Monday, December 22, 2014

224. Middle class wages are falling behind

One of the conservative economic concepts that drives me nuts is the apologetic argument that rich people create jobs. In the words of Robert Reich: That’s baloney.

Usually that notion is an excuse for lower taxes on the wealthy and corporations. And from there we hear about trickle-down economics and the push for a smaller government.

What creates jobs is the demand for goods and services. How is that demand created? It is easy. The middle and lower classes need to have money to spend. If they can’t afford to buy things, there are no sales. No sales means no profits and no profits means no raises or layoffs. Layoffs mean people don’t have money to spend and around and around we go.

Billionaire Nick Hanauer wrote an amazing story on the subject, “This is why the middle class can’t get ahead,” saying the same thing this way:

“In plain English, the real economy is you: Raise wages, and one increases demand. Increase demand and one increases jobs, wages and innovation. The real economy is simply the interplay between consumers and businesses. On the other hand… not even an infinite supply of capital can persuade a CEO to hire more workers absent demand for the products and services they produce.”

Rich people didn’t become rich by simply employing people they don’t need or that won’t work toward improving their bottom line. Companies either.

In fact, the opposite is taking place. Companies look to reduce labor costs as a way to improve profits, which improve stock prices, dividends to their wealthy shareholders, and excessive executive pay. They do this through technology, overworking employees, temporary employment, and outsourcing. It’s rich people that drive this profit-focused environment.

Hanauer continues in regard to company resistance to paying overtime and increasing the minimum wage: “The arguments that the corporate lobbyists are making — about how badly business will be hurt — just don’t add up. What is adding up instead are the trillions of dollars in corporate profits and stock gains that corporations have made over the same decades that your hours climbed and your wages fell.”

Economic professor River Smith, in an article entitled, “We must find ways to provide consumers with money to spend,” agrees: “As we face the 21st century, we are no longer the country that offers the best opportunity to move up from one economic class to another — in fact we’re rated seventh best in a recent study — we must acknowledge that, for most citizens in this country, the American Dream is more likely a nightmare, or a very bad dream. In spite of corporate profits, very few companies are raising employee wages by any substantial amount. The disgraceful minimum wage continues to pull wages for all workers down.”

Middle class wages have remained stagnant, even falling behind.

Hanauer explains: “If you’re in the American middle class — or what’s left of it — here’s how you probably feel. You feel like you’re struggling harder than your parents did, working longer hours than ever before, and yet falling further and further behind. The reason you feel this way is because most of you are — falling further behind, that is. Adjusted for inflation, average salaries have actually dropped since the early 1970s, while hours for full-time workers have steadily climbed.”

It’s obvious that if money doesn’t get into the hands of the working class, you can forget about a complete economic recovery. Since corporate America won’t give up their profits, the only choice is to tax them and their shareholders and redistribute the wealth through government investment programs (like improving infrastructure).

In other words, if successful companies won’t hire people or give meaningful raises for fear of disappointing shareholders, then they and the wealthy need to be taxed at previous levels such as the 1950s, when the top tax rate was around 90 percent. It’s the government that can create jobs and economic stimulation by putting money in the hands of the working class.

It’s not socialism, it’s a capitalistic correction. When the great wealth of our nation ends up in the hands of a few, our economic system is broken. Wealth is exponentially created, which also comes with the influence to protect that wealth, at the expense of a large percentage of the population that can barely make ends meet.

If people want a smaller government, then they need to protest corporations and politicians that support them (and vice versa of course). It is greed that creates the need for larger government.

Otherwise, the inequalities of wealth distribution will continue to grow at alarming rates. That’s not an opinion or a theory. It is an economic crisis. Trickle down is a complete failure. Rich people don’t create jobs.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

223. Pretty soon it'll be Black Wednesday

It seems that all good things must come to an end. If you enjoyed the day-after-Thanksgiving holiday rush that was known as “Black Friday,” you are probably disappointed that the event has evolved into one that now starts on Thanksgiving itself—if not earlier.

The event used to start bright and early-- briskly and with a sense of excitement in the air-- on Friday morning. Now the event has become a free-for-all, with businesses opening earlier and earlier to get first crack at the consumer dollars. In addition to some stores opening early on Thanksgiving, there are pre-Black Friday deals and early Black Friday sales. At any given time in November, a store may proudly proclaim, “Black Friday starts now!”

Most of the outrage about this evolution, and rightly so, surrounds the employees who have to leave their families to work on Thanksgiving. Polls last year revealed that 62% of Americans feel that businesses should be closed in observance of Thanksgiving. Sadly, despite the outcry and criticism, there will be lines of bargain-greedy shoppers at the door on Thanksgiving.

The unwritten rule of Black Friday was that it started at 6:00 am, then it was 5:00 am and 4:00 am. Granted 4:00 am was pushing it—employees probably only got 4-5 hours of sleep the night before. But then it was midnight, 10:00 pm on Thanksgiving and then 8:00 pm on Thanksgiving. The campaign is obvious, in addition to offering the best deals, get people to your store first. Customers only have so much money to spend. The stakes are high, Black Friday revenue approaches $64 billion.

For those who do not quite understand the evil side of capitalism, this progression provides a perfect microcosm. Competition in the marketplace is a good thing; it’s perhaps the most attractive side of capitalism. It’s what drives prices, through supply and demand, into equilibrium. And it works best when there is fair competition—that is companies playing by the same rules (whether written or unwritten). Companies that succeed should do so because of their processes—whether it is engineering, marketing or supply chain management.

The dirty side of capitalism is greed-inspired bending of the rules: lack of cultural consideration, mistreatment of employees, destruction of the environment and abuse of political influence. Businesses look for every advantage to decrease costs and increase profits. Of course, Black Friday is successful because lower prices create a great demand—a sales frenzy on the out-of-balance economic equilibrium--which in turn gets people out at all hours of the day and night.

It’s what capitalism does in the name of profits—the competition is so intense that it pushes ethical, moral and cultural limits. While employees are giving up time with their families on the holiday, you can probably bet that the corporate CEOs are spending the holiday with their families in Aspen (or wherever rich people go).

And, to the dismay of many, when companies will not do the right thing, government needs to step in to level the field and protect employees. Mother Jones reported that two Ohio lawmakers, Rep. Mike Foley and Rep. Robert Hagan, have sponsored a bill that would prohibit retaliation against employees who do not want to work on Thanksgiving—and paying overtime wages if they do. The bill is designed to discourage retailors from opening on Thanksgiving and to require them to care for their employees if they do. Unfortunately, the Republican-controlled State House, despite their commitment to family values (Governor John R. Kasich even designated Thanksgiving Week as “Family Week”), is not likely to advance the bill.

What people see in regards to the greed surrounding businesses that open on Thanksgiving is what I see on a global scale with corporations. When companies play fairly, share profits and care about their employees, everyone wins; when companies put competition, manipulation and profit above social responsibilities, only the rich win. Get caught cheating too much and regulation steps in.

Of course, each one of us can do our part to force companies to close on Thanksgiving—just don’t shop.  Stay home, eat a lot, play games and watch football. You can still shop on the real Black Friday.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

222. The nation's lazy unrest continues

Seriously, why did we bother?

I am referring of course to the 2014 mid-term elections, in which Democrats and a disinterested public barely showed up.  Voter turnout was a mere 36 percent.

For a country that prides, even obsesses, about its freedoms and democratic system, it was an embarrassing performance.  We’re so quick to fight or criticize those who have been portrayed as threatening our freedoms, but then we’re too lazy or apathetic to take ten minutes to exercise our most precious right.  

From voter apathy and education to the voting process itself— our elections are obviously broken.

We heard a lot about voter laws, and the fight to make it easier or more difficult to vote.  While I am disgusted by any effort to make voting more difficult, knowing that it purposely affects particular strategic demographics, it’s also a matter of personal responsibility. People need to make an effort and simply “try harder” to vote. Those that don’t vote are not coincidentally those who need their voices heard the most. It’s in their best interest to vote.

Voters also need to be educated about those running for office and the issues on the ballot. Several have noted that an uneducated population is the greatest threat to our democracy.

The nation’s lazy unrest continues to elect a high percentage of incumbents. We saw the re-election of such candidates as Josh Mandel, Sam Brownback and Michael Grimm. Brownback is the Governor of Kansas whose economic policies have been disastrous for the state. Republican Grimm won despite a federal indictment.  Newly elected Joni Ernst of Iowa is a Sarah Palin wanna-be, won voters over by the proclamation that she used to castrate pigs when she was young as a metaphor to cut “pork” out of the system.

Even the so-called referendum on President Obama was mystifying. By the most important measures—unemployment, killing terrorists, stock market, gas prices, the wealthy getting wealthier—the country is significantly in a better position than it was six years ago. It seems the referendum was really only a result of the small percentage of voters who have despised the president from the beginning. If there really was a rebuke of Obama, voter turnout would have been much higher. It’s the confusing mantra, if gas prices are high, blame Obama; if gas prices are low, vote for Republicans.

Many have seen now the editorial from Canada in which Richard Brunt writes, “So, Americans vote for the party that got you into the mess that Obama just dug you out of? This defies reason. When you are done with Obama, could you send him our way?”

However, the voters don’t get all the blame. As a country, we’ve allowed political money and self-interest to hijack our election process. Through a combination of legislative procedures and court rulings we’ve opened up the door for wealthy corporations and individuals to control the election process.

Voter apathy, while not excused, certainly is understood. They are tired of the two parties fighting with each other—each using over-the-top sound bites used to insult the electorate. Many voters are also tired of having only significant two political parties in this country—they want real choice. Political advertisements are paid for by invisible and wealthy donors, corporations and special interest groups and continue to be negative and misleading. Election campaigns are built on stretching the truth to promote the best thing you have ever done and the worst thing your opponent has ever done.  Every candidate claims to fight for the middle class, but few ever do. They fight for those who financially support them.

We have had ridiculous gerrymandering, such as that in Ohio, it’s almost guaranteed that the Republicans will have a significant advantage in the House of Representatives. Marcy Kaptur’s district is conceded and loops from Toledo to downtown Cleveland to ensure that Democratic votes are spent in one place. Republican Jim Jordan’s district goes from Lorain County to Columbus and then heads east to Lima. Representation is clearly not the objective (surely the interest of Lorain County is different from those near Columbus or in Lima) and it’s not surprising that most races are not well contested. It’s a statistically calculated process to keep the ruling party in place.

Do we really have a democracy if we cannot control the process—if money and influence leaves very little to chance? Who among those who have won election under the current process is going to suggest meaningful campaign reform? We need more political parties, less money (publically financed campaigns), and independently created districts.  Most of all, we need people to care again. We need our best and brightest to run for office as a measure of public service, not as a prologue to power and wealth. And we need a participatory and educated electorate, who will invest in the democracy they so proudly defend.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

221. My Gosh, what' s going on?

My gosh, what is going on?

It seems like this summer has been one disturbing story after another. On the international scale, it began with Israel engaging in battle with the militant group Hamas. Then there was the passenger plane that was shot down by Russian separatists. Then, in graphic detail, we were introduced to ISIS and their horrific behavior in the Middle East and toward captured prisoners.

Domestically, the big story for several weeks was the controversial shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. Then unbelievably, a gun range shooting instructor was killed when a nine year old was being taught how to shoot an Uzi. Finally, there was the nauseating story of the ice bucket challenge that seemingly was used to humiliate a student with Autism in Bay Village.

However, getting as much attention as those issues has been what been what is going on in the sports world. A second NBA owner will now be selling his team due to racist comments made to others in management. In the NFL, the conversation has surrounded the shocking video of domestic abuse by Baltimore Raven running back, Ray Rice. Unfortunately for the NFL, it did not stop there as several other players are facing domestic abuse charges and star running back Adrian Peterson is facing child abuse charges. Finally, on the local level, many were appalled when the Steubenville football player convicted of rape returned to the football team.  

It’s been one thing after another, each one with a different sense of emotion—anger, shock, disappointment and sadness. The commonality among headlines has been violence and cruelty directed at other human beings—often based on religion, race, gender and disability.

These issues have stirred debate after debate between newscasters, journalists, bloggers and experts. Rightly so, these are important issues and in some circumstances the issues are complex. There has been the normal share of grandstanding—exaggeration and hyperbole. There has also been rush to judgment and commentary by those with agendas, which likewise limit productive debate.
Time, space and redundancy prohibit a meaningful analysis of any of these in considerable detail. For many issues, I share the common concern and opinion, such as: Why does a nine year need to learn how to shoot an Uzi? How could Ray Rice hit his future wife like that? Is the Gaza strip ever going to be free of conflict?

On a social level, which is always interesting to me, there are parts of the conflicts that are difficult to understand. What are we going to do with terrorist groups and what possesses people to inflict such fear and anger toward others based on arbitrary religious beliefs?  Why do fans show such support to athletes; for it seems that a star player can do just about anything and still enjoy the love and forgiveness of fans?  When it comes to racial matters, why does it seem that political affiliation determines the one’s perspective of the issue?

Finally, there is the frustration of trying to get to the truth. From the Ferguson shooting to the NFL’s investigation of Ray Rice, there is an ever-changing circulation of fact, myth and denial. Obviously, before forming an opinion on the issue, it’s important to have all the facts. Too often, we’ve seen, and for obvious reason, there is lying, deceit and cover-up. With all of the news outlets and availability of social media, there is a lot of information and misinformation. And, just as appalling, there is the influence of financial considerations. Many times, companies and intuitions like the NFL, don’t make decisions based on principle, but rather financial impact.
It’s been a depressing few months. It has had a real effect on me—and it has been suggested that I stop watching the news. However, these are serious issues: sexual assault/domestic violence, terrorism, racism, war, shootings, bullying and child abuse. These issues should be regarded as avoidable and unacceptable, and we need a societal evolution that is less understanding and forgiving of acts of violence and cruelty. We need to stop accepting the excuses—whether they are political, religious/cultural or financial.

Enough is enough.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

220. How to shop by political leaning

Quite obviously, and for a couple of reasons, you will never see me inside of a Chick-fil-A. Nor will you see me inside of a Hobby Lobby store.

I just cannot support the political views of those corporations. I also do not like to support companies that engage in animal testing, use sweatshops, or damage the environment. The list of companies and issues goes on and on.

The problem is that it can be a daunting task to keep up with which companies have similar political values and engage in social responsibility. Fortunately, there is an app for that!

First seen on “The Colbert Report,” I’ve learned of a couple of apps that can be used to allow the customer to know where their money will eventually end up. Colbert introduced me and his viewers to “BuyPartisian.” Another somewhat similar app that I found for android is called Buycott.

They are comparable in that they alert customers where their money is going, although BuyPartisian is more politically-driven while Buycott is more issue-driven.

BuyPartisian will tell you what percentage of political donations by the company, its executives, even workers, goes to Republican or Democratic political candidates.

For example, it will let you know whether Apple or Starbucks donates more money, and how much more money, to each political party. Although it is common for companies to donate to both sides of the aisle, there is still a strategy of donating more to candidates and political parties that best represents the company’s issue. Simply scan the barcode of a product and the app will provide this information.

In Buycott, you can pick issues important to you (called campaigns) and after scanning the product, it will alert if it conflicts with any of those campaigns. There many campaigns along the political and social spectrum and you choose as many as you like.

The app will also tell you company information and provide a “family tree” since of course so many companies are actually part of much larger companies. One commentary notes that it was depressing to realize that the same eight parent companies make almost everything.

Some examples are campaigns avoiding companies that engage in sweatshops, animal testing and factory farming — or those companies that participate as a Washington Redskins or Michael Vick sponsor.

Other campaigns include supporting companies that value marijuana legalization and the Second Amendment.

There are even detailed campaigns for things such as “Boycott Absurd Arbitration Clauses,” “Executive Pay is Greater than 300 Times the U.S. Mean or Full-Time Employee,” and even “Stopping Common Core.”

For example, a quick scan of the Gatorade sitting next to me revealed one conflicting campaign: “Demanding GMO Labeling.” It further lets me know that Gatorade (actually its parent company, PepsiCo) donated an amazing $2.145 million to defeat Proposition 37 in California, which wanted to require GMO labeling. Companies such as Pepsi and Monsanto dedicated more than $46 million to defeat the ballot initiative. I guess this is my last Gatorade.

This is quite powerful information for the consumer, especially if choosing between two similar products. It truly allows consumers to vote with your wallet. After all, that is the direction of American democracy. Money wins elections.

Granted, if you are against almost everything, like my wife and me, it can be time-consuming and quite inconvenient searching purchases. But it can also lead to greater sense of social consciousness in knowing what my money is actually supporting. In that sense, I can feel a little better about my purchases.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

219. Americans could be happier

My wife says I will never be happy. Knowing me as well as she does, I am inclined to believe that she is right. As a social critic, I have a pulse on the negative aspects of life. I see the world in all its transgressions and narcissist behavior.  There is plenty of good in the world, but my emotion is tied to the atrocities—and the lack of understanding as to why they exist. For me, life is a social struggle.

So it got me wondering, what makes people, or moreover, members of a society happy?  How happy are Americans compared to those in other countries? What is it about our culture, or theirs, that makes people happy?

Fortunately, the issue has been researched and the happiest countries have been ranked. While there are certainly some arguable definitions to happiness—for happiness can be relative and individualized—there have been some somewhat consistent results. For example, my relative unhappiness in American society pales to the happiness I feel when I compare it to living in a third world country.

To consider some social surveys and research on the subject of happiness, I referred to “Thrive” by Dan Buettner.  

Of the many definitions of happiness in the book, I leaned toward the opinion of Jim Harter, who said, “It’s really what you do with your life, how you spend your time, whether it is enjoyable and meaningful.” Other worthy definitions often involved the pursuit of goals and dreams—a society which perhaps offers hope.

Denmark has been consistently ranked as one of the happiest places to live. This small country of about 5.5 million people is one of the wealthier nations. However, the difference from America is that the wealth is not tied up in the hands of a few. Buettner notes, “Danes spend more money on their children and seniors than any other people. Lifelong healthcare is a Danish birthright. Education is free and university students are paid to go to school. Doctor visits, x-rays and surgeries are all covered by the state.”  It’s citizens feel safe and their culture stable.

How does Denmark do this? Taxes of course and those making more than $70,000 will pay around 60 percent of it in taxes. A Danish researcher described it this way (regarding high taxes), “We see from the surveys that most people here are satisfied with the trade-off. They approve of the results: A society with an extremely low disparity between the rich and poor. “

Danes also enjoy other benefits, many arising from their culture and attitudes. They trust their government, enjoy generous vacation benefits and feel like they have a voice. They trade the pursuit of material wealth for “education, health care and an economic safety net.”

Another country Buettner considered was Singapore.

Although differing in culture, there were some common themes in Singapore—which the World Values Survey found that 95 percent of the people claim they were very happy or quite happy. While Singapore has some tough laws, such as fines for spitting and not flushing the toilet, there was the common theme of caring for each other.

Remarkably, researchers  reported, “What we set out to do is create a society which was efficient, orderly, well educated, cultivated courteous . . . So we go out of our way to make sure we don’t have an upper class. You won’t see beggars in Singapore. You won’t see ghettos is Singapore. It’s by conscious effort. We know there is a lower five to ten percent of the population who cannot keep pace with modern life. So we have to carry them and make sure they have a home.” They also find them jobs, to create a sense of “purpose and productivity.”

When Buettner questioned issues such as a one political party monopoly and a lack of freedom of the press in Singapore, one interviewee quickly responded, “The idea that American democracy is the only path to freedom is arrogant.” It was perhaps best stated when looking at the differences in individual perspectives. “For Westerners, happiness is about personal achievement, freedom and independence, rather than fitting in and marching in step. For Asians, happiness is defined by society rather than individual expectations,” Buettner wrote. 

Buettner also looked at Mexico and San Luis Obispo, and came up with a long list of societal and individual aspects of happiness. On the list are things like high employment rate, supporting the arts, limiting the workweek (Denmark has a maximum of 37 hours per week), safety, status equality and generous vacations. Individual factors for happiness include paying off your house, avoiding credit cards, owning a pet, watching less television, exercising and finding a hobby.

In the Ruut Veenhoven’s World Database of Happiness, the United States ranked 20. While we enjoy a first world lifestyle, we pay the price. We work too much, value material wealth too highly, fight over healthcare, carry too much debt and have gross inequalities in wealth. We are in a continuous state of war and foreign disputes and regardless of who is in the White House, at least half the population is unhappy with or doesn’t trust our government.

Despite our faults, I wouldn’t trade living in the United States for anything. I don’t want to leave to find happiness, I want to bring happiness here. There are things we can do to make us a little happier—starting with caring about others as much as we care about ourselves. While we each have our own aspirations, there’s nothing wrong with giving a little to make things better for everyone. We’re one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and with that wealth there is abundant opportunity to create a happier society.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

218. Why embrace huge CEO raises?

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, yet nobody really seems to care. Even though there is an increasing awareness of the disparity of wealth in this country, it is not an issue in which people seem willing to invest.

When public employees, whether they are administrators, fire fighters or teachers get a raise, it drives some people crazy—and they fret endlessly about their taxpayer money.

When the middle class fights for labor rights and fair pay, they are chastised and preached to about the evils of unionization and free markets.

When raising the minimum wage is considered, or providing healthcare to employees is required, fiscal conservatives rush to warn about job loss and higher prices.

Yet, the same people look the other way, without complaint or criticism, when CEOs make millions of dollars per year. They have been programmed into believing that the very wealthy deserve what they earn, they represent capitalism at its best, or are necessary to provide jobs to the middle and lower classes.

The problem is that it is getting worse—average CEO pay in 2013 topped 10 million dollars, an increase of 8.8 percent from 2012. They now make more than 250 times that of average workers. Workers in the United States only received, on average, a 1.3 percent increase in 2013.

Imagine if teachers received an 8.8 percent raise. Imagine if any public employee made even close to $1 million dollars. The outrage would be relentless.

The truth is that CEO pay comes from somewhere. It’s either built in the price of the product, the backs of their employees or the outsourcing of their suppliers. It may be from the services they charge clients or the advertisement rate they can obtain. We pay their salaries, each one of us, somewhere along the way.

For example, number two on the top ten list of highest paid CEOs was Leslie Moonves of CBS. Also making the list in the entertainment business was Jeffrey Bewkes of Time Warner, who received a 27 percent raise last year earning over $32 million. How do you boycott CBS and Time Warner? Not only would you have to not subscribe to cable, not watch CBS, but you would also have to boycott any and every company that works with or advertises with those corporations.

People may think they have a choice, not to support a certain company, and thereby not contribute to the excessive pay of a particular CEO, but these corporations are well diversified and intertwined with our everyday life. We pay their $10 million dollar salary just as much as we pay a teacher’s $50,000 salary.

It just trickles up, exponentially.

The problem with inequality isn’t just whether or not one can afford to buy a private jet—it’s bad for society and our political system. ThinkProgress’ Bryce Covert summarizes the negative consequences:

“It pushes Americans into more debt, makes them sicker, makes them less safe, and keeps them from moving up the economic ladder. It also hurts economic growth, while addressing it through modestly redistributive policies doesn’t.

And it destabilizes the political system. Research has found that high inequality leads to a less representative democracy and a higher chance of revolution as the less well-off come to believe that the government only serves the rich. And those people would be right, as our current political system is far more responsive to the wealthy . . . and doesn’t listen to what the middle class and poor want and need.”

Our country, even our democracy, is at risk if the people do not find a way to stand against the excessiveness and influence of a few. Our economy grows when the middle and lower classes have money to spend; even early economists recognized growth challenges when the wealthy make considerably more than they can possibly spend.

There should not be any outrage when a firefighter or a teacher, trying to pay a mortgage, raise a family and send their children to college, receives a modest raise. Our outrage should be reserved for, and attached to, wealth inequality arising from, in part, the travesty of excessive CEO pay.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

217. Prayer should be personal, not public

Almost immediately after the Supreme Court ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway that the beginning legislative sessions with a prayer do not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment Commissioner Tom Williams proposed that commissioner meetings open with a prayer.

At first, any hopes of making it a political issue in an election year was quickly squashed when the other commissioners swiftly agreed.

Nonetheless, the more Williams spoke, the more I grew concerned at his lack of perspective and insight.

In discussing the issue, Williams asked, “Why would anyone object to having an opening prayer?” followed by the curious statement, “It just reminds us that Lorain County prospers.”

Dismissing the seemingly incongruent connection between the two statements, Williams seems to miss the whole point to the case and the intricate legal connection to the First Amendment.  Even the Supreme Court Justices, who voted along political lines, could not agree in their opinions as reported by The Volokh Conspiracies legal blog:

“Justice Kennedy wrote for the Court, joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Alito in full and Justices Scalia and Thomas in part.  Scalia and Thomas refused to join Part II-B of Kennedy’s opinion, which concluded that a “fact-intensive” inquiry of the specific practice at issue in this case did not unconstitutionally coerce individuals to engage in religious observance. Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Scalia. Justice Thomas wrote an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, joined by Justice Scalia in part. On the other side, Justice Breyer wrote a dissenting opinion for himself, and Justice Kagan wrote a dissent joined by Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor.”

But to answer Williams’ question, there are a couple of reasons why people would object to an opening prayer.

The first reason is the pure belief of the separation of church and state. Though exceptions are continuously made in the legal community, the premise is that religion should be a personal endeavor, not a state proclamation or endorsement. The government shall not favor or proselytize one belief over another. It is a crucial and significant part of our American diversity. Believing in one god, several gods, no gods—or the flying spaghetti monster—is a right specifically granted to each American.

The second reason is in regards to the requirement of religious diversity in the opening prayer. Who decides which clergy is invited to offer a prayer? Will Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and Mormons and Hindus be invited?

Williams proclaimed, “We have different beliefs, but it comes down to believing in a God.”

What about those of us who do not believe in a god? What about Atheists, Agnostics and Humanists? I regret to inform Mr. Williams, but no identifiable belief (i.e. Agnostics, Humanists, etc.) is the fastest growing segment of the United States, numbering between 15-20 percent of the population. Although perhaps not considered a prayer, it offers the same promotion of humanistic values and kindness that religion is supposed to offer.

Wikipedia calls religion “a set of variously organized beliefs about the relationship between natural and supernatural aspects of reality, and the role of humans in this relationship.” Meeting that definition, I look forward to being invited to offer a Humanist opening as he promises to “show respect to all religions.”

But it would not be much of a story if Williams only stopped there.

Williams offered a detailed account of what brought him to his belief when challenged by a local editor who also suggested a motive of political opportunity.

While sympathetic to Williams’ family ordeal years ago, I was disturbed at his commitment to the “power of prayer.”

How many other families were with Williams at the hospital and made the same appeal to their god for their children? I understand that people look for and find god in moments of personal crisis and vulnerability as the only possible explanation—for both miraculous and tragic outcomes. But the reality is, an all-knowing, all powerful God could easily make this world far more kind and just—surely millions have prayed for that.

If people want to believe that their god really sits around and decides who wins lotteries and scores touchdowns at the expense of starving and sick children, then for them I pray for rational thought—or a kinder god.

I do not want to, or in any way enjoy, pointing out the contradictions, hypocrisy or irrational thought behind religious belief.  However, if an elected official, especially someone I voted for, is going to make the issue public—then I am afforded every right, even perhaps an obligation, as a constituent and former president of a Freethought group, to comment on the issue.

I do hope that Williams’ call to do God’s work is extended to help those in need—to reject greed, selfishness and cruelty.  And I look forward to his support of government measures aimed at helping the poor and those who need life’s essentials, such as healthcare and sustainable wages.

We live in a time when we need elected officials to understand sociology, economics, law and science—not in the power of religious rhetoric. There are people suffering and dying and until you can convince me that prayer works for them as well, I suggest that public time is better spent looking for more practical solutions. Prayer belongs in church or one’s personal time and not in government—it is the genius behind the principle of the separation of church and state.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

216. An open letter to Mother Nature

My Open Letter to Mother Nature:

Dear Mother Nature,

It is with great respect that I wish you, our ecologic provider and creator of all that is life, a warm and kind Earth Day.

You have given us beauty and wonder, with your picturesque landscapes and hidden secrets. You have given us millions of beautiful species of plants and animals, each with their own story and extraordinary evolutionary survival that has led to their existence today. You have given us music, poetry and literature, seemingly as a way to describe our experiences on this planet.

You have given us a chance to view the planets and stars of the universe, so that we might appreciate our distinctiveness and ponder extraterrestrial existence.  You have given us the mountains and oceans to relish in their design and challenges, and to prove that the earth lives and moves. You have made abundant fresh water and clean air, enough for millions of species to drink and breathe.

You have given us natural resources to build civilizations and the ability to travel great distances to engage in your splendor. You have given us the sun to keep us warm and grow our food. You have designed the most elegant of species, such as the hummingbird, dolphin, polar bear and tulip. You have offered us fruits, vegetables and grains so that we may live long healthy lives. You have built waterfalls and canyons to display your charm, wisdom and peak our curiosity.

The world is a beautiful place; you have given us so much. Our actions beg your forgiveness.

We pollute the air and clutter the oceans based on financial costs rather than environmental impact. We are responsible for the extinction of some of your most extraordinary plants and animals, as we terrorize those who inhibit our progress or luxury. We kill animals for their skin, fur or tusks, sometimes taking it from them while they are still alive. We fight wars and engage in terrorism over land, wealth, ideology, religion and mythology.

We slash and burn rainforests, depleting precious diversity to feed overpopulation or for short term profit. We warm the climate knowing of potentially grave consequences and then turn the science into a political issue. We treat animals as sport or superstition killing them as a trophy or as a matter of ritual. We enslave populations to search for diamonds and force child labor to pick our cocoa to materialize love and occasion. We take herds of animals captive and inject them with hormones and antibiotics to grow our food faster and cheaper.

We have created poverty and famine to preserve free markets, governments, dictators or royalty. We build bombs that not only kill our enemies but also the innocent for miles. We discriminate against those who look or talk or believe a little different based on archaic biases and prejudices. We cram animals into factory farms to increase earnings without regards for disease, environmental impact, health or cruelty. We have become a “throw away” society, burying our refuse and complications for you to handle.

Mother Nature, for all of mankind, I offer my most sincere apology and respectfully ask for just a bit more time. We feel your unhappiness in the form of hurricanes, tornado and extreme temperatures. We recognize that the cruelty that we eat is making us sick and unhealthy. We mourn the avoidable deaths and suffering. We understand that you are unhappy with us. We know we are running out of time.

Give us a few more generations and I trust we will figure it out. And if we have not, it probably means an end to man on Earth.  Such an occasion would certainly be worthy of another type of celebration, an eternal festival for those who have survived our wrath.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

215. Bracketology hurts NCAA

The NCAA Basketball Tournament, also known as “March Madness,” is a favorite among sports fans. With its “one and done” format, upsets, office pools and last second shots, the tournament is one of the most exciting sporting events of the year. It starts on the cusp of spring and takes sports fan to Opening Day in baseball.

As a sports fan, it has provided some special moments over the years. As both a Duke and Ohio State fan, I can easily recall many magical moments—from Duke’s upset of UNLV in 1991 and Christian  Laettner famous last second shot to Ohio State’s disappointing loss to Michigan’s Fab Five in 1992.

The purpose of the tournament, of course, serves to crown a national champion. The tournament invites 68 teams to participate and the winner usually must win at least six games in a row. And as exciting as it is, one question to be asked is whether this is the fairest way to determine the national champion.

Sports differ in the way they determine a national champion. Of major contention is the NCAA football championship, which was determined by the controversial and unpopular BCS system. Other leagues, like professional hockey, permit many teams into the playoffs—meanwhile professional baseball only recently added wild card teams.

The NFL, due to the physical demands of the sport, plays one game in which the winner advances toward the Super Bowl. The NBA and MLB often play best of seven series to determine the better team.

In determining a champion, regardless of the sport, there are two issues to be considered: which teams are permitted into the playoffs and how do those teams advance within the playoffs.

The general perception is that teams need to earn their way into the playoffs. The majority of games are played in the regular season and the teams that perform the best are selected for the playoffs. The regular season provides the largest sample of a team’s performance. Over the course of the season, in which everybody often plays everybody, in at least in their own division or conference, the aim is to determine who deserves to have the opportunity to play for a championship.

The playoffs are often regarded as being more intense, with the best against the best—conference/division champions facing off against one another.

March Madness fails on both fronts. First, it permits way too many teams into the tournament and secondly, the win or go home format, increases the odds that more deserving teams, based on regular season play, may stumble.

If you replayed the regular season, it stands to reason that the same team would win the regular season championship a majority of the time. But most conferences have a postseason tournament which permits all of the teams to play for a conference championship—and gain a berth in March Madness. The regular season, it turns out, only determines the seeding. On many occasions, the regular season champion does not win the conference tournament (and for some conferences, prohibits them from playing in March Madness).

Consider last year, Liberty University finished the regular season with a conference record of 6-10, tied for ninth place in a twelve team league. They won their conference tournament and were declared conference champion. For the others in their conference, the regular season meant nothing.

If March Madness was replayed 100 times, each time with slightly different seeding, you might get dozens of different outcomes. Consider if Michigan, who lost in the championship game last year, had been the number four seed in Louisville’s regional (which is somewhat arbitrary)—they would have met in the round of 16 and not the national championship game. How differently their season would have been judged.

A superior team always wants a larger sample size, and that is why the regular season should determine the conference champion.  And only those conference champions should be invited to the “Big Dance.” It is ridiculous that a team which finishes ninth in their conference is rewarded, based on one hot streak, with the chance to win a national championship.

The conference tournaments, and the NCAA Championship, are not optimally designed to determine a deserving champion. They are designed around money and excitement. Their popularity is based on the love the underdogs and sudden death tournament play.

But championships should not be arranged for the amusement of the fans, or the chance to win a billion dollars. “Bracketology” is sports talk out of control. And while the champion is usually a pretty good team, and likely deserving on its own merits—six wins in a row usually sorts out the fortunate—letting undeserving teams in the tournament distorts the intent of it all.

March Madness is such a fun and popular event that its shortcomings are often overlooked. With the best players leaving after a year and the decreased disparity between the best and worst teams—the games are closer than ever. It is a fun event; it is just not the fairest to determine a champion.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

214. Crony capitalism increases inequality

I don’t find myself agreeing with the Pope, or any other religious leader, on many issues other than a social and moral obligation to help others. And, in particular, I certainly have my reservations about many perspectives of the Catholic religion and the lack of accountability within their leadership over the last couple of decades.

However, I appreciate some of the values of Pope Francis—and I was particularly impressed with his assessment of the current state of our capitalistic system. His assessment recognizes that there are serious concerns with capitalism—the most significant concern being the increasing disparity in wealth.

True capitalism requires that society operates on a level-playing field. This means several things including an equal opportunity to enter the market and that everyone in the market play by the rules. The privileged enjoy significant advantages in terms of education, networking and capital. The connected are able to negotiate the political and legislative fields to create market advantages or secure corporate welfare benefits.

It’s like playing the game Monopoly with someone who owns half the board, has a large amount of cash and assumes the ability to change the rules—before the game even starts.

Cheaters ruin it for everyone and only inspire more of an incentive to cheat. Cheating eventually also inspires government regulation. Winners viciously compete for more market share by eliminating competition and making it more difficult for others to break into their markets. Enough never is and the winners enjoy exponential grow, while the working class fall further and further behind.

Pope Francis called this the “idolatry of money” at the expense of "dignified work, education and healthcare."

Putting this in proper perspective, Pope Francis asks, "How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?"

President Obama piggybacked the Pope’s comments and addressed the economical and societal consequences of a society so mired in an inequitable distribution of wealth.

"The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe," Obama said.

Robert Reich, who served under three presidents, connects the dots that have led to the economic disparity in our capitalistic system. These include the reality that:

almost all economic growth the last three decades have gone to the top
political power flows to the top
corporations and the very rich pay lower taxes and receive more corporate welfare
government budgets are increasingly squeezed
average Americans are competing with one another for slices of a shrinking pie

The deck is stacked and those who have “made it” sometimes both overestimate the work they did, the obstacles they overcame, and underestimate the “breaks” they had along the way. This isn’t meant to be a sweeping generalization—many people work very, very hard and deserve everything they have. However, many other people have worked very, very hard and not succeeded. Everyone can’t make it—it takes talent, hard work and, often, good fortune.

Thus the lie of capitalism is that everyone who works hard will be successful. People who have made it often say, “If I can do it, so can you,” or “you just have to believe” or “never give up.” It’s good advice; however, it’s a statistical inaccuracy. There are really only a few ways to become very wealthy — work in a professional field (actor, doctor, lawyer, athlete, etc.), growth through financial investment (which requires money to invest), as a successful entrepreneur (usually requires investment and labor of others) and by inheritance or lottery.

Obama summarized in his own way, "It's rooted in the nagging sense that no matter how hard they work, the deck is stacked against them. And it's rooted in the fear that their kids won't be better off than they were.”

A timely example was the recently released statistics detailing the extraordinary gains made by billionaires in 2013. Warren Buffett led the list by increasing his wealth $12.7 billion—that’s over $30 million per day! For the very wealthy, capitalistic growth is exponential, a simple concept that escapes most who defend its principles. The top 1% earns money easier and faster— and continues to own a ridiculous 35% of the country’s total wealth.

What Buffett profited this year would have employed over 250,000 individuals at $50,000 last year. I doubt that Buffett “worked” any harder than he did last year. His growth is simply the result of exponential growth in investment—on the backs of millions of corporate employees (who often struggle to make it on their salaries and live in fear of layoffs).    

Income inequality is an eventual inherent result of capitalism. Some of it is by design, those who “deserve” more, get more—but the exponential difference is the result of “unfettered capitalism” as the Pope called it.

The frustration is boiling over, yet many continue to miss the point—deeply dedicated to defending capitalism.  Corporations, CEOs and their shareholders continue to get a pass—and we keep electing the politicians who serve their interest.

Reich writes, “Native-born Americans are threatened by new immigrants; private sector workers are resentful of public employees; non-unionized workers are threatened by the unionized; middle class Americans are competing with the poor. Rather than feel that we’re in it together, we increasingly have the sense that each of us is on his or her own.”

We need a better system, a fairer system—a “modified capitalism.”

Unfortunately, there are really only a couple of mechanisms that will inspire greater wealth equalities—and it starts with compassion and a demand on our political leadership.

"I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor," Pope Francis said.

Unfortunately, I think the Pope is right—it’ll take nothing less than divine intervention to make things right.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

213. Do any of us really have free will?

Working in association with the addiction field, and dealing with my own attraction to food, I have often thought about the concept of free will. Does free will really exist, and, if so, on what level? Attacking the concept of free will, addiction separates mental and physical urges from consequences—as well as those who conquer their addiction and those who remain enslaved to it. Whatever the case, it is surely more than just a matter of having a little “will power.”

I recently enjoyed Sam Harris’s book on free will. Less than 100 pages long, Harris, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and is best known for his book, The End of Faith, makes the argument that free will is an illusion. From neuroscience specifics such as the milliseconds between the brain’s activities and when an individual actually makes a decision to the ramifications of free will from religious, moral and political perspectives, Free Will certainly inspires thought on the issue.

Perhaps generally defined as having the conscious ability to control one’s actions, most individuals believe they have free will. Distinctly, there is a difference in the ability to make a conscious decision, that is, to overcome biological programming or environmental influence, and the ability to do what may be physically impractical or impossible.

So the question is: What do we really have control over? Our genes are assigned to us, as well as or parents.  Most of our experiences, particularly when we are young, are chosen for us. The environment we grow up in, not only from socio-economic background but also our religious and cultural upbringing, defines and shapes our thought processes. Can we change our perspectives, or are they already ingrained in us—or if we can change our perspectives, is it preciously because of our experiences?

Harris suggests, “. . .  the idea that as conscious beings we are deeply responsible for the character of our mental lives and subsequent behavior is simply impossible to map into reality. Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions and you would need to have complete control over those factors.”

“Choices, efforts, intentions and reasoning influence our behavior—but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control. My choices matter—and there are paths toward making wiser ones—but I cannot chose what I choose,” Harris described.

And for those who think they “could have done things differently,” Harris explains that this is “. . .  an empty affirmation. It confuses hope for the future with an honest account of the past.”

This premise is, however, different from that which happens to us, and the fatalistic premise of divine fate—or that “everything happens for a reason.” Of course, if one believes in the latter, that things “happens for reason,” then one should probably believe in the lack of free will—for those “reasons” are defined in advance and not conveniently postulated or assigned after the fact.

Obviously, equipped with an outcome, particularly a poor outcome, one can either admit that he or she made the wrong decision or ordain it to be deterministic.  But knowing the outcome and the idea that one “would do things differently,” does not suggest free will—for at the same time in one’s life, with the knowledge available at the time, no other decision could be made (unless perhaps we’re bumbling around in parallel universes).

Of considerable debate is the impact of free will on religion and morality. Of particular importance is the treatment of those who break our moral and societal codes. If free will is an illusion, then the question is what level of responsibility should be attached to an individual who breaks the law. Harris provides a continuum of situations for accountability—depending on age, socio-economics and biology. Although the volitional acts are identical, society often acknowledges the circumstances of the situation and the perceived amount of free will involved.

Free will is also a critical concept and dividing line in politics. “Liberals tend to understand that a person can be lucky or unlucky in all matter relevant to his success. Conservatives, however, make a religious fetish of individualism. Many seem to have absolutely no awareness of how fortunate one must be to succeed at anything in life, no matter how hard one works,” Harris surmises.

The concept of “Free Will” will remain to be controversial from a number of disciplines. Its implications on society are far-reaching and dividing—its circular reasoning, and the attempt to separate the conscious from the unconscious, is difficult to conceptualize. Fortunately, you are free to draw your own conclusions—or are you?