Thursday, December 4, 2008

124. Black Friday brings out the worst in people

My wife and I have taken to the "Black Friday" idea. Three years running, we saved nearly all of our holiday shopping for the day after Thanksgiving. We have had mostly good experiences, as we enjoy getting up at 4:00 a.m. to the trails of advertisements we reviewed the day before. I actually appreciate the excitement and the energy of the day.

The customer service of the stores this year was appreciatively friendly and helpful. Perhaps a focus of the difficult economic times, stores seemed fully staffed with associates that were more than willing to be of assistance.

I also enjoy the interaction with people, who for the most part were also kind and courteous. Besides making room in aisles and holding doors, we had, on more than one occasion, people who had overheard our conversation point us in the right direction- whether it was where something was located in the store or if another store had a better deal.

We had our "Christmas" lists, store advertisements, and a list of when each store opened and the things they had that we might be interested in. This year, we went to Kohl's, Lowe's (twice), Sears, JC Penney (twice), Home Depot, Circuit City, Target, Office Max, Wal-Mart, Michaels and Best Buy. We really only purchased the "sale items," while also using the occasion to pick ourselves up those "good deals" for around the house.

Although our experience has been good overall, it does not mean that everything goes perfectly. There are indeed, "those people" who act like "Black Friday" is the only day they are permitted to leave their cages. As a "liberal," I make a lot of excuses for people, often focusing on circumstance rather than the responsibility of their actions. It is somewhat fair; I do factor in environmental and socio-economic factors in considering the opportunity for people to succeed.

However, I never concede laziness or rudeness. Even under the direst of circumstances would I have a difficult time justifying the behavior of those that act as though the rules, or even common human decency, do not apply to them. It seems that under the excitement and anxiety of "Black Friday" or, really, anything to do with money, this behavior can reach unacceptable levels.

We have indeed met the occasional shopper who runs ahead of the line to grab a shopping cart or pushes through to get a sale item. This year, my wife kindly noted to someone who had parked in reserved parking, that in fact, it was not reserved for them. Which, of course they knew, and responded that, "she (my wife) was jealous that she did not think of that and to mine her own business." That was the wrong thing to say to my wife, who then offered an ethics and etiquette lesson to the lazy and rude shoppers.

But, our typically good experience is not always the case, as most of us have heard the ridiculousness that has accompanied some "day after Thanksgiving" sales. Another absurd event happened this year, when a 34 year old Wal-Mart worker was trampled to death by nearly 2000 shoppers when he was trying to open the doors to the store. Several others were injured while trying to help the victim, including a woman who was eight months pregnant. Not to be deterred, reports indicated that the "savages" rushed past the individual and began shopping- seemingly without concern.

There is something wrong in society when people lose their minds over the prospect of saving a few dollars, or getting that perfect toy for their kids. We see the same behavior in times of crisis. While some people are willing to make the sacrifices to help others, there are others still that will abandon all civility for a cheap tank of gas.

Perspective is a powerful idea, one that undoubtedly changes over time- as we grow older and we incorporate the experiences of our lives. One of those perspectives is that my integrity and class shall never be compromised to save a few dollars. I am not proposing that I am above ever acting improperly, we all have our moments, but I can assure you I will never trample someone to get a discounted big screen television. It hardly seems to represent the spirit of the holiday season.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

123. Bailout argues against capitalism

In Planned Parenthood of Southern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992), the court wrote of imposed substantial limitations on legislation limiting economic autonomy in favor of health and welfare regulation in Lochner v. New York. It notes that these limitations were overruled in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrisk, but that, "In the meantime, the Depression had come and with it, the lesson that seemed unmistakable to most people by 1937, that the interpretation of contractual freedom protected rested on fundamentally false factual assumptions about the capacity of a relatively unregulated market to satisfy minimum levels of human welfare.

The bailout, which reared its ugly head right smack in the middle of the presidential election, left a lot of blame on the table. Just who was responsible, and why should taxpayers foot the bill? Was this the result of deregulation, greed, and reckless risk-taking? Or, does the blame flow further down the food chain- such as unemployment and irresponsible home buying? Furthermore, with huge budget deficits and a war costing 10 billion per month, where is this money coming from?

Is this a case of socialism, that oh so dirty word, bailing out capitalism? If the lending institutions do not get the bailout, what impact would that have had on the credit markets- and the ability of Americans to get loans to buy houses and cars? And, if Americans cannot get loans, what impact does this have on the already hurting housing market and the struggling auto industry?

It is easy to see the spiral...for if industry struggles, then more people lose their jobs and more loans go unpaid, and more homes are foreclosed on. Where does it end, if not in another depression?

Consumer advocate, Ralph Nader firmly believes that this is the case of socialism rescuing capitalism. "The bailout was so frantic, so ultimatum-laced, so open-ended, so absent of criteria or standards . . . that it was clearly socialism bailing out capitalism," said Nader. I have written for a few years now that capitalism, as much as we wish it were not true, needs to be regulated. Free markets, in their purity, make absolute economic sense. However, in reality, in a world of lobbyists, corrupt CEOs, unethical corporations and the demise of labor unions, there needs to be some sort of government regulation. It is deeply unfortunate, but greed pressures the economic markets to the point of, as we have seen here, near collapse.

It is not just the financial markets, it is, as I have also argued for the last few years, the corporate incentive to placate shareholders at any cost- which is often American jobs. It is impossible to continue to send good jobs overseas, to save labor costs and avoid environmental regulations, and not believe that it will not have an effect of Americans' ability to pay back loans and make their mortgage payments. Capitalistic economic systems fail when corporations, through political relationships, are afforded legislative loopholes to exploit a global market- yet are subsequently rescued when they fail. Nader also views the bailout as the "collapse of corporate capitalist ideology" and that he emphasizes, "'corporate' because the only capitalism left now is small business. They are the only ones free to go bankrupt."

Adamant capitalist and famous American economist Milton Freedman aptly suggests, "What kind of society isn't structured on greed? The problem of social organization is how to set up an arrangement under which greed will do the least harm; capitalism is that kind of a system." Although capitalists will always find an argument, as the Supreme Court justices recall it, the Depression hurt lots of people, lots of innocent people- because of the lack of legislative regulation. And today, Americans are hurting. We are reaching unemployment highs, millions of people have lost their homes, those that are employed are often underemployed or taking pay cuts, and prices just keep going up. The American people need a bailout, and, and they need their politicians to understand the issues- and history.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

122. Campaign was a study in contrasts

It is too remarkable, and I was too invested emotionally, to just move on as though the election is all of the sudden behind me. While so much has been said, perhaps everything has been said, regarding this historic election, I still feel the need for reflection, and to, of course, offer some thoughts.

This election is a culmination of our being as a country for over 200 years. This country, today, should be proud that a majority of voters were willing to look past prejudices, through the scope of history, and elect an African-American president. It was a long and trying election campaign.

It is my feeling that McCain knew early on that he was in over his head. He knew Obama was the better spoken, better educated and more popular candidate. His entire campaign was about shifting the focus- first by selecting Sarah Palin, then by engaging in a negative campaign- which basically admitted that he was the default candidate. His aim was to give people a reason not to vote for Obama- whether it was the pledge of allegiance or the insinuation that he was a socialist. Had he picked a more credible female vice-presidential candidate, he might have pulled it off. Palin was a disaster, for reasons which I have previously written about at length.

The election reached absurdity when "Joe the plumber" became a focus of the republican campaign. What was at first a charismatic attempt to relate to the middle class, a word McCain rarely uttered in his campaign, later turned into a circus show. After "Joe" was exposed as a liar, fraud and individual with some pretty weird perspectives, the McCain campaign should have laid the issue to rest. Instead, they invited him to campaign stops, and Palin entered into long, annoying verses about every "joe" profession imaginable.

Obama, on the other hand, played it smart. His campaign was organized and remained on task- the need for change and the condition of the economy. He did not engage in retaliating with counter insinuations, nor did he overreact to the attacks made on him. When given the chance to strike back at Palin in his third debate about whether she was qualified, he merely suggested that was for the country to decide. He would not give in and give the reason not to vote for him. He remained classy- he had to.

Race was obviously a focus of the election. Since African-Americans often vote democratic, Obama had to increase the number that voted, and, more importantly, he had to gain a significant portion of the white vote. While he never converted some voting demographics, while males for example, he was able to increase the percentage enough to win the election. And although there were pockets of the country and some of McCain's crowds, that were ugly and more representative of 1850 America, it was feared that it might have been much worse.

Today, there is much work to be done. Free of the campaign dissection, I think Obama will be an even stronger and more divisive leader. However, we are all accountable for our country. The country does not change simply because we voted for change. It is time to take responsibility for our actions- to be educated and informed on the issues. We need to make the effort to contact our elected representatives to express our opinions- and then hold them accountable for their votes. We need to donate our time and money to others suffering under the current economic conditions. And, finally, we need to be responsible parents and citizens, and expend that extra effort that can really change a country.

Other election results:

Thumbs up: Proposition 2 in California passed, a major initiative in the requirement that animals that exist simply for food, or lay eggs, have a moment of decency in their lives- such as room to turn around in their cages. It is not nearly enough, but it is a start. And granted, it is progressive California, but it does send a clear message that people will not accept animal abuse in exchange for profit.

Thumbs down: A few more states worked to pass gay-marriage amendments. It remains, in my opinion, a pathetic endeavor to control the lives of others. In 100 years, people will look back at this discrimination as we look back to a time when African-Americans and women were not permitted to vote. In fact, maybe, just maybe, in 100 years, they will be celebrating the first openly gay American as president.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

121. Get beyond race and negativity

I cannot say that I am much of a Howard Stern fan; he does what he does and though he has done the same thing for many years- if people continue to be entertained by him, so be it.

However, he recently made a point by having one of his reporters interview people in Harlem. The interviewer asked people whom they supported for president- of which most, not surprisingly, favored Barack Obama. His point, however, was in the follow-up questions in which he asked if voters supported certain Obama policies and his choice for vice-president that were, in fact, those of John McCain. In other words, the reporter would ask if Obama supporters approved of his stance on pro-life, continuing the war in Iraq and selecting Sarah Palin as his vice-president. The supporters were, over and over, clueless, enthusiastically endorsing policies that Obama did not, himself, support.

It is a fair point, and it works both ways. Obviously there are those that are voting for Obama simply based on race, because he is black. Conversely, there are those that will not vote for Obama for exactly the same reason. The same applies to Sarah Palin. Many support her only because she is a woman, and there are probably some archaic beliefs among us that women should not be in a position of power.

All of these viewpoints are pathetic.

Increasingly, McCain and Palin, and their supporters, have made a similar appeal to American prejudices and fear- attempting to link Obama to terrorists, through affiliation and by emphasizing his middle name (Hussein) at every opportunity. Thus, not only does Obama suffer from the prejudices of race, he must also defend the insinuation that he is Muslim, and a dangerous Muslim at that.

The impact is clearly felt among white males, who do not show the same support for Obama as other groups. Furthermore, of additional concern for Democrats in this regard is the polling, known as the Bradley effect. As noted by Mark Blumenthal, "what pollsters fear is that in the context of a survey interview, some respondents may fail to tell the truth about their preferences due to some "social discomfort" arising from Obama's race." In other words, the fear is that some, in particular white males, will claim that they support Obama, as not to appear racist, but, under the comfort of the privacy of a voting booth, will choose McCain. Author John Grisham, rightly so I believe, suggested that if Obama were white, he would be leading in this election by double digits, perhaps 10-15 percent over McCain.

The obsession to some singular ideas extends to "hot button" issues, such as abortion. Many people vote for Republicans for one reason- their views on pro-life. This decision is, of course, a Supreme Court decision, and George Bush has already attempted to stack the court in hopes of changing it. It is fascinating, actually frightening, how many people are obsessed with the idea that Democrats (and Obama specifically) are "baby killers." Interestingly, when Palin was asked if there was an inherent right of privacy in the Constitution, the basis for the Roe v. Wade decision, she said she thought there was. Huh?

It is obvious, from all of these ideas, that there is much of the country that will vote the way they do, simply based on prejudices and biases. I look around my neighborhood, and the Republicans still support Republicans, even if it is obvious to most independents that Palin is grossly unqualified to serve as vice president, let alone the absurdity (but reality) that she could be president. A large segment of our population has lost its objectivity. Republicans vote for Republicans, Democrats vote for Democrats, blacks vote for blacks, women vote for women.

Furthermore, any objectivity is hypocritical. Consider Palin's "folksy" speech, with her "darn rights," the dropping of the "g" in many words- as well as her winks and "shout outs to third graders" Ask yourself, if you are a Palin supporter, if you would tolerate the same behavior from Obama. What would you say if he spoke in African-American slang, asking, "what's up dawg?" and giving a "hollar" out to his "homies in the hood"?

The recent attack on Obama by Palin and the McCain campaign is shameful. Frankly, if it was my party, I would be embarrassed; however, Republican crowds seem to be enjoying it- begging for more attacks, shouting "terrorist" and "kill him." The personal attacks and insinuations, specifically designed to appeal to prejudices and biases, are dishonorable and desperate, and I have a new lack of respect for Palin- even if acting as an "attack dog" is somehow part of her job as a vice presidential candidate.

This country needs to grow up and become informed. An educated and tolerant America would ignore such an appeal to prejudice- making these tactics obsolete. I am so tired of the negative advertisements, exaggerations, and misstatements. The report I am watching today from North Carolina reveals that McCain's advertisements are 100 percent negative; Obama's 34 percent. Again, if Americans were more informed, political parties, on both sides, would not resort to such strategy. The truth is that it works all too well, and politicians will continue to rely on American ignorance.

I like to think that, eventually, people get what they deserve. I spent eight years criticizing Bush, and with embarrassing approval ratings, both political parties attempting to distance themselves from his policies, and the condition he is leaving the country- he will have to live with his legacy of failure. McCain and Palin have gone almost exclusively negative, and while I cannot predict the outcome of the election, I can only hope their arrogant and reprehensibly offensive behavior will eventually come back to haunt them.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

120. Who is really not ready to lead

I do not know which is funnier- George Bush trying to explain the financial crisis, John McCain believing that he is needed to help solve the financial crisis, or the prospect that Sarah Palin might know anything about the financial crisis. I mean really, Bush talks to the public like we all are a bunch of third-graders, McCain, just 10 days ago, said that the economy was fundamentally sound, and Palin is being sheltered from the media- just in case they might ask her about the economy.

I was at a fundraiser last week when one individual suggested that it was difficult to tell the candidates apart- that they were all moving to the center. That assessment is wrong on two accounts. First, there is a difference between Obama and McCain, a big difference, but worse, much worse, is Palin. She is proving, the more we learn about her, to be an unqualified candidate and cultural extremist.

If the presidential election was between Bush and Palin, I would vote for, gulp...Bush. In fact, not only would I vote for Bush, I would campaign for Bush. It seems, at this point anyways, that Palin is in way over her head. Not only does she lack serious leadership experience; she has only a moderate education and is culturally recluse. Furthermore, her religion leapfrogs Bush's beliefs, as she appears not only conservative, she is evangelical. It is one thing to have your beliefs; it is another to act as though you have never heard a decent counterargument to them.

The cute and tough "hockey mom" persona is quickly eroding into small town politician, one that, like Bush, has the superciliousness to think that people will believe whatever she says. She appears to be an actress portraying a presidential candidate, repeating well rehearsed lines, being, as best-selling author Sam Harris noted, led around by the McCain team like a "pet pony."

Harris further notes that her religious convictions include worshipping in churches that enjoy "baptism in the Holy Spirit," "miraculous healings," and the "gift of tongues." Disturbing video was recently released showing her being "protected" from witchcraft. And, finally, Harris notes due to her affiliation with the Assemblies of God Church, she might believe "that Biblical prophecy is an infallible guide to future events and that we are living in the ‘end times.'" The implications of these are obvious.

The first ever presidential endorsement by the Human Society Legislative Fund, made up of Republicans, Independents, and Democrats, unanimously selected Obama. Their selection only moderately had to do with Obama's excellent record with animal protection, or McCain's lukewarm record, rather it was Palin's abuse of animals.

Quoting from the press release:

"Gov. Sarah Palin's (R-Alaska) retrograde policies on animal welfare and conservation have led to an all-out war on Alaska's wolves and other creatures. Her record is so extreme that she has perhaps done more harm to animals than any other current governor in the United States.

Palin engineered a campaign of shooting predators from airplanes and helicopters, in order to artificially boost the populations of moose and caribou for trophy hunters. She offered a $150 bounty for the left foreleg of each dead wolf as an economic incentive for pilots and aerial gunners to kill more of the animals, even though Alaska voters had twice approved a ban on the practice."

It might be her culture; however, there is a brutality about her. The video from these hunts are disturbing, absolutely dreadful. Hunting moose might make her interesting in some circles; aerially eradicating Alaskan wolves so that trophy hunters will have more animals to kill for fun simply lacks morality.

The few interviews that Palin has agreed to, again, have been very concerning- to the point that, if it was not for her arrogance, I would feel bad for her. She consistently struggles with any question that includes an unscripted matter of substance. Anti-intellectualism might have been cute and entertaining over the last eight years; but it is not so funny anymore.

I wrote previously about a Democratic politician that I thought lacked the necessary qualifications, again, such as experience, education and social diversity, to be an executive for the people. This is not a partisan evaluation, our country's welfare is too important. This is not the time for putting "ordinary people" in charge of the most influential country in the world. Harris notes in his Newsweek article that in regards to issues like "nuclear proliferation, the ongoing wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, global climate change, a convulsing economy, the rise of China, etc." that "Palin does not seem competent even to rank these in order of importance, much less address any one of them."

This election is critical; our economic systems are at risk. As the most important issue of the election, I consider simply two ideas. Who created this situation and who offers the best chance to get out of it? The Republicans have clearly created most of this mess- so much so that if the situation were reversed; if the Democrats had been in the charge the last eight years, I would vote Republican without hesitation. Secondly, I have no confidence that either McCain or Palin has any real understanding of the economy, much less the ability to lead its recovery.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

119.Palin pick shrewd, questionable

Wow! I must say it was perfectly orchestrated.

The night before, Barack Obama had given one of the most impressive acceptance speeches in recent political history. He discussed his modest upbringing, the ineptness of the last eight years, addressed and dismissed his perceived his weaknesses, and challenged McCain to debate our most important issues. He was clear, brilliant, tough and carried himself like a president should.

However, just before noon the next morning, before Barack's speech fully made its rounds on the national news networks, McCain announces that he has selected Sarah Palin as his running mate.

I thought it was either a brilliant political move or a move of desperation. Either way, it was a bold move, and I look forward to a 2008 election that features young, old, black, white, male and female. It was obviously a strategic pick, as was timing of the announcement, and showcased the advantage of having the second move.

Clearly, Sarah Palin was not chosen because she was the most qualified candidate; I do not think she was even the most qualified Republican woman. And, if Hillary Clinton had been named as the Democrat's Vice-President Candidate, there would be no Sarah Palin.

Immediately, experience again moved to the forefront of the debate, as Democrats noted that it was difficult for Republicans to attack Barack Obama's lack of experience, when an unknown Alaskan governor was one "heartbeat" from the White House. It seems that Republicans traded the experience debate in exchange to target women.

Gusty move.

Experience is certainly a factor, for both Obama and Palin. However, what exactly qualifies as the proper experience when it comes to being president of the most powerful nation in the world? After all, George W. Bush is the son of a two-term vice president, one-term president, served as governor of one our country's largest states, has a brother who was the governor of another major state, and had four years of experience as president under him before he was re-elected. If experience was a factor, he should have been the best president in history! In contrast to the expectations, many will argue that he will be remembered as one of the worst.

The most valuable experience is leadership and the ability to handle the pressure- and that can be accomplished in many ways, none of which I would argue is a definitive predictor of presidential success.

The idea that the Republicans chose "this" woman is interesting, because Palin is the polar opposite of Clinton, and the woman voters they were targeting. Palin rushed to make this appeal, which I thought was premature (and very politically cliché) since most of us knew very little about her. I also think that it is offensive to women that she and the Republican Party believes that liberal Clinton supporters will throw their value and principles down the toilet to elect a very conservative politician- just because she is a woman. Furthermore, she acted like this was ground-breaking, more glass ceiling talk; actually, the Democrats traveled this path (nominating a woman for vice-president) decades ago.

Regardless of her experience and appeal to Clinton supporters, and although I would disagree with almost all of her political positions, my first impression is that she has some political common sense and that she handled the thrust into the national scene very well.

However, there are questions. I must start by saying that I do not envy having one's life torn apart. At the same time, we do not know anything about her...and there is some concern. The investigation into "troopergate" suggests that she might not be above abusing her power, and that she possibly has a vindictive side. I think she needs to fess up that abstinence-only programs do not work- since it did not even work in her own house hold. However, the most pressing question for me is the secessionist involvement. How much does she really love America if she wanted to take her state and leave it? I think we need to hear more about this.

In the end, I think she will need to move pass the clichés, and let us hope she does not fall victim to the political culture of Washington. That part of her seems refreshing, an appeal shared with Obama. Of course, to do that she will have to ignore the advice of John McCain, who is clearly well entrenched in Washington politics. And in the end, we must remember that it is still McCain versus Obama.

It should be an interesting election season, and I look forward to some open and honest discussions. There is too much at stake, and too big of a mess to cleanup, to be consumed with political spin, negative campaigning and empty promises. We need more from our political leaders, and we need to support those that share our values, our beliefs...regardless of color, age or gender.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

118. Too often we avoid asking 'why'

In most professional and social circles, it is considered almost taboo to engage in a serious conversation about religion or politics. The reason for this social taboo is the sensitive and personal matter of such discussion and the potential for inducing a heated argument- one that can strain working or even casual relationships. This is particularly true for someone like me, who often wonders off the beaten path.

It is has been my argument for years now that a civil discourse would serve people well- to open lines of discussion and offer the potential for compromise. The country will continue down its divided path if we only speak politically or religiously in our guarded and like-minded social or familial circles.

How is it that we have gotten to this point, where people are afraid to engage in meaningful discussion? Why do we spend so much time talking about the weather, who won the game last night or the latest office gossip? Why do we waste our time on such superficial conversation when there are so many important issues reigning down on this country? Why do our leadership groups not spend the time of a community's most influential people on the difficult questions? Why do we play it so safe?

I think that the major reason that we avoid these subjects is not because it is personal in nature, but because people do not know why they believe the things they do. In other words, to have a religious or political discussion requires that not only do you have reasons for your beliefs, but that you are able to withstand the criticism of those beliefs or ideas.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, "Few have the courage of their convictions. Fewer still have the courage for an attack on their convictions." How true this seems. The most difficult question you can ask someone is "why?" The tension of the conversation escalates when one challenges the response to this question. Many people react as though they own the right to their answer, as though it cannot be rebuffed or a judgment made upon it.

For example, sometimes people will ask why I do not believe in god, but are uncomfortable when I ask why they do believe in god. When I ask someone why they are Christian, the answers are basically scripted in the truths of Christianity. However, when I suggest that the main reason he or she is a Christian, rather than a Muslim or Hindu, is because they were born the United States (rather than the Middle East or India), people are appalled at the suggestion that there is not an inherent truth in "their" religion. To many, a belief in god seems rather obvious, if for no other reason than so many other people believe.

However, when you have honest meaningful conversations with people, rather than repeating what Bill O'Reilly said the night before, we are often surprised to learn that the other side is not "evil," and that there might be room for compromise. Unfortunately, some people spend so much time with people that think like they do, who reinforce their ideas, that they have never actually heard a good opposing argument. Furthermore, we tend to offer credibility to the arguments made from the people we trust, so when we grow up getting our ideas from our parents or pastor, we place great weight on them. And it is not that we should not place value on their opinions, but it is always good to hear opposing arguments. We should not be afraid to ask why.

The nuisance of the "why" question for many is that we can keep asking it. Our beliefs are often built upon other beliefs or assumptions. And if any belief or assumption fails, the entire argument fails. For example, if someone says they do not approve of homosexuality, I might ask why? Here is how the conversation might proceed:

"Why do you not approve of homosexuality?"
"Because it is not right."
"Why is it not right?"
"Because The Bible says so."
"Why is The Bible authoritative?"
"Because it is the word of God."
"Why is it the word of God?
"Because I am Christian and we believe The Bible is the inspired word of God."
"Why are you a Christian?"
"Because I was born in the United States, and since most Americans are Christians, it is statistically likely that, due to family, cultural and social influences, I will arbitrarily choose Christianity over all other worldly religions and non-religions."
"Well said... we've talked before- haven't we?"

Thursday, August 7, 2008

117. County tax opponents misguided

Previously I wrote about the issue of referendum regarding the tax issues in Lorain County. In this column, I want to speak more specifically towards the county sales tax- which not only might be on the ballot again this November, but which is also the basis (thus far the entire basis) for Nick Brusky's campaign for county commissioner.

As I commented, implementing a tax increase can be a death sentence for a politician, and it is the reason progressives sought to relieve this burden by suggesting referendum. Conversely, the necessity of a tax increase, proposed by a politician is then self-evident- precisely because of these potentially adverse consequences. And again, as elected representatives, it is their responsibility to do what is best for the community- and that includes making the difficult decisions.

However, to impose a tax on its citizens, especially on a largely depressed community, requires not only an explanation, but the general support of its citizens. Due process is preferential to haste. Here is where I think the commissioners made their mistake in regards to the proposed sales-tax increase. I think they made the proper decision, but did not present it to the community properly- and consequently left the door open for an opportunist like Brusky to use it to rally taxpayers. And while I respect Brusky's ability to organize an opposition to the tax- the issue proposed by Brusky's group is not on the merit of whether Lorain County could benefit from a tax increase, but whether the commissioners were tyrannical in voting for it.

Even though Lorain County expenses have been decreasing, a positive indication of responsible financial oversight, revenue is also decreasing. Even the simplest economic minds can recognize that you cannot continue to provide the same services, during a time of rapidly increasing prices, with a decreasing amount of resources. Either expenses must be cut or revenues must be increased. Granted, there is always opportunity for money-saving efficiencies; however, over time, further cost-cutting is only realized through reducing staff and services.

The fact of the matter is that only two counties in Ohio pay less than Lorain does in sales tax (Stark and Hancock), while 83 counties (all but 7 counties) pay more (6.5% or higher). Neighboring counties in Erie Huron, Ashland, Medina and Cuyahoga pay 6.5, 7.0, 6.75, 6.5 and 7.75 respectively. Nearly half the counties pay a full 7% in sales tax, so the .25% proposed increased by the county commissioner is far from unreasonable- or an act of tyranny.

What Brusky needs to answer in his run for county commissioner is how he will approach the larger problems- poverty, unemployment, foreclosures and the lack of economic development. One of the county's largest expenses is the criminal justice system; so we need to hear that he will keep people out of jail. It is easy to fight against a tax, probably the easiest fight in politics, but it does not solve any of the underlying problems. Any effort to keep people out of the criminal justice system, for example, requires a commitment to education, economic opportunity, and keeping people off of drugs (speaking of taxes and education, I wonder how Brusky voted on the Amherst School levy). For many people, a sales-tax increase is the least of their problems.

Brusky plans to clean up county government, though in talking to the Chronicle Telegram, he has no idea of exactly he will accomplish this, "Cuts can be made, Brusky said, but he added that he can't provide specific examples of where that should happen until he's in office." Would that not be like Barack Obama campaigning to resolve the Iraq war, but refusing to speculate on how he will do it until he is elected? If Brusky is serious about making changes, then he needs to roll up his sleeves now and let us know what exactly he plans to do. Generalities such as "cuts can be made" will not suffice, because it is easy to tell people what they want to hear. Similarly, I need more than "I'll bring jobs to Lorain County." How will you bring jobs to Lorain County? What kind of jobs? How many jobs? Only then would I consider voting for him (That is not an empty statement by the way, I did vote for at least one Republican in the last general election).

His claim that cuts can be made in government suggests, under a pending budget deficit, that either people will lose their jobs or services will be cut. You cannot have it both ways. Noting the words of one commentator, "If you are against paying taxes, then try building your own highway." Lorain County government is also one of the largest employers in Lorain County, so for many in Lorain County, this would be like supporting an applicant for CEO who, once hired, immediately plans to fire you. As a Lorain County citizen, I am looking for someone who will accept the challenge of increasing revenue, not take the easy way out by haphazardly cutting expenses.

Brusky obsessively asks current commissioner Ted Kalo for an apology over the sales tax issue; however, I cannot help to think that when one of his neighbors loses his employment with the county, when a single mother can no longer take the transit to her minimum wage job, or when an elderly woman is robbed at gun point by a desperate unemployed citizen because the police force does not employ enough officers to the keep the streets safe- it might be Brusky and his conservative government that owes the apologies.

I am of the opinion that Lorain County could benefit from a sales-tax increase. On a one hundred dollar purchase, the proposed increase is 25 cents. To me this is a small price to pay for a healthier, wealthier and safer community. Because people in this community need help; they need education, jobs, opportunity through economic development, and to stay out of prison- much more than I need my quarter.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

116. Who should decide end of life?

We recently learned that Shea, one of our beloved dogs, has bladder cancer. Although she has been responding very well to medication, we have been advised that her time is now measured in months, not years. After managing the grief that we have already suffered, and that which will overcome us when she is gone, our attention turned to her well-being. We want her to be as happy and comfortable for as long as possible. Like most dog owners, we do not want her to suffer.

The medication has actually been a rebirth; she is happier and more active now than she has been in several months. She is running and jumping like a puppy. She is also enjoying the special attention. But, again, we know this is short-lived, and we will be forced to deal with the life and death associated with all living things.

It is common for pet owners to euthanize their animals when it becomes obvious that they are in pain; when their quality of life has deteriorated beyond what any living thing should have to endure. It is well-regarded, by most, as the "humane" thing to do. Of course, this is just a guess on behalf of the pet owners, because we cannot ask our pets if they would want to live or die. Indeed, some of the decision-making process is selfish; it hurts us nearly as much to watch our animals in pain. Most pet owners will argue that they know their pets and know when it is time. I have little doubt that in many cases that is true. We know our Shea is a fighter, with a big heart. I would like to think that we will be able to recognize when she has fought all that she can.

That presents an interesting quandary, because many people will argue that it is not humane to assist in the suicide of a human being. If fact, in all states other than Oregon, it is illegal. In this respect, I have difficulty recognizing the difference between the humane euthanization of a pet, one who cannot tell you when the pain is greater than quality of life, and assisting the suicide of a human, one that often can clearly communication that they have made that same exact decision.

There are a number of arguments on both sides; some which hold some merit, others which are clearly biased. A 1998 University of Washington discussion on bio-ethics identified a number of arguments, specifically to the idea of physician-assisted suicide. In this case, a physician prepares a lethal dose of medication, but the patient/individual takes the last active step in committing suicide. But, even here there are several arguments on both sides.

The arguments against physician-assisted suicide include the sanctity of life. A religious argument headed by Thomas Aquinas condemned all suicide as harmful and in contraction with the idea that only God can take a life. They also argued that there is a difference between letting someone die and actively killing them, the passive versus active distinction. Most on both sides fear the potential for abuse, where burdened family members may encourage for assisted death rather than put forth the time and expense of a terminally-ill family member. Finally there are some physician issues, such as the integrity of the Hippocratic Oath and mistakes in diagnosis.

Those that favor the idea do so because of the respect for autonomy, the right to make one's own decisions. They also argue for justice, and as I have, compassion. There is the debate concerning the state's interest in preserving life, and the individual liberty of person to do what they desire when they are terminal and suffering. Finally, there is the argument about the openness of discussion. Here, the issue would be discussed and debated, for assisted suicide often happens already in secret or across the muddled line of comfort and death.

Personally, when faced with a difficult issue or forced to consider a complex situation, I attempt to reduce it to its simplest terms. In this case, if most people would agree that humanity rests with euthanizing a suffering animal, then I believe the same humanity should be extended to a human being- if he or she expressly and with due process chooses to end his or her life. While we should guard against any potential abuse, I think it takes a significant degree of superciliousness to decide for others when it comes to their most precious possession- life. Why not offer a painless option, and the ability to die with dignity- on your own terms? How can anyone be sentenced to suffer? For me, it indeed is a difficult issue, but not a difficult decision.

My little girl Shea was named after Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets- which have always been my second favorite team after the Indians. We wanted our dogs to have "baseball names" and Shea, when we rescued her at about eight months old, was named Shelby. After great debate, we found Shea to be close enough not to confuse her, and yet keep our baseball theme. In a gut-wrenching coincidence, this is the last year for Shea Stadium- the Mets will have a new stadium in 2009.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

115. Referendum vote not always right

Referendum is becoming a popular idea in Lorain County when it comes to tax increases. We saw it in the last general election regarding the County sales tax, and now it is being considered in regards to the Lorain City government proposal to tax license plates an additional $15 for road repairs.

Referendums are indeed democratic, as each voter has a say in the passage of legislation. Ironically, according to Ohio History Central, it arose to pass tax issues when legislatures were afraid to.

"One reform instituted by Progressives in many states was the referendum. Progressives believed that politicians were often afraid to introduce some types of legislation because it could be unpopular and prevent their reelection. Referendum would allow politicians to put legislation on the ballot so that the voters, rather than the politicians, were responsible for its passage. Tax issues were one type of legislation that might go through the referendum process. If a tax issue passed, the voters themselves, rather than the politicians, were responsible for their increased taxes. Progressives argued that the referendum made the American political system more democratic."

Today, it is just the opposite. Referendums are being used to repeal tax increases.

We ought to be careful in our haste to get these issues on the ballot, for several reasons. Raising taxes is never easy to do; however, there becomes a point when the social or government services cannot be provided based on the current revenue. Most tax payers do not realize this; all they understand that they do not want to pay more taxes. Furthermore, it is unlikely that most citizens have ever really looked at a county or city budget to the degree that they can make an informed decision as to whether a tax increase is warranted. That is why we elect representatives, people whom we trust to make informed decisions when considering all the demands of providing a government to its citizens. If we do not trust them to make decisions concerning the amount of taxes we paid, then we ought to have elected someone else. That is why it is so important people learn about their candidates, the issues they support- and get out to vote.

That being said, there is a time and place for the use of referendum. It does provide voters a say in important and perhaps controversial issues. It also affords voters the opportunity to overturn poor legislation. It should always be the right of citizens to consider a referendum.

However, there is also the misuse of referendum, such as using it to build a political platform, or to oppress a minority. Unfortunately, any majority issue can be placed on the ballot to take away the rights of others. Recently, referendums were used to make gay marriage illegal and to make smoking illegal in public places. As most know, the gay marriage referendum was especially misguided since it was already illegal in the state of Ohio and it was used primarily to re-elect President Bush. Referendum should be done as an action of the citizens, not to launch, enhance, or preserve political careers.

Again, nobody likes to pay taxes. However, safe neighborhoods, high-quality schools and social services come at a price- and if we are not willing to invest in ourselves, how we will ever lure businesses and others to our area. In other words, who wants to start a business or move to an area that is unsafe, has poor roads, offers underfunded schools or does not have the essential social services? We cannot have it both ways.

What voters decide is up to them, and in times of increasing economic difficulties, I can understand why tax increases are voted down. However, all perspectives and interests should be considered when you see someone parading around a referendum. And, most importantly, voters should make an effort to understand and learn about the issues at hand. There is a reason that the tax increase was considered in the first place; our job is to legitimately decide whether or not it was warranted. But keep in mind that it is unlikely that any government official would risk his or her political career if there were other, easier, solutions.

If we are going to put some issues to vote, here is a few I would like to see (just for fun). How about a referendum limiting the amount of profits an oil company can make? What about a referendum that assures affordable healthcare to all citizens? Let us vote on an extended prison terms for animal abusers. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we should suggest a referendum that ensures that all votes are actually counted!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

114. Sport of kings is animal abuse

Talk about a change of fortune. One second Eight Belles is yards away from winning the biggest event in horseracing- one that would place her name in history, make her eligible to win the Triple Crown, and earn her owner hundreds of thousands in breeding. A few seconds later, she collapses amidst two shattered legs, and is instantly killed on the track.

When thinking about this column, I considered a number of approaches.

I first thought about explaining how my interest in the sport no longer exists after the deaths of a few horses the last couple of years. Perhaps surprisingly, I actually used to enjoy horseracing. I enjoyed the atmosphere, excitement and cheap gambling. . . because, as you know, "every nineteen minutes the place goes crazy." I considered the horses to be a beautiful display of nature's power and grace. Unfortunately, it was a situation in which ignorance was bliss.

I considered blaming the ill effects of horseracing on the wealthy; those that apparently have no better venture to make in life than breeding and training horses to run in some arbitrary race amidst national sports coverage and women in silly red hats. After all, they pay stud fees that run near a hundred of thousand; an investment in hopes of a large purse, future stud fees, prestige, and bragging rights amongst their shallow friends. For example, 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense is earning up to a $100,000 stud fee, with projected earnings of $50 million dollars. This is not a poor-man's game, and each horse is a major investment, with high expectations. Disappointing the large investments of wealthy and powerful people is a risky business for a horse that does not perform. Sooner or later, the owner will choose to cut his losses.

I pondered attacking tradition, and questioning how long this abusive sport should continue simply because it is firmly entrenched in American history. The "Race for the Roses," is horseracing's version of the Super Bowl, with all the parties and rituals therein. At some point, the horserace becomes a side show- the culmination of champagne toasts and social gatherings. The sport, long given a "pass" by the media, is finally being viewed critically. Times columnist William Rhoden asked, "Why do we refuse to put the brutal game of racing in the realm of mistreatment of animals?" He asked, "At what point do we at least raise the question about the efficacy of thousand-pound horses racing at full throttle on spindly legs?"

That leads into the ethical perspective, as I could easily maintain that horseracing breeds dangerously fragile animals and drugs them for optimal performance- all while whipping them to the finish line and slaughtering the losers and injured. Wayne Pacelle from the Humane Society of the United States commented:

"Here are some of the historic problems. Drugging of injured horses to keep them running, which makes vulnerable horses more susceptible to breakdowns. Racing horses too young. Because the marquee events feature 3-year-olds, these horses must start racing at the tender age of two years, and that's well before their skeletal systems are sturdy enough to endure the pounding from the rigors of the race track. And third, racing horses on track surfaces that are not forgiving-with American tracks favoring dirt surfaces over grass or synthetics."

Finally, I considered the socio-economic argument that horseracing among the wealthy is analogous to the dog-fighting of the poor. It is a recreational "sport" fought by animal competitors which are bred and trained to perform at a high level for the amusement of bored humans. For the spectators, it is more about the atmosphere- the betting and drinking- than it is about the event. Most only care if their dog or horse wins, not about the dog or horse itself. Granted, the analogy breaks down within the pure horror of dog-fighting, but the wealthy should not assume moral superiority simply because the horses are "humanly" euthanized.

It would seem that the number of approaches that I could take to illustrate the lack of integrity and lack of meaningfulness within horseracing indicates that there is a problem with this sport from a multitude of perspectives. It cannot be "fixed," though compromises will be accepted as horseracing is finally going to be under some inquiry. Although change will be slow and often unenforceable, the racing industry has been forming panels, committees and hosting summits on animal safety. Whether it is a sincere effort or a measure of placating the activists remains to be seen. Any decision will certainly consider the financial interest of those participating, so pardon my skepticism.

I could make it is easy for them- abolish the sport. That solves all of the problems, and hurts little more than a few wealthy people. As societies evolve, traditions sometimes fall by the wayside. Traditions much more significant than horseracing have been repealed. Horse owners could spend the money on things that actually matter; I can think of a million more things more enjoyable and meaningful than watching a horse fall to her death. Again.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

113. Skirting evolution doesn't change it

Our latest healthcare statements included an insert on antibiotics, entitled, "Know When to Say No to Antibiotics." This proclamation is two-fold. First, there is an overuse problem in the prescription of antibiotics- often for inappropriate illnesses, those which our bodies can handle naturally. Secondly, they are often described for illnesses in which they are ineffective, such as viruses. However, the motive is as much financial as it is good medicine, and, inevitably the health insurance company can save itself a considerable amount of money if these prescriptions are dispensed less often (some estimates are as high as $18.5 million per year for antibiotics).

But that is not what attracted my attention, rather it was the proceeding explanation, which reads, "Bacteria continue to change and grow into ‘superbugs' that do not respond to antibiotics, leading to a growing antibiotic resistance problem." Bacteria do change, but they do not "grow into superbugs." They genetically change over time in response to the selective pressure placed on their environment. They do not change into extraordinary microorganisms capable of leaping small buildings in a single bound, they change into a genetically different, or "variant" bacteria. In short, they "evolve." And I thought it was interesting that the insurance company avoided that word like the plaque.

More specifically, as the bacteria are attacked by the antibiotics, most are killed- which is fortunate, because it leads to our recovery. However, in the course of rapid reproduction, mutant bacteria, some of which may be resistant to the bacteria, are born (or replicated), and survives to reproduce and pass on its genetic makeup (other mutants die or offer no resistance to the antibiotics). Subsequently, these resistant bacteria, those that survive, are passed on to other individuals. In scientific terms, they are selected. And, obviously, since the mutant bacteria are resistant to the original antibiotic, the prescription is ineffective and scientists must now develop another antibiotic. Again, there is nothing "super" about them, except they are more resistant to our current antibiotics. There are more complicated methods in the resistive undertaking by the bacteria, such as transformation and plasmid exchange, but the effect is the same- its genetic makeup has changed. PBS has adeptly referred this process as the "evolutionary arm race."

The process I described is, granted, a bit simplified, as the entire endeavor is complicated by the intricacies of science, such as the debate to what extent the bacteria suffers a "cost of resistance." In other words, to what extent are the resistant bacteria less fit in the absence of antibiotics in the adaptation of their genotyopes? The entire exercise is a wonderful exploration into science- including our immune system, microorganisms, population genetics, mutations, and yes, that nasty word- evolution.

The religious perspective on the subject is a bit interesting, as this is of considerable importance in addressing and refuting the theory of evolution. The explanation from such groups as Apologetics Press, Answer in Genesis and The Discovery Institute, differ in how they attend to the idea. While most do not debate that the bacteria evolve, they dispute the mechanism and the significance of the change. For example, here is the conclusion drawn in

"The mechanisms of mutation and natural selection aid bacteria populations in becoming resistant to antibiotics. However, mutation and natural selection also result in bacteria with defective proteins that have lost their normal functions.

Evolution requires a gain of functional systems for bacteria to evolve into man-functioning arms, eyeballs, and a brain, to name a few.

Mutation and natural selection, thought to be the driving forces of evolution, only lead to a loss of functional systems. Therefore, antibiotic resistance of bacteria is not an example of evolution in action but rather variation within a bacterial kind. It is also a testimony to the wonderful design God gave bacteria, master adapters and survivors in a sin-cursed world."

This explanation clearly focuses on the debate I referred to previously on the "cost of the resistance." It is a "gap argument," in which one aspect of science is used by non-scientists to justify their religious conclusions. It is obvious that science has it right otherwise antibiotics and other treatments would not be as effective as they are. And even if there is debate on the exact mechanism of mutation (scientific studies indicate that microorganisms are able to overcome the harmful side-effects of resistance), I cannot help but to wonder the outcome if they would apply the same scrutiny to their own beliefs and principles.

In the 2006 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study, American students ranked 29th in science in comparison with 57 other countries. As exemplified by my medically-based insurance company avoiding and sugar-coating the science that affects our own bodies, perhaps part of the problem is that we are even afraid to admit that science exists. Maybe it could be better understood in a comic book, or video game- "Superman versus the Superbugs!" The point is that you can only "dumb it down" for only so long before people become...well, you know.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

112. But we've always done it this way

Nothing seems as ridiculous as the Democratic Primary accounting of delegates, super delegates, and caucuses- not to mention Super Tuesday and the unapproved elections in Michigan and Florida. In fact it is so ridiculous that if I knew of a word more ridiculous than ridiculous, I would use it.

I appreciate history and tradition, as much, maybe even more so, than the next guy. Thus I respect that much of our political history dates not only back to the earliest formation of this country, but also into the history of democracy itself.

However, there is no purpose of holding a Democratic nomination other than to decide whom the Democratic voters want to represent them and their party in the national election. Ask the voters their choice and record their selection- it is as simple as that. Why do we need delegates and super delegates? Why do some states vote in February and others in May? Why do some states have primaries and other host caucuses?

The current situation in the Democratic Party exemplifies the absurdity, as it appears somewhat likely that neither Hillary Clinton nor Barrack Obama will have enough delegates to win the Democratic nomination. We are then left to leave it to the super delegates, whatever they really are. And all of the campaigning, debating and voting will put into the hands of a few- just as the founding fathers envisioned it- leaving the "real" voting to the privileged and educated, not the "general public."

The easiest answer would be to hold the primaries in the same manner that one would host the national election. The current process which has lasts several months is time consuming, exhausting and wastes millions of dollars. Just hold the primary as a semi-final event, and score it similarly to the general election, or by using some other scoring system that would ensure that the best candidate, with the best chance of winning in November, is selected. The states can be winner take-all, by proportion, or the entire country can be scored with a popular vote. One day, one nation-wide primary, one candidate. But it is not the system that matters, for there are many other fair systems that could be considered. It is about changing the current, seriously flawed, system.

At this point, I could go on and describe how we got to this position, and describe in detail (based on an Internet review) how the thing actually works. But that is not the real question and the process is so obviously illogical that it would be a waste of time and effort to describe a system that needs to be changed.

The real question is why do people just accept it, why do people not reject the system and fire those that do not fix it? Granted this year is a bit of anomaly, for most elections carry on the way the Republican Primary played out, with a candidate emerging long before now (although, it makes the system no less absurd, as, for example, every Republican Primary from this point forward is meaningless, and these voters have had absolutely no say in who represents them).

Tradition often outlives usefulness or fairness, and nowhere is this more evident than in the process in which the Democrats select their presidential nominee for president. It is amazing how long stupid systems, which are confusing, unfair, and inefficient, survive in American politics- among other places. At some point, someone needs to stand up and proclaim the obvious, "this is ludicrous- there must be a better way."

The problem that occurs, even when such a proclamation is agreed upon, is that "the fight has just begun." The arguments from across fifty states, each battling their interest, securing their tradition and stroking their ego, quickly become an irreconcilable mess of ideas, theories and postulations. Add to that mix those that actually benefit from the current system- whose only goal is to divide and conquer any reasonable idea so that none are ever realized.

A common misconception is that any change that takes place needs to be the absolute best solution to the problem- one that is completely considered through every hypothetical and every sense of justice. While certainly any change should proceed with due diligence, the truth is that the new system needs to simply be better than the previous system. It does not need to be the perfect system; additional changes can be made throughout time. The best systems are those that evolve, not those that hold on with white-knuckles to the ropes of our pasts. Tradition becomes transparent when it becomes unjust and meaningless. Just because it is "the way we have always done it," is not a good enough reason. In the case of the Democratic Primaries, it would be hard to present a worse system- one that is actually less fair, less understood, or less efficient. This is stupid; it is time to move on. Why do we make everything so difficult?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

111. Rich don't know we're in recession

Many economists will tell us that a recession looms. Technically, a recession is defined as two quarters of decline in the Gross National Product (GNP) or negative real economic growth. However, in Northeast Ohio, I would argue that we have long been in a recession. People in this area have, for years now, felt the effect of the thousands of jobs that have been lost, the slow influx of new business and, of course, most tragically, the numerous home foreclosures that continue to plaque the area.

It does not mean, however, that companies have not been successful. Although the recent federal interest rates cuts have affected the stock market, some companies have done very well the last few years. The problem, because of the depressed job market and availability of cheap labor, is that this success has not been passed along to their employees. This selfishness, one can argue, has led to their own slowdowns, as employees have less money to spend to support the market.

Refer to the latest figures from the Congressional Budget Office. The wealthy keep getting wealthier and the rest of us seem powerless to stop it. The average increase in income for the median American family, of about $50,000, was a measly $400. How much of that survives higher gas costs, increasing food costs and the rising cost of just about everything else? Inexplicably, the poorest fifth of Americans only earn, after taxes, $15,300 per year. Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks, the take-home pay of those in the top one percent, after taxes, is about $1.07 million. The average after-tax increase in income was $180,000. They have corporate America and President Bush to thank for that.

Consider the real experience of my friend. Unfortunately, the fear of repercussion leads to the anonymity of my friend and the company he works for. He works for a company that last fiscal year celebrated 10 billion dollars in sales, and a share price of $100. The company was so proud of this accomplishment that they rewarded each employee with a commemorative medal. That's right, a medal.

For all extensive purposes, you cannot eat a medal. You cannot pay your electric bill with it either, or put gas in your car. For the employee, it is like the t-shirt that says, "I went to Florida, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt."

This employee is a first-class performer. He has consistently scored high ratings in his reviews, in what he guesses is the top five percent of all employees. His raise last year was almost negligible, barely maintaining the cost of living. Doesn't it seem like successful companies would reward their best employees with a better standard of living? Or is that asking too much?

The truth is that if this company, which has hardly hired anyone the last half decade, were to announce plant openings, at even 80 percent of what this employee is making, there would be a line of candidates two miles long. The foreign car competition and outsourcing of American jobs has created a surplus of employees, to the point that companies can do however they please in managing their workforce. In this case, the use of un-benefitted temporary employees and college students is the method of exploitation.

The employees of this company, amidst a slew of promises, voted out a union many years ago; however, most of the promises have fallen away. No longer do the employees enjoy such luxuries as a summer picnic or Christmas party. It's all business. We are doing well; you have a job- there will be no negotiating.

In fact, the mere suggestion of collective bargaining would likely cue dusting off the plans to move the plant to Mexico, or some third world country, where not only could they find poverty-level labor, but also lax environmental standards. No employee would dare risk it, most realize that they are just lucky to have a job.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks, the CEO at this company made over $14 million dollars last year. The company also donates millions to non-profit organizations. The salaries paid to this and many other CEOs are ridiculous and unconsciousable. It is an American embarrassment. And while I appreciate the philanthropic contributions, probably more than others, would it not be worthwhile and morally congruent to give some money back to the employees- those people who made the company successful?

Of course, there is no political recourse either. Large campaign contributions frequently protect the interest of businesses. That's no secret. In addition, the interest in the negative effects of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on Ohio by both Democratic candidates seems a bit insincere. Though, unbelievably, this insincerity is a progressive step in comparison to John McCain's absurd assertion that the renegotiation of NAFTA will hurt anti-terror efforts. It is obvious that this is going nowhere fast.

The script for many middle class Americans is now written something like this: Their $400 annual raises are not enough to keep up with the rising costs of living. While trying to make ends meet, maybe their car breaks, or someone in their family gets sick. To cope with such expenses, either credit cards are used or second mortgages are obtained. Then, under the pressure to compete with other companies that can make soccer balls for 12 cents per ball in Pakistan, their company either downsizes or moves its factory to a competing third world country (and for making that decision, the CEO earns a million dollar bonus). Now, without a job, and few prospects of further employment, middle class Americans begin to fall behind in their house and credit card payments. Desperate, either their house is foreclosed on or they raid their 401K to survive. Either way, at the end of the day, they are out either a place to live, or money to retire on.

For those attempting to live the American dream, it is not much of a ride- even with the commemorative medal.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

110. Like, he doesn't like the word 'like'

My wife recently made a business-related trip to Indiana. Upon her arrival, she called with a quick question regarding her whereabouts. In pulling up a map, I noticed that she was near the University of Notre Dame. I made a quick mention to her proximity and lightheartedly said that I would like a Notre Dame sweatshirt. After a short debate about my interest in Notre Dame, in which I noted that growing up I enjoyed Notre Dame football and that I was a fan of Joe Montana (I recall running around the house with wristbands proclaiming to be Joe Montana), the issue seemingly passed. The conversation was more reminiscent that substantive, because I have not really been a fan of Notre Dame since Lou Holtz left.

Well I should have known better, because when she returned on Valentine's Day, I was warmly greeted with a quick bit of affection and a bag of stuff from the Notre Dame bookstore. I received two hats, a sweatshirt and three books. Gina noted with a bit of awe the size of the bookstore, and relayed the fact that the books were from an obscure dollar section. All three of the books seemed interesting; one was on dogs and the other two dealt with language, including a book by Richard Lederer entitled "A Man of My Words: Reflections on the English Language."

In heading to the office to shelve the books, where they would likely remain for some time, I took a quick flip through the Lederer book and noticed a short chapter on a subject that I had been meaning to comment on, entitled, "Like, Where is our Language Going?"

As the chapter suggests, it details the ghastly, and apparently addictive, use of the word "like" by teens and younger adults (although its use is by no means restricted to those groups). The use of the word has become almost painful to listen to, and worse, once you hear it spoken in a conversation, its addictive nature is such that others will start using it. It is on the top of my list of "unpleasurables," along with phone conversations that begin with "Where you at?" and the boring uncreative use of clichés, such as "game on," and the worn-out sports proclamation that "we shocked the world."

His chapter on the subject recalls an amusing story in which a woman asked a clerk in a bookstore who authored the book "Like Water for Chocolate." The clerk spent a few unsuccessful minutes inquiring into the question, only to realize that the title of the famous book is not "Like Water for Chocolate" but rather, "Water for Chocolate." He aptly describes the use of the word "like" as one of three young speech patterns that "squeak like chalk across the blackboard of adult sensibilities."

When I coached baseball at Lake Ridge Academy, the bus ride conversation was consumed with, "I like went to the mall and, I like, bought, like, a new pair of shoes." I would follow up with, "You like went to the mall, or you went to the mall, and "you bought like a new pair of shoes, or you bought a new pair of shoes." Other conversations used the word "like" in substitution for "similar to"- "The teacher was acting like my Dad." I jokingly challenged my players to use "similar to" instead of "like" to help break this annoying habit, even if this particular use was correct. The challenge stimulated some awkwardly funny and entertaining conversations- "I similar to bought similar to a new pair of shoes."

In the book, Lederer is more amused than critical, and notes the word may be an "oral place holder," that is, an indication that important information is ahead. He also attributes it as a modern verbal tic, such as "um" and "you know."

In general, verbal tics are annoying, regardless of the particular choice of pause used to allow the speaker a brief moment to collect his or her thoughts. I am as guilty as anyone of using these verbal tics, and for a while attended Toastmaster meetings to help work through this. The challenge is getting comfortable with the brief moments of silence and relaxing when speaking publicly. I recently attended a training session in which the instructor said "you know" repeatedly, after almost every sentence- to the point that it was difficult to concentrate on the material.

So whether the use of the word "like" is a verbal tick, or a poor use of the English language, it is safe to say that it will be around for a long time. For those of us for which its use is "similar to" the screeching of a chalkboard, we will have to endure the nearly unbearable conversations until the word loses its popularity. And whether we regard the English language in a state of evolution or disarray, we can all appreciate and ponder our reflections of it. Because for some of us, and to rephrase, "it is like, so cool!"

Thursday, February 7, 2008

109. His only regret is in the timing

Many people will claim to have lived their lives without regret. Maybe it is true, maybe they have lived without regret. It seems difficult to me, that is, to think that someone has lived life so perfectly that there is little or nothing that he or she would have changed. Typically, the argument is that it is those experiences which have made me what I am today (assuming that's a good thing). Or, perhaps it is a self-justifying defense mechanism directed at inner peace. Regardless, that is not for me to decide.

I prefer what my good friend referred to, over dinner one evening, as "re-evaluation." He suggested that over time he has made re-evaluations of his life, and based on those evaluations or assessments, he has made changes. I like the way he worded it, and the point is obvious. Much of our lives are spent in ruts, whereas we continue to do and believe what we have always done or believed. It takes considerable effort to reassess our values, beliefs and assumptions. It is not easy admitting to oneself that we have done things that we might now find as immoral, unethical, or compromising.

Often, when our beliefs are challenged, by either ourselves or others, we become defensive and look for justifications. Or if questioned by another, people will often say, "How dare you judge me!" Our justifications are often like the scientific corrections that were made to expiring equations, or like the addendums that are made to religious beliefs. We look for the gaps in the arguments of others rather than make a complete, objective, open-minded free inquiry into our own beliefs.

For example, one of my biggest regrets in life is not becoming a vegetarian earlier. I had all the beliefs consistent with vegetarians, as well as the opinion that vegetarian diets are healthier. Moreover, I was familiar with the horrors associated with slaughterhouses, and the other forms of animal mistreatment that supported our American life and human diets. I had moral, ethical and biological reasons for becoming a vegetarian- yet I resisted. I held on to the argument that we evolved to eat meat, and that I actually needed meat to get my protein. I held on to the silly premise that I cannot make a difference, that I am just one person.

But I knew better, and when I was being honest with myself, I knew it was about change and sacrifice. I did not want the inconvenience of looking for and choosing vegetarian options. And I did not want to give up all the food I loved- such as, hamburger, hot dogs, pepperoni, ribs and chicken wings. I enjoyed barbequing on the grill with friends and feasting on "man-food" during football games.

I used these justifications, excuses and false reasons in order to look the other way. While I knew that farm animals lived horrific lives, I, as Albert Schweitzer puts it, "saved myself the sight." I ignored the suffering. I would rather not know what was really going on, that, for example, cows in order to lactate had to have calves- and spent days crying out for them when they were taken from them. To me, it was just milk- what I had always drank, what my mom had fed me, and what the commercials had told me was so good for me. I would not rather know that the chicken that I thought was so healthy in my diet was genetically selected, raised in tiny cages, had their beaks cut off without anesthesia and killed in assembly-line fashion by slitting their throats. I would rather not read that Professor John Webster of the University of Bristol's school of Veterinary Science referred to chicken production as, "in both magnitude and severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man's inhumanity to another sentient animal." I would rather not know that my Thanksgiving turkey was thrown around like a bag of potatoes, shackled, transported upside down, dipped in an electrified water bath and similarly killed.

Change is difficult, especially when it comes at the personal acknowledgement that we may have lived mistakenly for many of years. That perhaps what we stood up for and defended in the past, at least now in our minds, is immoral or unethical. In many ways, it takes what is often referred to as a "big person" to admit that. It is about humility, change, and the ability to objectively self-assess.

There are a number of issues that we must consider and reconsider on a regular basis. Besides vegetarianism, there is, for example, global warming, the diamond industry, materialism, poverty, corporate greed, religion, war, and politics. The world is not as it was twenty years ago; it changes and we must be willing to re-evaluate our values and beliefs. We must continue to inquire into, and educate ourselves in, all aspects of our lives. Ignorance is no longer an excuse, nor is laziness. Finally, we must be willing to make the personal sacrifices based on those beliefs. I can admit, for example, that it was falsehearted to say that I was an animal lover, yet allow them to suffer as they did to satisfy my appetite. In this case, the transformation that I made might inspire (perhaps "financially mandate" is the more appropriate wording) changes in the farming industry.

The world, in all aspects, is exactly how we allowed it to happen. If we do not anything about it, those that enrich themselves through exploitation will continue to do so- whether it is the mistreatment and abuse of the animals, children, elderly, poor or environment.

This month I have lived one year as a vegetarian. I am both excited and embarrassed to admit this. I am excited that I made the change, but I am embarrassed that it took so long. In the latter respect, I am not afraid to admit my most sincere regret.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

108. Candidates leave him in a quandary

The Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama race for the Democratic nomination is proving to be an interesting one. Although I have not yet made a decision, and, in general, I am frustrated with the entire process, I think both candidates offer remarkable backgrounds, perspective and appeal.

I have a lot of respect for Hillary, and the quest to be the first female president cannot be easy. She is very intelligent, graduating from Yale Law School and subsequently spent some time leaching law. In addition to a solid academic background, she served twelve years as Arkansas' first lady, before serving eight years in the same role in the White House. She then followed that with her time as a New York senator- the first woman elected to a statewide position in New York. The one thing she is not lacking is political experience.

To run as a female candidate brings forth a number of factors that other male candidates need not consider. Not only does she have to assimilate into the old, white, wealthy male world of American politics, she has to repudiate the common female stereotypes. Thus, her campaign leads a constant battle over her appearance...making her appear to be tough enough to be president, but not too tough as to appear abrasive. And when her appearance grows too tough, she cries, when she seems too soft, she speaks authoritatively.

There are two things that bother me about Hillary. The first is that her last name is Clinton, and if elected, our country will have had successive terms of Bush, Clinton, Bush and Clinton. Already into two decades of American rule, I just do not think it is good for the country to have a limited number of families serving as commander in chief. Granted this is not Hillary's fault, but, nonetheless, it limits the political power of this country. As evident in the second Bush presidency, the relationships that served the first Bush withstand, and there is a lack of political influence from outsiders.

My second criticism is her political-ness. She is well engaged in the political nature of this country. As a friend of mine noted, she is tied to political polls, venturing only as far as is necessary to remain popular. She was burned as first lady, and one might conclude that she learned her lesson. Her attempt to introduce national healthcare, was harshly received, and she was introduced to what happens when you threaten the wealth of the wealthy (insurance companies, etc.). Subsequently, she seems overly cautious in appeasing those who make the largest campaign contributions. Furthermore, it is sometimes difficult to get a straight answer from her. A question is often answered with a diatribe about an only somewhat related topic.

Barack Obama, likewise, is very intelligent, graduating from Columbia University and then Harvard Law School. He also taught law, teaching at the University of Chicago Law School. He is young, well spoken, appealingly sincere, and, of course, black. In his case, the lack of experience is actually refreshing. His membership in the old, white, wealthy male political area is equally compromised, and the hope is that he might not know better in attempting to follow through with political promises.

As the first black candidate that actually has a chance to secure the presidency, he faces the same challenges over race that Hillary experiences over gender. Author Shelby Steele writes poetically on this issue in his book, "A Bound Man." One reviewer notes:

"Steele writes of how Obama is caught between the two classic postures that blacks have always used to make their way in the white American mainstream: bargaining and challenging. Bargainers strike a "bargain" with white America in which they say, I will not rub America's ugly history of racism in your face if you will not hold my race against me. Challengers do the opposite of bargainers. They charge whites with inherent racism and then demand that they prove themselves innocent by supporting black-friendly policies like affirmative action and diversity.

Steele maintains that Senator Obama is too constrained by these elaborate politics to find his own true political voice. Obama has the temperament, intelligence, and background -- an interracial family, a sterling education -- to guide America beyond the exhausted racial politics that now prevail. And yet he is a Promethean figure, a bound man."

Furthermore, in addition to Steele's comments, Obama must strike a difficult balance, where to white America, he is not simply a "black candidate" and to black America, he is not regarded as a "sellout" or "Uncle Tom." Racism is still an issue, exemplified about once a week in the chain emails I receive which are quick to note black stereotypes and to question his American allegiance- mostly because his middle name is Hussein.

My only concern with Obama is his lack of experience. While the lack of it might be refreshing, there is, unfortunately, a real element to political experience, influence and compromise. It does not provide any benefit to anyone if political change cannot be negotiated politically throughout Congress and with foreign leadership. It might take him some time in developing relationships, working with Republicans and balancing the influence of political money with political favors.

The quest for the Democratic is a dynamic one, in several respects. Despite the in-fighting, and the nature of politics in general, I am enjoying the diversity of candidates seeking America's highest position. The outcome, which should be settled in the near future, will undoubtedly precede an equally interesting presidential race. The Republican candidate, whoever it will be, will be much more in line with our typical presidential candidate- old, white, wealthy and male.