a viable third or fourth political party.

Incumbents enjoy many advantages over their political challengers. They have name recognition, campaign funding, full-time staffers and political--as well as community and corporate--connections. These advantages have resulted in the extraordinarily high reelection of political incumbents. In the House of Representatives, for example, reelection of incumbents is traditionally over 90 percent.

One of the biggest advantages, however, might just be gained during the primary election. Many incumbents do not face a primary challenger. In fact, their political party might actually discourage potential primary challengers from running. Without a challenger, campaign funds can be preserved and the incumbent can watch the other party fight it out. For example, President Obama was able to watch Mitt Romney fight it out with Republican candidates-which is not only costly, but also exposes political weaknesses.

In the instances in which there is a primary challenger, again, the incumbent, almost always wins. This advantage is amplified when there are multiple primary challengers. Even if a change is desired, the vote is often split--favoring the incumbent. We saw this situation in the 2012 Democratic Lorain County Commissioner primary, in which Lori Kokoski won by gaining 10,000 votes--while her challengers split 15,000 votes. Thus, although she only received 40 percent of the votes she moved on to the general election.

The problem for voters trying to oust an incumbent is that the only other choice after the primary is voting for a candidate from the other political party. Thus if a community is unhappy with a Democratic congressman or congresswoman, the only other choice is to vote for a Republican--and vice versa. The problem for many is that no matter how unhappy they are with their incumbent, voting for the other party, with opposing political philosophies, is potentially worse.

Consider for example that if in the recent senate race I was a little unhappy with Sherrod Brown--that perhaps he was not liberal enough, or maybe too liberal. The problem is that the only chance I have to elect someone who better represents my views is probably in the primary--which in this case Brown ran unopposed. After the primary, and in this example, I am faced with either voting for Sherrod Brown or Josh Mandel. And even if I am unhappy with the job Sherrod Brown has done in the Senate, there is no way I am considering, or willing to vote for, a polar opposite like Josh Mandel. Sure, there might actually be a couple of third party candidates--but none with any chance of winning. So, once again, the incumbent wins.

Where there might actually be choice--to elect a moderate Republican, perhaps-- is in the Republican primary. But Democrats, obviously and fairly, have no say in the Republican primary. Thus, if there was a Republican candidate that I would vote for, I only get that opportunity if he or she wins the primary.

Thus, if we really do not favorably approve our Congress, we need choice. We need another choice besides the incumbent, who almost always gets a free ride into the general election and the "other party" which often operates at the opposite end of the political spectrum.

To defeat an incumbent without changing political philosophies, we could benefit from additional political parties who offer different wave-lengths along the spectrum. Liberals might consider Green Party candidates-and fiscal conservatives might be enticed by a Libertarian. Or both sides might consider an Independent. But this consideration is dependent on an actual chance of winning--otherwise fear is that the vote is wasted.

And additional parties would offer more real discourse. For example, there would be depth to the conversation as to what separates the views on climate change between the green party candidate and the democratic candidate. There we might find real differences and be able to make real decisions. There is no reasonable discussion, or decision, between a democrat and a republican if, for example, the latter denies that climate change even exists.

A third or fourth party might also put pressure on campaign funding, and donors, particularly large corporate donors, who would have to be more diligent in who they might support. And Political Action Committees would not be able to spend millions trying to defeat just one candidate.

Finally and when everything else fails, we could fall back on term limits to force turnover. As a last result for voters, term limits are a double edged sword. In the short term it might actually increase incumbency as potential challengers might decide to let an incumbent "term out" before engaging. It also serves to remove the really good ones, like Sherrod Brown--who has the passion and experience to get things done-in favor of "someone else." It is a cop out for voters, a skirting of responsibility, but something I would support.

Like many things in politics, a world in which winner takes all, there are no easy solutions. But it is time to consider a reasonable political system which will allow voters to remove incumbents without completely sacrificing political values. We need contested primaries and we would benefit from multiple political parties. We need campaign finance laws that would level the playing field. Some Congressional races cost from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars to run. We need to make it easier for ordinary, but qualified, Americans to run for office--in terms of time and cost. Finally, and in addition to term limits, we need active voters--those who are willing to learn about their candidate, vote in primaries and support third parties. An 18 percent approval rating and a 90 percent reelection rate just does not seem to add up.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

194. Let's take the stigma out of entitlements

From the presidential election to the fiscal cliff, the debate on entitlements is far from over. As a significant part of social structure, entitlements provide many different functions in our society--they play a critical role in providing resources to those who need, deserve or have a right to them. For some, it is a retirement program or form of health insurance. For others, it is a costly and unnecessary burden on our Federal Government. Either way, its impact is so significant that Robert Samuelson, columnist for the Washington Post, stated that, "supporting retirees is now the federal government's main activity."

This difference of perspective is often reflected in the diversity of programs and definitions, which range from a legal right to benefits to a perceived lack of personal responsibility.

I think Wikipedia's definition of entitlement is actually pretty good: "An entitlement is a guarantee of access to benefits based on established rights or by legislation. A ‘right' is itself an entitlement associated with a moral or social principle, such that an ‘entitlement' is a provision made in accordance with legal framework of a society. Typically, entitlements are laws based on concepts of principle ("rights") which are themselves based in concepts of social equality or enfranchisement."

Wikipedia also offers the other perspective of entitlements: "In a casual sense, the term "entitlement" refers to a notion or belief that one (or oneself) is deserving of some particular reward or benefit--if given without deeper legal or principled cause, the term is often given with pejorative connotation (e.g. a ‘sense of entitlement')."

Before we can have the debate, it makes sense that we need to discuss the context of entitlements--inclusive of the individual right, social value, and of course, the social cost. Politically, the term has been contested--embraced by liberals as a social necessity, while fiscal conservatives and libertarians have created a sense of anxiety, or even resentment toward those who receive entitlement benefits. The number of entitlements and rights to them differ, but most embrace a form of social insurance--or socialism.

Thus some entitlements are participatory programs, in which many will receive benefits; others are disability or welfare programs, offering help to those enduring unfortunate circumstances.

Arising as a social insurance, due to the high poverty rates among seniors, some might be surprised to know that Social Security is actually a regressive tax. As worker's two percent tax holiday expired when it was left out of the fiscal cliff agreement, it is important to note that the tax liability ends at a gross income of $113,700. Thus those making one million dollars a year pay the same amount of social security taxes as someone making $113,700.

Medicare is a similar social insurance, meant to provide health insurance to seniors who likely no longer have health insurance available through employment or find it too expensive to purchase individually. Conversely, Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Food Program (SNAP and formerly referred to as food stamps) are means-tested social programs that offer health insurance and assistance to purchase food to low income families and individuals.

In terms of the participatory entitlements, consider the analogy to other forms of insurance, such as car or homeowner insurance.

Homeowner and car insurance are similar to many of our entitlement programs in that many people make payments, contribute to an "insurance" pool of resources, in which some members will be legally entitled to payments based on a qualifying event or circumstance.

In others words, members pay premiums for the legal right to access benefits if or when they become eligible. In essence, as a matter of protection, everyone in the pool has contributed resources--so that nobody suffers greatly in the time of need. Does anyone feel guilty about receiving a check from a homeowner insurance company if his or her home has been damaged? After all, if it is a significant claim, it is not your money--it is the money of the people in your insurance pool. Essentially, it's a handout.

And like Medicare and Social Security, there are "winners and losers." Some members pay homeowner or car insurance all of their lives, but in the absence of a qualifying event, they never receive--or are never entitled to-benefits. Likewise, some people will die before they can receive Social Security payments; others will live to 100 and collect it for decades. Similarly, the pool of resources becomes compromised if more people are collecting benefits (in the wake of a major storm perhaps) than are paying into it.

As for the idea that entitlements create a dependent society, the Center on Budget and Policy and Priorities released a report debunking the notion, "Some conservative critics of federal social programs . . . are sounding an alarm that the United States is rapidly becoming an "entitlement society" in which social programs are undermining the work ethic and creating a large class of Americans who prefer to depend on government benefits rather than work. Such beliefs are starkly at odds with the basic facts regarding social programs, the analysis finds."

The Center's report found that only nine percent of entitlement benefits go to young and able non-working households. It reported, "Federal budget and Census data show that, in 2010, 91 percent of the benefit dollars from entitlement and other mandatory programs went to the elderly (people 65 and over), the seriously disabled, and members of working households. People who are neither elderly nor disabled --and do not live in a working household -- received only 9 percent of the benefits. Moreover, the vast bulk of that 9 percent goes for medical care, unemployment insurance benefits and Social Security survivor benefits."

Entitlements will continue to be a political hot topic, and like any other government program, there needs to be an in-depth analysis of revenue and expenditures--to both project and protect viability. We also need to consider such programs in the midst of the federal debt. But in the discussion of these analyses, we need to be fair and realize that many of these programs are a form of social insurance-participatory and available to most Americans. They provide important health and retirement benefits to our seniors and the severely disabled. They exist as a social contract for each of us--and each other.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

193. Gun debate should not wait

The tragedy in Connecticut is as difficult to understand as it is to write about. There is no shortage of opinion, and I hesitated to offer yet another one. Emotionally charged issues are dangerous and I often feel that objectivity increases proportionally with time. However, this issue-and the many issues within--have struck a chord with the American public, and considerations and decisions on the subject are being fast-tracked.

Considering the number of mass shootings in the last few years, I think the conversation is overdue-and I completely agree with President Obama in that we don't need six months of research--which only gives interest groups time to work feverishly to contaminate the process. This is a time to use the emotion of the tragedy to initiate change.

In considering the number of mass shootings over the last couple of decades, there are a number of questions:

What are the underlying issues that are inspiring the mass shootings? Why are gun-related deaths more prevalent in the United States than other countries? Is it born out of our culture and history with gun violence? Is it a lack of mental health issue identification and treatment? What about economic issues and might it be an act of retaliation or desperation? What role does the accessibility to guns play; would criminals get them anyways? What about the media attention afforded to killers--where they are instantly infamous and their lives, and their complaints, shared with a national audience? And what about precedent--and those who follow the blueprint created by those before them? Finally, what about movies and video games, and the glamorization of violence?

For now, and in the midst of the most recent aftermath, the debate on gun ownership seems to occupy center stage.

My father was a gun collector and I grew up on a farm, where we were not a stranger carrying shotguns. Before I knew my way around the world, I begged to go hunting with my father. I always respected guns, and had a waning interest as time went on--but my father had many types of guns, including military--type assault rifles. He, like many Americans, would certainly protest any limitation on gun ownership.

On the surface, I am not against guns. I believe in the Second Amendment--even if it is worshipped out of context. The Second Amendment created the right to bear arms, as a measure to protect citizens against a number of then aggressors--but it does not define, nor could it anticipate, modern weaponry. For example, nobody has the "right" to arm themselves with five nuclear bombs that they keep stored in a work shed. Thus, the issue is not about a right or measure of liberty, but rather of degree. What do Americans reasonably need to protect themselves?

The reaction of Americans is an interesting dichotomy. One segment of the population is turning in their guns at a record pace; another is purchasing them as quickly as possible. Fatefully, the recent shootings happen to come on the heels of the re-election of President Obama and the already propagated fear that he would act to either make gun ownership more difficult or ban assault weapons altogether--or even take away all guns. The overreaction, while not surprising, carries some preposterous ideology, assertions and opinion.

While I support a ban on assault weapons (because I do not understand why people need the ability to fire a couple hundred shots per minute) I think the issues are much deeper than just gun ownership. Japan, for example, has very strict gun ownership laws and, not coincidentally, one of the lowest number of gun-related deaths. But ownership laws have their limits in the United States, not only because of the Second Amendment, but also because of our culture. And while each tragedy is individual and we do not know whether any measures or precautions could have prevented them, it does not mean we should not analyze and consider policy changes that have been successful in other countries.

It is here that is perhaps the most discouraging and upsetting aspect of this tragedy. Due to political interests, constraints and ignorance, we have to wait until disaster either strikes or is inevitably pending in order to engage in the difficult conversations. We have to wait until we are approaching the fiscal cliff, cleaning up after another storm of the century, or suffering from another mass shooting before we can consider negotiating across the aisle and with our powerful sacred cows. Media pressure and public opinion seems to oscillate just enough to assure nothing changes. And, it almost seems that we have to wait until legislatures have expended every shred of self-interest before change can happen.

There have been about 30 mass shootings since Columbine. If we were going to do something to try to prevent them, shouldn't it have happened by now? Let's not wait another 12 years to make changes. And while there is nothing anyone can probably do to ensure that it never happens again--doing nothing will certainly assure that it does happen again.