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.