Exclusive to the West of Twin Peaks Observer
When is Time Up?
It seems as though life is filled with time limits. They are the expression of entropy in a finite world. Everything that begins must end. But how do we know when that is?
This question is coming up with greater frequency of late.
In Oakland, a 13 year-old child died unexpectedly from complications during a tonsillectomy. She was pronounced absolutely brain dead by three top neurologists. Her body was kept alive mechanically. The family felt that since she was still warm, she was still alive and should be kept that way by hospital staff until the child regains consciousness. There was no way that would ever happen. They went to court to force the hospital to keep the dead child alive at hospital and taxpayer expense. After several court-ordered delays, the court finally allowed the hospital to do the obvious and take the dead teen off life support. The family has been able to keep her on life support at an undisclosed location and are petitioning for the State to pay to keep her on this support forever by declaring her not dead.
We have hundreds of thousands of people suffering in hospitals and nursing homes unable to take care of themselves and with no chance of ever improving. We have tens of thousands of people on end life dialysis, being kept alive daily with painful treatments which when ended result in almost immediate death. All dialysis costs are paid by taxpayers. Euthanasia is still illegal in most states.”
In Florida, a misguided hospital staff insisted a brain dead pregnant woman, whose fetus was 14 weeks old, must be kept alive until the baby can be born, going against the wishes of the family. A court finally ruled that the hospital staff had no idea what they were doing and ordered the woman taken off life support. The hospital then asked the family to pay the costs of keeping the woman alive against their wishes.
Years ago Congress got involved in a case of a brain dead woman kept alive for 15 years because her parents wanted her to recover. When she was finally taken off of life support, an autopsy was conducted. It found there was nothing left of her brain. The deceased was completely empty headed.
Thanks to the marvels of modern medicine, we are able to live much longer. Heart blockages leading to heart attacks can be opened while totally blocked arteries can be replaced. People with heart conditions can get bypasses, pacemaker/defibrillator implants, mechanical hearts and even new hearts through transplant. Most of our organs can now be replaced. Cancer fighting drugs have been developed that can target cancer cells and destroy them. Work is being done to replace external parts like ears, noses, arms and legs.
We have hundreds of thousands of people suffering in hospitals and nursing homes unable to take care of themselves and with no chance of ever improving. We have tens of thousands of people on end life dialysis, being kept alive daily with painful treatments which when ended result in almost immediate death. All dialysis costs are paid by taxpayers. Euthanasia is still illegal in most states.
The majority of national healthcare costs are for people in the very end of their lives in order for them to cheat death, our ultimate fear, just a little bit longer.
It is now the same with our favorite pets. While dogs used to last only a few years 50 years ago, with many killed prematurely in traffic accidents or by natural causes like cancer and heart disease, many now live well into their teens. Pet owners will spend thousands to fight their pet’s cancer or heart disease or to provide devices to enable their loyal furry friend to walk or, at least, roll. Dog owners are now finding themselves having to decide when their beloved canine must die. It is very painful decision and one that is put off as long as possible.
And end dates don’t only apply to living creatures. When should a T.V. series end? Did The Sopranos, Seinfeld, X Files, Human Target, Fairly Legal, Covert Affairs, Body of Proof, et al, have to end so soon? When should a public policy end as we saw with affirmative action, school busing, segregated schools, discrimination against gays in the military and the military draft? These are difficult but necessary planning decisions.
Now we face new decisions about end dates.
When should we get out of Afghanistan? The vast majority of Americans say “immediately.” But those who fought and sacrificed there want to see our troops remain for as long as ten more years to make sure that all they accomplished with 12 years of war would not be lost.
When should we have ended the extension of unemployment benefits to those who had already received benefits for more than six months? The extension expired in December, 2013 and has not been renewed. Should the extended benefits have been allowed to end when the unemployment had fallen to 5.5% from a high of almost 10%? We sometimes forget, and are never reminded, that under the best of economic circumstances, the unemployment will be between 4 and 5%, meaning millions of Americans will always be unemployed.
When should a relationship end? How do we know that it is really irreconcilable? Should couples stay together for the sake of the children or would everyone be better off if the two parted?
In today’s journalism the question has been when should coverage of a story end. Clearly some stories go on much longer than they should because they help raise advertising revenues. We see this with natural disasters and perverse political stories as well as juicy crime sagas.
The media has been covering the ongoing protests near St. Louis since August, 2014. The people have been rioting and protesting about the death of a young man who was killed by a police officer after the young man had robbed a convenience store and tried to kill the officer who stopped him for the offense. The media has kept this disaster alive, not knowing when to stop covering it, giving fuel to this out-of-control fire of civil disobedience, mass looting, and destruction.
Some reporters and columnists seem so taken with their own verbiage that they extend their columns well past the needed length not wanting to end the experience. Not so with this column. It ends here.
They say that talk is cheap, but is our speech actually free?
Lately, this freedom here and abroad has been tested.
Several weeks ago a French paper, known for being at the edge of free speech, published cartoons that were much more offensive than they were funny. They ridiculed Islam by showing depictions of the prophet being vulgar. They knew that some of the five million Muslims living in France might be offended but did it anyway because they were free to do so. Free speech was described by France’s President as being at the very core of French culture, along with equality and fraternity. Everyone must be free to say or write whatever they want. The French people gathered to demonstrate their support for this freedom with an estimated 3.7 million in attendance.
The Muslim comedian was arrested. Apparently, in France, some speech is more free than other speech. His comments on his Facebook page were not free but came with a cost - jail.”
A few days later, a black French Muslim comedian posted some remarks on Facebook that were sympathetic to the Muslim terrorists who killed 17 people in response to the cartoons. The Muslim comedian was arrested. Apparently, in France, some speech is more free than other speech. His comments on his Facebook page were not free but came with a cost - jail.
Then the Pope, believed to be infallible, denounced the vicious, murderous attacks but also reminded us that there are limits to free speech. It is not acceptable to use free speech to insult someone else’s religion. Then he went on to say that if an acquaintance said something bad about the Pope’s mother, now long gone, Il Papa would hit him in the face. The Pope would punch someone in the face for exercising his free speech? The Pope? But aren’t we taught to turn the other cheek when offended? Is he saying that if someone offends us that we have a right to strike out violently? Really?
We see the mainstream media selectively showing and telling us the news, unwilling to tell the whole story for fear of losing a share of the audience and, therefore, advertising revenue, the life blood of the media, by fully exercising their free speech. This selective, sensational, superficial and subjective reporting of controversial issues like illegal immigration, poverty, violence, homelessness, inequality, race relations, religion and terrorism squanders their gift of free speech, resulting in less meaningful presentation, discussion and understanding. This makes those of us dependent on a free press in order to better understand the world, and perhaps help improve it, deprived of information and insight, and less able to think deeply about important issues. It makes us tend to be more selective, sensational, superficial and subjective as well, and less willing or able to find solutions to these important issues. And I think it also makes us more violent.
So maybe speech isn’t really free but has a price.
When an old, somewhat demented man exercised his free speech in a private conversation in his own home with his young assistant/mistress by telling her that he objected to the people she was hanging out with and didn’t want them coming to his basketball team’s home games, he was outed and vilified. Never mind that his privacy was violated by taping and then selling the private conversation to a sensation - hungry media. He was sanctioned by the NBA, fined and forced to sell his team. His privacy was not private and his free speech was not free.
When we learned that a famous Southern cooking maven had once testified during a deposition to using a word the begins with the letter between M and O, we rose up as one and insisted that she be punished severely for that one use of a forbidden word, a word we are not free to speak. It cost her millions of dollars as once-loyal sponsors dropped her as though she was on fire.
When we learned that a recently-hired CEO of a large internet server company had used his free speech to make a campaign contribution of $1,000 to a California initiative that won majority support but not ours, we wanted him fired. How dare he use his constitutionally guaranteed right to support something many of us are against? He resigned. His speech wasn’t free.
At the 50th anniversary of the free speech movement on college campuses which began at our own U.C. Berkeley, some of its students wanted to deny a famous liberal comedian the right to speak at their commencement ceremony because, although he is the champion of liberal causes, he had spoken out against religion and Islam in particular. They did not agree with his views on one subject, and so these young, liberal college students decided him to be unfit to address them. He disregarded their objections and came and gave a speech about being a liberal to a group who knew liberal all too well.
So perhaps we can say it’s like The Animal Farm, in which all were equal but some were more equal than others. We believe in free speech even when it is offensive to some, as long as we are not offended by it and are not at risk of paying a price for it. Say something that many don’t want to hear, even if true, and you find that your words will have a real cost. And those who most adamantly defend free speech and tolerance will restrict it if it seems in opposition to their position, by giving the free speakers a label making them seem intolerable and without authority.
How much will your free speech cost?
Hopes and Expectations -
Gratitude and Entitlement
A few years ago, comedian Lewis Black had a routine about our expectations. The upshot was that we should start lowering our expectations.
We should lower our expectations of our elected representatives with Congress hitting a new low of 9% approval rating. Rather than serve the public, many politicians want to serve their party even if it hurts the country as a whole.
We have been forced to lower our expectations of organized religion with years of revelations about the corruption of the Catholic Church and the violent misunderstanding of Islam by millions of its believers.
President Obama campaigned on the prospect of hope. He said that we can hope for a better future that includes greater prosperity for a larger share of the population. The optimism he espoused has drowned in a sea of partisanship, ego, and limited intellect.”
We have been forced to lower our expectations about our banking sector after the unbridled greed of Wall Street traders led to the near collapse of our economy in 2008.
We have been disappointed in our public education system, losing our confidence that students will get an excellent education that will prepare them to succeed in the future. It seems that families that can afford it are putting their children in private or parochial schools rather than having them suffer through years of inadequate education.
We have had expectations of our mainstream media. We expected them to be objective, thorough and responsible. Instead we find subjective, sensationalist and superficial reporting. We didn’t expect stories to drag on daily for weeks and months with the very coverage inciting the news segment. Coverage of the four month-long protest riots in St. Louis is just the latest example. It’s as though the press is saying “giving us more dirt for our report. The more outlandish the better, the longer the better.”
And it’s gotten down to the individual level. We have been disappointed by our colleagues, employers, friends, acquaintances and family members. Promises are broken and truth gets lost in the shuffle. It seems that we no longer know what to expect or whom to trust.
A recent poll taken by the media asked Americans if they still believe in the American dream. Half of those surveyed said “no.” We’ve lowered our expectations.
President Obama campaigned on the prospect of hope. He said that we can hope for a better future that includes greater prosperity for a larger share of the population. The optimism he espoused has drowned in a sea of partisanship, ego, and limited intellect.
I have realized that expectations can lead to disappointment because we are not all the same. We do not share the same values and beliefs or cultural identification. Our goals and objectives are different, as are our talents, abilities and ethics. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” ( creating an expectation and possible disappointment) should be changed to “do unto others in the hope that they will do that unto you, but without expectation of that happening,” saving you a lot of unnecessary, but predicable, disappointment.
While we are told of the advantage of diversity, we are painfully aware of its many downsides. Remember the Tower of Babble. It was not created to make humans more productive. It was not a reward.
I have decided to cultivate hope and I believe that expectations are to entitlement (if not disappointment) as hope is to gratitude.
I hope for the best in everything I do but have no expectations.
Having had a very successful career as an analyst, I send suggestions to our representatives in the hopes that they will read them and use them to help the affected population. But I don’t expect them to even read them. I would be grateful if they did, but I don’t feel that I am entitled to their attention.
I have suggested a way to avoid the massive foreclosures that occurred in 2008 and continued for years. I could not get a response from any of our representatives, even though my idea would have saved thousands of people their homes and would have prevented, or at least eased, the collapse in housing values. I now believe that they knew my idea but wanted to give billions to homeowners. (I wrote to the CEO of the largest lender with my idea. He had the executive in charge of the bank’s mortgage program respond, telling me that that option had been available from the start, but it was never mentioned or publicized. That was unexpected.)
I have recently suggested a way to save the Affordable Care Act by eliminating the need for it to be mandatory for individuals, have penalties for non-compliance, or provide tax credits to subsidize the insurance companies by allowing them to charge higher rates knowing that the customer will get a tax rebate. My idea is so obvious and so much better than the current plan you would think that the many great minds that engineered this important legislation would have also come up with it. Yet, I still hope that a decision maker will read my plan and make good use of it. But I don’t expect it. Just because I am a constituent and supporter, a taxpayer and a neighbor, I don’t feel myself entitled to their response, but I’d sure appreciate it.
I write a column and a blog that is also available on Facebook. I write in the hope of helping people by stimulating thought and conversation about issues that I think are important. I hope that people will read and appreciate my ideas. But I don’t expect it. I would hope to get feedback from my readers and am grateful when I do. I don’t think that I am entitled to thoughtful response from my audience.
I hope that this very column will be read and be helpful to a number of people.
Saving the Affordable Care Act
In what is called President Obama’s most important legislation, the Affordable Care Act has been under constant fire. The House voted 54 times to end it. The GOP shut down the government trying to kill it. Recent polls show that the majority of the American people are against it. It is cited as part of the reason the Democrats lost control of the House in the 2010 election and then of the Senate in 2014.
The individual mandate should be dropped, and also the fines for non-compliance. People should be able to keep whatever coverage they currently have, and those without any coverage do not need to buy it if they don’t want to.”
The Affordable Care Act was developed to curb the abuses of the medical insurance industry. Individuals needing health care coverage not available to them through their employers, or through a federal program like Medicare or Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California), had to apply to the healthcare insurance companies operating in their area. People found to have had pre-existing medical conditions were faced with very high, almost unaffordable policy options. Companies also asked questions about behavior, such as whether someone smoked cigarettes or marijuana, whether one drank and how much, and about any previous medical conditions. even if they were no longer a problem. The companies would then raise their rates accordingly.
Insurance companies also had caps limiting the amount of claims they would accept. If the patient cost them too much, they could discontinue their coverage.
As many as 50 million Americans were thought to be without any medical coverage. When illness became too much to ignore, many would wind up in the emergency rooms of their local hospitals, making the cost of their treatment even greater. Some could not pay for their treatment, theoretically making everyone pay a little more to make up for the loss.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) came up with a solution. Let individuals without insurance sign up for it through a health exchange in their state. The exchange would let all the health care carriers bid to get the business. This would make their rates more competitive. The companies could not ask about pre-existing medical conditions or lifestyle questions. They had to accept all applicants. But in order for this to work for the insurers, everyone had to get coverage. To ensure that everyone got coverage, fines would be imposed on those who elected to not sign up. Hopefully, with everyone getting coverage, there would be enough healthy applicants to make up for the unhealthy ones who would be sure to sign up.
In order to ensure that everyone could afford coverage, the government promised to give tax credits to those with insufficient means. Those with almost no money would be transferred to the Medicaid program where they would get coverage for free, if they met certain other criteria.
We were told that those who do not sign up are being irresponsible, causing the rest of us to pay for their medical care if it is ever needed.
But many people objected. Why should the young and healthy, who might not need or want medical coverage, have to subsidize the unhealthy? Why should people be forced to buy insurance they don’t need? And why are some people getting tax credits? Will this be like the Earned Income Credit which has a fraud rate of about $11 billion a year? And does the government have the right to fine or tax the public for non-compliance?
Now that the GOP controls both chambers, it is likely they will try again to force the President to end the ACA.
I think that I have come up with a way to make everyone happy.
First, keep all the favorable parts of ACA, including allowing children under 26 to be on their parents’ plan, having no caps, and having state exchanges to bring all the available companies in a competition for this once-captive audience. The mandate that businesses of a certain size must offer health insurance to its employees who work at least a certain number of hours a week should remain, as would federal coverage still be available to those who cannot afford coverage at all.
The individual mandate should be dropped, and also the fines for non-compliance. People should be able to keep whatever coverage they currently have, and those without any coverage do not need to buy it if they don’t want to. In return, the private insurers bidding in the state exchanges can reject any applicant with serious, long term, and well-documented medical conditions like cancer, heart disease, kidney failure, liver disease, pancreatitis, and AIDS. They could not consider past injuries, alcohol or tobacco use, etc., just the agreed-upon serious pre-existing conditions. Those rejected for serious conditions would be immediately transferred to the federal program, just like those with insufficient income are, except these people would have the same share of cost as they would have through the exchange if they were healthy.
Since private carriers would have no new policies with serious medical pre-existing conditions, they would not need everyone to enroll to make money. And since people would buy insurance only if they chose to, and since there would be no federal subsidy through tax credits, the insurers would have to lower their rates to be competitive. Income would not be an issue unless the person were close to indigent and therefore also eligible for federal medical coverage, but with no deductible.
But what about the argument that those who choose to go without insurance are being irresponsible? Is a person who keeps himself healthy and never needs medical services irresponsible? If he does need to see a doctor, he will have to pay for it. How is that irresponsible? On the other hand, if a person abuses his body with excessive food, alcohol, tobacco and/or drugs, but has coverage and makes use of it regularly, is he responsible? Does he not cost the ratepayer and the taxpayer more than the person who takes care of himself and needs little medical attention?
I think that with these changes, most of the objections to ACA will disappear and the vast majority of our people will embrace it - even Republicans.
Reducing Income Inequality
Much is being written of late about the great gap between the haves and have nots to the point that it will soon be the “have everythings” and the “have nothings except debts.” Or, as I like to say, the rich are too rich and the poor are too poor. There is little disagreement among economists and pundits that this growing disparity is not good for the affected people or for the country’s economy. The best-selling book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by a French economist, predicts the problem will only get worse as the financial markets outperform production. Since those with the most capital profit most from financial investments, one suggestion is to heavily tax capital. Another suggestion is to heavily tax high income earners and redistribute the income to the poor and/or the middle class.
I have a much simpler plan that is comprised of four changes that both liberals and conservatives could live with: dramatically improve public K-12 education for every student; increase the minimum wage and therefore the wages above as well; change the tax code, eliminating all itemized deductions and credits on all sources of personal income which will all be equally taxable; and lower the maximum amount not subject to inheritance tax.
The truth is that we are not only not created equal, we are also not created to be the same and accomplish the same goals.”
Everyone surely agrees that a good education is an important factor in future success. It is also clear that many of our students are not getting a good education, in part because of large class sizes, in part because of family socio-economic problems affecting the children. But I think another much neglected part is a lack of relevance many high school courses have for students. School curricula are no longer tailored to student needs and differences. Students are no longer tested and evaluated to find the coursework to which they are best suited.
The truth is that we are not only not created equal, we are also not created to be the same and accomplish the same goals. A great scientist might not be a good philosopher as proven by almost every scientist. An acclaimed artist might not be good at math.
Many of us were required to take three levels of algebra and a year of plane geometry and trigonometry in high school. Some students even took calculus. How many of us ever used them or can still do them? Students are still urged to take at least three years of science including biology, chemistry and physics. How many will ever use their knowledge or even remember most of it? Students who will go on to study science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) will need and enjoy these courses. But others might profit more from courses in Latin, philosophy, social science, economics, crafts or even from actual apprenticeships. By testing students for their aptitude, and by providing excellent survey courses in junior high in math and science, and with smaller classes, teachers can identify student interests and talents. The result will be better educated students and future parents, and more responsible community members. Well educated girls have fewer children they can’t afford. Well educated boys are more likely to be employed and less likely to commit crime.
Conservatives want to see a reduction in the amount the government spends on transfer payments to low income households, and an increase in the number of households that contribute to the tax base. Liberals want to see low income workers paid a decent, living wage. By increasing the minimum wage from its current $7.25 per hour to $10 an hour almost immediately and to $15 an hour in five or ten years, the average affected workers’ income would initially rise by almost 50%. Those supervising the minimum wage earners would also see pay increases as would those above them. Even wage earners in other fields would see upward adjustments to their pay as well. Companies could raise their charges for goods and services to cover their increased labor costs but would be restricted by competition and reduced demand, thus holding down inflationary pressure.
The other effect would be a significant reduction in transfer payments, such as the annual $65 billion Earned Income Credit, the $80 billion Food Stamps program (SNAP), as well as the many rent and utility subsidies that will be no longer needed by the more prosperous former recipients. The tens of billions saved by the reduced transfer payments could be used to help the very poor find their way back into the mainstream. And more households would earn enough to pay income taxes, thus broadening the tax base. The better paid workers would also be less likely to commit crime and therefore reducing the prison population with all its related costs. With workers earning more they will spend more which will create more new jobs also enlarging the tax base. The trust funds for Social Security and Medicare, FICA, would also be greatly enriched.
Conservatives want to see a lowering of marginal tax rates on their personal income. Liberals want the rich to pay more and not use loopholes to lower their taxable income. The government would like to see a reduction in tax fraud and an increase in tax revenue. By changing the tax code to eliminate all itemized deductions and credits and replacing them with a generous standard deduction (e.g. $15,000 for individuals and $30,000 for families), it would force the wealthiest to pay more in taxes without access to any loopholes. (Currently, two out of three taxpayers just use a standard deduction.) By so doing the maximum tax rate could actually be lowered to 35% for incomes over a million (down from 39.5% for income over $400,000), meaning that 99.9% of all taxpayers would pay less than 30% of their income for federal income tax while many would pay as little as 5%. While currently 47% of the population pay no income tax, under the new system more would pay taxes and the rich would pay almost 30% of their actual income in federal tax (in addition to state income tax and FICA). With more taxes collected involving much less paperwork and verification and much less fraud, the government would gain hundreds of billions of dollars some of which could be used to provide better educational opportunities to the less fortunate as well as improving the infrastructure and creating needed public service jobs, especially in K-12 staffing. It would take taxpayers only a few minutes to compute the tax payment. They would just add up all their income and then look that figure up in the tax table. The tax could even be computed by the IRS since it would know all income from W-2s and 1099s and would have no deductions or credits to verify. The IRS could then focus on tax returns for the businesses and self-employed who would still claim business expense deductions.
Finally, the ceiling for tax-free inheritance should be lowered from the current $10 million ($5 million per parent), to a maximum of $5 million all told. This would have an obvious impact on the accumulation of capital and would provide yet another source of revenue that could be used for the public good.
While there can and should not ever be absolute income equality, for me the goal should be to have a nation of two classes for 99.9% of us - the middle, with a two wage earner family earning a minimum of $60,000 a year ($15 per hour times 2,000 hours per year times two wage earners) and upper middle with incomes up to $1 million but netting as little as $600,000.
What to Do with Our Uninvited Guests
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently voted unanimously to invite and help recent immigrants who were caught trying to enter America illegally. The Board wants to sponsor 200-300 needy immigrants each month. More recently, the Board authorized the expenditure of $100,000 per month for two years to pay for lawyers to represent recent immigrants intent on proving that they and anyone coming here illegally should be able to stay. Our undocumented residents are living here because of a sanctuary policy that was created to aid refugees from El Salvador’s bloody scenes in the 1980’s. The policy just kept expanding to cover everyone here illegally, allowing them to live here without any fear of deportation, and with every possible social service available to them.
San Francisco is also the home of more than 6,000 homeless. We are spending approximately $30,000 a year per homeless person (that equals $2,500 a month or $80+ a day) to house, feed and provide medical care for this needy population, and still have more than half living in the streets and in our parks, relieving themselves wherever they can.
The City of St. Francis is known as the most liberal and generous major city in the country and perhaps the world. Many of our residents are doing very well economically. We have more billionaires per capita and per square mile than any other city in the world. We can afford to pay our workers well, even those here without permission. Nannies, housekeepers, construction workers, landscapers and dog walkers here without authorization make about $25-$30 an hour. Most of these workers pay no payroll or income tax, and so net more than does the average American.
But San Franciscans are not the only Americans who want to help our new, uninvited guests. Many Americans realize how lucky we are to live here and bemoan the fact that so many people cannot live as we do. Many of us feel a sense of noblesse oblige and want to help these unfortunate people whose only fault was being from a poor, corrupt, violent, and unhealthy country and culture. Some of us don’t even blame the leaders of these countries for their people’s poverty, nor their culture, beliefs and practices. We choose to blame outside sources. Some of us want to blame America and other successful countries for these poor countries’ failures, even though their problems go back hundreds of years. In any case, we want to help the helpless innocent.
For the past several years, tens of thousands of people have migrated from Central America to find a better life. And although the rate of poverty is declining in Latin America as it is in many parts of the world, we are told that these people still live in poverty in countries like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where the average wage is less than $1,000 a year. They must pay $7,000 to $10,000 to have a family member brought here the 1500 miles without invitation. (We have never asked how these impoverished people were able to save so much.) We now have what is being called a “humanitarian crisis” resulting from a “broken immigration system.” What should be done with these tens of thousands of new interlopers? Can we send them back to suffer in their native lands? Can we help them here in our great nation?
The United States of America is, without a doubt, the richest in the world. We have the largest gross domestic product and the largest annual budget. But we also have some problems. We have an accumulated federal debt of more than $17 trillion, adding half a trillion dollars in annual deficits to that amount each year. More than 10 million of our people are unemployed. Job seekers without a high school diploma make up a large share of our long term unemployed. Many of these applicants are Latino or black. They cannot find entry level jobs because many are taken by the eight million people already working here illegally.
Fifty million Americans live in poverty, relying on the government for their basic needs; many are blacks or Latinos.
But still we want to help the poor from other lands. There are more than three billion people living in abject poverty all over the world, including 2.5 billion living on less than $2 a day while America’s poor live on as little as $40 per day. In Latin America, there are more than 165 million people living in desperate poverty (29% of the population); the vast majority would much rather live in America with its population of 300 million.
But America has only 53% of its 116 million households that can afford to pay any income tax at all, meaning that about 61 million families must pay for the needs of 320 million Americans and 10+ million illegal immigrants already living here. Can they also be asked to support the many new immigrants who lack the education, intellect, and training to support themselves in this new land? If they stay, they will become totally our responsibility for generations. We must educate them, treat their healthcare needs, and find shelter for them as well as good-paying jobs.
So what is the solution? Can we turn our backs on the tens of millions of Latin Americans who must suffer lives of poverty and violence in countries riddled with corruption? Can we accommodate these people in our rich country even if it means doing less for the poor Americans living in our country?
We can and must completely secure our borders and our Visa system. We should eliminate the temptation to take a long, dangerous, and expensive journey to gain illegal entry.
Then, I think that the answer lies with the countries from which so many citizens want to leave. While I am against most of our foreign aid which too often goes to corrupt governments and makes even decent ones dependent upon our continued largesse, I believe that it is in our national and regional interest to help our neighbors to the south. The aid should not be in the form of weapons systems, or money that usually goes to the powerful. The aid should be in the form of advisors. We should advise on education, which will be the foundation for future development in these underdeveloped nations. We should provide guidance for business development and management, and for developing government systems to discourage the fraud and corruption so rampant in these countries. We can help set up checks and balances in the various arms of government. And we can help educate the population on the merits and necessity of birth control. If you are too poor to feed yourself, you probably should not be having children.
PBS recently did a piece on the poverty in Central America by telling the story of one family. The mother was a woman who appeared to be about 60-very difficult-years old. She had hardly any teeth and lived in squalor. She had six children who were malnourished, causing them to be much smaller than normal and with diminished intellectual capacities. The youngest was less than a year old. As with all such reports, the reporter did not ask the obvious questions: why did this seemingly very old woman have six children and how could the youngest be a baby? The answer must be that the woman was not 60 but just a very old 50 and that she had kids she could not afford because someone had sex with her many times without benefit of contraception. If the poor in Central America could stop having children they could not feed, it would dramatically reduce poverty in that region.
If more Latin American governments could find ways to dramatically change their cultures and values, they could slowly work their way out of poverty. Brazil is doing that now in South America. Costa Rica and Panama are finding ways to change for the better in Central America. Mexico has also seen great improvement in living standards in the past 20 years. Countries like Guatemala and Honduras produce healthy food crops, but are forced to export most of it leaving their people with diets of rice and beans. Women are treated badly by their men. The non-white populations, though in majority, are treated as second class citizens, with most of the leaders being of pure Spanish heritage. These are some of the areas where cultural changes are needed in Central and South America.
But it should not only be America who comes to the rescue of our southern neighbors. There are more than 190 other countries in our world, including 34 Latin American countries that are joined in the Organization of American States. This organization should be instrumental in helping not only these tens of thousands of recent refugees return to find safety in their own region, but also aiding all those who are suffering there now, as well as helping the millions who are without legal authority living in the States return to their beloved homelands with reason to hope for a brighter future. The United Nations can play a large role in guiding these organizations toward constructive change.
This same formula of organizational and cultural change could be applied to those suffering from the same issues in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Recent surveys on homelessness have found that there are approximately 600,000 homeless people in America; that New York City has 60,000 and San Francisco has about 6,400 single individuals and families living without a permanent residence. Another study found that different cities had various percentages of homeless living on the streets. San Francisco only houses 2700 of its homeless population, though it has and pays for enough housing units for 6,855 people/families at a cost of $165 million per year ($124 million from city and county money, the rest from federal or state contributions), which includes some counseling services and an additional 2,000 emergency shelter beds. This figure does not include city costs for medical care and does not include charitable efforts to provide food and shelter to San Francisco’s homeless. When these costs are added, the total that is spent annually on our 6,000+ homeless is more than $200 million or more than $30,000 per homeless person per year and yet more than half of them (3400 - 4300 people) are sleeping on sidewalks and under bridges.
There are many good people working hard to help the homeless. The city has a program to coordinate with non-profits to find more residential opportunities for the needy. Good work is being done in the Tenderloin and the Mission to convert some sleazy hotels into attractive and safe homes for those so in need of them.”
Every neighborhood now has homeless people sleeping on park benches or city sidewalks; raiding garbage cans for bits of food or recyclable bottles and cans; relieving themselves in public; using public bathrooms for bathing; dressed in rags and suffering in ways the rest of us could not bear nor should anyone have to. Many of the homeless here have health problems that only get worse with neglect. They wind up at San Francisco General Hospital needing in-patient or out-patient treatment for serious conditions like AIDS, cancer, diabetes, kidney failure, liver damage, pancreatitis or heart disease. Many suffer the effects of years of substance abuse.
There are many good people working hard to help the homeless. The city has a program to coordinate with non-profits to find more residential opportunities for the needy. Good work is being done in the Tenderloin and the Mission to convert some sleazy hotels into attractive and safe homes for those so in need of them. Charitable organizations are providing clothing and free food to thousands of people each day. Citizens are generously donating their clothing to non-profits and charities to clothe this population. The staff at San Francisco General provide excellent medical care to their homeless patients.
But none of this is enough. What should be done?
I have an idea.
The homeless could first go to the soon-to-be old San Francisco General Hospital to apply for assistance. There they could be identified with basic information like name, birthdate, place of birth, Social Security number and any known medical information. Some might be missing from friend and family who would like to help them. Some might need immediate medical attention. Each person should get a complete physical, a warm shower or bath and a hot, tasty meal. While at SFGH, they can get clean clothing selected from the very large inventory already at the facility.
If the individuals are deemed to be permanently disabled or aged, eligibility workers at SFGH should evaluate whether they are eligible to government aid such as VA, OASDI, SSI, Medi-Cal and/or food stamps. These people could then be placed at Laguna Honda’s old, now vacant hospital. It has capacity of more than 300 beds. It was closed when the new facility was built. The new one is more earthquake safe. The old one has never lost a patient to earthquake and probably never will. Patients here die on their own since they have advanced conditions that are often terminal.
If the individuals applying for homeless assistance are temporarily disabled, they could soon be housed at the old SFGH when the new hospital is completed next year. SFGH could house 300 temporarily disabled people providing them with a safe comfortable room and bathroom as well as medical attention to bring them back to health. SFGH also has a large kitchen and dining room to feed the patients and even has small lunchrooms on every floor that could be available to them.
If the individuals are deemed employable, with no serious medical or psychological conditions, they need to be housed in safe, clean SROs, many of which are in the Tenderloin, SOMA, downtown and Mission districts or in well-managed housing project units. Those residences not already run by non-profits dedicated to helping the homeless should be brought up to code and decency.
Since these people are healthy enough to work, they should be given work to do in the City to partially pay back for all that they receive from it. They can help clean and fix their own buildings, pick up litter in the neighborhood, plant trees and help park workers keep the weeds from overwhelming them. Some can help feed the homeless. Others can assist other programs intended to help them. Some can collect recyclables that are not already in garbage cans. Those who can work should do so, not only to contribute to their community, but also as a way to come back into the mainstream, slowly but surely. It also gives them something to do and a feeling of worth, raising their self-esteem.
It would seem that most people who are homeless in San Francisco would jump at this idea. It is hard to imagine many preferring to live out on the streets instead of getting a chance to enjoy a more normal life. But those who do prefer the outdoor life should be discouraged from it. Those who are too mentally challenged to make this obvious choice, and are therefore a danger to themselves and possibly others, can be brought to SFGH on a 5150 (of the California Welfare and Institutions code). This allows them to be kept under observation for three days. During that time, these people can go through the same intake process. After three days of having nice warm meals, new clothes, a few warm baths or showers, and a clean comfy bed to sleep in, many of these people might want to join the program. Those who are healthy, no threat to themselves or others and still don’t want in would be released, but advised that they must get housing on their own and not in city parks or on city sidewalks.
These ideas come with a price tag. Running the old SFGH and Laguna Honda will require additional staff and 24 hour coverage. Since all the patients at both facilities should be eligible to Medi-Cal, some of these costs should be reimbursed. The aged and permanently disabled would be eligible to Social Security benefits if they worked long enough, or SSI if they didn’t. SSI pays $877 or $961 (if living in an SRO) a month per person. This money could go toward paying for their living costs. Food Stamps, now called SNAP, provides $189 a month for an individual and $632 for a family of four. These benefits can go toward feeding the homeless recipient. Some might realize that with that much aid they could live well elsewhere, not needing to live in America’s most expensive city. Relocation should be actively encouraged.
It will also be a challenge to get approval to use both facilities. People will say “but they are not completely earthquake safe. What if one of the patients is hurt in an earthquake that might possibly occur here in the next 50 years?” The answer has to be that these places have been in operation for decades and not one person has ever suffered from the effects of an earthquake, while they all suffer from very serious medical issues. The chances of a facility resident dying from an earthquake are less than one in ten million. The chances of one suffering without these facilities are almost 100%.
And homeless activists need to agree that this idea is much better than anything their people have now. They could really help by being advocates urging every homeless person living on the streets to come in out of the cold.
We are spending a lot of money to end homelessness. Let’s end it.
Finding the Right Name
Names have meaning and value. Parents try hard to find the perfect name for their beloved offspring. Pet owners challenge themselves to find a name for their pets that expresses their affection for them and the attributes that make them so lovable.
Athletic teams also choose their names carefully. Now, a team whose team name has been the same for more than 81 years is being asked, urged, demanded to change its name for fear it might offend some members of a group that has been identified with the name.
The name “redskin” is not one that American Indians enjoy or with which they identify. To some it is racist and should have never been used for a team name. It should be changed, some say.”
The team was the Boston Braves but changed it to the Redskins to honor its beloved coach who was part American Indian. They are the Washington Redskins and are now being asked to find a less offensive name.
There is no doubt that the American Indian has been mistreated since the 16th century by Europeans who migrated here hoping to start new lives in a new world. The settlers stole Indian land, killed their people and forced the survivors to live in substandard conditions on Indian reservations. When some of the reservations were found to have oil, the government withheld billions of dollars owed for access to the black gold.
The name “redskin” is not one that American Indians enjoy or with which they identify. To some it is racist and should have never been used for a team name. It should be changed, some say. A number are also offended by the name “Indian” or “Brave” preferring to be called Native Americans, not to be confused with the term “native Americans” which refers to anyone born here.
But what about other team names? Are some of them also possibly offensive and needing to be changed?
The Cleveland Indians should probably now be the Cleveland Native Americans. The Atlanta Braves could be the Atlanta Courageous. The Cleveland Browns should have a color-blind name, not one that could upset Latin Americans or East Indians. The Cincinnati Reds should have a less communist sounding name that might also upset Native Americans. The New York Yankees’ name might offend Southerners still remembering what the Yankees did in the 1860s. And what’s with the Red Sox, White Sox, Blue Jays and Blackhawks? Shouldn’t all team names be colorblind? And what other color of hawks and jays are there? And what are sox? Is Sox just socks misspelled? Is misspelling now OK?
Should the Golden State Warriors be the Peacemakers, since they don’t usually put up much of a fight? And why do the Clippers have a name used for NFL players who make illegal tackles or for people who live by clipping coupons? And there are two teams called the Giants. How does that make short people feel? Does size really matter? Then there’s the 49ers. So people 50 and over should feel old? Isn’t that offensive?
What about the Dodgers? Are they tax dodgers, artful dodgers or do they dodge all rules? Is this what we want our children emulating? Aren’t parents upset? The Chicago Cubs seems like an OK name until you talk to some Boy Scouts. Why not the Chicago Scouts, instead? Chicago also has the Bears. The name sounds like people are naked or are tolerating something difficult. Shouldn’t some decent folk find this objectionable? And don’t the Baltimore Orioles sound too much like Oreos, a term also used to question a person’s racial soul as well as the name for America’s favorite cookie? The Oakland Raiders should change their name so as not to offend corporate raiders or those who raid their refrigerators late at night and wonder why they are gaining weight. They should be able to watch the game without feeling guilty.
And the two teams that call themselves the Cardinals probably should change their name so as not to offend the many Catholic families who saw their cardinals cover up sexual abuses by priests in their charge to protect the good name of the church. This team name could also upset Protestants whose forefathers revolted against church hierarchy or non-Christians or atheists who might feel excluded by this team name and all those who believe in the separation of church and team. The Kings should find a new name for their team, too. America is, after all, a democratic republic. We revolted against the King in 1776. How would DAR members, whose ancestors lost their lives fighting the King’s team, feel about people here cheering for his namesake? The Jets’ name might offend many Puerto Rican Americans who still feel unfairly stereotyped by the “Westside Story” anti-Puerto Rican gang by that name. They don’t want to hear “Here come the Jets...” anymore.
We must be much more sensitive to the possible past, current or future feelings of all of our people, and even of some people who aren’t.
What if we only used the name of the city in which the team plays? If a city has more than one team, as is the case in New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, the name could be followed by the team specifics such as the San Francisco Baseball Team for the Giants or the San Francisco Football Team, instead of the 49ers.
We must ensure that no one is offended or hurt by any team name.
Let’s hope this doesn’t offend anyone. If it does, it should also be changed.
Evolution and Free Will
Most people who read this column would admit to believing in the theory of evolution and in Man's free will. The theory of evolution posits that evolution occurs through natural selection with the survival of the fittest. Every religion, especially Western ones, insist that even though there is an all knowing, all powerful G-d in control of the universe, every person has free will. Free will is described as the ability of individuals to freely choose their path in every decision they make, while some consider free will Man's greatest vanity.
We believe in evolution and free will until they involve real people or the things we love.
If we are mainly products of our genetic makeup and our early childhood experiences, over which we had no control, then how can we be said to act freely?”
Yes, there is the survival of the fittest, but every human and most animal species should survive, regardless. We believe that any human death before age 100 is a tragedy. The unborn child who has major health complications should not be allowed to pass away but should even get surgery while still in the mother to prevent a still birth. No cost should be spared. A human life is at stake.
If a person sustains a totally debilitating injury, or is so advanced in age that s/he will never function independently and can never contribute to society, we must spend whatever necessary to make the person as comfortable as possible for as long as possible. Every human life is precious.
If a teenager gets killed after trying to kill someone else, it is a tragedy and the killer is at fault even though it was self defense. The victim's parents are due damages from someone with deep pockets. No young person should die, no matter what.
If an animal species is facing extinction because it cannot adapt to changes in its environment, the environment should be changed to allow the species to survive. Every species is essential to the planet's survival.
If a business can no longer sustain itself with costs exceeding revenues and faces bankruptcy, we mourn the loss after all efforts to save it fail.
If some people lose their jobs for any reason, they should be entitled to every possible safety net to keep them going for as long as it takes. Everyone must survive economically.
If people's lives are threatened because of the loss of functioning in an essential organ or a painful joint or a missing a limb, every effort must be exerted to fix or replace the damaged part. Soon we will be able to replace deadened heart tissue with our own stem cells. We will be able to give hearing to those who have lost it, sight to those who cannot see, as well as replace any body part. We want everyone to survive regardless of their fitness.
And then there is free will. Free will means that we are each responsible for our actions because we choose them freely. But there are many allowed exceptions.
If a person is homeless because of mental illness and/or substance abuse, we realize that it is not that person's fault. We feel that we should do whatever we can to help the homeless and we tolerate whatever they do, no matter how unpleasant, because they can't help themselves, they have no free will. (And yet we offer them homeless shelters only if they freely choose to stay in them.)
If people come to our land without documentation, invitation or permission because they are poor and see no future in their native country, we say that they are not to blame. They had no choice. We understand that they might drive without license or insurance, that they might purchase fake I.D. or use someone else's Social Security number to get work. What choice do they have? All they want is to work and earn a living. If they commit crimes or have vehicular accidents, we realize that their situation forced them to do what they did, they had no free will.
If people live a certain lifestyle, it is said that they had no choice, they were born that way. Some are said to have known since an early age that they were different. Some realize much later in life that they actually were born to be different. In any case, the argument is that since they have no free will as to what lifestyle to choose, all choices should be considered equal.
In a sense, all these rationales have some basis.
Humans might be the only species to know that its finite mortality will someday result in death. We know, if only instinctively, that the force of entropy will cause us suffering and eventually end our lives, which are in constant battle against this force. We want to win this battle and hate the fact that we must ultimately lose. No wonder we try to postpone our final defeat and that of people and things we love or need.
And on one level, everything is predetermined. If there is an all-knowing and powerful G-d, then there can be no free will; He knows what we will do in advance. If we are each part infinite or part of the infinite, there is no free choice; everything is just a piece of a much larger interdependent pattern. If we are mainly products of our genetic makeup and our early childhood experiences, over which we had no control, then how can we be said to act freely? If we are bound by the structure of our brains which predispose us to different thoughts, feelings and resultant actions, can we be held responsible for our actions?
So should we believe in free will and evolution?
What choice do we have?
Our survival is at stake.
A Question of Privacy
We have heard many public discussions lately about the issue of privacy with seemingly intelligent people expressing outrage over recent revelations that our country’s spy agency is spying. They are spying, in part, by obtaining telephone and email data on American citizens right here on American soil. The billions of bits of data involve phone numbers, dates of calls and their duration, as well as email connections made at certain times and dates. No one has suggested that the phone calls’ or emails’ contents were ever involved. A recent in depth study found there to have been no known abuses. And yet some still cite the Fourth Amendment which forbids unlawful search and seizure.
When crossing the Golden Gate Bridge which connects San Francisco with Marin, two of the most liberal counties in America, perhaps the world, there are no toll takers to collect our money. Instead the system takes a photo of us driving our car through the toll gate and sends us a bill in the mail. How does it know who we are and where we live? Why did they gather this personal information on us?”
I find it very hard to consider what they are doing at NSA a violation of the Fourth, just as I don’t see how requiring guns buyers at gun shows to pass background checks, or limiting the kind of weapons citizens can buy to defend themselves, would be a violation the Second Amendment.
I think both Constitutional claims are fine examples of demagoguery.
So what constitutes an invasion of privacy?
I think having our medical or financial records made public would be a serious invasion. And stealing our identity for fun and profit by criminal hackers is perhaps the most egregious such trespass.
I think having naked or otherwise embarrassing pictures of ourselves distributed without our approval, another.
I would consider having my private conversations made public, or having my personal emails read aloud to a group people not considered admirers, to be in this category.
Most of us would rather have privacy while having sex, some wanting complete privacy, insisting on separate bedrooms. The same with our time spent eliminating our waste products.
Also private thoughts and feelings are usually intended to remain so.
But what about our picture, should that be private? Should people not see you? Corporations and government agencies are working to produce a facial recognition system. The system would recognize each of us and produce advertising that would best suit us individually. The system could track us as we shop at the mall and put up ads just for us. Will this be an invasion of privacy? Surely, we are not all suspects of the crime of shopping too little, of not being willing to help our struggling economy. Why not just do this to people known to be shopping too little?
It is now easy to find people we have been looking for, to find out where they live, how long they have been there, how much they paid for their home and how much it is currently worth. If you are willing to pay a few dollars, you can also find out how much the person owes on the mortgage, how much he claimed to earn, whether he has been arrested or married or divorced. You can find out if and when the person entered the country and all those who came here at the same time.
Should all that information be private unless you are suspected of an existential crime?
A person in law enforcement could see your license plate and run it to find your name, address, birth date, aliases, height and weight, as well as your picture. The person can then check to see if you own a gun, have ever been arrested and so on. Is that an invasion of privacy even if it is well supervised?
When we donate to a charity we start getting requests from every similar fund. If we give to an environmental group, we will hear from every other one. How does that happen? Is our privacy being violated?
When we go online, we see ads to the side of most entries. They are targeted at us specifically. How does that happen? Is our privacy being invaded and sold to advertisers?
What about when people listen in on our cell phone calls because we speak loudly in their close proximity, and sometimes speak while on speaker phone so both sides of the conversation can be overheard? Is that yet another violation of our privacy? If so, why do we make it so easy for them?
Are our names, addresses and phone numbers private? If yes, then why do we have to pay extra to have them not made public by the phone company?
When crossing the Golden Gate Bridge which connects San Francisco with Marin, two of the most liberal counties in America, perhaps the world, there are no toll takers to collect our money. Instead the system takes a photo of us driving our car through the toll gate and sends us a bill in the mail. How does it know who we are and where we live? Why did they gather this personal information on us? We did not commit any crime. Is this a violation of our civil rights as mandated by the Constitution of the United States of America in its hallowed Fourth Amendment? Should we all start taking the ferry to avoid this unconstitutional infringement on our G-d given right of privacy?
Regardless of whether or not you agree with what I have written here, please let’s keep it just between us. Surely, I’m entitled to some privacy; that’s why I write a column.
A Modern Journalist’s Insight
Frank Read (not his real name) is 51 years old, approximately, and has spent much of his adult life as a journalist reporting for the mainstream media. His professors taught him lessons that most journalists still follow. The main one being always make the story personal by involving an affected person. The feeling widely accepted in the profession was that reporting should be kept simple so that people with very little education could relate to it and continue to buy the publication. Simple people need short sentences and human drama that is sensational enough to grab their attention, while they might get confused by statistics, data, comparisons or in depth investigation. One editor put it more clearly: “keep it simple, and sensational.”
But Frank has had a change of heart. He no longer believes what he was taught and what his fellow journalists still practice on a daily, routine and thoughtless basis.
The public needs to know as much as possible that is relevant to each story. He realizes that he is not a stenographer, just quoting what people said, and he is not a salesman trying to make the story interesting enough, while not necessarily accurate.”
He watched a news segment on his favorite news hour about the effects of the low minimum wage that is currently just over $7 an hour. Instead of showing us what that means to a full time worker and how it compares to the rest of the work force in dollars and cents, it showed us a woman who was a supervisor at a fast food chain in New York City. She made more than the minimum, but still only about $9 an hour. We learned that after taxes are taken out, she must use the little she has left to buy food and pay rent for her recently laid off husband, two aged parents and two children as well as herself. We see that it takes only a few days to use up her earnings. Frank notices that there is no mention of food stamps and wonders why this woman would not be eligible. The reporter caught that too and asked the woman about it. She explained it lapsed for some reason. The reporter had her go and reapply, and she got food stamps for her family of six.
Frank noticed that no mention was made of the husband’s unemployment insurance checks, which could be as high as $600 a week. The report forgot to mention that the two elders were eligible for either Social Security retirement, if they ever worked, or SSI if they never did. This would add $1500 to $3000 a month. The report also did not mention the rent subsidy that reduces the rental cost of her apartment. It did not mention that she would owe and pay no federal or state income taxes and would receive earned income credit that could be as high as $4000 from the government.
Frank realized how much more accurate and effective it might have been had they not used this person’s example, flawed as it was and as it usually is for a variety of reasons including confidentiality, not wanting to embarrass, not knowing enough to ask and wanting to make it sensational. They could have told us that a full time worker is paid for about 2000 hours a year. At $7.50 an hour (the federal minimum is $7.25), that comes to $15,000 a year. The report could have shown this to be below the poverty level for a family of four. It could have tracked how much a minimum wage worker earns for his employer. It could have compared the worker’s wages with that of the CEO and show the latter to be thousands percent more - $15,000 versus $300,000 or $3 million. The report could have shown how much the government spends to subsidize these low wage earners and how the government is actually also subsidizing the employer by making up for what he doesn’t pay. But Frank saw that none of this was done.
Frank started noticing this everywhere. Fellow reporters were trying to personalize every disaster by interviewing as many victims as possible for as long as possible. The victims could never tell the whole story but the part they did say was always similar: “We have been here for a long time and have lost everything. We are grateful that none of us died and we will rebuild knowing this will happen again. There is nowhere we would rather live.”
Frank noticed his colleagues doing the same with news stories by asking people on the street what they think. The answers range from admission of total ignorance as in “I didn’t know it happened” to “I think it is a good idea as long as it works,” to some limited comment reflecting a minimum of thought.
After all this it has dawned on Frank that his professors and colleagues have been wrong. The public needs to know as much as possible that is relevant to each story. He realizes that he is not a stenographer, just quoting what people said, and he is not a salesman trying to make the story interesting enough, while not necessarily accurate.
He has reformed and promises to no longer condescend to his reading public with heart wrenching stories of personal tragedies. He won’t use an individual to generalize a situation.
He even objects to my using him as an example of this overused and lazy form of journalism. I apologize. I don’t know what I was thinking.
Listening and Hearing
Ilove music. I love listening to it and I love singing it. I consider my IPod one of the great inventions and use it every day. But surely, there's a time and a place for it. I think that listening to music while driving is wonderful, enhancing both experiences at the same time. I think that listening while walking is also quite nice depending on where you're walking and what you are listening to. Live concerts can be great place to hear your favorite singers. But must we endure it while on hold, or much worse, while listening to someone speaking on T.V.?
And what about people talking on the cell phones while in public? Must we hear their innermost thoughts even though we are not listening? What about privacy? Isn't that the rage nowadays, … Then why are we forced to eavesdrop on our neighbors and fellow customers?”
I must disclose that I am a bit hard of hearing. I'm usually fine on the phone, or when talking with someone who is articulate and whose mouth I can see making the sounds. My hearing, like that of many of my contemporaries, starts failing when there is a bit of background noise. I can't hear in a noisy restaurant or at a semi-wild party. Sometimes, this cannot be avoided. But then there's television.
I resent background music on T.V. while someone is talking. It makes it almost impossible to make out the words in the midst of this unnecessary musical noise. I find it very frustrating. I don't need music to have a reaction to the words the character is speaking, the ones I could hear were it not for the background sound. The words and the speaker's presentation of them in context should suffice. I am hard of hearing, but I am not stupid or without the ability to react to verbal and non-verbal stimuli.
At this point some might be thinking, "why not use closed captioning to see the words you can't hear?" Have you seen it lately? Sometimes it is so delayed that you have forgotten what the scene was. Sometimes when there are just one or two words you can't quite hear, it turns out that whoever is typing the closed captions didn't hear it either. Sometimes it seems like the transcriber just gave up. Being so much behind, the captioner just says "the hell with it" and stops writing and we stop knowing what was being said. Why can't whatever is not scripted be taped and then transcribed so when it airs we can see the words as they are spoken and not several minutes later? Those already scripted should have simultaneous subtitles. And it would be great if the words could be spelled closer to the actual.
And while we're on the subject of gratuitous background noise, there are the laugh tracks. They do not interfere with my hearing. They interfere with my enjoying. Again, I understand the language well enough and get jokes well enough, as most of us do, to know what is funny and react accordingly. I find it superfluous and insulting to have a laugh track tell me what's funny and when to laugh along with the make-believe crowd.
While I have a problem of listening but not hearing, there is also the issue of hearing without listening.
What is that noise at eight A.M.? Is it construction? No. Is it tree trimming? No. What is it and when will it stop? It is someone with ears covered using a leaf blower. Next question - why? Why is this person using a gas guzzling, noisy machine to do what a rake and/or broom could do more efficiently, more effectively and much more quietly? Why is the person who hired him letting him, or has the homeowner left for work already or gone deaf? Why is the worker chasing a single leaf out to the street? Why do we even allow noisy leaf blowers?
And what about people talking on the cell phones while in public? Must we hear their innermost thoughts even though we are not listening? What about privacy? Isn't that the rage nowadays, that we are all concerned that the government might have access to our communications? We have otherwise intelligent people acting outraged at the invasion of their privacy because the government has access to all hundreds of billions phone records that do not include the name of the person or what was said - just what number called what number for how long at what time. Then why are we forced to eavesdrop on our neighbors and fellow customers? And it wouldn't be so bad if the conversations we were subjected to were interesting. It might not be so bad if there was any humor or gossip or metaphysical speculation. But it is usually so boring you almost want to interject something to raise the level of discourse. I sometimes start singing real loud or I shout at my dog even if she isn't with me at the time. If I have to listen to them, let them have to listen to me.
Then there are those who want to share their rap music with us. They drive worthless cars with state-of-the-art sound systems and they want the world to know. The bass is usually overwhelming, making it impossible to hear the moronic lyrics. It's like going to a restaurant where the service is so bad you forget about the terrible food.
It is now late at night and the only sound I hear is that of my steam heat radiator sizzling. It is one of my favorite sounds - the sound of warmth. This sound is being interrupted by the sound of my fingers touching the various keys to form the words I am writing. I'm going to stop now so to better hear the sound of soothing warmth.
Our Man in Moscow: What If?
For the past few months, we have been subjected to daily news accounts of secret government spying as revealed by a 29 year-old, high school drop-out who was given the highest security clearance to view America's computer spy network. This so-called "leaker" has been considered by many to be a bitter and angry traitor to his country. The leaks provided us with insight into the breadth and depth of America's spy capability, including gaining access to all phone and internet transmissions at home and abroad. The NSA, our master spy agency, was even able to access the phones of several heads of state.
Some of us, especially those who feel that our nation should be cut down to size and not continue to tower in influence over the entire world, feel the revelations indicate outrageous violation of the fourth amendment because someone told us so. How dare the NSA have access to information that could prevent another terrorist attack. Whatever happened to the notion of a level playing field? Aren't we at too great an advantage over terrorists?
What if the White House, desperate to cut our defense costs, used this noble alleged spy to inform our allies that we have been spying on them? The leaders probably knew and didn't care. But they could act publicly outraged and demand that we reduce our surveillance and that we quit our bases in their country.”
The young "spy" announced to the world that it was he who leaked this embarrassing information and immediately left for China, probably not because it is so nearby. He then, after not being welcomed there, left for another not nearby country, Russia. He has been there for a few months, treated very well by what many consider America's arch enemy. He has even been offered a job there. But winter is coming and Russia gets terribly cold. It now appears that the young leaker wants to come home and requests forgiveness without maximum prison time.
But what if none of this were true?
What if, in the tradition of all great spy fiction, this is all a brilliant scheme?
What if America, and NSA in particular, wanted to neutralize China's massive computer spy system? It is believed to have tapped into our largest corporations and stolen industrial secrets that would allow them to make products almost as good as ours. Could that be why the young leaker went there first? Was China wise to the plan? Is that why they deported him so quickly?
Russia also has a massive computer spy system. NSA wants to disrupt it. Could it be that our alleged spy is actually our man in Moscow? Could this be a brilliant plot to win Russia's confidence by disclosing embarrassing but trivial spy information about NSA and making our young computer geek look like America's public enemy number one? Could Russia be fooled into thinking that the enemy of their enemy is their friend?
But there's more.
What if the administration had even loftier goals?
As most of us are painfully aware, we have been without a budget for four years now. The Republican-led House has put forth moronic, partisan schemes that they called budgets. These budgets would have enlarged our military beyond its current bloat; lowered taxes to the rich, so they can be even richer; and cut programs to help the poor, so that they can be even poorer. And they wanted to end the Affordable Care Act to help the uninsured end their lives of suffering sooner. What's not to like?
The Democrats want the rich to pay higher taxes and would love to dramatically cut our spending for defense, which amounts to about one trillion dollars a year or half of the actual General Fund of $2 trillion. These costs include staffing our more than 700 foreign military bases in friendly countries throughout the world, and our spy network, which was dramatically enlarged after 9/11. The Democrats and White House would love to reduce the annual federal budget deficits by not only raising taxes on the rich, but also by cutting defense spending, including our spy network. But how could they do it?
The Republican-led House would never allow us to spend less on defense. They want it increased.
Our allies might be willing and ready to let us withdraw troops from their sovereign land, but can't ask, perhaps fearing their people might object to losing free security.
What if the White House, desperate to cut our defense costs, used this noble alleged spy to inform our allies that we have been spying on them? The leaders probably knew and didn't care. But they could act publicly outraged and demand that we reduce our surveillance and that we quit our bases in their country.
The administration would then be "forced" to close at least 700 bases, saving $100 billion a year, and would "have to" reduce our expenditures for spying, much of which is a waste of time and money much more than being a privacy issue.
So, could our young ex-pat "traitor" actually be our bravest and most inventive master spy? Could he really be an MIT-trained genius who can quickly destroy Russia's computer spy capability while also enjoying free room and board in one of Russia's many luxurious residences (think YMCA or Motel Six)?
And will he ever be able to come in out of the cold, like a John Le Carre character? With Russia and perhaps China on its knees, spy wise, will we credit this so maligned young hero his just desserts, or will he be trapped in not-so-sunny Russia for the rest of his days?
How will this story end? What if it never does?
What’s Taking So Long?
It has been said that the older we get, the faster time seems to go. That is because the relative length diminishes with age - so one year to a one-year-old is equal to his whole life but to a 100 year old, it is just one per cent of its length. Now that I am more than two-thirds of a century old and in my last quarter, I notice how quickly Monday turns into Thursday and January becomes September. And yet I also am noticing how slowly things are happening on a national as well as local level.
Remember that almost 100 years ago, it took 18 months to build the Empire State Building...How could it take months to remodel a bathroom or kitchen and years to do an entire house?”
On a national level, we are experiencing one of the slowest job recoveries in history after suffering one of the most rapid job losses in almost a century. The Congress has gone years without finalizing a budget and must rely on continuing resolutions to keep the government running. The government has yet to come up with a new, simple and fair federal income tax for individuals and businesses, even though everyone agrees we need one and even though I have recommended the most obvious solution. We see little progress being made to improve our K-12 education, though we have been waiting for it for decades. Poverty is still with us and growing, and we are still in Afghanistan after all this time, money, and human suffering. We still have military bases in Europe, 60 years after they were installed to temporarily protect against the Soviet Empire which no longer exists.
But I see it most vividly on a local level, here in San Francisco.
Every day I walk around my neighborhood for about two or three hours. I do it to exercise my dog and myself, while able to enjoy my wonderful area. I live in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in one of the most beautiful cities in one of the most beautiful states in one of the most wonderful countries in the world, with one of the best climates as well.
Walking with my eyes wide open, always noticing my environment, I cannot help but pass the same home improvement projects for what seems like years. There is one project that has lasted 12 years. There are some that have been ongoing for three years and then have stopped before being completed.
When I notice a project being worked on, I am always impressed by how few workers there are and how little work they are doing. I watched a group casually work on a project for a four-month period. It turned out to be a bathroom remodel. It would take a week or two with four guys working eight hours a day, but it took four months with a couple of guys working a few hours for a few days a week, for 13 weeks! There are four projects within a block of my home that have been ongoing for years. (It seems to be an unwritten rule among contractors that if any noisy work needs be done, it must begin at 7 a.m., including on weekends and holidays, even if it’s the only work done that day.)
Remember that almost 100 years ago, it took 18 months to build the Empire State Building, then the tallest building in the world. How could it take months to remodel a bathroom or kitchen and years to do an entire house?
I might have a few of the answers.
Several of the long-term projects might be contractor-owned, taking the pressure off to hurry. Some funders might be having financial difficulties, not being able to raise the additional money needed to continue and finish the job. Other contractors might be having issues with the inspections, which have set back the work and added to the cost.
I believe much of the delay is caused by contractors taking on new assignments during the work. In order to hook the new clients, the contractor must pull workers off the ongoing projects to start the new ones before the clients change their mind. When staffing falls to a trickle of occasional workers, it seems that the project never quite ends. Some large projects have two workers working a few hours a day as though time did not exist. It’s like watching people in slow motion mode, or like watching workers in Italy just before siesta, a la “Under the Tuscan Sun.”
In the meantime, many of these ongoing projects require parking spaces normally relied upon by neighbors without garages. (A single garage space can easily cost $3,000 a year to rent.) Ironically, many of the projects involve adding garages. The Bureau of Building Inspectors authorizes and the Department of Public Works issues “No Parking - Tow-Away Zone” signs for the anticipated duration of the project. If the project ends early and the signs are no longer needed, they are not removed, but languish, keeping drivers from parking in the unused spaces. DPW, with its five inspectors, cannot keep track of all the signs and has better things to do but to remove unneeded signs.
What can be done? I have some ideas.
It all starts with the permit approval process. The process should include an agreement of how long the project should take, and its required staffing. The permit applicant should also be helped to estimate the cost of the project, and be expected to show that the needed funds are available. The contractor should be held accountable to maintain sufficient staff working full days, and to stay on schedule to complete the project.
The “No Parking” signs should be issued with large deposits for the agreed-upon work period. The contractor should be motivated to immediately remove the signs when no longer needed by getting a refund for the unused days, and avoiding a large fine subtracted from the deposit if the signs are not immediately removed. Members of the Department of Parking and Traffic should be authorized to remove expired or otherwise unneeded signs.
I have always been lucky with contractors. Each of mine had staff that did the job well, did it quickly, and were gone. The contractors had several similarities. They were licensed and had a staff of workers who were paid for full time, year round employment. The workers were here legally and spoke English fluently. They knew their job and had not learned it a few hours before. The workers didn’t leave to work another job. They knew that they had to finish mine first. I paid most of the bill at the end when the work was done.
Two other lessons I learned: Never pay before the work is done! It is too much of a temptation for the contractor to forget to finish or to take his time doing it. Avoid charming contractors. I found that the more charming the contractor, the worse the work.
In the meantime, if there is a project in your neighborhood that seems to have overstayed its welcome or has gone but left its signs behind, you can call and complain. In San Francisco dial 311 and tell them the problem. They will follow through and get action.
I’ve got to get back to my kitchen remodel to finish it before my yet unborn grandchildren retire.
I watch and read a lot of news each day in order to stay informed and to gather ideas and data for future columns and blogs. I watch the network news each evening, taping and seeing at least three broadcasts. I also read the local and premier American papers, I review the weekly columns of a few of my favorite columnists, and I also read the news on the Huffington post (Huffpost).
The problem is that each day I see a lot of repetition of the same story. That's understandable. After a while a definite format pattern emerges, especially among the big three networks.
…each evening I use fast forward to go past the repetitious, the gory, the gossip, and the sensational. It leaves me with a few minutes of interesting news. And there is some interesting news, every night, no matter what; you just have to work hard to find it.”
The motif is sometimes sensational and superficial with a strong scent of bias.
The news elements have a deja vu quality to them.
Each night there is a sensational natural disaster. It could be heavy rain, hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, droughts, flooding, earthquakes, ice melts, record heat or record cold or a record for having no record. There is sometimes the requisite whipping boy or girl, usually meteorologists, who must report in the midst of the worst weather knowing that most viewers are watching hoping to see the reporter destroyed by the turbulence, or at least knocked down and embarrassed by it. Why else expose them to the elements? Tragic victims are always interviewed putting on a brave face and promising to rebuild no matter how absurd it seems. And then there are the interviews with the victims of nature's fury. Journalism made easy: "How do you feel now having lost everything?" "Yes, I have lost everything I have accumulated for the past 60 years, but I am so glad that no one was hurt. It was a miracle." (Question not ever asked: Wouldn't it have been more of a miracle if it hadn't happened at all?) Reporting on the same tragic, sensational story will go on night after night, as long as humanly possible.
This could be upstaged by an act of incredible domestic violence. Though such a story comes up too often, it is less commonly reported than the natural disaster stories, which can go on for weeks. Reporters can not only visit and report on the scene, they can interview experts who can give us all the speculation and details to which we don't really need to listen. We can then spend weeks getting to know the victims, all heroes in their own way. We cannot help but be touched. We send donations to the affected families. We then do little to avoid having it happen again and again.
Then there is the obligatory international violence report. It always involves Muslims killing or rioting or killing while rioting or rioting because of a killing caused by rioting. The motto should be "Go to the Middle East and have a riot, they're to die for." There is always much empty speculation as to the cause and the solution. "What are they thinking and is it anything like what they are saying? Can we believe them or convince them that we do even if we don't? And will they believe that we believe them? And does any of this speculation really matter?"
We are sometimes subjected to the opinions of politicians that no one can take seriously, talking seriously as though they were able. The more often they appear on TV, the less reason they have to do so or we have to listen. When the word "war" comes up, we can always count on an interview with the terribly senior senator from a great southwestern state. His answer to every international problem is the same — let's go to war! Let's bomb Libya, Egypt, Yemen, North Korea, Iran and Syria — at the same time if need be.
Then there is the medical segment with a network medical expert who also manages to have a full time practice in another part of the country. Each night we learn of yet another change in modern medical theory. Something that was thought good is now bad. Something once thought harmful is now harmless. Medical procedures we were told were life-saving, we now learn were our greatest threats. One night we are told that a new study has found that we waste $750 billion on fraud, waste or unnecessary procedures. That amount, if true, exceeds our current annual federal budget deficit. We might wonder how many tests and procedures that we have had were unnecessary or even harmful. We learn that aspirin is good and we should all take one a day only to later be told to do so only if we have serious medical problem that requires it. Mammograms are and are not valuable, they save lives and produce false positives, causing unnecessary testing. Coffee and alcohol are good up to a point, but that point keeps changing, perhaps affected by the amount we drink. Cigarettes are still harmful, apparently. So far.
This segment can be followed by the day's gossip. It usually involves some trouble involving a celebrity who became one by getting into the same trouble. Is so-and- so in rehab again? Did so-and-so really do that while driving? Are they really breaking up? Were they really ever together? Are they real? How do you know? And why should I care? And what is their take on the major issues of the day? This segment lets the media get back at their unfavorites, unusually the non-p.c. Did someone say something that could be racist, ageist, sexist or otherwise embarrassing? Let's hear all about it, shall we?
A celebrity known to be a female Southern Bubba recently revealed that she once used the "N" word. Can you imagine? No one else ever has, have they? Let's watch her career fall apart day by day. How many brave sponsors have cancelled her because they would never have used such language, nor would any of their customers? What could be worse? I know. An actor said something bad about a religious minority group when he was really drunk. The network news allowed us to watch him be destroyed, a little more each week. None of us have ever been drunk and none would ever say anything bad about any religious group would we? The media loves to see the successful fail, an American schadenfreude (a great German word that means taking joy in someone else's loss).
All this "news" usually ends with a positive story about an American or group of Americans doing good for others. The stories are truly touching and show how wonderful human beings can be. It almost makes you want to be one, even after all the bad things we see that they do during the rest of the news.
Then there is the print media.
The print media, including online stories, try to grab us with the headline. The reporter seems to lose interest in the story right after the headline. I think that the problem is that the story cannot live up to the headline. So the headline is "The president crushes the House leadership." The story is that the president has said he would veto legislation that also included........ There is no crushing. No crusher or crushee. Just the headline that got you to read an otherwise uninteresting article.
But it's worse than that in the print media. Not only are the headlines sensationalized, but the reporting is of such poor quality. News writers in general seem to have lost the basics like who, what, when, where and why. They forget to summarize the story in the first paragraph and then they go on to leave out essential parts. There can be a story about an attack at a military base. Several of our people are killed. What happened to the shooters? Sometimes they actually leave that part out. Or there is a report about sentencing and it neglects to finally say what it was or at least what it could be. During the war in Iraq, we got a nightly count of our casualties but never told how many Iraqis had died. And they never mentioned that they never mentioned it. It was hundreds of thousands in case you still haven't heard.
It seems that many reporters think themselves more like stenographers. They just record what the person interviewed says, even when not being asked. Reporters seem to sometimes forget that they can ask challenging questions to get at the bottom of the story rather than staying on the very surface of it.
And just when it seemed that journalism had hit an all time low, it went further off course. It started years ago with cable news that must pad and almost create news in order to stay on the air 24 hours a day. And then there was Fox "news" or what some call "Fixed News" because it seems that it was scripted by people with a specific political agenda and not one that reflected intelligence, integrity or impartiality, i.e., the ultimate slap in the face of journalist standards.
But now there is something even worse. It is malcontents leaking masses of confidential information in the name of journalism. Wikileaks and its sympathizers are seeking all the prestige and protection of journalism while actually just practicing mean-spirited gossip. The information they leak does not help anyone and is usually misunderstood and misrepresented. The mainstream media give these false journalists too much attention, which only encourages their basic narcissism.
I recall the biblical passage admonishing the people to post sentries at all the gates of the city. Besides the straightforward tactical advice (something we are only now learning about the need for - better border security), it is also symbolic. It means that we should control what goes into our body through its various entrances, including our eyes and ears. To this end, each evening I use fast forward to go past the repetitious, the gory, the gossip, and the sensational. It leaves me with a few minutes of interesting news. And there is some interesting news, every night, no matter what; you just have to work hard to find it.
That's what's news.
NSA: Read My Emails, Please
There is much concern by some Americans that the National Security Agency has access to our emails and phone calls. Those concerned feel that their privacy has been violated and fear that they may have been targeted because of their personal importance, and that their intimate emails might be shared with strangers who are overreaching their authority to indulge in some interesting reading and listening.
My letters were read by young interns. These 20-something-year-olds are trained to find the topic and then to mail back a form letter from their boss on the subject. The letter Senator Feinstein's young staff sent me was a letter saying the senator totally agreed with me ... My letters to the President were responded to with similar form responses disregarding my idea and repeating his own."
Perhaps they fear that their requests for more information about some products available on the web like men's shirts on sale for this week only, or a build your own BMW site, may be viewed by others. Some might fear that the funny cat videos we forward to friends could be intercepted and misinterpreted by spies desperate to get something on us because of our importance, making everything we do both sacred and subject to violation.
I have a different take. I have been writing my elected officials about problems that face us for years now with little success. When the housing crisis hit and millions of homeowners were unable or unwilling to pay their monthly mortgage payment because the value of their collateral, their homes, had declined, I sent out letters and emails with my suggestions. Never mind the fact that the home is the same home and provides the same value to its inhabitants. Never mind that many purchases made with credit become worth less than the debt they created, everything from clothing to appliances to electrical devices to cars. I had the solution and wrote to every official I could. My answer was to have the banks let these homeowners pay only interest at the current low rate on the remaining balance until the financial situation improves. The banks would lose no money nor would the taxpayer and the homeowner could cut the monthly payment in half and maintain a good credit rating. It was a win-win-win.
My letters were read by young interns. These 20-something-year-olds are trained to find the topic and then to mail back a form letter from their boss on the subject. The letter Senator Feinstein's young staff sent me was a letter saying the senator totally agreed with me that the government should spend tens of billions to pay down the troubled mortgages and subsidize the fees associated with refinance. My letters to the President were responded to with similar form responses disregarding my idea and repeating his own.
The same happened when I sent all of them my tax plan, which would eliminate all itemized deductions and credits for personal income taxes, replacing them all with a standard deduction, and counting all income as equal, with only about five tax brackets. So if a household had income from earnings, Social Security, dividends, interest, unemployment insurance, etc., the amounts could be combined to one taxable total. (Currently, while earned income is fully taxable as is interest, Social Security is taxable only to a maximum of 85% and dividends are taxed at only 20%.) My plan would reduce fraud, simplify tax preparation, and make taxes fairer, getting the rich to pay more while getting more families to contribute something. This brilliant plan has also been ignored by our decision makers, who assure us that they are trying so hard to deal with these difficult problems.
I have also suggested ways of resolving the Israel-Palestine issue, as well as a fair way to deal with our almost ten million document-free residents. I also have some thoughts on improving our education curricula. And if you want to know what our American car industry should be doing, read my take on it.
I have found it impossible to get a good idea to our political leaders.
I write long emails also to friends on both the far right and left. I argue each point with them online articulating what I think our government should be doing, like closing hundreds of our foreign bases, reducing foreign aid, cutting waste in government, (e.g. eliminating the penny and nickel, ending the blue Angels and Fleet Week, eliminating Saturday mail delivery, ending reimbursement for travel for training or conventions, etc.), simplifying our tax code, reversing outsourcing, dealing with the document-free resident problem, and immediately withdrawing from the Middle East.
I want NSA to read these emails and then show them to the President and our elected officials. Maybe they could also be shown online, and on the front page of all our major papers. If they also show my picture, I want it to be a very flattering one, maybe it could be retouched a bit to make me look younger with a full head of hair - red hair might be nice. And if you get into my educational background, please don't mention that I didn't graduate from Harvard; it's been the source of constant embarrassment.
And what about my phone calls? NSA agents are welcome to listen to my calls to and from friends and relatives. They can hear my review of a restaurant I recently visited, or my advice to one of my grown children. What do the spies think of my reviews? Would they go to one of my recommended places? Do they have suggestions of their own in which I might be interested? Do they agree with my advice to my kids? What would they advise? Maybe we could take my communications nationwide to get a sense of what the average American thinks of them. Huffington Post could take polls on my intercepted thoughts and opinions.
Oh what fun all that attention would be. Maybe I could become an international folk hero, like loyal Americans Ed Snowden and Private Brad Manning, without having to spend years in prison, as they surely will. But narcissists might feel it's well worth it.
And not to worry that terrorists' calls will not be intercepted. What damage could they do, anyway? Privacy trumps security any day.
So please, NSA, don't read or listen to my fellow Americans' communications, because surely they are precious. Just intercept mine. I'll make sure that the spelling and grammar are correct, and I will always speak clearly while making phone calls to friends and relatives. As an added incentive, I will try to always include some humor, the kind I think you spies would enjoy.
What Are Americans Willing and Able To Do?
I was raised believing that America was the greatest country on Earth because its people were self-reliant, hard-working, honest, intelligent, creative, well-educated and generous. American workers are still said to be the most productive by far, many times more than their Asian counterparts, including those in India and China.
I am now being told that 47% of our people pay no income tax, and that billions a year are paid to ineligible people for unemployment benefits and earned income credit, programs set up to help those of us who were not quite as self-reliant. I am learning that many of our most successful Americans are hiding their assets in foreign countries to avoid paying their fair share of taxes, while their money does not circulate in our economy.
Where did we get the idea that certain work is beneath us? Who said that we cannot even bother to take care of our own everyday chores?”
My once-held beliefs about the American Character are now also being challenged by our elected officials.
Representatives in the House and Senate are working hard to craft a comprehensive immigration policy. On the Senate side, eight members have cobbled together what they think might be a good plan. The plan disregards the fact that we have more than ten million Americans out of work and tens of thousands of high school seniors who want to get into the college of their choice, and that most of our unemployed have limited education and needed skills, and that we have a good number of well-educated scientists out of their normal work.
This plan is based on a thesis that Americans don’t want to do many jobs like working in hotels, restaurants, construction, domestic service, farming and gardening; are not smart or diverse enough for many colleges and graduate schools; are not qualified for high level scientific jobs; and are not productive enough to provide manufactured goods or even customer services.
Based on these assumptions, the plan is to bring more temporary, unskilled workers in to work in hotels, restaurants, construction, domestic service, farming and gardening. The crafters of the bill want foreign students who go to American colleges to be able to stay to put their education to use here instead of their native lands.
Is it true that our fellow Americans feel themselves too good to do the kinds of work that must be “insourced” by document-free residents? Is it true that businesses are finding it hard to find Americans to fill their available jobs? Is it true that while American factory workers are said to be many times more productive than their foreign counterparts, who are paid low wages and subjected to unsafe working conditions, it is still better to outsource our work? Are our colleges finding it hard to attract qualified American students, or are foreign students needed to provide even greater diversity to what must be the most overwhelmingly diverse country on Earth since the Tower of Babel?
So what can we Americans do for a living and for ourselves? If we are unemployed and unable to find work in our field of choice, can we do this other work?
Can legal American residents do farm work, or can it only be done by the document-free, as we have been repeatedly told? What did Cesar Chavez, born in Phoenix, do for farm workers? Did he set up a union for American farm workers to ensure that they had better pay, benefits, and working conditions? Why did he do it if only the document-free could ever do the hard labor? Who did he unionize? Hello?
Can Americans with minimal education work in hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, construction sites, gardening, and domestic work? Is this not the very population that is most likely to be unemployed, and of minority status? (Black youth have a 42% unemployment rate and minority youth in general are at 20%, while college graduates 25 or over have a 4% unemployment rate.) Are these not the people in greatest need of jobs that are now being filled by those not here legally?
Meanwhile, why are we encouraging foreign students to enter our colleges? Why is it that high school students with perfect grade point averages and SAT scores can’t get into our top universities and graduate schools, while the offspring of rich, powerful and/or famous foreign parents with much less to recommend them academically are accepted and accommodated? The current president of Egypt attended USC. What good did it do him except to let him meet some American coeds, albeit very short ones? Do we think that he has learned to love freedom of speech and to champion gender equality?
The senators’ comprehensive plan also would allow more scientists to come to work and eventually become citizens in our country. Do we not have enough well-educated scientists? If so, why are so many being underemployed now, working as research assistants and post doctorate fellows? And don’t we have enough qualified college applicants to be science majors? Are our students just not intelligent enough?
And do we need undocumented workers to do things we feel too busy to do, like cleaning our own homes, maintaining our gardens, walking our dogs, caring for our infants, and to do the jobs unemployed Americans would not or could not do?
Is this true? I still don’t believe it, or maybe I just don’t want to.
Where did we get the idea that certain work is beneath us? Who said that we cannot even bother to take care of our own everyday chores? What is wrong with vacuuming our carpets ourselves? Why do we have a dog if we pay others to walk it, and we leave it alone all day while we’re away? Why do we trust a stranger who can’t even speak English to take care of our most precious ones, or even our children for that matter?
As I walk around my San Francisco neighborhood each day, I can’t help but notice that all the workers speak Spanish, except for roofers who are usually Asian and speak Chinese or Korean, and people who work at nail salons, all of whom it seems must be Asian - Korean or Vietnamese.
I had electrical work done in my apartment to correct code violations and pass inspection. The American electrician spent a little time here, and the rest of the time he had undocumented workers that he picked up for three days have free reign of my apartment to do work that they had obviously never done before. I asked that their sloppy work be repaired and it was - by another group of workers who spoke no English.
I am beginning to wonder if Americans are becoming more like the ancient Romans, who became too good to do any work themselves, and became more reliant on what they called the “barbarians.” Eventually the barbarians took over the empire. We now call those barbarians Germans.
I remember in 1991 when Kuwait was attacked by Iraq. They were defenseless and had foreign workers doing everything that needed to be done in their land. Were it not for Saudi Arabia and U.S. intervention, Kuwait would have been Iraq’s Tibet.
I think of the Pinter play, “The Servant,” in which an effete aristocrat becomes ever more dependent on his servant until the servant becomes the master.
Is that the way we are headed? Do we feel too important or inadequate to be the self-reliant, independent, hard-working, creative people that we are cracked up to be? Are we too distracted by the echoes of our own narcissism to fully live our own lives?
Will we soon be hiring people to eat and digest our food for us, or to eliminate our waste in our stead? Will these natural functions soon also be deemed beneath us?
I’d write more, but the person typing these words and the other one who is dictating them told me that they are going on break and won’t be back until sometime next week between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. I would have asked them to stay longer, but the typist knows no English and the person reciting this text is deaf.
It’s so hard to get good help nowadays.
This column has examined many commonly accepted “truisms” and found them untrue, such as “all men are created equal,” “love thy neighbor as thyself,” “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and, my favorite, “those who know do not speak, those who speak do not know.” Throughout time we have heard these phrases so often that we have taken them for granted without challenging them as we should.
Here’s one to add to our collection - “you can’t judge a book by its cover.”
Have you been to a bookstore lately? Every book has an interesting cover. They are designed to be interesting so that you will buy the book inside. Book publishers and agents want you to judge a book by its cover.
Have you been to the market lately? Each product is covered in a design intended to get the buyer to judge the product well by it.
But maybe the phrase doesn’t really mean “book” or even “product.” Maybe it just means that we can’t judge people by their appearance. Is that true? What makes us decide to talk with someone or to get to know them or to go out with them? What do potential employers judge us by? Yes, it is our outward appearance.
So what can we do to improve our chances of giving a favorable impression? We can try to look our best. That might mean avoiding dreadlocks, body piercings, tattoos, pants that appear to be falling off, sloppy beards, dirty or greasy hair, bad breath, pants that are too long and lay crumpled on the floor, clothes that are too tight or too loose, body odor and/or baseball caps with misplaced visors. And instead of always wearing solid colors we could try attractive patterns. Look at the people in Guatemala, Pakistan, India, Kenya or Haiti and you see people dressed in beautiful colors and patterns. You look at most Americans and it is all solid and uninteresting.
Even in men’s ties we have gone solid. I think it started with Regis Philbin hosting that million dollar game show. He wore solid colored ties with matching solid colored shirts. Then came “the Donald” who wore solid color, silky, oftimes pink, ties. Then there was George Bush II. He almost always wore a dark suit with a white shirt and a light blue solid tie. This became an almost international dress code. I noticed one international conference where everyone, including George II, wore that same outfit. Boring. If you can’t wear a beautiful tie, don’t wear one at all. And don’t wear a striped tie with a striped suit (are you reading this Brian Williams?). In fact, avoid striped suits. They usually look cheap and make the wearer look like a trafficker in the world’s second oldest profession. Even Tim Gunn can’t make them work (no offense, Tim).
Some of my previous columns have already lamented the improper use of what has been called “shorts” for men but are now more like “medium-longs” going below the knee on their male wearers. And while real shorts are appropriate while on vacation in some tropical paradise, they are neither appropriate nor attractive on men during cool weather or in urban environments. Most men’s legs are best when covered.
I have also surely said enough about big, fat watches. They don’t make men look bigger or manlier.
But what about women, what are their sartorial issues? They have come a long way since the big shoulder look of the 80’s. Designers have discovered the miracle of spandex for women. What a difference - finally pants that really fit to compliment and complement the female body. Women also seem to be wearing less makeup during the everyday. Women don’t need dark mascara on their eyelids or eyelashes. They don’t need pancake makeup, but a tan always helps. (Force a dermatologist to tell you the truth and the doctor will confess that tans are nature’s way of providing sunblock. But tans must be built up to gradually.) And though wearing high heels can improve a woman’s appearance, making her legs look longer and slimmer and making her drooping posterior stay up better, especially under some spandex, it is too high a price to pay for beauty. High heels really hurt women’s feet and are no longer necessary. Some die-hard cultural relativists desperate to find a Western equivalent of the burkas and other full head-to-toe covering that some women under Muslim subjugation are forced to wear with Western women being forced to wear high heels. Let us end burkas, full body coverings and high heels from any woman’s must-wear ideology.
Also as mentioned earlier, women, let’s have more interesting patterns, not just solid colors. Look at Missoni (and look for him now too, he is still missing). He knows patterns. Beautiful patterns can make a woman look bigger or smaller, depending on the need. And, please, no more black. It is not really a color but the lack of one. Black is for tuxedoes, funerals and the clergy, and I’m no longer sure about the clergy. I see black and white as plus or minus for real colors. Black darkens while white lightens.
And pregnant women. You are wonderful and shall be forever blessed. But I have one request: no more tight fitting clothes until your body has released its precious gift and returned to normalcy. We are all willing to wait to see the baby after it is born instead of snuggled and squeezed prenatal under your spandex.
With both male and female clothing wearers, the key should be dressing appropriate to the occasion and one’s physique. Some part of the body that is too big should be covered by something that minimizes the effect. Something that is just right should be displayed with elegance and appreciation. Sweat clothes are not appropriate at church or weddings, much less church weddings. High heels, while not needed with anything, are surely out of place with cut-offs or a bikini and on tennis courts.
Is this all too controversial? Am I hitting below the belt and is the belt really appropriate? Is this all too subjective? Should we say “to each his or her own”?
I say “no!”
We have reached consensus about moral issues like murder, lying, stealing and bragging; we can have a consensus about aesthetic considerations. Most of us agree about what looks good and what doesn’t. Remember the Edsel? You are probably too young or too old to remember. It was designed in the late 50s. Almost everyone agreed it was ugly and it failed terribly. Look at the history of the Plymouth, Dodge and Desoto. They were consistently unattractive and now many don’t even remember them. What about the Chevrolet Caprice of the early ‘90s? It was so ugly, even police departments didn’t want them. SFPD finally bought some against strong protest from its esteemed principal analyst. No one wanted to drive in them. It solved the take home policy problem - people were too embarrassed to take them home. And let’s not even start about the Monte Carlo - consistently hideous. Gone too are padded shoulders for women, even those who held out vain hope that the large shoulders would make their large hips look smaller in contrast. They were sadly wrong. Gone are narrow ties for men as are their opposites, real wide ones.
So while aesthetics can be somewhat subjective, it can also provide standards that the vast majority can agree on.
My hope, here, is that we all agree with mine. Doesn’t that sound fair?
Something for Nothing
When I was young, my father had one phrase that he kept repeating to me: “You don’t get nothing for nothing.” He had trouble with English and didn’t know about the problem with double negatives. What he meant was that you can’t get something from nothing. Apparently, many Americans never heard that same advice
Today, I see many Americans expecting something for nothing or at least for a reduced price. Half of American families pay no state or federal income tax. They expect to receive all government services for nothing because it is coming to them. Seniors receiving Social Security and Medicare say they expect it to take care of them forever because they paid into it and deserve it. The fact of the matter is that most receive more benefits in a few years than they paid in 30.
The world is in our minds because our minds are part of the universal mind. Everything did come from nothing in the sense that consciousness is not a thing but the space that contains and creates all things.”
The “hard working” ruling class also wants something for nothing. Corporate CEOs and Wall Street brokers expect to receive millions of dollars a year even if they fail; to get multi-million dollar golden parachutes if they are fired for accomplishing too little and then to receive a low tax rate on the money they never really “earned” to begin with.
We also have people who come here illegally wanting all the benefits of American citizenship while still declaring their loyalty to their beloved homeland which they left because they couldn’t stand living there. We have naturalized citizens who don’t learn English expecting all government services from passports to voter pamphlets to be also in their native language if that language is Chinese or Spanish.
We have fellow Americans who can trace their ancestors’ residence here back to the 1700’s expecting to live on government benefits without working because their distant ancestors worked too hard under terrible conditions. We have people who contribute nothing to the country expecting to get as much medical treatment as possible for free because they don’t buy insurance and know that American hospitals must take of them regardless. We have some who live on the dividends from their inheritance paying at the lowest tax rate and contributing little to the community.
People who borrowed heavily against their homes as housing values increased now find that they owe more than their collateral is worth. They want the banks to reduce their loan amount and their interest rate. Recent college graduates who are faced with large student loan bills and with parents who did not save for their education want the loans that cannot be avoided, even in bankruptcy, forgiven now.
But now there is a new twist to the something-from-nothing theorists. It comes from the world of physics. Stephen Hawkins, who has the best reason in the world to be an atheist, has theorized that the world could exist without a creator because everything comes from nothing and there was never anything before nothing since nothing has no time or space. (And yet he also says he does not believe in philosophy. I think that he must mean good philosophy.) Other notable physicists have come up with varieties of the big bang theory (also the name of the funniest comedy on T.V.) with many supposing that it all started 13.8 billion years ago when nothing exploded into something causing a chemical reaction which then created all the planets and every element found on earth today including hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, oxygen and even gold and silver. They say our bodies come from exploding stars. All of it, they say, was born from nothingness.
One group of quantum physicists is coming close to what sounds like the right answer. They believe that the universe is one big quantum mechanical computer system which creates the universe the way a quantum mechanical computer can create different realities. This begs the question: where did the universal quantum computer come from? The answer is not China.
Another school of theoretical physics, a very small one, believes that it is all just in our minds and that we have created the universe - known in philosophic circles as solipsism. If that is true, I want to make some big changes in the universe that I have created, starting with better weather, good health and fewer insects
I think that physicists should stop trying to justify their atheism and see creation as something close to the quantum computer analogy. Here is my theory.
I believe that the universe is driven by three basic realities: the infinite is finite/ the finite is infinite (as above so below); everything/everyone has and is consciousness, making the infinite finite and the finite infinite - (every outside has an inside); and entropy (everything that begins must end).
To the theist this translates to: G-d is infinite and finite and His consciousness creates the universe. There was nothing before consciousness because nothing can precede it. Like the Zen koans - “what is the sound of a tree falling in the forest if no one hears it?” and “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” What both are saying is that without consciousness, nothing can be said to exist. That without a subject, there is no object, not even a verb.
Physicists are slowly coming to these conclusions. They already have endorsed the notion of entropy being life’s way of changing matter/ energy (consciousness) without ever losing or gaining it in the universe. Science has also found the existence of fractals, which are infinite iterations of form within all objects. So a leaf, which is finite, has an infinite number of fractals - the infinite is finite, the finite infinite. The infinite would not be infinite if did not include the finite. And now some theoretical physicists have realized that everything is conscious - from sub atomic particles to single cell organisms to the earth, outer space and the entire universe. They are about to realize that everything is and has consciousness. The Zen Buddhists call this big mind, small mind - the latter being part of the former. In Vedanta, G-d is said to be Sat Chit Ananda, or Truth, Consciousness and Joy.
My theory makes all the theoretical physics theories also correct. The world is in our minds because our minds are part of the universal mind. Everything did come from nothing in the sense that consciousness is not a thing but the space that contains and creates all things. The universe is like a quantum computer and is creating everything because this computer is consciousness. The big bang was the originating cause of our universe because it was what happened when consciousness created the objects of its awareness, like a mind getting great ideas.
So something comes from consciousness, which is like a nothing that is the source of everything as well as its constant companion.
Two Main Issues of the Day
Two main issues facing our government leaders besides unemployment, the deficit, the debt, housing foreclosures, our war in Afghanistan and abortion have become immigration and the regulation of firearms.
Immigration has become a top priority because the heavy favorable votes from members of the Latino-American community are credited for at least part of the President’s well-deserved victory last November.
The regulation of firearms has moved front and center because of the increasingly brutal mass shootings that have occurred in the past few years.
Just as we are polluting our atmosphere and causing climate change, we are polluting our society with violence and destroying the very fabric of our humanity. We must change our ways. But it won’t be easy. We changed our culture regarding slavery, women’s rights, cigarette smoking and civil rights, and are changing our cultural attitude toward gay rights and pollution. ”
On immigration, there appears to be the beginning of a bi-partisan agreement to resolve the issue of the estimated ten million or more people living in America without proper documentation, caused by their illegal entry. The plan seems at first glance to be very sound and well-balanced. First, our southern border will be completely secure. Then a national I.D. system will be put in place to ensure that only legal residents are hired and are working in our country. Then people here illegally will be given a criminal background check. If they pass, they will be required to report where they worked and how much they earned for the time they were in this country, and will then be assessed for back taxes with penalties and interest, and only then will be issued green cards to work here legally. To ensure that they are not taking jobs from Americans, the immigrants will be eligible only for jobs that no American wants. They also must learn English and pass a U.S. civics test. Then they will be allowed to place their names behind everyone else from their homeland that has been waiting for legal entry.
The plan being considered also makes it easier for foreign students who graduate from our colleges and graduate schools to stay in our country to use their new-found training. It would also make it easier for American companies to employ foreign scientists to make up for our country’s lack of them.
But at second glance, there are some problems. First comes securing the border. What does it mean and when will it be done? We have been trying to improve security at our southern border for the past 12 years. It is still not even half done. When will it be completely secure? What are the criteria for calling the border “completely secure?”
Then there are the work histories. The vast majority of illegal workers have worked off the books, for cash, for less than American workers would have demanded, and for employers who were illegally exploiting their labor. How will the illegals document their document-free employment? How many employers will verify that they, in fact, hired and exploited the illegal workers? How will the criminal justice system check on criminal history when the documentation of criminal identification is unavailable, because the arrestee is undocumented and not all fingerprints obtained during arrests are in the database?
How will back taxes be calculated absent any documentation? How many illegal workers earned enough to owe taxes when 47% of American families didn’t? If there is a general fine, what if these poor workers don’t have the money for these fines? They have to learn English. What does that mean? Do they really have to be fluent and be able to read and write English too? And how much U.S. civics must they learn, and where can they learn it?
Though many of them are already working here, they must yield their jobs if Americans want them. They will no longer accept lower wages and fewer benefits than legal residents, so how many of their employers will see no reason to keep them?
And then they get to go to the end of the line to get full citizenship so they can be equal to everyone else. The proponents and illegals “demand” it. Why? Why isn’t letting them become legal residents with green cards enough of a reward for people who came here illegally and took jobs away from those here legally? Why should they also have citizenship? Why can’t lack of citizenship be their penalty for their illegal, uninvited entry?
As a compromise, what about first securing our southern border, completely tightening our monitoring of short term visitors’ visas, while creating a national I.D. card system to ensure that only legal residents are hired; doing a criminal background search, mindful that it might not be complete; give English language classes and civics courses, and charge each undocumented immigrant a flat fee, say $10,000, to obtain a green card to work and receive special driver’s licenses? If as many as ten million paid $10,000 each we would raise $100 billion and ten million people would no longer be undocumented but would not be eligible for any welfare benefits.
And why do foreign students attend American colleges and graduate schools to begin with? Do we not have enough American students to fill the classrooms? Why are we importing scientists when we are not employing our own? Could it be because they cost less and have fewer employee rights and benefits?
Gun control legislation now being proposed is filled with good ideas that couldn’t hurt and would probably help. We don’t need assault style rifles for the public. We don’t need large clips holding more than 10 bullets. We register car ownership and home ownership; we can register all gun ownership too. More has to be done about early detection of mental health issues, for many reasons as well as gun safety.
But it seems clear that the real problem is our culture. We idolize violence and make heroes of our most violent. We love our military because they can crush their adversaries with brutal force. Our soldiers are heroes. Our favorite T.V. shows and movies are violent. We love James Bond, Rocky Balboa, the Terminator, Rambo, Jack Bauer, Van Diesel, Dirty Harry, et al. Even our news magazines have become showcases of past violence. The CBS show “48 hours” used to be about different topics that occurred over a two-day period, hence the name. The show is now only about murder cases. The same with NBC’s “Dateline.” Now ABC’s “20/20” has joined them, featuring “isn’t murder interesting?” shows that teach us that white, middle-class Americans can be vicious murderers. Then there are our violent video games that show what fun it can be to kill people and blow things up.
When we turn on the evening news to get away from all the violence, we see violence both locally and then internationally. Every night the question is which Muslims are killing whom in what forsaken country (Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Mali, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, Turkey, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Chad, Niger, etc). Lately each night holds news of another mass killing somewhere in our country. We are becoming numbed by and immune to the effects of more news of violence.
We are a violent culture, especially compared with advanced western cultures and Japan, and we must change our ways. Just as we are polluting our atmosphere and causing climate change, we are polluting our society with violence and destroying the very fabric of our humanity. We must change our ways. But it won’t be easy. We changed our culture regarding slavery, women’s rights, cigarette smoking and civil rights, and are changing our cultural attitude toward gay rights and pollution.
We’ve done it before, we can do it again. We must do it again.
Whatever Happened to the American Family Car?
Most of us are either too young or too old to remember what American cars were like in the 1920s and 1930s. Unless we watch classic car auctions, we are unaware that America produced some of the greatest family cars, especially luxury ones. In the 1920s and 1930s America produced luxury cars like the Duesenberg, Pierce Arrow, Packard, Auburn, Cadillac and Lincoln. These cars could compete with Europe’s Rolls Royce, Bentley, Mercedes and Jaguar in beauty, power and luxury.
During these years, people would go to the dealers in August or September to see the new models. Each year each model changed slightly, not always for the better. By 1959 cars had become too big and unattractive. The huge fins destroyed the graceful lines of 1956 models.”
Many of us are too young or old to remember American family cars of the 1950s and 1960s. After going through the 1940s with a non-productive period caused by bad design and the war, American cars started a comeback in the early 1950s.
For me it really began again in 1953 with the Buick Skylark convertible and the Cadillac 62, which also came in a convertible. The following years saw the birth of America’s sports cars - the Chevrolet Corvette and the Ford Thunderbird and then the boom of 1956, one of the best years ever for American cars. The 1956 Chevrolet, Buick and Cadillac were perhaps the best they have ever been. Chrysler had the Imperial and the 300 that began the year before. Even the Mercury had its best year ever as far as design and popularity. And the Lincoln Continental was every bit as exquisite as the finest foreign make. Cadillac had its super luxurious Eldorado Brougham which just got better in 1957 and 1958.
During these years, people would go to the dealers in August or September to see the new models. Each year each model changed slightly, not always for the better. By 1959 cars had become too big and unattractive. The huge fins destroyed the graceful lines of 1956 models.
Around 1962 America decided to make smaller family cars. There was the Chevrolet Corvair, Pontiac Tempest, Buick Skylark, Olds Cutlass, Plymouth Valiant, Dodge Dart, Mercury Comet and Ford Falcon. They were smaller but well equipped. They were challenged by foreign cars like the Volkswagen, Volvo and Saab, which were even smaller and used less gas in their smaller, four-cylinder engines. Each year these American small cars grew a little larger. By the mid 1960s many of them became muscle cars. The Olds Cutlass evolving into the mighty 442, the Pontiac Tempest grew up to become the Lemans and then the awesome GTO, even the Skylark got a big engine.
For the second half of the 1960s, America fell in love with the big, powerful American family car. Chrysler Corporation came out with the Plymouth Barracuda and Roadrunner, the Dodge Charger and an even bigger 300 series. The two sport cars had grown considerably with the T-Bird becoming a large four passenger car even available in a four door model. The Corvair had been killed by Ralph Nader who claimed that it was unsafe at any speed. The Studebaker and the Packard went the way of the Duesenberg and Pierce Arrow, which disappeared in the 1940s. American Motors, which produced the Rambler and the Metropolitan was also on its last legs. By 1969, American cars were neither attractive nor reliable.
The 1970s saw the American family car fall further from grace. The foreign invasion not only from Germany and Sweden but also from Japan began threatening our car production. By 1979, the only American family cars that we could be proud of were Cadillac which produced the 1979 Seville and the end of the Fleetwood line and the Lincoln Continental Mark V. Americans were turning to Honda, Toyota, Datsun - which became Nissan - and to VW and Volvo. These cars were more attractive, more reliable and much more fun to drive.
By the beginning of the 1980s the American family car was on life support. It appears that at that point American car executives made some terrible decisions. First they decided to reduce the amount of chrome on their cars in part because of its country of source, Rhodesia. American government officials did not want to trade with what was considered a racist state and feared that when the white minority was overthrown, chrome would not be as readily available. Also chrome was heavy and expensive and Americans were beginning to show concern for gas economy. The second mistake that has continued to this date was to follow the lead of the 1975 Triumph TR7 which billed itself as the shape of the future. The new shape was almost triangular with the front of the car much lower than the back. The ad for it was the car driving into a wedge-shaped garage. While the TR7 probably marked the beginning of the end for Triumph, the great English motor company that had produced the TR3 and the TR4A, the new shape seemed to be the way to go reducing drag and increasing fuel efficiency. The third mistake and one that has also continued into the present was to start building trucks with closed cabs and calling them SUVs. The idea was that the car companies could produce them cheaply but sell them for a lot figuring that we were dumb enough to fall for it. They were right. We were dumb enough to pay big bucks for the Escalade, Navigator, Durango, GMC, Explorer, Tahoe, Equinox et al even though they were basically pick up trucks. They were also attractive to some because they did not use the wedge shape, so they looked more like cars used to look.
I believe that for all these reasons, the American car companies stopped producing attractive sedans, coupes, hardtops, fastbacks, convertibles or station wagons. The American luxury sedan or hardtop was nowhere to be found. The Japanese and Europeans rushed in to fill the void. Honda, Toyota and Nissan came out with their own luxury lines: the Acura, Lexus and Infinity, respectively. Mercedes, BMW, Volvo, Audi and even VW came out with affordable luxury cars.
At this time, the beginning of 2013, America has no desirable luxury cars, does not produce any station wagons, makes few if any convertibles, has few if any good hatchbacks and can not compete in the small car arena. America now produces mainly pick-up trucks, SUVs and large family cars that few Americans want.
Have you seen the Cadillac or the Lincoln models lately? What are they? They are not luxurious or attractive. Who would buy them when BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Lexus, Infinity, Acura, Volvo and even Honda Accord produce better cars.
What can the American car industry do?
First, we must admit that we have only six actual car lines. The Dodge line should be a truck line for Chrysler corporation as is GMC for General Motors. Then each line should come up with as many as three size models: one that is about 165 inches (plus or minus a few) and includes a hatchback; another that is 175 inches (+/-) and includes a station wagon and a convertible and a third that is about 185 inches in length. American cars today are as big as 224 inches in length and are no fun to drive because of their excessive height, width and length.
General Motors should bring their 1956 Chevrolet and Cadillac to their designers and say make a modern version of these and use chrome around the windows, on the grill, bumpers and even surrounding the head and tail lights. And never mind the wedge look. The wedge has disproven the old dictum “function is beauty.” This shape, like those of modern motorcycles, proves that the two concepts can be mutually exclusive. For the small model, they could also be shown a 2006 VW Golf hatchback for inspiration.
The G.M. car models should have names and not numbers. There could be names like the Chevrolet Monza, Bel Air and Impala. The Cadillac could have the Fleetwood, the Seville and maybe the Eldorado. And bring back the Buick Roadmaster, it was my family’s favorite.
Attention should be paid to the proportion of body to window and tire size. This was not a problem in the 1950s, but is one now. (The new Camaro is a great example of poor proportions with windows too small for the body. The Fiat 500’s tires are too small even for its tiny body.)
At Chrysler they should develop a new larger Fiat for their small model, produce a medium-sized car also with a station wagon and convertible and come out with a large, luxurious Imperial like those of the 1950‘s and early 1960s.
Ford should produce three models of the Ford and two of the luxury Lincoln with a midsize model and a most luxurious Continental to top its line. Lincoln designers can be shown the 1956 Continental and one produced in 1964, that also came as a four-door convertible with suicide doors, for direction. We don’t need Cadillac or Lincoln SUVs, pick-up trucks or crossovers. These are luxury cars and should be available in sedans, coupes, hardtops and convertibles.
There is no reason why America can not produce beautiful, economical, well sized, high quality, desirable American cars that Americans and foreigners will want to buy. We’ve done it before, we can do it again.
Life After 12/21/12
A New Year and a New Chapter
The Mayan calendar supposedly predicted that the world would end on 12/21/12. The Mayans obviously did not celebrate Christmas, otherwise they would have put the end date off until our after-Christmas sales were over. The Mayans were not that good at predicting endings, especially when it came to that of their civilization. They somehow missed that one.
Now that this day has come and gone with no more than the usual amount of death and destruction, we are told that the Mayans actually believed that this was just the end of a cycle and the beginning of the next. So what can we expect from this next cycle?
No one can be in favor of waste, and yet, so little is being done to prevent it. We waste money on foreign military bases that protect no one, on foreign aid that usually gets squandered, and on a lack of accountability within government agencies to ensure maximum efficiency and effectiveness. A recent large study found that we waste $750 billion a year on unnecessary medical costs, either because the tests, procedures, and prescriptions are unjustified, or because of actual fraud, billing for products or services that were never provided. ”
I believe that this date marks the beginning of the end of the following systems and institutions:
The right wing of the Republican party. The vast majority of Americans are against all of the conservatives’ core issues. Most Americans want the rich and corporations to pay higher taxes to afford government programs our civilized nation has come to expect. The right wing doesn’t agree. Most Americans feel that it should be an individual’s free choice whether to have a full term pregnancy that would result in injury or death. The right wing doesn’t. Most Americans believe that women should have access to birth control to avoid unwanted or unhealthy pregnancies. The right wing disagrees. Most Americans believe that certain weapons and ammunition magazines should be banned and that all gun owners must have a background check before getting a weapon to prevent future mass shootings. The right wing doesn’t. Most Americans believe that everyone should have health care coverage either through their employer, the government, or affordable individual coverage. The right wing doesn’t. Most Americans want Social Security and Medicare benefits maintained. The right wing doesn’t. Most Americans believe in evolution; the right wing doesn’t. Most people in the world believe in science. The right wing doesn’t. The right wing of the Republican Party will become the dodo bird of the new era. We will soon hear no more about Rush, Karl, Sean, Sarah, Michele B., Paul R., Eric H., and their ilk. Fox “news” will no longer have an audience. It cannot be soon enough.
The National Rifle Association has proven itself to be tone deaf and morally blind to the inadequacy of their position. They stand firmly behind the second amendment, wanting it to mean that there can and should be no restriction on gun possession by American citizens. They believe Americans should be able to carry concealed weapons, assault rifles, even machine guns if they want to. Their solution to increased violence caused by increased gun possession is more gun possession to counter it with good guys with guns killing bad ones with guns. Even gun owners have become sickened by and ashamed of their lobbying organization. The N.R.A. will soon lose its influence, having shot itself too often in the foot while it was in the association’s collective mouth.
Organized religion has also outlived its past usefulness. Religion gave us a moral code to live by. It inspired great art, architecture and music. It gave us a sense of community and encouraged us to help our fellow man through acts of kindness and charity. But each religion based its teaching on its assessment of G-d’s will. It was not logic or thoughtfulness that guided our actions, not intuition or instinct, but a high priest’s pronouncement of what G-d wanted of us. Different religions offered different assessments. They have been mutually contradictory so one had to be right and the others wrong. But which? It has been ours is the true one and the others are mistaken. People who identify strongly with their religion have felt offended by the claims of those in other faiths. Wars continue to break out. And all of religion’s most cherished beliefs and teachings are forsaken. We now have religious extremists who commit suicide in order to kill innocent people, thinking that it is a path to paradise. What could be worse?
We now have governments with social services and support of the arts and sciences. We have established laws and traditions based on centuries of past human experience. We have a vibrant art and music culture supported by private as well as public resources. We have a vast array of spiritual, political and philosophical schools of thought to attend, participate in, and identify with. While we may no longer need organized religion, some of the trappings of religion should continue - the great music like Ave Maria (Hail Mary), Hallelujah, the Kaddish, and Silent Night. The beautiful architecture reflected in many churches around the world should be maintained and used for community gatherings and weddings. And we wouldn’t want to lose Christmas with its trees, lights and loving feeling. We could perhaps cut back on the holiday toy spending to the tune of $600 billion during the holiday shopping season, acquiring useless junk that even the kids don’t want but won’t admit.
Laws against marijuana will be revised, making this beneficial herb legal but not mandatory. It’s about time.
Labor unions. The American worker would not be where he is, or even close to it, were it not for the unions. We got the eight-hour work day; the five-day work week; safe working conditions, unlike those in India and China; fair retirement pensions; paid vacations; and a greater degree of job security. But unions have had problems in the past, from corruption to overreaching, making some companies and industries wanting out, either of union control or this country, taking their jobs to non-union states and countries. Some industries became uncompetitive because of all their union-requested concessions. Now Republican governors and state legislatures are pushing to limit the power of unions by imposing “right-to work” laws that allow workers to avoid union membership and fees while still receiving the benefits. This could destroy unions by eventually letting everyone get a free ride. So far, 24 states have passed right-to work laws. Republican state politicians also want to end the power of unions representing government workers to have any say about working conditions. Soon workers will have to rely on the government to ensure their rights.
Waste in government. We might start getting serious about waste in government, including fraud. No one can be in favor of waste, and yet, so little is being done to prevent it. We waste money on foreign military bases that protect no one, on foreign aid that usually gets squandered, and on a lack of accountability within government agencies to ensure maximum efficiency and effectiveness. A recent large study found that we waste $750 billion a year on unnecessary medical costs, either because the tests, procedures, and prescriptions are unjustified, or because of actual fraud, billing for products or services that were never provided. Our federal income tax code provides ample opportunity for false claims or intentional omissions. We could get rid of the penny and nickel, both of which cost more to produce than their worth and are rarely used anymore. We could end Saturday mail deliveries since most of it is junk mail anyway. We could end travel by government workers for training or conferences since both can be done via video conferencing. We could end expensive publicity shows like the Blue Angels and Fleet Week.
There is so much that we can do to make this a better country and world. We again have a chance to start a new chapter, avoiding the mistakes of the past and replacing them with realistic solutions for the future.
Those who watch the evening news see reports of terrible violence in some part of the Muslim world — from the west coast of Africa north to Tunisia and east to Pakistan —what seems like every night. The violence is directed at members of rival sects and tribes, toward their cruel dictators, against women and/or it is against the United States and/or Israel. There are huge angry mobs — yelling, screaming obscenities, burning flags, shaking fists and making horrible faces in places like Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, the Palestine and Yemen. While we are constantly reminded that this is just an extremist minority not reflective of the population, we see so much of it.
Many of these angry mobs are in countries to which the U.S. provides essential aid. We give billions a year to the Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, and Libya. When the Libyans were revolting against their longtime dictator, they begged for and received American military and humanitarian aid. The Egyptians also requested and received our support against their longtime dictator. Now the Syrians plead and insist that we come to their aid.
Over the past 11 years, we have lost more than 7,000 young American men and women in two needless wars, have suffered tens of thousands of wounded and have committed trillions of dollars. Our military interventions have resulted in the violent and premature deaths of hundreds of thousands Muslims, many of whom were innocent bystanders. We call our troops heroes and honor their service. It would surely be better if we had fewer heroes and more peace. Let them be everyday heroes raising families and pursuing their dreams.”
We have been in Afghanistan with bases throughout the country for more than a decade, longer than any other American conflict. We entered to rid the country of Al Qaeda and to drive the Taliban from power. We did that early on, Al Qaeda was defeated and its Taliban hosts surrendered. Instead of imprisoning or executing these terrorists, we let them go with their weapons to fight another day. We then began nation building and training what we have always been told were brave, patriotic warriors willing to fight to their death for the good of their people. We have been nation building and training for many years but cannot locate these brave warriors. And while the people want us out they don’t want to run their own country without us.
Over the past 11 years, we have lost more than 7,000 young American men and women in two needless wars, have suffered tens of thousands of wounded and have committed trillions of dollars. Our military interventions have resulted in the violent and premature deaths of hundreds of thousands Muslims, many of whom were innocent bystanders. We call our troops heroes and honor their service. It would surely be better if we had fewer heroes and more peace. Let them be everyday heroes raising families and pursuing their dreams.
In addition to the Middle East and northern Africa, we have military bases all over the world. We are in South Korea with 25,000 troops to hold the line against North Korea’s one million—man force. We have bases in England, France, Italy and Germany. We have bases in Japan and Latin America.
The total requested for 2012—13 for defense was not just the $708 billion going to the Department of Defense budget, but also included the following purely defense— related costs: the V.A. — $70 billion, Veterans’ pensions — $55 billion, Homeland Security — $47 billion, Department of Energy — $22 billion, State Department — $6 billion, FBI — $3 billion, Miscellaneous related costs — $8 billion and interest of military loans that paid for Iraq and Afghanistan — at least $109 billion. The total U.S. defense cost is at minimum $1.03 trillion.
The entire general fund budget for the U.S. (without Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security costs of $1.5 trillion which are still totally paid for with FICA trust funds and should not be in the general fund budget) is, therefore, not $3.5 trillion but about $2 trillion. Of that our defense costs are more than 50% of the actual general fund budget. (Interestingly, the cost of military purchases and research was $215 billion in 2011while military personnel costs were only $154 billion.)
We are providing military and economic assistance to countries all over the world, spending tens of billions of dollars a year that could be spent right here in our country. We have more than 700 foreign bases and give more than $50 billion in foreign aid. What do they accomplish? Do the recipients of our aid and protection appreciate us or do they feel that we are controlling them and their culture? Do they become independent of our largesse as quickly as possible or do they expect it to continue indefinitely?
Meanwhile, back here in the States, we need to reduce our annual budget shortfall while having to improve our physical and intellectual infrastructure. We need better roads and bridges to facilitate both commerce and recreation. We need a much better education system to give all of our children a complete, well rounded education. We need to bring our own people out of poverty and into productive rewarding lives by providing them with opportunity and motivation.
All this costs money. Money we could save by bringing our troops and aid payments home to rebuild our own country.
But what will the world do if we withdraw our military and reduce our foreign aid? I am confident that they will find that they can manage quite well and feel much better for it. The Muslim world has been insisting that we leave their soil. We have left Saudi Arabia and Iraq; let us quickly leave Afghanistan and the region. Let us leave Asia and Europe and come home.
If there is a struggle in the Middle East (unless it involves Israel), there is the Arab League to turn to. In Africa, they too have an organization of their many states to accomplish mutual goals. If there is a civil war somewhere else in the world, let the U.N. deal with it. Now that Europe is somewhat unified, why not let them have their own defense league? If our allies still feel a need for some of our bases, let them pay the entire cost.
And let American dollars circulate in America. Let us be a country that is no longer dependent on oil from the Middle East and is much less dependent on foreign made goods and services, exporting much more than we import. We can be a nation that leads by example and not by money and military power.
Bringing our troops and money home would help produce a better educated, less stratified, and more creative and productive people who experience less violence and more harmony. We can do it.
If we just come home.
Are We As Dumb As They Think We Are?
We are now at the tail end of a terrible political season. The Republican Party leaders want to win back the Senate and the White House in November. They had several potential presidential candidates running against the Republican who was already promised the chance. The want-to-be’s couldn’t be.
The only woman running started off by saying that she raised 23 foster children. It turned out that she got paid to take care of each of them for a week or two, not quite the same as raising them. During a debate, she could not remember whether she had five kids or three — she went with three. Then she went public about meeting a random woman who attributed her son’s mental retardation to a vaccination that he had received. The candidate’s statement made us wonder whether she herself had been given the same medication. She actually won in Iowa and wanted us to consider her a serious person and candidate. How dumb did she think we were?
This failed candidate was followed by one who thought that the chair of the FED was a traitor for trying to help the economy, the job for which he was appointed. This challenger was desperate to close three federal agencies but could only remember two of them. How could he imagine that we were as dumb as he was?
Whatever the cause, the condition is clear. The solution will have to be a concerted effort to improve ourselves as a people. It begins by admitting that we have a problem. Many of us are dumb and the condition is both contagious and dangerous.”
The next one wanted to build an American community on the Moon. We could have called them Lunatics but ended up calling him one.
The next one wanted an end to prenatal testing, birth control and abortion for any reason, and he was against sex between married couples who do not plan to have more children. At some point his wife must have realized that this applied to them. The candidate thought that we were dumb enough to go along with this scenario, maybe because his wife was.
Then there was the one who could not keep up with current events or past affairs. He wasn’t sure what was going on in Libya but was sure that the President was doing the wrong thing there. He also claimed that he could not recall some of his most expensive affairs. He hoped that we were as dumb as he was.
At the end with none of the other contenders appearing reasonable enough to fool the American voter, the candidate who was originally promised the run got the nod.
He attacked the President on the economy, promising to fix our economic problems because he had 25 years’ experience at a private equity company. Instead of letting us see all his good work, he kept the dealings secret, fearing we wouldn’t understand and hoping that we were too dumb to ask questions. When we did ask, he made sure that none of his work would be made public. He thought that we would just assume that he did good work because he made a lot of money doing it.
He announced that he wanted to change the tax code to not only keep the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy in place, but to actually reduce their taxes further. When asked how his projected $5 trillion tax cut for the rich over a ten year period would help the economy, he gave a Reagan answer that the money will trickle down from the “job creators” to the middle class. He assumed that we would forget that the economy was booming when taxes on the rich were higher — like in the 50s, 60s and 70s and the 90s until the tax breaks started in 2001. After those breaks were put in place the economy tanked. The stock market had lost half its value, we lost eight million jobs and the unemployment rate doubled. The Bush tax cuts combined with our entrance into two unnecessary wars doubled our national debt.
The Republican nominee has now said that he will fix the economy by cutting tax rates for the rich, but that it would not mean that the middle class would have to pay more taxes. He went on to promise that it would be revenue neutral, neither adding to nor subtracting from our economy, and also said it would not reduce the amount of taxes the rich pay. So in essence his tax plan would have no effect on anyone or anything. Did he think we wouldn’t notice? Could we be that dumb?
And yet with such a terrible candidate running against such an excellent and popular President, you would think that it would be no contest. Surely the vast majority of the population would be smart enough to realize that the contender has no clothes, but now, weeks before the election, we are asked to believe that the race is close. The President was well ahead before the debate, after his opponent was heard telling a small private audience that he believed that 47% of Americans not only pay no income tax, but also consider themselves victims and cannot ever be made responsible. (He has since said that he was wrong — clearly an honest mistake.) Now, after the President seemed too polite in the debate, the public opinion allegedly has swung in favor of the opponent. The people who changed their minds did so because they thought that the contender seemed more confident, even as he consistently misrepresented his position and denied the President’s accomplishments. It was form over content. How dumb could voters be to change our mind based on a 90 minute appearance?
I think that the answer is in and it is not pretty.
Many of us really are that dumb.
But how did this happen? Who’s to blame? It could be our education system that fails to teach most students how to think. It could be our parents who didn’t show us role models of intelligent adults making considered decisions. It could be our media, which have failed to ask the hard questions, leaving many of us unaccustomed to thinking critically. It could be our culture that distracts us with more information than we can juggle.
Whatever the cause, the condition is clear. The solution will have to be a concerted effort to improve ourselves as a people. It begins by admitting that we have a problem. Many of us are dumb and the condition is both contagious and dangerous.
Let us be smart enough to realize it and persistent enough to improve it.
Why Is Romney Running and Who Should Vote for Him?
The first question we could be asking is, why is Romney running to be President of the United States? It’s not the money. Romney makes more than $20 million a year without lifting a finger. He surely doesn’t need the $400,000 a year salary that goes with the job. He does not need to live in the White House because he has many fine homes and with his net worth at about a quarter of a billion dollars, he could live anywhere he wants.
He was governor of Massachusetts for one term, but still had not equaled his father. Becoming President would surpass his father. The essence of Romney is competition and who better to beat than his own father? ”
He surely has no ideology or plan to help our country. He has suggested no plan for tax reform other than making the rich richer and the poor poorer. His plan for the military is to increase it to equal a certain percent of the GNP, regardless of our defensive needs. He has no plans for increasing hiring or for reducing the number of home foreclosures.
He has no national political experience and worked in government for only four years. When he left the governor’s office he had all evidence of his time there removed from computers and file cabinets. When he left office, his state was number 47 out of 50 states in job creation. He introduced health care reform which was the model for the Affordable Care Act, but is now against it even though it has been one of his few successes.
He says that he is the man for the job because he has 25 years of business experience but he doesn’t want us to know what that experience really was. It appears that his company got into buying struggling companies, borrowing large amounts to pay for them, shrinking their work force and benefits, taking large commissions and then letting them go bankrupt. This does not create jobs. Many of the jobs his firm did create were in China and India by outsourcing the work.
He wants to reduce taxes on the rich but won’t share his tax returns with the public. The one year’s return he did reveal showed that he had much of his wealth offshore and in Swiss bank accounts to avoid paying taxes himself, while not using his wealth to create jobs in America. He wants to manage our tax code but can’t manage to complete his 2011 tax return that was due April 15th, six months ago.
He calls himself severely conservative, which means that he is against gay marriage, abortion and unions. But when he was in government he said that he was in favor of those social issues.
So why is he running? Why was McCain running when he too had no need of the money, having married well the second time. I think it was for the same reason, and also might have even been George W.’s for running.
They were competing with their fathers.
George W.’s father was a war hero, a member of Congress, head of the CIA, Vice President and President of the United States. George W. joined the Air Force reserves to avoid battle and then was AWOL at that. He was a failed businessman and sports team owner. He had problems with substance abuse. He then became a successful governor, albeit in Texas, and ran for President like his father had done. He had twice as many terms as his dad, but almost destroyed the country in the process.
John McCain’s father and grandfather were both four star admirals in the Navy. John had less than one year of combat experience flying planes in Viet Nam. He was captured and held as a POW for five terrible years. He realized soon that his military career would never equal his father’s. He remarried well to a rich heiress whose father helped John get into Arizona politics. Being rich and a senator was not equal to a four star admiral, but being President and Commander-in-Chief would trump old dad. The admiral is still ahead on points.
Mitt Romney’s father was head of an American car company and governor of Michigan. He was a contender for the Republican nomination for President, even though he was a Mormon and was born in Mexico, coming to America at age five. His son Mitt got into and through high school, college and graduate school because of his father, and was then given a moneymaking business to run soon after school. He made a lot of money at Bain capital outsourcing jobs, reducing payrolls and benefits, and sometimes bankrupting the affected companies. He was governor of Massachusetts for one term, but still had not equaled his father. Becoming President would surpass his father. The essence of Romney is competition and who better to beat than his own father?
This might explain why Romney is so ill at ease running for President and does such a poor job of it. Instead of pursuing his real, individual talents, abilities and passions, he tries to be a better version of his father, a totally different individual. With his looks he could have excelled in other careers - sales, modeling and acting come to mind. Romney could have even been the Marlboro man. Can’t you see it now?
The next question is: who should vote for Mitt Romney? First, they must be Republican - 24% of the electorate. Being Republican also means being white and Christian. A recent study found that 90% of Republicans are white and 90% are Christian. The other 10% either didn’t understand the questions or just don’t understand what their best interests are. Besides being a white Christian Republican ( a redundancy), they should also be rich, at least in the top two percent of family income, receiving more than $250,000 a year because if re-elected, President Obama will raise their taxes while Romney might even lower them. But they have to be aware that lowering taxes on the rich in 2001 and 2003 helped create the economic disaster from which we are currently recovering. If taxes are lowered even more for the rich, regulations loosened and military spending increased, our deficit will grow even more rapidly, putting even the rich at risk of losing money, customers and stock value.
Other potential Romney voters might be white Christian Republicans who are not in the top 2% of income recipients but hold very strong cultural values. Some, like the evangelicals, love their Savior and hate gays, blacks, Jews, Muslims and foreigners in His name. They feel compelled to vote against the President even if it makes them suffer more economically, affected by the service program cuts that have been promised by candidate Romney. These evangelicals might even believe that Mormons are not Christians, but prefer them to what they perceive as a black, Muslim, socialist, pro-gay, pro-abortion and anti-gun foreigner (Kenyan or Hawaiian) President.
And of course every Mormon and everyone who contributes to Fox “news” is duty bound to vote for challenger Romney.
I think that that covers all the likely Romney voters.
That means that if you are not white or Christian or very rich, you shouldn’t vote for the challenger unless you care nothing about your own or your country’s best interests. If you are a member of a union, work for the government, need health care coverage, are against the U.S. military build up, are in favor of women’s reproductive rights, approve of gay unions, care about the poor, want to avoid saber rattling that could lead us into war with Iran, Syria, North Korea or Yemen, care about the environment, believe in voter’s rights, want to be able to look forward to receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits in the future and/or think that gun violence has gone too far, should and must vote to re-elect the President. “Should” because it would be in your best interest as well as the nation’s, and “must” because every vote counts.
Taming the Human Nature
It has been painful watching the T.V. news. Disregarding the sensationalized or superficially reported stories, many well researched reports can be very depressing commentaries on the state of human nature.
We hear daily of atrocities to which humans are subjecting others. The primary victims are girls and women who are mistreated by their families, husbands, government officials and brutal savages whose lifes’ goals are destruction for domination. Recent articles about mistreatment of women in Muslim countries cite mutilation, humiliation, rape, murder and every possible kind of desecration. But there is so much more. There are terrorists blowing themselves up trying to take as many innocent lives with them. There are business people who cheat their customers, husbands who lie to and cheat on their wives, criminals who violate our laws of decency, the abuse of animals in bullfights, in the jungle, at sea and in overcrowded chicken coops. We wage wars that kill and maim and write laws that are cruel and inhumane. Even our religions betray us with shallow theologies and divisiveness, leading to intolerance and violence.
Today, dogs are used to find bombs, identify disease, help the blind walk and bring comfort to the elderly and disabled. But most of all, dogs give us love, unconditional love.”
Our human nature must be tamed, but how. Creating cultures and civilizations with laws and philosophies that foster good has been our way of taming our nature, but even they have failed us, leading to greater conflict. What can we create that can bring out our good qualities and make the disruptive ones seem out of place? What have we created for this purpose, as well as for many others?
I can think of one. It took thousands of years, at least 15,000 by some counts, but Man has worked hand in hand with nature to produce a remedy to free our better selves.
We created the modern dog.
It turns out that it doesn’t take long to turn a fox, wolf or coyote into a dog. By mating the most docile member of a litter with another, these species become doglike in three generations. Remember, for them one generation can be just a few years. By breeding just for temperament, the offspring change their fur color, their size, shape and their nature. They become domesticated.
But how does taming their wild nature help humans tame theirs?
From their beginning we have needed dogs to help us in our daily lives. When humans were still hunters and gatherers, dogs helped us find our prey and sometimes helped us capture or retrieve them. They helped us when we started raising our own food by herding our livestock and protecting our lives and property. Today, dogs are used to find bombs, identify disease, help the blind walk and bring comfort to the elderly and disabled. But most of all, dogs give us love, unconditional love.
Dogs are not judgmental. They don’t respond to people based on physical appearance, financial status, political point of view or social status. Their unconditional love resonates deep within us to ignite the unconditional love that is at the heart of our very nature, and temporarily suspends our fear, which is also at our core.
Scientists have now found a physiological expression for this apparent canine gift. They have found that when humans pet their dogs it increases the level of oxytocin in both. Oxytocin is the same chemical that is produced when a mother nurses her baby and feels a bonding. The oxytocin is the bonding glue. Oxytocin levels are also elevated during intimate human interaction leading to its orgasmic conclusion. Oxytocin in our system makes us open and trusting while the testosterone in us is a counterbalance making us also somewhat leery and aggressive. People with high levels of the former and low ones of the latter tend to be very trusting, easy targets for con men and charlatans.
But dogs are not intent on tricking us. They want their basic necessities met – enough food, water and opportunities to eliminate waste products – and beyond them, the only goal is love and joy.
There are now more than 100 million dogs. There are some 150,000 dogs in San Francisco, more than the number of the city’s children. Dogs come in more varieties than do any other species and range in size more than any other. A mature dog can weigh anywhere from barely two pounds to over 200. So in the same species a dog can be 100 times the size of another. Can you imagine if some adult humans were 100 times the size of other adults?
Dogs are the rare living creatures that were created by Man. We started more than 15,000 years ago the process of making dogs to serve our individual needs. There are hunting dogs that point to the prey and retrieve them when they are killed or who look for animals or people to capture. There are herding dogs that take care of our livestock, be they sheep or cattle. There are dogs that hunt rodents like gophers, mice and rats. There even is a dog, the Kings Charles Cavalier spaniel, created to sit on the king’s lap and attract the fleas away from the royal. There are dogs that offer protection, those who are small enough to be carried everywhere, those who can help the blind find their way and even those who bark the whole time their master is gone. There are even dogs that can find bombs, drugs or even disease.
Some anthropologists believe that Man could not have survived without dogs.
But there is one thing wrong with dogs: they get old, suffer and die. Dogs, like all finite things, have a beginning and an end. The beginning is the cause for great joy. The end is cause for unbearable sorrow. It is the death of the innocent. The constant reminder of the cruelty of nature’s untamed entropy.
In memoriam Corky Kaye-Nyne 9/3/96 to 4/11/12.
What Could Be Goals for the Second Term
Looking at the small number of voting groups that would favor Romney: Mormons and evangelicals; some of the top one percent of income earners ($387,000 and over), those who get their wealth from inheritance, Wall Street, the defense industry, or big oil and who care about their tax rate more than their country; racists who are not evangelicals; anyone who watches Fox “News” not in these groups, and Catholic bishops, who consider fighting for heterosexual marriage that does not include recreational sex, just procreational, more important than helping the poor, it seems unlikely that the President will be denied a second term. He will be given four more years to reshape our country. What should he do? He has already saved the U.S. economy from a deep recession; passed a sweeping financial reform; rescued the American auto industry from ruin; ended “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell;” crafted the Affordable Care Act, almost as sweeping as Medicare when introduced; killed Osama and crushed Al Qaeda leadership; gotten us out of Iraq and initiated an effort to improve our public education system.
What should he do in his next term? Here’s what I would like to see:
Reduce the annual and accumulated national budget deficit by changing the tax code; reducing our foreign military presence; reducing foreign aid; cutting out waste and fraud in government programs; eliminating, combining and reducing government agencies; changing our immigration criteria; and discouraging the outsourcing of American jobs while encouraging the creation of millions of new American employment opportunities and creating a broader tax base.
Changing our federal income tax code for individuals by eliminating all itemized deductions (except for the self employed) and credits with only a standard deduction; considering all sources of income equally including capital gains, dividends, Social Security benefit payments, earned income, food stamps, unemployment insurance payments etc.; and with only five tax brackets ranging from 10% to 30%.
Reducing our foreign military presence by closing many of our more than 700 foreign military bases especially in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. We should withdraw all troops from Afghanistan as quickly as possible and give up on trying to create a new country there.
Reducing foreign aid which is now at $51 billion by first ensuring that what we give is used as intended and that it will soon end. Much of it now seems wasted on corrupt governments and making failed countries dependent on our largesse.
Eliminating, combining and/or reducing government agencies after determining what functions are now being done and which are either duplications of other efforts or have no impact on goals and objectives. Could the Dept. of Education by recombined with Health and Human Services, formerly know as Health, Education and Welfare? Could the Dept. of Energy be part of Interior? Could the many Homeland Security agencies be combined and eliminated? Can we almost eliminate all travel by government employees for training or conferences? How many federally-funded think tanks do we really need? Should we still produce pennies and nickels when they are not even worth the cost of making them? Should any law enforcement resources be wasted on marijuana when it is more beneficial and less harmful than alcohol or cigarettes, which are considered legal?
Changing our immigration criteria by accepting applicants who have something to offer in terms of talent or skills and not inviting the poorest and neediest to our shores or people who are related to someone already here. We have tens of millions of Americans who are poor and needy, let us help them before adding to the problem. Those here illegally should be encouraged to return to their beloved homeland. All employers should check all their employees’ status by running an EVerify on them.
Discouraging outsourcing by eliminating all incentives for it and by creating disincentives making hiring Americans more cost effective.
Secure the future of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits for the aged and disabled by raising the salary ceiling for payroll tax deductions and making Americans healthier through improved education, nutrition and exercise, thus preventing the onset of serious and costly illnesses like heart failure, cancer, diabetes and kidney failure. Currently, ten percent of our people account for 67% of all medical costs. Let us focus on that 10% while keeping the other 90% from joining them. Reduce or eliminate waste and fraud which costs hundreds of billions of dollars each year.
Dramatically improve public education to ensure that every child can have an excellent elementary and high school experience which will produce an adult who can read, write and speak our language correctly; who can do math at least up to algebra - able to easily add, subtract, multiply and divide numbers; who understands how our government works as well as the world’s geography; who can relate to science and its methodology; and who can think critically by analyzing available information and coming to rational conclusions.
Reform politics by ending campaign contributions making all local, state and federal elections shorter, issue oriented and consisting mainly of public debates and interviews for the candidates. This will end the influence peddling that currently goes on and will keep the rich from buying elections. It will also end bribery disguised as lobbying. Lobbying would consist only of presenting the special interest’s positions on pending legislation - positions based on actual facts and figures organized in a logical argument.
If President Obama can accomplish these changes in his second term, I think he will be known as one of our country’s greatest presidents. The Democrat who succeeds him can then work on ending poverty in America and putting an end to war, the final pieces to the puzzle we like to call America.
Surely, Their 15 Minutes Are Up
I always liked Andy Worhol’s idea that everyone wanted and eventually got their 15 minutes of fame. One of the current news shows now has a segment called “Your 15 Minutes Are Up.” I think that this good idea should be applied more broadly. The media should stop quoting certain people who have long since been irrelevant. Here are some suggestions:
In the field loosely called “entertainment” we have already seen some famous quotables disappear from the public eye and ear. Remember Paris? Remember Nicole? Remember Brittany? No? See how it works? So how about no more stories about Lindsay, Charlie, Ted, the Donald, Jessica, Kim or Khloe? Aren’t their 15 minutes way more than up? Who are they and what do their lives have anything to do with us? Why should we care what they were or weren’t wearing? Why need we know what they did wrong lately? Why are they getting paid for being celebrities? Last year while 13 million Americans were unemployed, Kim made more than $10 million. For What? For whom? Let us live without major news stories about these celebrities in name only. If we want to hear about them, we can tune in to our favorite celebrity gossip show, but let’s keep them off the Nightly News, please. They are narcissists and coverage only encourages them.
But what about politics? We have forgotten Spiro, most former House speakers, many former mayors, almost every unsuccessful candidate for Vice President and even some villains from the previous administration like Rummy, Wolfowitz, Perl, Gonzales and Ashcroft. Can we start forgetting to mention people like Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Sarah P. (or her family), Michele B., Newt, Herman, Glenn, Sean, Rush, Rick P., Rick S. and most of the Fox News cluster of political hacks? Must we continue to hear hatred and disinformation from a group that claims to represent a part of our country that should not be encouraged? Do we think that they will someday say or do something that seems honest or intelligent? Really? Let’s try to name one thing that any of them ever said that reflected intellect, education, wisdom, insight, decency, kindness, goodness or compassion. Give up? Let’s try to remember why these political prostitutes ever got our attention. Can we? So let’s not quote them anymore. Their views will always be welcome on their party’s official propaganda network of fixed news. Let that be the quarantine of their hypocritical negativity.
They too are narcissists and coverage only encourages them.
What would our daily news be without stories and opinions involving the above mentioned who are well past their 15 minute time limit? The news could be about important issues of the day. The news could avoid hyperbole and easy fixes by not interviewing the brave souls who survive some of the natural disasters that are occurring almost weekly now. “It was a miracle that even though we lost everything, no one was killed and that’s all that matters.” We know and appreciate your faith and courage, but we have heard it a million times. We can live without reporting on tragedies night after night until we no longer care. We could live without interviews of people on the street to get their views. We don’t care.
So what could the mainstream news be like? It could be like the PBS Newshour which briefly covers the day’s events but then focuses on three or four stories to get an in-depth analysis of each issue and its context. There should be a minimum of speculation which almost always turns out to be completely wrong — more about the speculator than the speculation. Many reporters are timid and they propose timid concerns rather than facts and figures.
We could be given more facts and figures rather than a lot of adjectives and adverbs. If we hear a report about a labor dispute, give us the numbers. How much do they make now and how much do they want? If we are talking about unemployment tell us who the unemployed are: what is the percentage of the 12.5 million by age group, educational status and type of work. That way we can start focusing on the solution instead of thinking it is happening everywhere, to everyone.
When inviting experts to represent each side of an issue, let it be respected experts with no political axe to grind. It makes no sense to ask lobbyists or politicians who have a clear bias to tell us the way it is when we know that these people have lost their integrity years ago. Do we believe Paul Ryan, John Boehner, Eric Cantor or Mitch McConnell? Really? Do we respect Paul’s grasp of macroeconomics or John’s emotional facial expressions and his imitation of penguins walking or Eric’s denial that he was adopted or Mitch’s impression of Tommy Turtle or Huckleberry Hound that he offers up daily to distract us from his real intent? Clearly Speaker Boehner should never play poker, because he has no poker face — it reacts badly every time he lies and the cameras seem to always catch it because of its frequency. And must we be subjected to John McCain insisting that we go to war — with everyone: Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Russia and soon maybe North Korea, China and all of Africa? Is Randy Newman’s “Let’s Drop the Big One” Mr. McCain’s favorite song? When grapes turn sour and bitter must we still be expected to swallow them?
When interviewing political figures, reporters can start not only quoting their sometimes absurd comments or answers, but also challenging them. When the Republicans in the House were trying to blackmail the President into concessions in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, their leaders said that it was a balanced approach and was needed to force cuts in our bloated budget. They said that we have kicked the growing deficit down the road too long. The press should have asked if they remembered that at the end of the Clinton administration in early 2001, we were running surpluses and planned to eliminate the accumulated deficit by 2003. They could have asked if the GOP members remembered what happened to derail that prospect and drive us into $15 trillion in debt. They could have asked them how it was balanced when the debt had to be raised as it had eight times under the previous administration as it had been without debate dozens of times in the recent past.
When the very unsuccessful candidate for President in 2008 said that we could not deport people here illegally because they were G-d’s children, why didn’t every reporter, or at least one, ask him that with that logic aren’t all creatures G-d’s children and if so how can we go to war with them or put them in prison when they commit crimes? When this same candidate accused Barack Obama of wanting to use taxes to redistribute wealth, why didn’t the media point out that that was the very function of government and always has been. When the press is given a photo of a crime victim to show on T.V. and realize that instead of being of a 17 year old football player who is over six feet tall, it is of a small 12 year old, they could demand a more up-to-date picture.
This November, we will be given an opportunity to tell many members of Congress that their 15 minutes are up. My hope is that the majority of freshmen members of the House are encouraged to rush back to their lives of obscurity and let us hear from intelligent, responsible representatives whose integrity is still intact. But an informed electorate is dependent upon accurate information. The mainstream media could take it upon themselves to change their ways and begin focusing on serious reporting. If a candidate being interviewed is saying something that doesn’t make sense, the reporter must pursue it. “What does that mean?” or “Could you be more specific?” or “Can you give me an example?” or “Do you want to listen to the tape yourself to hear what you said ten minutes ago?” or even “Are you kidding?” or finally, “Are you crazy or something?”
I could say so much more about this, but I’m afraid that my 15 minutes are now up.
Why Do Bad Things Happen?
Since the beginning of time, bad things have happened. They happened in nature, and then Man came along and invented many more. There are hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, droughts, volcanoes, lightening-caused fires and predators hunting, frightening and killing their prey. There is also illness, aging, terrible physical pain and death. All these natural forces cause suffering.
With human acts there are so many more varieties of bad things. There are all of our favorite “sins” like murder, rape, theft, dishonesty, envy, jealousy, laziness, and arrogance, and there are all the specific kinds ranging from individual to group to culture. There are the people cheating on their spouses, there are the businessmen deceiving their customers, there are the adults abusing children, there are the politicians lying openly to further their limited cause and there are those who live off the work of others while contributing nothing themselves. There are the groups and organizations which condone acts of cruelty like hazing, discriminating and causing physical and emotional damage to others. Then there are the cultural cruelties like bull fighting, capturing rare animals to use parts of their bodies for aphrodisiacs, boxing, tyranny, fascism, mistreatment of women, wars, corruption and injustice.
The eternal question is why? Why is there so much suffering and loss? If there is a G-d and if He is infinite, omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent, why does He allow this to go on? (And if there is no G-d, who or what is to blame?)
Our Judeo-Christian teachings explain it as caused by original sin committed by Adam and Eve, our first family. The thesis is that an angel, almost as powerful as G-d, revolted against Him and formed his own kingdom based on evil and sin. This fallen angel (called the Devil, Satan, Beelzebub, or the Prince of Darkness) convinced Eve to partake of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. She did and convinced Adam to do the same. The forbidden fruit has been assumed to be a real fruit, like an apple or orange. It was most likely Eve herself who was the edible. G-d had warned that if they partake, they will die. Since they didn’t die immediately, they thought it was a false alarm. What G-d seems to have meant was that they would die, eventually, instead of being eternal. Adam was given one of G-d’s days to live. That equals 1,000 years in human terms. Or, at least, that’s how the story goes.
So because Adam and Eve did partake in their forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge or Duality, they created original sin and the mortality that came with it. So when Adam “chose” to create new life, he chose to have life not only begin, but also to end. The question arises “why did they disobey G-d, their creator and provider?” If anyone ever had free will, you would think that they had. They were not influenced by the media (this was before T.V., radio, the Internet or even newspapers). It wasn’t pressure from some peer group, because there was none. It wasn’t financial considerations because there was no money and no place to spend it. And it wasn’t the result of a poor upbringing because they weren’t brought up and their only father figure was G-d himself.
And if they hadn’t disobeyed and they had become immortal, they would have had no offspring and there would be no you reading this and no me writing it. But there would also no culture or civilization.
So if it isn’t due to original sin, then why do bad things happen? Could there be a single cause, a simple explanation? Yes, I think there is.
Entropy is a basic law of physics. It is the disorganization of energy. It is the agent of change. Einstein realized what mystics knew for thousands of years - that all matter is energy and that it cannot be lost in the universe, probably because there is nowhere and nothing outside of the universe to which to go. If nothing can be lost, then it must be changed into different forms otherwise life would be static. The mystics realized further that all energy is consciousness. Physics is slowly coming to this realization.
Most physicists would agree with this description of entropy, but few seem to realize its wide implications. I asked the wife of a famous American physicist if he ever talked about the impact of entropy in everyday life. She said that he says it every time he sees his son’s messy room. Yes, messy rooms are a perfect example of entropy—a clean and neat room can quickly become disorganized and messy if it is not periodically organized. Physicists see it in sand castles when the tide rolls in and disorganizes the structures returning them to lumps of wet sand. But entropy is much more pervasive and ubiquitous.
I see entropy as a constant force, much like gravity, pulling at every finite thing or activity. It is the reason we age, get ill, die as well as the cause of mental disorders including Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia, and is the primary reason for machines breaking down, errors being made and everything that we think of as sin like lying, killing, stealing and even adultery being committed.
Does this mean that humans have no free will but act only because of the effects of entropy? I think that the answer is both yes and no. No matter what our will is, we will grow old and die. No matter what we do, our cells will die and be replaced by others. No matter how hard we try, we will make mistakes and we will never be perfect. And, I believe that it is because of entropy that Man has created cultures and civilizations with laws and mores reinforced by peer pressure, be they social, economic, political, spiritual or physical. Each culture is a different approach to dealing with the entropy that surrounds and penetrates our being. Some cultures are much better at it than others, cultural relativists notwithstanding.
Entropy causes humans and other animals to get sick and so each culture has its own system of cures and remedies. People and other creatures can harm others so each culture develops laws and enforcement policies to minimize this tendency. Societies set up systems to protect private property and personal well-being against infringement. Cars break down because of entropy so we have organizations to repair them and others to replace them with newer models. Entropy makes us grow tired of the same thing, so we produce new varieties and models. Entropy makes one culture want to dominate or destroy another, and so each country sets up defenses again being disorganized by its enemies. Entropy causes the mind to be disorganized, leading to various mental conditions. We create different strategies for dealing with this, from psychotherapy to meditation to organized religion to medications to tribal dances. Entropy causes us to die so we seek different ways of extending life and cheating death with acupuncture, homeopathy, medicine, surgery and/or prayer.
So entropy can be seen as a necessary evil that destroys in order to create. It is the cause of all our virtue as well. If there were no entropy, there would be nothing to fear and so courage would be unnecessary, we would have no heroes. There would be no poverty and so there would be no need for compassion, charity or hard work. We could not get sick and so there would be no need for medicine, healing or even healthy food and exercise, much less doctors or hospitals. If there were no entropy we wouldn’t age and die so there would be no need for children, sex or even physical attraction, Viagra or Playboy. If there were no entropy, we would have little of use to do or be. If there were no entropy it would be hard for us to remember anything because there would be no cause to do so.
It’s some consolation to know that although we cannot rid the world of entropy, we must continue to battle it in all of its painful forms knowing it won’t disappear, (unless there is a messiah, savior or final Buddha who will bring a Golden Age—one without entropy) but that our efforts will help develop us as individuals, groups and cultures.
But it is little consolation to those of us witnessing the brutality of entropy in our personal lives. It does not relieve the parent whose grown child has been maimed or killed in some unnecessary war. It does not comfort those of us who see an elder loved one losing his ability to hear or see or walk or think or remember. It is of little solace to a person whose 15-, almost 16- year-old dog drags his hind legs as he walks, and collapses unexpectedly. Knowing that it is entropy, life’s planned obsolescence, that will force his canine friend to a final rest, does not diminish the heartbreaking pain.
Life is brutal because of entropy, without which there would be no life at all.
But What Can We Do?
This column has questioned the truth or wisdom of some of our most famous and revered national and religious quotations. But there are some that even this column will not challenge. One is JFK’s famous “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” It seems more valid today than it was 50 years ago. How many of us remember it, or think about its meaning?
Today we are facing many serious challenges to our well being. America has been digging out of a severe recession for three years now. More than 13 million Americans are out of work. Millions of homeowners are losing their homes, owing much more for them than they are now worth. We seem held captive by OPEC, which sets oil prices affected by supply and demand as well as speculation and forces us to pay more when filling our cars. Some of us feel that we are not getting enough information from our mainstream media. Many of us feel that we are not getting the same advantages as others take for granted.
We want the government to help us.
If we are unemployed, we want the government to give us unemployment benefits for as much and as long as possible. We want our elected officials to fix our economy, which is affected by various global factors. If we have borrowed more than our homes are worth, we want the government to help us get the principal and interest rate reduced. If we have large cars and trucks and are being forced to pay a fortune to fill up, we want the government to do something to lower gas prices. If some, like the rich, are getting advantages that we aren’t, we want the government to fix the system so that we all get a fair deal. Many of us have lost faith in our elected officials to fix our country the way we want. Our government, like our very nation, appears fractured and moving in different directions. We fear that our representatives cannot be counted on to make the needed changes to make sure our lives only get better.
What are we to do?
We could ask “what can we do for ourselves as well as our country?”
If we are unemployed, sending out resumes to get back into our former careers, we might consider other employment options. What else can we do that needs be done? We could get a specialized education doing a different kind of work. We could do work that people have said Americans won’t do, like gardening, housecleaning, child care, manual labor, farming, building maintenance, dog walking and handy-person jobs. We could offer our services to our neighborhood as well as to the larger community.
But most of us are not unemployed. What can we do about the unemployment problem? If we run a company, we can refuse to outsource work to other countries. We could comply with federal law and hire only legal residents and citizens even for yard work or child care. We could go out of our way to buy products made in America, even if they cost a little more. When making calls to large corporations that outsource their customer service, we can ask to speak with someone working in America.
If we borrowed more than our home is currently worth, should we stop making payments and move out only when forced regardless of its effect on the neighborhood or our economy, not to mention our credit rating? When our homes were worth much more than we paid for them, should we have offered to pay the bank more? Do we have any personal responsibility for borrowing too much or too often to have something we could not afford? We could realize that the home is worth to us exactly what it was before the crash. It is not just an investment, it is a place to live in comfort and security. We could try to remember that homes were not always seen as profitable investments. Their value used to decline with age, like cars, refrigerators and washing machines. When we buy a new car or appliance on credit, as most of us do, we are immediately underwater. Not only are they worth less than we owe for years, when we sell them, if we do, we get much less than we paid. Should we immediately walk away from all these purchases?
We recently got a reduction in our payroll taxes. It amounts to, on average, about $2 a day per worker more in our pockets. We were excited to get this small amount because it would help us and the economy recover. Now gas prices are up by almost $.50 a gallon. We are in shock. It threatens to destroy our personal and national economic recovery, the media tells us. We hear that the increase is due in large part to speculations driven by media hyperbole. We watch interviews of our fellow Americans in the back of their large trucks and SUVs saying that this is outrageous. They say that the government should do something to lower prices at the pump. Is drilling the answer, even though the effects would take many years to realize?
It has been only a few weeks since the payroll tax cut extension was signed into effect, meaning that the average worker will save $14 a week, but we have already forgotten. This additional amount per week would pay the additional $.50 per gallon for 28 gallons of gas per week. If we drive 60 miles a day (most of us don’t) and get 15 miles a gallon for the same seven days we would come out even. But there’s more. Are we driving a truck or SUV? Why? Is it just for work? If yes, can the additional cost be written off or passed on to the consumer of the services? If the truck is not needed for work, why have it? We could sell the SUV or pickup and buy a more practical family car. They get much better gas mileage and are easier and more fun to drive. Or can we reduce our driving by the percent of increase in the price per gallon? So a $.50 increase is about a 14% change from a $3.50 a gallon base. Can we cut our driving by 14%? We could do our errands more efficiently. We could carpool, take public transportation or even walk when possible? Could we cut waste in other areas, like spending four dollars a day on coffee at our favorite cafe?
Could we stop whining and do something?
And if we no longer trust our elected officials, we should work to replace them with people we trust more, if not completely. When we see what the conservatives in the Congress have been up to these last few years, many of us are starting to realize that more must be done. We must change the way we pay for elections, and should restrict lobbying to clear presentations of positions without the exchange of any money or favors so that our legislators are not tempted to prostitute themselves to special interests. We must also encourage our best and brightest to go into government service. In order to have enough best and brightest, we must significantly improve our education system. This would involve not only hiring, training and encouraging more great teachers, it would also mean changing our high school curriculum to better prepare our students for college and life. A better educated population should produce better voters as well as improved candidates. These are changes that we must know enough to care enough to fight for.
And if we believe that some are getting more advantages than the rest of us, we should insist on better coverage by the media and organize for changes in our tax code, which is usually at the heart of economic and political inequity. (This column has proposed a new, simple and fair tax code with no itemized deductions, just a standard one; treating all sources of income as equal; and with only five tax brackets ranging from 10% to a maximum of 30%. See this previous column below.)
So maybe we, as a strong, self-reliant people, can stop complaining about our difficulties and blaming the government for not doing more to help us, and instead, ask ourselves what can we do for ourselves and our nation?
Taking positive action to effect change is the best way to get over our depression about life’s cruelty and our own shortcomings.
So let us not ask what our government can do for us, but rather discover, declare, and demonstrate what we can do for ourselves and our country.
Numbers Count But Only If We Can
In a previous column entitled: “Numbers Count and Size Matters,” I lamented our culture’s movement away from using math and numbers and toward our dependence on gut feelings and descriptive adjectives. That column focused more on the size of American family cars, recommending reductions to specific car lengths instead of generalizing adjectives like “mid-size” or “compact.” I also took the opportunity to decry the excessive size of men’s bathing suits and shorts as well as most of the watches available to these gender-specific consumers.
But now I want to address our culture’s inability to do simple math on a routine basis. Here are some recent examples:
There much ado about extending the 2% reduction in payroll taxes deducted from workers’ paychecks. Everyone has agreed how vital this was for the working people and for our economy. Their payroll tax payment will continue to be reduced from 7.65% of their earnings (6.2% for Social Security plus 1.45% for Medicare contributions) for earned incomes of up to about $106,800 to only 5.65% for another 10 months if approved by Congress. Workers will continue to keep 2% more of their gross earned income as they did last year.
The man on the street was interviewed and in each case declared his joy for the much-needed extra money. The news media couldn’t seem to figure out how much of a real difference this $120 billion program would make for 160 million workers. While the media not only incorrectly said that the average savings was $1,000 a year when it is more like $750, the media also couldn’t figure that this was less the $14.50 a week or about $2 a day. Not one report that I saw, and I watch most of them, ever mentioned this measly amount. Instead of having $721 a week, the average worker will have $735. The $2 a day difference won’t even pay for a cup of Starbuck’s coffee.
And in order to give 160 million workers an average of $2 a day more, we should lose $120 billion in revenue ($10 billion a month) when we are trying to reduce our annual one trillion dollar deficit.
Has anyone done the math?
Also in the news lately, we’ve heard about mandatory cuts of $45 to $55 billion a year from our defense budget. Is that a lot or is that a small matter? How much do we spend on defense and what does it include? While the budget for the Defense Department is about $650 billion, it is not the total cost of our defense. We also have the Veteran’s Administration, which pays the pensions and provides medical services to active and retired vets. There are costs for defense-related programs in the CIA, the Energy Department, NASA and the State Department. The actual total cost of defense is a little over $1 trillion, or about one third of the federal budget.
And what does that money buy and what can be lived without? No one has given us the numbers. How many military bases do we run around the world? We never hear. Estimates vary from more than 700 to as many as 1,000. The other 195 sovereign nations combined have a total of less than 200 foreign military bases. How many more war ships, fighter jets, atomic bombs, etc., do we have than the whole world combined? Ten times as many, twenty times as many?
We have not been given any of these numbers, without which we cannot measure or judge the significance of our cuts.
Then there is the multi-millionaire running to be his party’s unsuccessful opponent to our incumbent leader. We have learned that in 25 years of working for a private equity company he was able to amass more than $200 million. When he reluctantly released his tax return for 2010, we learned that he invested some of his fortune in Swiss banks and in companies on the Cayman Islands, not helping our struggling economy. We also learned that he paid less than 14% of his $21 million annual unearned income on taxes. But what no one mentioned is that he made over 10% interest on his $200 million. Who else gets that kind of return? If you put your money in a regular account at a major bank, as most of us do, you get .1%, if you are lucky. If you put one million dollars into CDs or a maximum savings account, you might get 1%. If you invest in stock and do real well, you might get 3% return. How does he get 10% every year now that Madoff is in prison and Milken is out but has reformed? This is the real outrage. He makes more in a day in interest ($57,500) than the average American worker earns in a year (about $33,000).
And lastly, there is the Occupy Wall Street movement. The occupiers have echoed the concern of many Americans that Wall Street has become too powerful, too greedy and too corrupt. They sense that the bonus system has encouraged otherwise decent, well-educated people to take outrageous risks with other people’s money for their own personal gain, with some ruinous results.
But some people in the movement came up with this 1% versus 99% theme. They said that our country’s problems are caused by the richest 1% of our population subjugating the unfortunate, defenseless 99%.
In all this time, I have heard no one say who comprises the 1%. The top 1% of households in the United States, accounting for fewer than 1.5 million households, earns at least $386,000 a year. This top 1%, therefore, includes every professional athlete and coach, every person we watch regularly on T.V., most surgeons and all the professional couples who each earn $200,000 a year. They are what most would call the high end of upper-middle class. Surely, they are not the problem.
The top .1%, representing the top-earning 150,000 households, earned at least $1 million a year. This includes many top professional athletes, news anchors, T.V. stars, movie stars as well as CEOs of large companies, Wall Street investment bankers, lawyers, hedge fund managers, and private investors. Many of these people give generously to charity and non profits like schools, hospitals and public projects. But some of these high earners pay lobbyists to coerce legislators to relax regulations and reduce personal and corporate taxes. It is these people and their lobbyists who are in part to blame for our country’s economic and political woes.
Then there is the top .01%, the billionaires like Warren Buffet, Steven Jobs and Bill Gates who are the most generous in their donations and have lobbied for the rich to pay more taxes.
So then who is the problem, now that we know the numbers? It is the Wall Street money managers and the influence they bring to bear on our legislators, on our country. It is the system driven by greed for ever bigger bonuses to own ever a bigger slice of the American pie without any real concern for their fellow citizens. The problem includes an electoral system that always requires more money in donations to win continued reelection, which becomes more important than the reason for which our politicians were elected—to help the people. It is lobbying, using hundreds of millions of dollars to seduce legislators into doing the special interest’s bidding. Also, it has been the conservative wing of the Republican party that has taken advantage of its constituents’ failure to understand what is in their own best interests, convincing blue collar party faithful that they too will be rich someday, something that will probably never happen, but hope springs eternal, especially when we don’t know the facts.
Our problems can not be properly addressed by an inadequate free press and a public unwilling to ask to see the numbers so that decisions can be based on fully-disclosed facts, and not by gut feeling or senseless adjective-filled slogans.
Numbers count, but only if we know what they are and what they mean.
Does America Got Talent?
Nowadays some of the most popular T.V. shows are neither comedies nor dramas - they are “reality” T.V. shows. Among the most popular are American Idol and America’s Got Talent. Both shows audition thousands of American hopefuls who truly believe that they have a great talent. The judges on these programs reduce the thousands to about 48 or 24 and then ask the American public to judge the performers, and by their vote select and reject participants until only one remains.
Both shows originated in England (yes, I said England, not Great Britain or the U.K., but England!). Both use judges from England as well as a few Americans to see if America really has talent. And do we?
We watch the many pathetic souls who believe that their life’s salvation depends on some great talent, if only it could be discovered. Many have tragic stories to tell, almost competing to have the saddest. We watch them perform only to learn that there is absolutely no hope for their salvation, since their talent was only imagined. It’s like watching the characters from Midnight Cowboy competing, hoping for a miracle that never happens.
It soon becomes painfully obvious that barely a handful of the contestants have a talent of any real value. The choices are usually so obvious that the voting seems spot on. But then when the only really talented people remain, the top five or six, the voting becomes a popularity contest rather than one for talent. The clearly best singer or act might not win because of some personal characteristic that does not appeal to the masses. In American Idol it is usually because the talent seems too gay or too ethnic. The winner is usually the nice, white, Christian person with some real talent, just not the most. The most recent winner was an exception to the rule.
I look at our country and see a similar situation. We have nationwide, statewide and local talent contests every two, four and six years. In every race, there are more contenders than positions and so the audience (voters) must choose the one with the most talent for the elected office. Many of those running think that they have great talent that needs only to be discovered. Many think that they can lead their electorate by making wise decisions on their behalf. And we see it again now as the minority party tries to select a nominee to run against the President of the United States in the new reality show, “Does America Got A Talented Leader?”
There have been about nine people who formally announced their ambition to run for the highest office in the land. How many of them have any real talent for this competition?
There is the smartest of the group. He has a Phd. in something basic like history. He has white hair and used to be the Speaker of the House until his caucus told him to stop speaking for them and invited him to return to private life, suggesting the professorial route given his education. He chose the lobbyist/consultant route, given his apparent propensity for greed and gluttony. He had been doing the worst of the group putting his foot into his mouth each time it opened. He reminded us why he lost his government job 15 long years ago. We had almost forgotten how severe his hypocrisy really was. But he somehow stayed in the competition and by a process of elimination rose to the top of this unsightly heap, until people started to remember who he was and what he had done.
There is the one also exited from office and whose name means something unimaginably vile while his political opinions are almost worse. He would eliminate Social Security and Medicare. That would really do the trick. No doubt, this candidate is eligible for neither so why should anyone else be? He appeals to the Christian conservatives by being against homosexual lifestyles, abortion under any circumstance, gun control and raising taxes - their bread and butter issues.
Then there was the businessman who must have gotten lucky and made some money somehow. It was not with intellect — no thinking or analysis there. He got confused about what Libya was, came out with an absurd economic plan and then forgot about the settlements made to women who claimed he harassed them while he was carrying on a 13 year extra-marital affair which he confused with a friendship with benefits. He bowed out gracefully, or as gracefully as he could under the circumstances.
These three contestants would have been eliminated at their first audition if this were a talent show. That would leave six. Check them out.
The leader of this group has been on the show before. He was a contestant four years ago and was doing well until his policies came back to contradict him at every turn. People quickly saw him as a phony who would say anything to get a vote. His big pluses are that he is very rich and very good looking. But those are his only pluses. He is considered the odds on favorite for the party nod as long as his past and his tax returns don’t make him seem too unelectable.
The understudy, who was hoping to be there when numero uno falls, has a first name that seems to be an abbreviation of his character flaw — timidity. He could not help appearing desperately weak while being too nice to be saying all those terrible things about his opponents. He has since departed quietly from the stage, almost unnoticed. His best bet would be to change his name, strengthen his chin, grow a beard, die his hair white and run as an unknown, in Canada.
There is also a backup understudy who might even be related to the declared front runner. They are both rich and are both very handsome and they share the same religion. The understudy was more of an independent than a bone fide contestant in this talent show. He was there just in case the judging audience came to its senses, an unlikely scenario. They didn’t and wouldn’t so he also bade farewell, disappointing his handful of supporters who will continue to be related to him.
Then there are the next two. One can only wonder who persuaded them to consider running for an office they could never win or even spell. The two are very similar but not in good ways. They both claim to be evangelical, which means against gays, minorities, the poor, welfare, abortion, evolution and science. They both feel that G-d speaks to them and that they respond because they want to help G-d do His work. Neither has a clue about economics or foreign policy. Their mantra is identical — cut taxes and shrink the government to its minimal and let the kindness and wisdom of the free market system driven by the richest among us rule the day. The fact that this is the formula that almost bankrupted the country does not give them pause. And the fact that both have spent their entire professional lives working for the government also does not seem to faze them; it might actually strengthen their argument by making government employees look even worse. The more attractive of the two has already departed from the competition and the other is doing so as I write this, thus avoiding finishing last in South Carolina, behind TV host Stephen Colbert who is not even on the ballot.
At least with America’s Got Talent and American Idol, the five finalists have talent. In this case the only one among them with any talent is the one most neglected because he is such a libertarian. If he were on the talent shows he would lose because he isn’t the type to be popular even if he is the most talented. Could he ever be forgiven for raising the son who went on to become Kentucky’s junior senator and its senior crazy? Will he try to deny paternity retroactively at this late date? Would he really cut the annual deficit by one trillion dollars in his first year and close all 700-1000 foreign military bases?
I find it sad not only that this is all the talent the minority party can bring to such an important election, but that the American people are not surprised at our lack of political talent. We have gotten used to being disappointed, so human failure is no shock to us. We’ve gotten used to inadequate news coverage of complex issues, and incomplete medical care caused by assembly-line-like appointments necessitated to maximize corporate profit. We accept the fact that our public schools cannot properly educate our children and that our precious tax dollars will be squandered in vain attempts to assist countries controlled by dictators. We recognize that most of our T.V. shows and commercials as well as most of our movies will fail to entertain or enlighten us. We have already stopped believing our politicians, but nowadays we don’t even expect them to be intelligent, informed or to have any integrity, with one notable exception, the current White House incumbent.
Foreigners always say that they hate the American government but love the American people. Many of us have learned to accept that as making any sense at all. In America we freely elect fellow Americans to run our government. How are the two different? The answer is they are not.
We Americans who know that we are the greatest people on earth living in the greatest country on earth under the greatest political system on earth, also accept all these aforementioned shortcomings in direct contradiction and opposition to that greatness.
Does America got political talent? Does the emperor got new clothes?
A Simple and Fair Federal Income Tax
America is in the midst of an economic crisis. We have a federal debt in excess of $14 trillion dollars, we are running annual deficits of more than a trillion dollars, we have 14 million people out of work, and 50 million people, including one in five of our children, living in poverty. While job creation is essential, so is reducing the annual deficit by cutting unnecessary federal spending and raising revenue.
Studies have found that the richest Americans are paying at an average rate of only 17% for their annual federal income tax, and that half of American households pay no federal or state income tax at all.
There has been much discussion about changing the tax code to make it simpler and more fair. Conservatives want a flat tax with everyone paying the same rate. They want to reduce the highest rate while expanding the base, meaning that more people would be paying taxes while the richest would pay less. The last time tax rates were lowered in favor of the wealthiest Americans, under the Bush/Cheney administration, the result was no new jobs, record deficits, a Wall Street crash and the tattered economy we are now suffering.
I have a recommendation that would simplify the federal and therefore the state income tax code for individuals and couples, not including the self-employed. My plan would be very simple, fair, and would raise at least $200 billion a year in new revenues. This figure could be adjusted, as could the recommended tax brackets and standard deductions.
Under this plan taxes would have one purpose - collecting revenue with which to fund needed government services. The tax code would not try to encourage or discourage behavior with deductions or credits. It would treat all income equally, be it from work (minus FICA deduction), dividends, pensions, insurance benefits, bonuses, interest, lawsuits, lotteries, etc.
As of 2008, people's income from stock dividends has been taxed at 15% while income from savings interest can be as high as 35%. Actual capital gains are also now at the 15% level, down from 35%, while only a maximum of 85% of Social Security benefits are taxable and legal settlements are not taxed at all. Under this new system all these income sources would be treated as equal.
Under this plan there would be no itemized deductions, only a standard one. For discussion purposes it could be $15,000 for an individual or $30,000 for a couple. There would be no deductions for children, medical care costs, charitable contributions, education costs, mortgage payments, state income tax, etc. Currently there is no itemized deduction for buying food for the family or for eating at restaurants with the kids, but people do it. There is no itemized deduction for buying the family clothes, but people do it. There was a deduction for interest paid on credit cards and car loans but that was dropped 30 years ago. People still pay interest on them even though they can't write it off. The three martini lunch was dropped as a business deduction, but people still have them every day.
There would be only five tax brackets that would range from (after the standard deduction) 10% for net incomes up to $50,000, 15% up to $100,000, 20% up to $250,000, 25% up to one million, and 30% for income over $1 million These brackets could be adjusted to raise or lower the tax burden.
Here are some examples:
Imagine that there is a couple that earned $50,000 in net salary (after deducting FICA withholding for payroll taxes), $20,000 in Social Security benefit payments, $10,000 in interest, and $5,000 in capital gains. The total is $85,000. The couple would deduct $30,000 in a standard deduction, leaving them a net income of $55,000. The first $50,000 could be at a 10% tax rate or, in this case, $5,000. The remaining $5,000 of net income would be taxed at 15% or, in this case, $750. The total tax would be $5,750 or 6.7% of their gross income.
Let's say there is a couple who earned $200,000 in net salary and $310,000 in capital gains. Their total would be $510,000. Using the standard deduction, they would net $480,000. The first $50,000 would be at 10%. The second $50,000 would be taxed at 15%. The next $150,000 would be taxed at 20% and the remaining $230,000 (net income over $250,000) would be taxed 25%. So in this case, the couple would owe $5,000+$7,500+$30,000+$57,500 = $100,000 in taxes. That equals a 20.8% tax on their gross income.
As a third example has a couple making $5 million in capital gains, (including dividends also currently taxed at only 15%). They would have a standard deduction of $30,000 and then owe $230,000 for the first $1 million and $1.2 million for the remaining $4 million for a total of $1.43 million or 28.6% in federal income tax.
This tax code would not give an Earned Income Credit or a Making Work Pay Credit to low earners, who currently not only don't pay taxes but actually get paid taxes costing $115 billion a year. The lowered rates for the wealthiest, under Bush/Cheney, reduced tax revenues by almost $100 billion a year.
That does not mean that those in need of relief for college loans, income supplements, special medical needs or anything else currently credited in the tax code would be ignored. With the money saved, hundreds of billions a year, there would be money for these purposes. More and larger college grants and some very low interest federal loans could be awarded to deserving students; low income workers could receive a reduced cost for health care benefits, help with rent payments, access to food discounts and other benefits targeted at those in need of help.
But what about the loss of deductions for home mortgages and charitable contributions? Will people still buy homes or give to charities? Good question.
While home mortgages have other problems now, if people see buying a home as a lifetime investment in their own well being, they will continue to buy homes. With some of the revenue raised by eliminating this deduction, more affordable mortgages can be funded to qualifying families. The $30,000 standard deduction is more than most middle class families claim in itemized deductions for home mortgage interest and charity.
With charities, it is an open question. I have found in my own case, now that I have subjected my family taxes to the standard deduction, I still pay as much for charities and feel better about it because I don't have to keep track of every receipt and tally them to see how much I can save for my kindness. This way it is just out of the desire to help others without any expectation of reward.
I believe that this recommended tax code change would raise needed revenue by both expanding the base, meaning more than just half of all families will be paying some tax, and by getting the rich to pay more but at a lower marginal tax rate.
Then, if this plan is adopted and revenue is raised, it must be put to good use. Government waste, including fraud, inefficiency, ineffectiveness, duplication of effort and international overreaching must be minimized and our deficit must be reduced. Our tax dollars should go to good use.
Who Is Elite?
The word "elite" usually is used to refer to excellence. An elite military unit is one that is the best trained and equipped. An elite university, like Harvard or Stanford, is one considered better than most. Statistically, the elite are those in the top of the bell curve, being at least in the third standard deviation above the mean or above 95% of the sample population.
Today, the word "elite," means something very bad to the people on the left politically and to those on the far right.
To the people on the left, the elite are the cause of all problems in the world. Since the Left firmly believes that we were all created equal, it blames the manipulation by the elite to oppress the working class to increase profits and personal wealth for making the poor, poor. They also believe that elite countries like the U.S. and England have been the cause of so many failed countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, countries that would be successful were it not for outside intervention.
To those on the left, the elite are those who have the most money and power. They are corporate CEOs, hedge fund managers, stock brokers, bankers and heirs to family fortunes. The Left finds these people to be greedy, gluttonous, power hungry, cruel, biased and taking unfair advantage of the working class. It is these elites, the Left says, who control our elected representatives with their demands for their special interests because they want to have all the money and power and want to control our country and then our world. These elite pay lower tax rates and live the high life while the rest of us suffer.
To those on the right, the elite are those who are highly educated. The elite attended our most elite colleges and universities. They are college professors, medical doctors, highbrow lawyers, psychologists and psychiatrists, economists, philosophers, journalists, historians, and scientists. The Right finds these people to be weak, condescending, amoral, controlling and trying to destroy our country's moral and economic fiber with liberal laws and socialistic economic policy - taxing the rich too much to give free handouts to the undeserving poor. The Right feels that many on the left pay no taxes while trying to bleed the productive members of our society in their attempt to force equality of outcome on all of us.
It has therefore come as a shock to those reading the latest data concerning our distribution of wealth. It turns out that 90% of Americans are worth less than less than $600,000. This personal wealth includes the value of one's stock, real estate, equity, bonds, 401Ks, and art collection. Many on the left, especially in the Bay Area, are worth much more than that. Are they then the elite - the top 10% of household wealth? And add to them many on the left who worked for local government and have retired with generous pension and medical coverage benefits? What are they worth?
A police officer or fire fighter who retires from service in San Francisco, as well as many nearby cities, will receive as much as 90% of his final pay as the base of his pension payments. This same person also will receive a Cadillac health coverage that costs the City $15,000 a year, more if the retiree has a dependent. Say the total value of both (the pension and medical coverage) is $100,000 a year, how much would one need to have in the bank or in stocks to earn $100,000 a year? At 2%, it is equal to $5 million. That's a lot more than $600,000. So how many government retirees and members of the left are the elite?
The Right has similar problems though still comes closer to being its own ideal. The Right hates the educated elite and yet many on the right have college degrees and some have advanced degrees. But with the right, it causes one to wonder about the value of the education because of its lack of apparent effect. One current darling of the right has a medical degree. Another got a law degree being in the first and last graduating class at her decertified law school and went on to get a post graduate degree at a school that offers no such degree - another singular educational accomplishment. A third favorite of the right has a bachelor's degree from the fifth college she attended. Only about one of every four Americans has a college degree, less than 10% have graduate degrees. So these leaders of the right who decry the intellectual elite, are themselves in that category, at least on paper. The minute they start talking, we forget about their educational credentials and so do they.
So what are we to do about this apparent cognitive dissonance? We can stop using the word "elite" in a negative manner and preserve it to honor excellence. We can start using the appropriate adjectives to describe what we misnamed "elite."
The Left should start to clearly identify the culprits and their sin. I suspect that they are the corporate CEO's, the Wall Street bankers and brokers, the lobbyists and the defense industry. Their collective sin is placing personal and corporate profit over morality or patriotism. They are not elite but they are rich and powerful and could have used their talents to help this country rather than just themselves.
The Right must come to realize that intelligence, education, science and philosophy are not bad or scary things. They are tools that can be used for good rather than greed. Those on the right can also be educated and let their minds and hearts combine to do the right thing. Their fight is, or should be, not with intelligence or education but with philosophy. What they object to from the left is its apparent and mistaken belief that we are all created equal and so our lives should have equal outcomes. The Left seems to always blame society rather than the individual when both are at fault. Those on the right legitimately believe that some people work harder and have more talent than others and should be rewarded accordingly. But they also mistakenly believe that the free market should be left to regulate itself without government interference disregarding the many past examples to the contrary. They would do well to realize that government regulation is necessary for everyone's sake even the person or company that is tempted to trespass against someone. The Wall Street crash and recent real estate debacle should be sufficient evidence of that.
The Left must recognize that we are not all created equal and our effort and outcomes will not be the same. Some people have much more talent or perseverance than others in some areas. Some provide services that pay more than others and some people will have a lot more money and all that it buys. The people of the left must acknowledge that individuals and cultures have a responsibility to themselves and others to do their very best to achieve their full potential. People must be more self reliant and less dependent on the kindness of strangers and taxpayers. Unions, the darlings of the left, must appreciate individual differences and not treat all members as equally deserving regardless of actual performance. Merit should trump seniority and politics. The Left must accept the fact that with almost 50 million of our people living in or near poverty, we cannot invite more poverty from other countries. American jobs should go to Americans and not the imported or exported poor.
Those on opposite sides of our political and philosophical spectrum should be able to come together on our many shared beliefs. We can produce a simple and fair tax system and use our collective wisdom to find the best uses for our redistributed wealth. We can reduce or eliminate waste, fraud, duplication of effort, and inappropriate government activities. We can encourage a culture that allows all of its citizens to achieve their highest level of activity and joy. We can be brought together by our unanimous and unifying love of our country and its people.
Or we can allow our extremes to tear our country and culture apart. The choice is ours to make.
What is the American Dream?
Now that America is experiencing an economic slowdown brought on by a banking crisis, many Americans feel that they are missing out on the American Dream. But what is the American Dream?
I think that it used to be that a poor, uneducated person could come to America, work hard at his greatest talent and become very, very rich. His children would be brought up with everything money could buy and go on to father generations of rich, well-educated, attractive Americans. This dream is still alive for the billions of poor, uneducated people all over the world — that if they can get to America, the Promised Land, they will also be rich and successful. It seems almost guaranteed, but of course, it isn't.
For Americans after World War II, the Dream became having a good job, owning one's own home with two cars in the garage, having at least two kids and retiring with a generous pension after a long career of good work.
But sometime around the 1970s or 80s, the definition changed again. In recognition of the fact that while all of us are allegedly created equal, some have much more than others and some have very much less, we decided to level the playing field by stressing variety over performance, diversity over excellence and entitlement over hard work. We now live in a country where half the population pays no taxes while one percent of our people own and control most of our country's wealth. A recent study found that the average white American has assets (like homes, bank accounts, IRAs, pensions, gold, etc.) worth 20 times more than the average black or Hispanic American has - $120,000 versus $6,000. And more alarming, that 90% of Americans have total assets worth less than $600,000. We are hearing that now, one in five children lives in poverty defined as $22,000 a year for a family of four. (This same amount is what many of our congressional representatives go through each month for their lifestyle.) We have 14 million people out of work instead of the normal 4.5 million. There are now almost 50 million Americans on Food Stamps, up 40% in a decade.
What is our American Dream now — more generous Food Stamp benefits, another extension of unemployment benefits, a lowering not only of our mortgage interest rate but also the principal owed, or is it more soup kitchens serving better quality food?
And what is the Dream for our children? Can they look forward to excellent, affordable education, at least K-12; to getting objective and comprehensive news coverage from the media, or having political candidates who have the country's interest at heart with the intellect and integrity to realize their highest hopes for the people? Must our children continue to work to fund the biggest military force the world has ever known covering every continent with almost 1000 military bases filled with our 2.5 million military personnel, or to send $50 billion dollars a year in foreign aid to cruel dictators to prevent worse dictators from taking over? Will our children have good jobs that are neither outsourced nor in-sourced (using document-free labor), and will those jobs provide them with a substantial pension when they can retire at age 75? Will Social Security and Medicare still exist, and will living, and affording to, still be possible?
What could the American Dream be now and in the future?
Could it truly be the greatest country with the greatest people, who are united as a people, not distracted with their identification with their foreign ancestors? Could we be a country rich enough to eliminate poverty among our people, wise enough to dramatically reduce waste and pollution, practical enough to realize the primary importance of providing the very best education from kindergarten through college, and secure enough to pull our troops out of foreign lands and wars knowing that the best defense is a strong economy and an educated, united populace? Could we once again be known as a country that makes great things that the world wants, while able to be self-sufficient in raw materials, finished products and needed services?
Is it just a dream and not an entitlement or guarantee? Yes, but it is a dream that we can make come true if we work hard enough for it, rather than sitting around waiting for it to happen, or for the government to do it for us.
Ridding The World of Bad Words
Lately, certain words usually only referred to by using their first letter have been identified for elimination. What these words represent and the effect they have on people have made these forbidden words unworthy of human utterance.
There is the "N" word that is used extensively in America's most famous novel, "Huckleberry Finn." Since this word appears more than 200 times in Mark Twain's book, many schools refused to let their students read it. Recently, a new edition was published substituting the "n" word with the word "slave," considered a much more tolerable label for human beings.
During a recent governor's race, someone in the background used the "w" word about a candidate during a telephone call made by her opponent. The word was meant to highlight this female candidate's willingness to do anything for money. The woman feigned great offense to her new title in such a way that the name seemed too good to describe her. She claimed that the word was an affront to every woman in the state. But was it a sexist slur? Should it no longer be used?
Now there is a movement to get people to stop using the "r" word out of consideration for people with learning challenges. Using this word with any reference should be stopped, immediately, advocates urge.
And then there is the word so bad that I don't even use its letter. It is the one between "e" and "g." While it describes what most people seem to greatly enjoy, it is considered unspeakable. There is now a record using the full word in its title and throughout the song. Is this pushing artistic freedom too far? Can this word followed by the second person singular be used at least when listening to a terribly dishonest politician lie on T.V.? (I must admit that at times I get so upset at disingenuous congressmen that I sometimes yell out "letter between 'e' and 'g' to your second person singular!" while watching them on T.V. I can only hope that nobody has heard me.)
What other words should be limited to just their first initial, if mentioned at all?
Surely all words that can be deemed racial or ethnic slurs could be banned or limited to their first initial. We could have the "J" word, the "k" word (the worse, though lower case, version of the prior letter's word), the "C" word (or the Ch if allowed two letters), the "P" word (all the jokes would be "P" jokes) and so on.
Then there are the words that denigrate character, like the "w" word that was so politicized recently. There could be the initialization of the "l" word for people who don't speak the truth, the "p" word for those who appear too gluttonous, and the "g" word for those of us who like airing the laundry of our friends and acquaintances.
But then we come to words like the "r" word. These words add insult to injury. They help us point out and ridicule the physical or mental shortcomings of others. Words like "stupid," "ugly," "moron," "dumb," "homely," "short," "stubby," "coward," "dimwit," and "slug," could be forever banned because of the hurt they cause those given these labels which are frontal assaults on their self-esteem and feelings of adequacy.
There is another solution, one that would save countless adjectives that could be reconditioned and used for peaceful purposes. Rather than limiting the kind of words available for use, why not work on creating and nurturing a culture that has such understanding and compassion that such words lose their negative meaning? Not only would we be beyond even considering expressing vulgarity or insensitivity, the victims of even the then-very occasional use of these terms would see them only as sad reflections of the speakers, and have compassion for their ignorance and apparent feelings of inadequacy.
But can a culture change? This question has risen in the minds of many watching the events in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Can these cultures change what seems to be their collective DNA? Can tribal nations come together as one people? Can education and exposure to the civilized world help them radically change their brutal attitudes, beliefs and behaviors?
The same could be asked about ours. Can we wean ourselves away from the violence and greed that drives some of our worst behavior? Can the elite learn to take less and give more? Can we spread intelligence and consideration to all corners and all aspects of our culture? Can we come together to end poverty and its resultant crime in our land? Can we come to learn that bigger is not always better and that more is sometimes less? Can our politicians stop their petty squabbling and partisan rhetoric and try their best to solve our country's pressing problems?
I think that the answer is "yes" for us and an almost "maybe" for some of the other cultures mentioned. Germany and Japan changed dramatically after World War II. I think that we are seeing that happening in China and India. Even in the Middle East there is the beginning of a recognition that their way doesn't work anymore and probably never did. It will take them a while to realize that first they must stop subjugating women, even if that makes the men feel even more inadequate. Men there will not be free of their tyrants until they stop being tyrants to their women.
We will never ban enough bad words to make all our people feel that their self esteem is not under assault. But we can work harder to ban ignorance and perhaps, to give all our people reason to have high self esteem, making using negative terms against others unimaginable.
The Israel Issue
Once again the U.S. is trying to get a peace settlement between Israel and Palestine. Israel was granted statehood by the League of Nations (which became the U.N.) after World War II which saw the death of more than half the Jewish population of the world. The general region referred to as the Palestine was under British rule at the time. The Palestine has been under many rules, but never has had self rule. Israel had been the home of the Jewish people since the time of Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity and of Islam, more than 4,000 years ago. The word Israel is in almost every Jewish prayer. The Jews believe that the land was given to their people by G-d.
The 1948 agreement gave statehood to Israel with the boundaries limiting it to about 8,000 square miles. Israel is surrounded by Arab countries which have approximately 8.6 million square miles (1000 times the size of Israel) in 21 countries with a current population of more than 360 million Arabs. Israel has a current Jewish population of 5.3 million, about the same number as those who reside in the U.S. The number of countries with majority Muslim populations including non-Arab countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Indonesia, is 47.
When Israel was recognized as a state, so were several other countries in the world and in the region. Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Libya and Iraq were some of the newly formed and recognized countries created during that time, as were Pakistan, Bangladesh, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, to name a few. Boundary lines were also moved after World War I in other countries like Hungary, Poland, Germany and Romania and for the entire Middle East after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire.
Now, in 2011, the world has watched the "Arab Spring." Arabs in Northern African countries are revolting against their dictators who have ruled them almost since many of the nations were first created. The Arabs claim that after all these years they want democracy and freedom from oppression. But these same young, brave freedom fighters do not want the same for their own women, nor for the Jewish people.
It isn't enough that this ancient people who have done so much for the world in science, philosophy, art, and literature should be restricted to a mere 8,000 square miles of what had been arid waste land; the reborn Arabs do not want Israel to exist, at all.
And yet, seeing all this, some in America side with the Arabs. These people consider the Arabs the underdogs because 63 years ago some Arabs living in Israel were displaced. At the same time Jews living in what became Jordan were also displaced. But they cannot see Israel as the underdog even though it has one-68th the number of people and one-1000th the land mass that the Arabs do.
Some people feel that the Jews should not have a homeland because no country should be religion-oriented. They must concede that Muslims have 47 countries. They say that is wrong, too. They must be reminded that the Jews are not only a religion, they are also a people, a nationality like Arabs or Italians or Mexicans. And like all the other nationalities, they deserve a homeland, Israel. The Arab people have 21 homelands; why can't the Israelites have one the size of New Jersey?
So what is the solution to their situation? Our President and their Prime Minister said it differently, but clearly. Israel must go back to its pre-1967 borders plus swaps to ensure Israeli security. The swaps would be that Israel keeps East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, which they took in 1967 after all of the surrounding Arab nations attacked Israel and were soundly defeated by this small struggling nation. In exchange, the Israelis would return the West Bank and all the Israeli settlements there which now accommodate 300,000 Israelis. (They have already returned the Sinai to Egypt and the Gaza to Palestine as prior peace gestures.) Under this plan, Israel with its 5.3 million people would have 8000 square miles, while 4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would have 10,000 square miles.
The land and homes would be given to the Palestinians, who could house the descendants of those Arabs displaced from Israel in the late 1940s. These "refugees" have been mostly kept in refugee camps in neighboring Arab countries for the past 63 years. Refugees, not welcomed and integrated into their new home's society, for 63 years!
This agreement would end the problem. Everyone involved knows that this is the deal. But the Palestinians are a divided camp. The residents of Gaza, given their independence by Israel, elected Hamas to lead them. Hamas is a terrorist organization whose goal is the elimination of the Israeli state. They have now formed a coalition with Fatah, the governing power of the West Bank. Even if Fatah wants to accept this deal, its partner can't and at the same time say that Israel cannot exist.
I think that it's high time that we realize who the true underdog is in this drama. It is Israel, the little country, one tenth of one percent the size of its hostile neighbors.
If the Arab states said that they would no longer use any weapons to attack others or even to defend themselves, there would be peace in the Middle East. If Israel said that it would disarm completely and not fight even to defend itself, it would be destroyed in days.
Now who's the underdog?
Numbers Count, Size Matters
One effect of our de-emphasis on math in this country is that we have stopped thinking with numbers, preferring descriptive adjectives that are more forgiving and less intimidating. Instead of saying that it is 3,280 feet high, we say that it was very tall. Instead of saying that the car was 183 inches long, we say that it is a compact. Instead of being told that our cholesterol is 150 or 205, we are told that it is normal and we accept that.
We now see this happening in the media. San Francisco's major daily has been moving away from numbers on every front. First it was the stock market results. All stocks traded on the New York or American stock exchange had always been listed daily showing their most recent prices as well as past highs and lows. This was then abbreviated to showing only the major stocks. And now there are just a few highlights. They then contracted out their entire business section to gain further distance from the tyranny of numbers. They still use numbers to describe the weather but that also has been contracted out to a national service that seems to think that the San Francisco airport is in downtown San Francisco, especially for rainfall totals.
It turns out that somehow rainfall totals for San Francisco have always been contentious not to mention inaccurate. There always seems to be a bias toward understating rainfall totals in order to prolong the illusion of a drought. In the mid 90s, as we were drowning in heavy rainfall, the media kept insisting that the drought was still with us. (It ended the career of a respected investigative reporter when she persisted to report the drought even as record high totals were being witnessed.) This year, it took the State until the beginning of May to announce an end to the drought even though our totals for this year are as high as 150% of normal and our reservoirs are overflowing. This year San Francisco is on track to have had a record rainfall year, but you don't hear much talk about it. Some people, apparently, have something to gain by keeping the "D" word constantly in play.
Our same daily paper also has told its very small band of news reporters to refrain from using numbers in their reports. (Sports reporters are exempt from this so far, but who knows? They might have to start reporting just who won and who lost without using the actual scores.) Perhaps they want to avoid making factual errors or maybe they want to soften the effect hard numbers might have on their readers.
But numbers have their place, especially when describing finite objects. Numbers help us make more precise evaluations so that we can make the best choices. Sometimes a bigger number is better, but I find that, more often than not, size matters and smaller could very well be better.
We have seen this repeatedly with American fashion: Remember when women's shoulder pads made them look like linebackers in uniform? Until recently men wore jackets that were several sizes too large. We are still designing and producing men's shorts and bathing suits that are so long that they appear to be attempting to conceal as much as possible while making the wearer look as unappealing as he can be. They cannot be described as "shorts" and should be referred to as "mediums" or "knee-lows." There were times when men's ties were clearly much too wide and suit jackets had lapels that were grossly oversized. Now we have a craze among some to wear pants many sizes too large so that they settle much too low and leave the wearers looking clown-like in their baggy length.
And as mentioned in an earlier column, watches have gotten too big since Rolex underwater watches got popular in the 60s.
And, of course, there is the debate about our national budget crisis with no one providing the actual numbers to make the choices clearer. No one mentions that though Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid take up a sizable part of our $3.5 trillion annual budget, all the money comes from separate trust funds and their costs do not add to our budget deficit and won't for at least 15-25 years. No one mentions that the biggest item is defense at more than $800 billion a year funding two unnecessary wars and staffing more than 700 bases oversees to protect the citizens of other countries from possible attack from a Soviet Union that no longer exists and a North Korea, which can barely feed its own people.
But what most concerns me at this moment is the size of American family cars and the public's unawareness of the vast variations. What American car companies call a compact car is what I consider a large car, but I use actual numbers to describe their differences.
Family cars sold in America range in size from about 147 inches for the Mini Cooper to about 223 for the Cadillac Escalante. That's a 76 inch or 6.3 foot difference. And like Goldilocks, I think that some are too small but many are too large and some are just right. I believe that a small car should be around 165 inches long - about the size of a VW beetle, VW Golf, Honda Fit, Mini Coachman (the new four-door), the Audi A3, etc. The next size still acceptable and roomier is around 175-180 inches long and is found in cars like the BMW 1 and 3 series, the Audi A4, the VW Jetta, Mercedes C class, Volvo 50, etc.
I think that the largest size should be no more than 190 inches. There are many examples of this size as well.
The only problem is that America car companies are not producing quality small cars. American buyers and car makers seem to not really see the problem. The large cars and SUVs many of us are driving are not only gas guzzlers and a danger to more reasonably sized vehicles, they are also much more difficult and less fun to drive than smaller cars. And they are harder to park.
Yes, Chevy and Ford do have some smaller cars, but who wants them? Who even knows what they are? The Chevy has the Aveo and the Cruze. The former is 170 inches and the latter is 180. Ford has the Fiesta at 174 inches and the Focus at 178. How do they compare with the smaller European cars named above?
I strongly believe that the American car producers should begin the process, as they did in the early 60's, of building high quality, attractive, and exciting, cars that also have great fuel economy and are small but roomy. After the great VW Beetle invasion of the early 60's, American car companies began making small and appealing cars. There was the Pontiac Tempest/Lemans, the Chevy Corvair, the Oldsmobile Cutlass, the Buick Skylark, the Rambler Metropolitan, the Ford Falcon, Plymouth Valient, and the Dodge Lancer, to name a few.
But each one of these models either grew significantly in size or disappeared. The Tempest/Lemans grew in every way to become the mighty G.T.O by 1964. The Corvair was killed single-handedly by a young upstart named Nader. The Skylark, Valient, Lancer, and Falcon grew a little and then disappeared. The Metropolitan, which started in the 50s and was as cute as cute can be, just disappeared.
The American car industry decided to go the other way. Instead of making excellent small cars, they decided that they would make high-powered, large cars. Then they realized they could take cheap pick-up trucks, doll them up with more seats and a covered truck bed, call them S.U.V.s and people would be willing to spend big bucks for them choosing comfort, imagined safety and size over small and economic cars.
The Japanese and Europeans jumped in to fill our small-car gap.
I would like to see a small, elegant, attractive and economical model for each of the six car lines: a 165 inch Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac, Chrysler, Ford and Lincoln as well as a 175-180 inch model in each line and maybe one top-of-the-line model of no more than 190 inches for the premium lines using their old premium names: Cadillac Eldorado or Fleetwood , Buick Roadmaster, Chrysler Imperial and Lincoln Continental. The small Chevy could be called the Monza.
I have not included Dodge in this list because I think that it should and will be discontinued as a car line and become, like Jeep and GMC, a truck line.
I think in order for this reduced-size car plan to succeed, Americans must become more number conscious.
But if we as a people are to become more number conscious, we must become more attentive to our everyday events and much more accurate in our descriptions. This is not a bad thing. It is nice to pay attention and to be able to clearly and precisely describe objects or events.
Numbers really do count and size really does matter, even if we are not aware of it.
Jack Kaye feedback: email@example.com
Who Says and Who Knows?
This column has reviewed several well-known and much respected and repeated sayings from very reliable sources and shown them to be terribly flawed.
There is the famous Declaration of Independence slogan "that we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal...." Thomas Jefferson and his associates did not believe that all men were created equal just white American men were. Non-whites and women were not considered equal and could not enjoy the same benefits of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (See "Are We All Created Equal?")
Then there was the quotation most associated with Jesus: "Love thy neighbor as thy self." As described in the column "Loving Thy Neighbor," it is unlikely that that is what He said (remember this happened years before the Internet, television, tape recorders or even daily newspapers). If he said "thy neighbor" instead of saying "everyone" then it would have meant only people who are very much alike in background. Also, we cannot tell ourselves to love everyone. As Bonnie Raitt taught us "I can't make you love me if you don't and you can't make yourself feel something that you don't."
I think that the saying was poorly translated from Aramaic. What I think He must have meant was to treat each person as an end in himself or herself. That is how we treat people we love, most especially ourselves.
There is a more secular version of this idea and that is "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." I see many problems with this one. Now that we live in this wonderfully diversified country and world, we identify with vastly different cultural values. We are not as alike as we used to be. By treating everyone the way I want to be treated suggests that they should see the world and react to it the way I do. If they don't, they might not respond the way I would like them to and they might not appreciate my behavior as much as I do.
I always say "please" and "thank you" when requesting or receiving favors. I always say "hello" when first seeing someone and "good bye" when leaving. At least half the world's population does not use these forms of interaction. I might be used to putting my hand out to shake with someone, but again, half the world's population and people with obsessive compulsive issues might not appreciate this behavior. I like to always tell the truth but many more sophisticated people consider social lubrication more important than honesty. Almost no major religion considers lying a sin, especially not if it makes the other person feel better. I might want to go up to every beautiful woman, kiss her and tell her that I can't live without her, but they might not really appreciate it, though I'd love them to do that to me.
I think that this saying should be "Do unto others as they would have you do unto them as long as it does not violate your values." If your friend does not want to hear the truth even though you want to always express it, avoid saying the truth that he would mind. If your friend is from Asia and prefers bowing, or is a person who does not want germs, ever, don't shake hands with him or her even though that is what you would want. And don't say "G-d bless you," "Thank G-d" or "Merry Christmas" to an atheist, for G-d's sake, no matter how much you like to say or hear it.
Another way to phrase this is again to "treat everyone as an end in himself."
Then there is the poem on the Statue of Liberty that includes " Give me your tired, your poor and huddled masses......" It was written by Emma Lazarus, who was coerced into writing it by some newspaper magnates. The Statue was a gift from the French.
It is a poem. It is not in the Constitution or Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights. It does not reflect American foreign or domestic policy. It is not meant to be an open invitation by the citizenry of America to the billions of desperately impoverished in the world.
Perhaps the President or Congress could authorize a new poem. It would tell people that while we sympathize with the suffering that is endemic throughout the world, we are no longer accepting any more poor and huddled masses. We have a $14 trillion budget deficit and we have 15 million American citizens without full employment. One out of every four or five of us lives below the poverty level. There are more than 194 other countries (if you count Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as also separate countries, as you should, then there are at least 197), maybe some of them need a larger underclass. Or perhaps, you could stay in your own country and help make it better. The Germans and Japanese have worked wonders with their countries in the past 60 years. Look at Brazil how well they are doing now, at long last. And India and China are on the rise. Your own country can do the same. Don't leave your beloved homeland. Change it.
I don't know how to say that in verse, but I'm sure someone could. Or we could just say "Closed for restructuring."
But I have saved the best one for last. Students of Eastern mysticism all know this phrase and consider it the highest realization: "Those who speak do not know and those who know do not speak." So if someone tells you that he knows why things are the way they are or what they might become, then he does not know. And if someone knows something, he shouldn't, wouldn't or couldn't say anything.
The first question I have is "Who said that?" According to this saying, whoever said it didn't know. So if he said but did not know, then what he said was not true. So those who speak do know. Well if that is true then the one who said otherwise is correct and those who speak do not know. But then he did not know. And so it goes ad infinitum. (It's like saying "I'm a liar." If I'm a liar then I'm not telling the truth so that means that I am in truth not a liar. But if I'm not a liar then I'm telling the truth and I am a liar, and on and on.)
What is the point of knowing if you can't express it to others? Should we therefore disregard all thought and all religion? Are you nodding?
Having said all this, it is now incumbent on me to come up with some new phrases that everyone can accept without giving them a second thought. Hey, that would be a great name for a column, but please don't quote me on any of this.
Driven By, To, From and Around Distraction
There's a great new television commercial featuring a man in a car approached in a garage by a gentleman who warns him that he will be talking on his cell phone when he backs his own car up and might accidentally hit this man's vehicle. The same man in the car is later cautioned by another driver that she will be doing her makeup while driving and might swerve into his lane. Another person alerts the same driver that he will be eating while driving and so might side swipe his car by accident.
The man is being warned that the people around him are distracted and could pose a danger to him and his property. Most of us don't get that warning. We might not realize that we ourselves are too distracted to be completely reliable, that we are driven by, to, from and around distraction. We might be unaware of its effect on ourselves and others. And most of all, we might know why distraction drives us so.
Two great Russian philosophers, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, believed that most of us are asleep and live our lives like machines. Their suggested remedy was to be ever conscious of who we are and what we are doing - by remembering ourselves.
A modern version of this might be that we are terribly distracted and therefore find ourselves reacting to life rather than creating it. We seem to always be a few seconds behind. Life has become so complex and there are so many important things going on in our lives that we want to do as much as we can. We don't want to miss anything. But what is the remedy?
We have our cell phones that go everywhere with us. When they make a noise of our choosing we are duty-bound to answer, no matter where, no matter when. Some of us also have our iPods, iPads, iMacs, our Walkman (where have you been?), FAX, blog, tweets, and text messages demanding our immediate attention. What are we to do? The world beckons.
So why do we allow this to happen, if we really have a choice, and is it good or bad?
As always, I have a theory.
I think that there are several reasons why we have allowed ourselves to become so distracted.
First there is the genuine desire and need to do the best we can. Many of us of believe that in order to do our best we must be available to all the inputs or stimuli that we can. If we network, we should have as wide a net as we can spread. If we are serving clients, we want to be available to and for them and to all correspondence needed to assist them. We want to be productive.
Then, I think that there is the need to feel connected. If it is a woman walking alone in an unfamiliar part of town or if it's someone dining alone at a restaurant filled with happy couples, or just people wanting to make sure no one thinks that they are really alone or have nothing to do. Our electronic devices have become our friends and sidekicks. Our devices are magical, like the Captain Video ring or Dick Tracy's wristwatch phone were to us 50 years ago. We won't go anywhere without them. Our connection with them and with all the interactions that they avail us is rooted, I believe, in our umbilical cord's link to our mothers, our primary source of nutrition and love.
But I think that there is a deeper reason why we are so subject to and also eager for distraction. I think that it is for the same reason people drink alcohol - to divert us from the weight and responsibility of the here and now.
How many of us have denied responsibility for some mindless or thoughtless act by saying that we were drunk and didn't know what we were doing or failing to do at the time? What is the purpose of college fraternity parties if not to get co-eds so drunk that they won't be or feel so morally responsible?
I see the same deniability every day in the dog park. A couple are walking their dog but are distracted and never seem to notice that their dog is going to the bathroom and needs to be cleaned up after. Sometimes it is because the people are in a deep conversation and can conduct it only by looking away from where their dog is. Or maybe one is on a real important cell phone call that must be done while facing away from their canine charge. Or maybe they are busy with their beloved child and just do not notice.
How many people late for their appointments or unable to return calls were just too distracted? How many cars go through red lights and stop signs because the driver is deeply involved in his cell phone call? How many parents ignore signs of trouble for their children because they were just too involved in other things? How many orders for goods or services go wrong because someone along the line was thinking about something else?
It may be just me but it seems that this problem has gone way beyond errors by government agencies and children spilling milk. It has gotten to be a gamble whether the ultimate product will even approximate the original request. If you order your burger medium rare, will it be? Or was the waitress too distracted to get your complete request or was the chef busy text messaging his girlfriend who was in the middle of a brain surgery and was trying to find just the right part of the brain to drill in this life and death operation?
When you call customer service trying to resolve a serious issue, is the customer service representative so overwhelmed by the many calls that she accidentally disconnects you after you waited half an hour on the line to get her? If you finally, after the third or fourth try, get to speak to the live person and the person promises to take a certain action on your behalf, will that person remember? And if so, will the memory be correct or confused with another order?
I've noticed it driving lately. People don't seem aware that the light has changed or that they can go ahead and make a right at the light or that the speed limit is well over the five miles per hour they are driving or that they don't have to maintain eye contact with their passenger, if driving while conversing, especially if the passenger is in the back seat. And these drivers aren't even the ones on cell phones, or eating and drinking their lunch, or text messaging while on the move.
So is this good? If distractions are driving us to accomplish more, but poorly, is it good? Is quantity more important than quality? And if, as we are constantly reminded by columns like this one, the key to life is living in the here and now by doing everything as an end in itself as well as a means to an end, how can distractions help? If the key to success is the ability to focus completely on what we are doing, how does doing several things at the same time fit?
How many home runs did Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle or Barry Bonds hit while they were thinking about something else? How many actors give their best performances with their minds on something else? Are great pianists or opera singers actually mentally involved in a different activity while they perform?
If these questions seem so easy to answer "no" to, then why do we continue to sacrifice our ability to perform at our best for the sake of performing at our most, shortchanging everything we do?
I think that as Shakespeare lamented "the world is too much with us." It's too much to take in one bite so we take parts of it at different times. We don't want to put all our eggs in one basket because what if it leaks? Instead of putting all our money on one horse to win, why not put money on three horses to at least show. If you're really lucky they might all finish in the top three. If you're really lucky, you might be able to have an intelligent cell phone conversation while driving at the appropriate speed and stopping at the right place for the right amount of time. Sometimes, we are lucky, and sometimes, we're not.
I suggest that we test this theory. Let us try to do one thing at a time giving it our full attention. Let us do this not only as the means to some future end, which it always is, but also as an end in itself. If we are vacuuming to keep our home clean, let us also do it for the pleasure of doing it. When we eat, let us do it not only for nutrition, but also just for the pleasure of tasting different flavors. If we drive to the store let us enjoy the ride.
If my theory is correct, we will perform more efficiently, effectively and enjoyably. We will experience the beginner's mind, finding that whatever we do will feel like it's the first time. We will know pleasure of childlike simplicity as in a constant meditation.
If my theory is incorrect, it will be because I have been very distracted trying to keep my laptop steady as I drive through the rain. It's not my fault.
Who Are We and What Do We Want?
Being a native American born in our nation's largest city of immigrant parents, I always thought I had a clear idea of who we Americans are and therefore, what we wanted.
I knew that ours was an international country with many of the best qualities of other homelands. Our people had a bit of the charm of the Irish, the warmth of the Italians, the hard work ethic of the Germans, the integrity of the Hungarians (I added this because my mother was Hungarian) and the childlike simplicity of a humble Latin American. We were free and loved our freedom. We were generous and shared our prosperity with the less fortunate. We gave everyone a chance to be the best that they can be, just like the slogan of our all-volunteer army.
In America a foreigner could enter our land legally, learn our language and culture, become a citizen after renouncing all others (kind of like a wedding vow) and be considered an American as would his or her children, born in this country as I was.
When our President campaigned for office, he told us that there is one America, not two or three, but just one. There was no Blue America or Red America. There was no Italian-American or Hungarian-American or Black-American. We are all Americans. This idea, like so many in life, is both true and false.
Compared to people of other lands, we are all the same. We're like the Bette Midler song "From a Distance." From a distance we are all Americans, but the closer you get, the more different we seem.
We saw it in the past election. A black candidate got more than 90% of the black vote but lost the white vote to his absurdly inferior rival in every age category except for that of our youngest voters. If an American of Asian, Hispanic or Jewish heritage runs for office, he or she can be sure to get the vast majority of his or her group's members' votes. So much for our non-hyphenated equality.
We have somehow forgotten the notion that an American must renounce all other citizenships. Some of us are trying to see how many passports we can qualify for. Did your great grandmother come from Germany? You can be a German. And if your grandmother was from France, you can also become French. Wasn't there a great-grand parent from Ireland? Let's add that to your nationality shopping cart.
So as our country of melting pot fame becomes one that strives for salad bowls with each difference among us taken to its greatest extremes, we seem to lose our cohesiveness, our national identity.
But in addition to these cultural divides, I think there is a deeper one, one becoming harder to bridge. The polarization of our political parties has created extremists on both sides—the Left and the Right.
The Left is for the underdog. Our underdogs include most minority members, union workers, government employees, the disabled and best of all, illegal immigrants (referred to here as document-free residents). The document-free residents have everything a Left-leaner is looking for. They are usually less educated, unskilled, poor, living in the shadows and unable to fend for themselves.
Many in the Left have lost their faith and declare themselves to be atheists (or just claim to not believe in any of the controversial parts of their religion) primarily because the idea of absolute truth flies in the face of their quest to reduce causes of low self- esteem that violators of objective laws (read "sinners") might feel. They do not believe in Adam and Eve as described in Genesis, but rather in Nature and its laws of natural selection via the survival of the fittest. But they don't want even these laws applied to our least fit, our underdogs, their raison d'etre. They believe that a force greater than the individual, like the State (or G-d if He exists) should step in and help the helpless. Food stamps should provide food for the hungry, welfare programs should provide for the living needs of the poor and disabled and the government should ensure that all Americans have health care coverage. The underdogs cannot be allowed to fail no matter what Nature demands.
Many in the Right are devoutly religious. The vast majority claim Christianity as their proud national religion whose main teaching is that the way we treat the most needy is the way we treat our Savior. Jesus, Himself, helped the lepers, the poor and the disenfranchised. He demonstrated the ultimate example of noblesse oblige.
But the Right also believes in maintaining the supremacy of the top dog. Their top dogs are the rich and powerful. To the Right, the top dog is everything that America stands for. The top dog works hard to win in whatever he attempts and is not inhibited by objective moral laws or agreed upon rules of conduct to successfully compete. The Ten Commandments, whatever they actually say, are really important until and unless they stand in the way of coming out on top. Ideas like thou shall not steal, lie (yes, the one about false witness is not only about court appearances), covet and most of all to have no gods before the One are no impediment to these folks.
And though members of the Right are religious, they believe that Man's future is most secure when natural selection (also known as the free market) is allowed to operate freely. That means that only the fittest survive. There should be no intervention by a force greater than the individual like the State (or even the Creator who they say does exist). Do not extend unemployment benefits, do not bail out failed banks and auto companies and do not prevent foreclosures and bankruptcies, they say. And, they add, do not give health care to those who cannot get it at work or pay for it themselves. They want tax cuts for the very richest among us, but don't want to subsidize health care coverage for 30 million Americans without it. They want government to stop regulating the private sector, trusting in their basic integrity and the infallibility of the free market.
The Right also wants us to trust the intuitive wisdom of human nature. Parents, no matter how uneducated, know what's best for their kids to eat, no matter how obese. We should also trust the intrinsic goodness of business leaders, the Right insists. They don't need a bunch of government regulations to make sure that their product and service are of the highest standard. Business is self regulating, they want us to believe, despite thousands of class-action suits, the BP oil spill, the discrimination against its female employees by the country's largest retail corporation, the manipulation of the energy market in California by large energy companies, the fraud and moral bankruptcy of Enron, Providian, MCI, Countrywide, Arthur Anderson, Lehman Brothers, Bernie Madoff, Goldman Sachs et al notwithstanding. These many examples of systemic failure have failed to dampen their world view.
And while members of the Left, no matter how successful in their own pursuits, still identify with those least able to excel, the members of the Right, no matter how unsuccessful and unlikely to ever be otherwise, identify with the top dogs. They want the rich to get tax breaks because they think that someday they too may join their privileged ranks, disregarding all signs to the contrary. These misguided believers will defend the very people who are exploiting them against the laws and government trying to protect them.
So what is the answer? How do we unite a badly divided nation?
Plato and Aristotle had the answer. I think that they called it the Golden Mean. Buddha had the Middle Path. President Obama has finding common ground. I call it moderation.
We must stop looking for our top dogs or underdogs so that we can see all of our people and attend to their common needs and goals. The rich are much too rich, even for their own good and the poor are too poor even for all their shortcomings. We must have a tax code that is both simple and fair. Our government must free itself of waste, corruption, inefficiency and ineffectiveness. Holes in our safety nets like Social Security and Medicare must be mended. We must stop subsidizing industries that are doing well on their own like agriculture and oil. American businesses, while continuing to work to increase profit, must also strive to make this a better country by treating their American workers and customers fairly. And, it would really help if we stayed out of the affairs of other countries by neither attacking them nor bribing them with foreign aid and military bases to protect them.
And let's go back to being 100 percent Americans and not also citizens of other lands. We marry only one person at a time, why not be a citizen of one country at a time?
Then, perhaps we will truly be, up close as well as at a distance, one nation with a united, non-hyphenated people who know who we are and what we really want.
What's In A Name?
I have always been fascinated by language, especially words and more specifically, names. This interest was recently piqued by a conversation I had in the park. I met an attractive, middle-aged, blond-haired woman who told me that she was from the Netherlands. I asked her why the Netherlands was/were called Holland. She told me that Holland is an important part of the country, so people call the country Holland. She said it was like England—there is no country named England, but people still call it that.
I told her that England is a country and that Great Britain referred to England, Scotland and Wales, what I thought were three countries on the same island - Britain. I told her that the United Kingdom included Northern Ireland as well as the other three lands.
I checked online when I got home and found that there is some question as to whether Scotland and Wales are really countries anymore or yet. But England is definitely a country.
Then I noticed that when reporting the news, reporters never say England to describe where London is, they say the U.K. or the United Kingdom. Sometimes they even refer to England as the UK while then going on to mention Scotland and Wales by name as though separate.
Why can't England be England? Why can't Scotland and Wales be countries, again?
Then there is Europe with former countries breaking up into still previous ones. Remember Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia? Now they are what they were before World War 1 - Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro instead of the former and the Czech Republic and Slovenia for the latter.
Many European countries are part of the E.U. They share the same currency, allow free access between countries without border checks or tariffs, and are even striving for a common language, English (or should it be called British or Ukish or Euish, though it doesn't look Euish?). Even calling Europe E.U. is confusing since the French call America, E.U. (Etats Unis) and even more confusing when people in Latin America call themselves Americans.
In India, China and Burma, cities, states and even an entire country itself are having a name change. What was once India included what is now Pakistan and that included what is now Bangladesh. And what was wrong with Bombay or Peiking? Whatever happened to Tibet which used to be a great independent country of monks and mystics? It is now called a part of materialistic China, but not by me. Burma isn't always Burma; its dictators have changed its name and now we don't know what the more P.C. name for it is. I say stick with Burma.
Someone once said that a rose is a rose is a rose and by any other name would smell as sweet. I'll call that someone Zelda since her words should be no less true if her name is changed, but they are. A rose is a rose only because we say it is and if it were called some vulgar name, it would not be smelled at all. It's all perception even about perception.
So I say let's call England, England and let's call Tibet, Tibet. And Burma must be Burma (too many good restaurants' names are at stake here). And not only do I think that the Netherlands should not be called Holland unless they officially change it and their people and language should be Netherlanders and Netherlandic, respectively or if they become Holland, the people and language should be Hollandaise.
This, I'm afraid, is my final word on the subject.
Previous Columns by Jack Kaye December 2008 - December 2010