Contrary to the headline, I am not advocating cutting back on unemployment benefits at this time. This is directed to the far right and far left of the United States Congress. Please get a clue. In an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul expressed his opposition to a further extension of the nation’s long-term unemployment insurance, saying that such an extension would be “a disservice to these workers.”
“I do support unemployment benefits for the 26 weeks that they’re paid for,” Paul said. “If you extend it beyond that, you do a disservice to these workers. When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you’re causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy.”
He was pretty well trashed for his comments. But on the other side of the coin is the far left who advocate for continued benefits, mainly because it seems easier to fight for that than to do the hard work necessary to actually address the job situation in our country. Besides being difficult to find a job, there are way too many Americans who are woefully under-employed or have just given up.
If there is any reason that there is a “perpetual unemployed group” in our country it is because the government and business seems incapable of creating a climate that would encourage job growth. And I don’t mean the minimum wage jobs that do make the unemployment percentage come down. But jobs that actually give a person the opportunity to make a living and support their family.
I’ve been unemployed. I am educated. I have good skills. I am over 50. I ended up starting my own business because it finally got too disheartening to find a job. There are certain industries with good openings, but it takes a certain skill set which I do not possess. Some people do have the flexibility to take job training, but when you have bills in your face, you do what you have to do. Unemployment benefits keep the wolf from the door for a while.
There is no harder work than looking for work in this day and age. To the arrogant leaders of our country and their clueless supporters, your tune would change the minute you lose a job. Do you know how many good people who are hard workers lost their job in the past five years through no fault of their own? Many people have reinvented themselves and taken jobs or started a business where they are making considerably less than they used to. And I am not talking about people who made $200,000 and are now making $100,000. I am talking about folks who made $60,000 and are now raking in $25,000. You know – what we used to call the middle class.
I’ve been there. I had to collect unemployment. I was fortunate because it was only for a few months. But times are different now. And since the far right and the far left, whose intelligence is in indirect proportion to their ignorance, choke on the word “compromise” , here’s a thought. I do think 99 weeks is too long. Well, split the difference. Provide benefits for a year. It is a crime that it can take that long to find a decent job.
I believe 95% of the people on unemployment would give almost anything for a real job. For many, jobs are not only a financial lifeline, but a source of pride, self-esteem, and peace of mind. There are two foundations of a strong country: decent family values and jobs. If you lose them, everything crumbles. And keeping families intact is really difficult when one or two parents are scrambling around doing 2-3 jobs just to pay for the basics.
There are those who attack those on unemployment as “deadbeats”. You want deadbeats? Look no further than Washington DC. We have decently paid lawmakers who seem totally incapable of governing. If you want to cut back on safety net programs, then figure out ways that lead to those safety net programs becoming obsolete!
December 11, 2013
The Socratic Method is a positive method of debating, in which conflict is reduced by steadily identifying and eliminating those points that lead to contradictions. The Socratic Method searches for general, commonly held truths that shape opinion, and scrutinizes them to determine their consistency with other beliefs. In other words, it boils conflicts down to finding the most common denominator in order to find agreement.
Well, with all of the abuse Congress has gotten in the past couple of years, they have at least mastered the Socratic Method. Yes, it has been announced that they seem to have come to an agreement on the nation’s budget. And the greatest thing I can say about it is: they came to an agreement.
After all Congress doesn’t do a great job at agreeing on anything. There would probably be a three day debate as they decided what color the Capital Building was painted. Where the budget is concerned, nobody went out on a limb in putting the pieces of this one together. Other than providing a framework to run the country for a year, it does not address any of the long term problems we face. It restores about $63 billion in automatic spending cuts from programs ranging from parks to the Pentagon and eliminates that threat of another partial government shutdown early next year.
Of course the two lead negotiators of the plan patted themselves on the back.
The deal "reduces the deficit by $23 billion and it does not raise taxes. It cuts spending in a smarter way" than the ones in effect, said Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House Budget Committee and was his party's negotiator in several weeks of secretive talks.
His Democratic counterpart, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, said, "We have broken through the partisanship and gridlock" that could have produced a government shutdown in January.
What we have here is an agreement on another Band-Aid. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy that Congress can do something if it wants to. I can’t help feeling though that it was hammered together by people who are just sick and tired of all of the BS that goes on in Washington so they went for the most common denominator approach.
This does nothing to help lower our debt by anything significant, addresses our costly programs like Social Security and Medicaid, provides long –term fiscal planning, or much of anything else. This was something put together by people worried about their re-election campaigns and not much about the difficulties people are in today or the future we are headed for.
It reminds me of a cartoon I saw as a kid where a dam or dike starts to leak so a boy comes up and sticks his finger in the hole. Then another leak begins and he uses his other hand to stop it. Then another and he puts his foot in it. Pretty soon there are more leaks than he can handle since he ran out limbs. That is what this budget does. It stuffs the one hole but many more are about to explode and release the flood.
An optimist would say that this can be the start of progress. I guess I am not that person, as much as I would like to be. I just see a bunch of manipulators who once again shirk their duty and do nothing to start fixing many of the real issues. They aren’t going to go away. We or the next generation are going to have to accept the final bill and figure out how to pay it. That isn’t very responsible. I think Socrates would have pondered this dilemma and would have decided that the people in charge should be given the poison that he was asked to drink.
December 10, 2013
I don’t know how often a person really hears how they talk. Me included. An interesting exercise is recording a conversation or debate you are having with someone and then playing it back later. If you try to remain objective, I believe it helps you become clearer in your thinking.
Today’s column is a shout out to David Welch for having me on his radio interview show “Books and Politics” on Angels and Warriors internet radio. It was fun to do and we talked for an hour on a host of issues including Obamacare, education, and our troops stationed all over the world. You can listen to the recorded version here: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/angelsandwarriors/2013/12/10/books-and-politics. A few things struck me when I went back and listened to our chat.
While I do not know if we offered any unique insight to major problems faced by the USA, I reflected afterwards that our conversation between two typical Americans showed a lot of frustration. And the frustration was not limited to any one political party. If you want to play the blame game, there is more than enough to go around. Unfortunately, our leading politicians and the media seem to want to spend more time assigning blame than actually figuring out pragmatic solutions.
Sometimes when we sit around and play armchair quarterback about how we would move America forward, we think the solutions are simple. Of course the solution a person comes up with is tainted by party affiliation, philosophy, education, and practical experience. Our leaders are affected by the same thing plus the overwhelming lure of cash that is thrown their way by lobbyists and special interests. Even though I can shoot from the hip in this column, I do understand the big picture.
But they shouldn’t be excuses for Congress and the President to not try to move forward. In fact, it is a struggle just to keep the status quo. I wish there was some way to really educate people on how our government works and to encourage voters to take the time to look at a candidate beyond party affiliation and the negative ads on TV. I really believe that our right to vote is such an important duty and we take it too lightly. Many people do not vote at all and others go in with the philosophy that “My Daddy was a Democrat and so was his Daddy, so that is how I am going to vote.” Too often an election is a civic demonstration of “American Idol” rather than voting on a candidate for his or her merits. But then again, we often have candidates who do not state how they will make a difference…they are spending all their time trashing their opponent. (See 2012 Presidential election.) This is one reason we constantly send the wrong people to work for us.
In his show last night David had a radical plan for reducing unemployment, welfare, and the minimum wage issues. I am still mulling it over and will talk about it in a future column. But what I did congratulate David on was that he was way ahead of our nation’s leaders because his plan was comprehensive. Too often government programs are piecemeal without looking how a law may affect other issues. It often seems that a member of Congress focuses on bills that will give the best sound bites, not the best program for Americans.
David and I are probably close in our philosophies but there are differences. But if two people can have a good, respectful conversation on the radio, there is no reason why that cannot happen between legislative leaders who have a difference of opinion. Maybe if the media stops fanning the flames and members of the far right and left would take a time out and read a book, then maybe a dialogue can start to actually fix some of our fundamental problems. Because it doesn’t matter how right a person thinks they are if the fabric of America erodes into a shell of her former self.
December 9, 2013
Last Thursday President Obama was interviewed by Chris Matthews of MSNBC. During their talk Mr. Matthews asked the President who in the executive branch was responsible for the botched health-care rollout. Mr. Obama listed a few impersonal culprits including "cynicism," "Washington gridlock" and "the management of government," but then he steered into his own version of reality:
"The challenge, I think, that we have going forward is not so much my personal management style or particular issues around White House organization," he said. "It actually has to do with what I referred to earlier, which is we have these big agencies, some of which are outdated, some of which are not designed properly. . . . The White House is just a tiny part of what is a huge, widespread organization with increasingly complex tasks in a complex world."
It is funny how “hope and change” has changed into “old stand-by scapegoat”: bloated government that cannot do anything correctly.
With all due respect, many of us are tired of this crap. What you said is true about many of our agencies and departments. I have argued many times that there is a ton of money to save just by auditing and reorganizing every agency in government. But that does not answer the question. You are the chief executive of the country. I would think that at a bare minimum, you would have done everything possible to make your flagship program come out of the gate with flying colors. On this one, there is no excuse. If you took a heartfelt “mea culpa” over the whole thing, I would have respected that. After five years you seem to have no clue of how to actually run anything…and it shows.
The government has a definite role in America. You and the other two branches ARE the government. Republicans believe in a smaller government and Democrats think it is the answer to everything. The solution is probably somewhere in the middle. But you, as the standard bearer of the Democratic Party, continually promote government as the answer to all ills. Why then is everything less than successful in implementation? Don’t blame the Republicans on this one. Yes, they continually fight the law, but IT IS THE LAW. You won. Obamacare became a reality. But the thought that went into its launching could have been better served by being planned by a bunch of Boy Scouts around a campfire.
There should be a moratorium placed on any new laws that promotes a more activist government until it can function properly with everything it is currently responsible for. And I am not talking just about Obamacare. Everything from the Ability One Commission to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars needs to be evaluated to see if it is actually needed and then reorganized for better efficiency in terms of performance and cost. And, yes, I did look up the total list of agencies and departments in the United States. I couldn’t believe some of the things that are on the books!
There is absolutely no reason to turn “we the people” into “we the government”. You can rely on people. Who really feels like they can rely on the government in the state that it is in?
December 6, 2013
The world stopped yesterday with the death of Nelson Mandela. As Tanya Lewis writes:
Nelson Mandela will be remembered as a beloved leader, a moral authority and an extraordinary human being. His passing at the age of 95, announced today (Dec. 5) brings both sadness and admiration for his singular achievements in the struggle for racial equality.
Imprisoned for 27 years for opposing the racist institution of apartheid, Mandela later became the first black president of South Africa, where he brought about a peaceful transition from the white-dominated government to a multiracial democracy.
Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 in the village of Mveso in Transkei, South Africa. As a young man, he studied law and became active in opposing colonialism. He joined the African National Congress and was arrested repeatedly for treasonous activities. Originally a supporter of nonviolent protest, Mandela later turned to militant means, co-founding a group that organized bombings of government targets. In 1962, he was convicted of sabotage and conspiring to overthrow the government, and sentenced to life in prison.
Like all great leaders, Mandela was a complex person. He went from militant revolutionary to someone who leaned on diplomacy and peaceful means to bring about change in a country that was racked by decisiveness based along racial lines. He showed that one man can rise above others, learn how to be a better leader, and be a catalyst to bring a country together.
We should mourn his passing. For the United States it made me realize that we have nobody in our country, who if they passed away, would be universally mourned. Ronald Reagan was the last one. We are really becoming a country that seems to thrive on our decisiveness as a badge of honor. There isn’t anyone on our national scene who as the ability or desire to bring the country together. They may want to unite their own little faction, but are incapable of looking at the big picture. Nelson Mandela was a big picture guy. More importantly, he had the wisdom to learn what was necessary to make the big picture a reality.
December 5, 2013
The media and Washington DC seem to have a fixation on Obamacare. It’s up, it’s down, it will be a boom to Americans, it will cripple medical care, etc. Many times your opinion is directly related to what political party you support or your circumstances in life. Whatever – the fact is that it is the law of the land and will take a while for the dust to clear to see if it is good or bad. I believe it will be somewhere in the middle in terms of how it works with tons of tweaks being done until it becomes ingrained into the country like income tax, social security, and Medicaid.
Sometimes I think this is the 2013 version of “Wag the Dog.” Remember that movie: Just days before a presidential election, a Washington, D.C. spin doctor distracts the electorate from a sex scandal by hiring a Hollywood film producer to construct a fake war with Albania.
I feel like that is what Obamacare has become more than anything – a distraction to anything else getting done. And what confuses me more is how the Republican Party seems to have made the best use of it when it is a Democratic program. With all of the House votes to stop it, endless debates on it being a bargaining chip in regard to any other legislation, and jumping up-and-down with glee when its roll-out hit a wall out of the gate, Republicans have been so preoccupied with Obamacare they have not had to publically talk about much else. Maybe to hide the fact they really do not have any good ideas of how to fix things. I would say the Democrats conspired to keep the focus on healthcare by intentionally screwing up its launch, but in this case incompetence trumps conspiracy theory.
The fact is that the 113th Congress this year has been exceptionally unproductive -- in fact, it's on track to be one of the least productive ever, in terms of laws passed. And this is on the heels of the 112th Congress that had the previous record. Now, with just two weeks left on the legislative calendar, lawmakers are hard-pressed to renew a series of bills set to expire in the New Year and to meet other looming deadlines.
Before leaving for their winter holiday recess, Congress is attempting to broker deals over a farm bill and food stamps, unemployment benefits, the regulation of 3D-printed guns and a Medicare "doc fix." Lawmakers are also working on a budget agreement to avoid another government shutdown early next year.
The Republican-led House will adjourn for the winter break on the afternoon of December 13 while the Senate is scheduled to work from December 9 – 20. After having all year to address these issues and other important matters, the best that will happen is some slapped together bills that will be band-aids at best. Add to this a President whose motto of “Hope and Change” is now “Hide and Deflect” and you hope Santa gives the lot of them a coal-filled stocking.
It is a paradox that in a world where change is quicker than ever and success is gained by adapting to it, we live in a country where our leaders seem incapable of being up to the challenge. If your Congressman or Senator actually does any work during the break and makes him or herself available to speak to constituents, take advantage of it. Respectfully voice your ideas and concerns to them. Do not wrap it in ideology, but in terms of how their massive inaction is hurting you. We are still the people that make up this country. Another paradox is that with so many media and social outlets, we still cannot seem to be heard.
December 4, 2013
Two stories yesterday got me to thinking about the unemployment picture in our nation’s future. And while I do not think I am looking at much more than five years down the road, that still puts me ahead of most of our national leaders who do not look much further than the next election.
The two news reports may seem unrelated, but the long-term ramifications are the same. The first story had to do with the new traditional Christmas shopping day known as Cyber Monday. Once slighted as a marketing gimmick by online retailers, Cyber Monday has turned into one of the holiday shopping season's most important selling days -- and this year its record-setting totals could help make up for lackluster sales over the Thanksgiving weekend.
Much of the retail spending has shifted, not disappeared, to online and to later in the holiday season, retail experts say. By midafternoon Monday, online sales were up 17.5 percent from the year before, according to IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark, the arm of IBM that tracks real-time retail sales, with the day's total take predicted to top $2 billion. Cyber Monday last year generated about $1.5 billion.
The second story has to do with Applebee's, the nation's largest casual dining chain. On Tuesday they announced plans to place tablets at every table in every one of its U.S. restaurants by the end of 2014. Folks can use the tablets to pay whenever they want -- and to order things like appetizers, desserts or even play video games. According to the company, waiters and waitresses will still be there; the tablets just add to the dining experience, especially among younger folks who are so adept at electronics. (Great – another reason not to have conversation around the table.)
This will just be the tip of the iceberg. How long will it be until the tablets will be the main source for ordering your food? You can cut a dining room staff in half if all they do is run the food around the room. Next, McDonalds will have a terminal at the counter to order your food with. Counter help will no longer be needed. Maybe McDonald’s – and I am not being sarcastic here – will be able to pay their staff $15 an hour because they will be able to do without half of their employees.
And that is the crux of the problem I foresee for the future. Automation and technology have savaged the manufacturing jobs over the years. Now it can have a real impact on the service industry. That is usually defined as food and hospitality, but I will throw in retail stores here because the wages are all about the same. The thing is, when we hear about new jobs being created and unemployment falling, it is predominantly these industries that create the most jobs and affect unemployment numbers. These jobs are great for kids in high school and college and for part-time work, but they offer no long term financial security – no matter what Wal-Mart commercials say on TV. And technology is going to take a chunk of these jobs out of the mix.
Yes, some new jobs will be created in a warehouse somewhere so that merchandise can be sent out that was ordered on the internet, but if more people shop that way, then what will happen at the stores? They will start to cut back on employees or even close. Fast food places and restaurants like Applebee’s will also cut back on staff. It all leads to a better profit margin and that is why companies are in business.
This is not a cry against technology and what it brings. I did all of my Christmas shopping last year on-line. There are times I would rather deal with a computer terminal than the disinterested person supposedly providing me service. My point is that I do not think anyone on the national level can see any further than a near-sighted donkey (I was going to use the word ass, but I felt like that would be too obvious in this context) and they have not done anything to make a more conducive environment to encourage job growth. Little things like having a national budget, improving infrastructure, or having consistent regulations so a company knows what it has to deal with are important. Companies cannot begin or grow when the national scene is so precarious and wishy-washy.
Technology is going to dump even more people into the unemployment ranks. Nothing is being done now; how is that track record indicating it will get better in the future? Maybe we can replace the Congress and President with tablets. After all, computer technology is at a level where machines can learn from the past and make adjustments to operate better in the future. I think that gives them a leg up over what we now have in government.
December 3, 2013
So…many stores opened their doors on Thanksgiving to usher in the early Christmas shopper and to separate consumers from their dollars. The retail establishment had dreams of big bucks dancing in their head. The way they looked at the math meant that more time for shopping would easily translate into more profits.
Guess what? They rolled craps. Black Friday, considered the start to the US holiday shopping season, saw its first drop in sales since 2009, according to a National Retail Federation survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Total spending from Thanksgiving Day and through the weekend was estimated to have dropped by 2.9% to $57.4 billion. Average spending per shopper fell 3.9% to $407.02. The decline occurred despite the fact that the number of shoppers for the 4 day weekend increased from last year's 139 million to 141.1 million. As usual, Black Friday was the biggest day with 92 million shoppers, compared to nearly 89 million last year.
The good news here for consumers is that there will be many panic sales going on throughout the retail industry. Pay attention to those ads because there will be a lot of good bargains as stores scramble to make up for the key shopping weekend. I have to imagine that many executives are panicking because they are already behind their goal and this is a short shopping season with Thanksgiving falling like it did on the calendar this year. Three weeks from tomorrow is Christmas already.
So what does the four day shopping period tell us? The way I see it there are several simple economic lessons to be learned here.
First, for the stores: it doesn’t matter how long you open your doors. You may not have an infinite number of days to be open, but by the same token the average consumer also does not have an infinite amount of money to spend. Once it is spent, people are done buying Christmas presents. I think the day is behind us where many people will throw caution to the winds and just keep charging on their credit card. Credit cards are still used, but only up to whatever budget a person sets. Unlike the government and financial institutions, I believe that average Americans have learned to live more within their means. They learned from the meltdown of 2008. The other sad truth is that the means for many is lower than it used to be as too many Americans are still trying to recover from the economic collapse and all of the fallout.
For the economic experts (I question if anyone really knows what they are doing here): stop crowing about the bloody stock market. Yes, it is great for the companies and people who own stock. But you know the impact it has on the everyday American? Zilch! OK, maybe a little if someone has a 401k or some modest investments, but if you compare that to the people who hold most of the wealth it is like a shot glass full of water compared to an ocean. Look, I believe in the history of the stock market. It does always go up. But there is also always a correction in the market – which sometimes makes it sink lower than the Titanic – with the same feeling of disaster. It will happen again. And since not a lot has changed in the way business is conducted since 2008 – financial institutions and companies will be yelling to the government to throw down a life preserver…again!
And for the President and Congress: this is the country you are in charge of boys and girls. And until you really look at what people go through in finding a job, keeping a job, and hopefully having enough income for the basics and maybe a little extra leftover - you just aren’t going to get it! You are supposed to be setting policy to guide the country to prosperity. You rather fight over philosophy and individual programs and turn a blind eye towards reality. It seems like every year the Congress and the President are rated very low in actually getting anything done. If they were your favourite sports team, you would be yelling to get rid of all the coaches and players and start over!
I talk to people and most folks understand these simple economic facts. Why are those who run companies and our national government so blind…or stupid!?!
December 2, 2013
Thanksgiving was everything it is supposed to be. A good time with family and friends intertwined with parades, food, and football. As I sit here marveling at how much food and wine the human body can consume in one day, I find myself thinking about a conversation I had over the weekend. There were a few of us sitting around chatting and it was very enlightening.
First of all, everyone was very thankful for the usual: family, health, and we all actually had jobs. The talk drifted into the state that the country is in when everyone indicated they were extremely thankful the election was over. The consensus was that a lot of money was spent to keep the country in the same state it was in before the election. We once again have a President who has issues as a leader and a Congress that has no clue to what is going on. And this conclusion was reached by people who had quite different jobs: business owners, independent contractors and typical employees.
The real fear is that the government is doing things without any clue of how it is going to affect people. Let’s take Obamacare. Regardless of how people feel about the program, the concrete evidence shows how incompetent our government is at running things. It is like you can forsee the worse possible situation where the government is involved and that is the only place where our expectations are exceeded - things can actually be worse.
Folks are tired of hearing how taxes are going to be raised without any real talk about cutting back on the size of the government. Nobody has the guts to lead and spell out for the country the pros and cons of any action. Everything is covered in liberal or conservative bias with no clear communication to everyone. And the media is as guilty as the government since they are so hyped up on being the news, they forget to actually report the news. Thus it is hard to get a handle on anything from our budget issues to the government shutdown. There seems to be a lot of shouting going on about issues that affect all of us without any real information.
And Congress received the brunt of the abuse. People would like to see their reps actually come into town and talk to people before re-election time. Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local” and maybe our representatives should think of that concept. It would be a good idea if politicians really understood what the people go through who they are supposed to serve: How hard it is to keep home and family together. How many jobs really stink because it is difficult to get a living wage and some basic benefits. How families have to make decisions between food and medicine if sickness is in the family. How business owners want to sell out because they cannot deal with the wishy-washiness of our leaders.
I am not making this conversation up. Franklin Roosevelt famously said, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” He is correct but the truth is that the reality is getting harder and harder to put out of your mind. A lot of our nation has trouble with the goal of living comfortably – not extravagantly – but just with some peace of mind. And our leaders’ inaction is creating a lot of anxious moments in families. Everyone was very thankful that we still live in the greatest country, but the seams are starting to give way and we all wonder where we will be a year from now.