March 6, 2014
It is a fact of life that the White House has operated on a constant campaign mode for at least the last twenty years. The President and his team carefully scrutinized every policy decision for all possible political gain and fallout. Only then do they parade decisions in front of us with the persistence of a leaky kitchen faucet. Actually, it gets about as annoying as the faucet.
President Obama has raised the bar on this method of running the country to an art form. Everything he does from domestic policy to telling the Russians to leave the Ukraine alone is handled with this kid glove treatment. Remember, the old days when a president actually led from a sense of belief and conviction. When you could look towards Washington and whether you voted for the guy or not, you still had a sense of confidence. After all, this is the President of the United States.
It is not that way anymore. Three quick examples – all of which happened in the last week – showcase President Obama’s propensity to campaign, and not lead. Russia and the Ukraine are up first. Secretary of State Kerry shows better distain and skepticism for all the manure that comes out of Vladimir Putin’s mouth. The President comes across as tentative and is not doing a lot to strike fear in the hearts of our adversaries or inspire confidence in our allies. Maybe Kerry and Obama are playing some kind of game of “Good Cop, Bad Cop” to confuse Russia. That does not seem the right way to play the international power game.
The second example is President Obama’s 2015 budget plan for the country. It is a tailored-made budget to shore up the Democratic Party’s principles – right in time for the midterm elections in November. This is such a transparent political ploy; I pray that the American people – including those that lean towards the Democrats – realize this budget is as close to reality as the Star Wars universe. (OK – some people think that IS real, but you get my point.) The budget is another grab bag of “programs” that temporarily alleviate the symptoms of America’s problems, but do nothing to promote a cure. Oh yeah, they are also being pushed with no consideration to the staggering budget deficit that the country already operates under.
Example 3 is everyone’s favorite program, Obamacare. Yesterday the President once again made changes in the law so that some of the more painful changes in healthcare will not occur till after the November elections, and some not until after the next presidential election. Enough is enough. This President has taken it upon himself to make more changes in this law by his own whim than a Kardashian changes boyfriends. Notice I use the word “law” in describing Obamacare. It is a legally passed law by the Congress of the United States. To make changes in this law, it has to go through a constitutionally guided process. IT CANNOT JUST BE CHANGED BECAUSE IT DOES NOT SUIT THE NEEDS OF THE PRESIDENT AT THE MOMENT. WHEN THE HELL IS SOMEONE GOING TO STAND UP TO HIM ABOUT BREAKING THE LAW?!?!?
But you see, a political campaign is an organized effort which seeks to influence the decision making process within a specific group. A president does need to be an influencer, but not at the expense of being a leader. Unfortunately, President Obama uses campaign tricks to get his way as President. This goes right down to changing laws to be more palatable to voters. It means establishing a budget that sounds good to people, but has a snowballs chance in hell of becoming a reality. Plus, a campaign mentality does not work on the world stage. Leadership does, however.
The only reason President Obama continues in this vein is that any opposition in Washington is not cohesive and has trouble articulating a common ground. The November elections will be interesting. I am afraid that we will find that Abraham Lincoln was wrong when he said, “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
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March 5, 2014
As we watch an international version of Russian Roulette on the world stage, I realize that politics has completely taken over the concept of governing and leadership. This is not a good thing. We have turned into a nation of Monday morning quarterbacks who analyze and criticize every announcement of policy about ten seconds after it comes out. A lot of this comes about due to the 24/7 news outlets who sometimes desperately try to fill any vacuum by playing up the controversies saddling our government. Social media is also a factor.
In international matters, I believe we as a nation need to give any president at least a little time to react to a crisis. Dealing with other countries is a delicate balance. This is especially true when you deal with a thug like Vladimir Putin as he throws his weight around with the Ukraine. The one thing you want to do in order to scare your enemies and encourage your allies is to present a solid position as a nation. We are doing great harm to the prestige of the United States when every word that comes out of the White House is met with opposition and criticism. There is going to be plenty of time to review and tear apart decisions, but let us wait at least a week or so before the dogs are unleashed.
Before people start writing me that everything is politics, I know that. I believe there is a time when the perception of the United States is more important than which bloody party is right or wrong. (Just so you know, I have not been happy with how President Obama handles our foreign affairs, but that is not what this is about. I am surprisingly pleased with how Secretary of State John Kerry speaks out.) It is bad enough that the public at large is disgusted and confused with how our government conducts domestic business, but it is a cancer when the international community foots those same concerns.
Back in the dark ages when I went to college, I studied international politics. I remember Professor Mansbach at Rutgers University explaining to us how political scientists used game theory to test reactions between countries. The biggest game to explore policy was “chicken.” Many times countries are hurling at each other like two cars on a rural highway. The loser is the first one to blink and veer out of the way. International relations are a lot like that. It is the mission of one power to get the other to blink and stop what they are doing. In order to win this deadly game, you have to approach it with unquestioned strength and firm decision-making.
That is not possible when every politician who sees a TV camera as an outlet for their ignorance feels compelled to express their opinion. In order to win chicken, dissention in the ranks is bad. If another government leader does not like the tact the president is following, then call him up and let him know. Keep it private for the time being. This sets a bad precedent for the future. Let’s be real here. It is not going to matter what party controls the White House. This is now always going to be standard procedure when a crisis rears its ugly head on the international stage. The opposition party is going to criticize the commander-in-chief as soon as he says something. This kind of kills our national credibility to friend and foe alike.
There is always going to be disagreement on how a president conducts international business. In the old days, opposing points of view would be regulated to newspapers (remember them) and a half hour of national news a night. Since that is not the case anymore, then politicians should use a little more discretion when publicly voicing displeasure. It is perfectly fine to do, but at least wait until the immediate crisis calms down a bit. We need to show that we are the United States when dealing with other countries.
March 4, 2014
God bless Matthew McConaughey. When he won the Academy Award for Best Actor on Sunday, he started his acceptance speech with:
“First off, I want to thank God because that's who I look up to,” he said. “He's graced my life with opportunities that I know are not of my hand or of any other hand. He's shown me that it's a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates.”
It was so nice to hear an actor of his stature to offer thanks to God instead of going through the litany of thanking the director, his agent, the girl who brings the coffee, etc. I have always enjoyed watching Mr. McConaughey in his roles, but it was really nice to hear such a heartfelt speech that mainly talked about his Creator and his family. Obviously, he is rather well grounded in life.
On the other hand, it was interesting to observe the reaction of the audience to his speech. The cameras did not focus on the crowd, but it seemed that there was a giant sucking sound when Matthew referred to God. It is almost like for the Hollywood crowd that God is a taboo subject. It is ok to be an atheist and talk against God or to promote lifestyles that others may find questionable, but do not talk about God. He should be kept in a closet. (Ironic isn’t it, since everything else in America is pretty much out of the closet.)
Look, I am all for freedom of speech. If some misguided egotist believes there is no God and wants to promote that viewpoint, he can. But he has to accept the criticism that he is going to get. You know, just as he feels it is his right to speak out against someone who eagerly talks about and promotes God. For some reason, it does not seem like the media and some national leaders like that idea very much.
I believe this is because God makes them uncomfortable.
This may be because they are not settled on their own personal belief about God, or they are afraid of the ridicule they will be subjected to if they freely talk about Him. Funny how in the old days, speaking against God would have you condemned, and now it seems like the situation is reversed.
The other thing that may make someone uneasy is they think they are atheists, but there is a little voice inside of them saying “What if I am wrong?” Out of all the questions we wrestle with, gambling with our souls is not something people should do lightly.
Let’s look at the group of people Matthew McConaughey addressed Sunday night. The Hollywood crowd is as liberal as you can get. That does not mean they do not believe in God. Statistically, a majority of the people there believe in God one way or another. Some actors do acknowledge this in some one-on-one interviews, but it is not something many proclaim. I know many Christians, and people of other faiths, who look at their beliefs as private and not something they want to talk to others about. Speaking for the Christians, this is not what we are supposed to be doing.
I do not think Mr. McConaughey’s proclamation was met with silence because most of the audience did not believe in God. It was because they were in shock of what they perceived to be a gutsy pronouncement. I hope it was perfectly natural for the Oscar winner to say what he did. And that should be the lesson for everyone who believes in God. Believing does not make you a second-class citizen. If someone doesn’t agree with your faith, tough! We should never, never be ashamed to embrace God.
Congrats to Matthew McConaughey for winning his award. But even bigger accolades to him for reminding Hollywood and all of us how we should not be afraid to speak up for our Creator.
March 3, 2014
President Obama addressed the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Washington on Friday with the aim of maintaining a spirit of unity among the party. Democrats are trying to face down Republicans who see a chance of capturing the Senate and building on their majority in the House of Representatives. Obama made the case that there are still items on his agenda that he would like to see approved in an election year.
He argued that Democrats stand for middle-class values versus Republicans who stand for wealthier people. "The choice couldn't be more clear. Opportunity for a few - or opportunity for all," Obama said. He also pushed his policies to create jobs for the middle class as an election-year appeal for voters to support Democrats. Obama said the budget he plans to propose next week for fiscal 2015 will seek funding for projects to create jobs in manufacturing, energy and infrastructure and will pay for the new spending "by cutting unnecessary spending, and closing wasteful tax loopholes."
I am tired of the President’s rhetoric and I pray that Americans who do not follow politics all that close are also sick of it. The Democrats have done nothing to create jobs. By the way, why is he waiting until the next fiscal year to unleash his new ideas? His act is getting as tiring as Donald Trump’s press conferences that are meant to tease, but nothing ever comes out of them. If the President actually had some good ideas to create jobs, aren’t we way past the time to have implemented them? There are scads of people unemployed or dreadfully under-employed and something that would offer some real hope would be welcomed.
The other part of his statement that should be left in a cow field with all the other manure is his statement that he will pay for the programs "by cutting unnecessary spending, and closing wasteful tax loopholes." Really!?!? When was the last time Washington ever actually did that? Even if they manage to cut some waste and close some loopholes, more waste and loopholes will occur at a greater rate. We have a government incapable of managing itself and a Chief Executive who has had five years to grow into the job, and has not. The only loopholes he has really exploited are the ones where he can do an end-around Congress by exercising executive orders.
Now that I finished with the Democrats, let’s move on to the Republicans. They have a table set up for them to become the majority power in the nation, with the current exception of the presidency. However, Americans do not seem too inclined to vote for someone just because they are “the other party.” That other party has to show some concrete ideas that have merit. These Republicans have to show they are for America, and not just the wealthy. Because like it or not Republicans, that is how many in the nation perceive you.
My biggest complaint with the Republicans is the lack of a plan, especially in regards to job creation. Because to quote President Clinton, “It is the economy, stupid.” The public at large does not care if someone is not conservative enough to be a Republican, or the other nonsense we have been hearing out of Washington for years now. People want to feel that there are jobs to maintain their standard of living, and they will not slide backwards. They are not just going to vote for a change of in leadership unless the new team is going to do something real and constructive to break the malaise we have been in.
From my point of view, if the Republicans start their plan out by announcing tax cuts for industry to promote job growth, I will throw up. That is always their solution, and it will turn so many voters off. Besides it never works.
The party with the best chance of winning this November is the one with the better message. One that solves problems, and does not rest on the laurels that they are the “other guy.” If the President wants any chance of being pertinent for the next three years, he needs to learn this. I believe the nation, Republicans and Democrats, now mentally shut him off because we only hear the same old stuff. The same old stuff does not work…and has not for a while. However, if there is no genuine alternative, people WILL keep the devil they know.
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February 28, 2014
To My Mom
With Lots of Love,
You have been so supportive for so long through so much, my first book is dedicated to you.
(Hey, it only took me 30 some years after college to finally do one. Hopefully there will be more in the near future!)
This is the dedication I wrote in my first book, Common Sense for Today’s America. It is something I am proud of accomplishing. Thanks to a mixed network of family and friends that contributed artwork, editing, publishing, and marketing talents to the project, I received the first edition last week and it looked great. I also have to admit that it is kind of cool seeing yourself on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I think anyone who reads the book receives an entertaining and thought-provoking read, along with a few chuckles. I make no aspirations to producing a work of literature. I minored in literature in college, and while I read many great books, they tended to be boring. I believe in the philosophy of life that says a good day is where we get to laugh, get to cry, and get to think.
I talk a lot in this daily column of the difficulty of achieving the American dream today. My definition of that “dream” is to make a decent living where you can support yourself and your family through your own efforts, be able to do some fun things, and have a basic feeling of contentment. The United States is going through a transition where the old rules do not apply in terms of economic opportunity. Good jobs are scarce and the corporate attitude towards the people they hirer is becoming one-dimensional. If you are too young or too old, did not go to the right school or have the right contacts, finding a quality job with quality pay becomes almost impossible. Politicians have no clue how to establish an economic framework in America. There are many people, myself included, who are periodically racked with anxiety of how to get through the next few months because of the uncertainty of where the next job is.
In spite of the odds, I still finished my first book and got it published. Do I think I will get rich off it – no. I hope some people will buy it because I truly think it is enjoyable to read, and that was my main goal. It has motivated me to bring some other books to completion ranging in topics from business to Christianity, and I know I will also see them for sale soon. Financial considerations aside, I realized I was able to do something I always wanted without any help from government programs or another company.
That is the lesson for today. People comment on my columns and want to bitch and complain about our politicians or their company screwing them. Their points are valid. I know. I have lived through it too. This is where the true American attitude is going to kick in. You have to dust yourself off and do whatever you have to do to survive. That is something still protected in our country. It takes a leap of faith, or circumstances beyond our control, to just say “the hell with it” and plunge forward – whether it is to start your own business, or take a chance with a new job for less money, or completely relocate to another section of the country. I write freely here and in my book about government, education, family, religion, and other aspects of life. If I lived in Russia, they would throw me into prison with Pussy Riot. Here, I hope a radio talk show wants to interview me.
I hope in my writing I show possible ways of solving some problems, or at the least, put a light of a different perspective on an issue. We have too many people in America right now blinded by hate and philosophy that prevents them ever seeing another point of view. That will get in the way of the “American Dream” more than anything else will. It is our right to bitch and complain, but if that is all you do without trying to at least change your own circumstances; you will sink in the despair that you promote. We still have the freedom to do anything we want. If we do not use it, we lose it. That would be a sin.
February 27, 2014
All of two days ago, I wrote about Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal screwing up a moment of political cooperation when he took President Obama to task about five minutes after he and the other governors left the White House. I still believe it would have been much more appropriate if he waited 30 minutes and had his own press conference at some Washington hotel after the group broke up. However, I have no bones with what he said. He said that President Obama "seems to be waving the white flag of surrender" on the economy by focusing on raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10, up from $7.25. "The Obama economy is now the minimum wage economy. I think we can do better than that," Jindal said.
He is right. I am in no way discounting the minimum wage hike. That is something our illustrious leaders need to figure out because a significant number of Americans make peanuts. However, the point I think Jindal is making is that minimum wage cannot be the only economic discussion going on. We have many unemployed, and even more underemployed, people in this country. Nobody can seem to agree if our economy is rising, falling, or remaining stagnant. For every article in the news about a government program, like Obamacare, spelling doom and gloom, there is one saying it will solve a significant problem. In other words, no one has any real idea what the immediate future holds or what to do.
That does not mean the folks in Washington DC should just ignore it. President Obama has been great at finding concerns that will appeal to the masses and concentrating on them. There is nothing wrong with working on those issues, but not at the expense of doing anything else. And this is what I think Jindal is saying. Republicans and Democrats are going to fire back and forth about minimum wage, and they will forget everything else. I guess that means our politicians have the concentration power of a five year old.
Of course, President Obama counts on this. He and other politicians have the skills of a magician in their ability to direct the audience to look somewhere else while they pull off their trick. While Jindal directed his comments at the President, my fear is that this actually makes everyone in Washington happy. Most of Washington faces re-election in November. Except for that 2/3 of the Senate not up for re-election, I think the rest of the Senate and all of the House of Representatives are perfectly happy not having to vote on anything this year. God forbid if they did what we elected them for!
For the past two years, Congress has done so little. 2013 was worse than 2012, and 2014 looks like another banner year. Why do we have people in office who do not have the courage or intelligence to even attempt tackling the big problems? Government policies shape the country’s framework that can boost an economy and create an environment that gives people an opportunity to make a good living. Sticking one’s head in the sand, or hiding behind a smokescreen of another issue, does not make a problem go away. If nothing else, they only get worse.
If minimum wage is Washington’s smokescreen not to do anything else, it is an appropriate issue. Not because it isn’t a real problem – it is - but because with the government staged to do so little this year, they should only earn minimum wage. This will accomplish two things. The politicians will understand how little money that really is, and us taxpayers will finally pay the right price for what we get!
February 26, 2014
The death of a celebrity is always news, but does not always affect me. The passing of Harold Ramis on Monday did. I notice it is the people like Johnny Carson and Mr. Ramis dying that strikes a chord in me. They made me laugh, often and loud. I have no doubt that laughter is the best medicine and people like that brought me many smiles and chuckles, even if life was tough at the time.
Ramis leaves behind a formidable list of achievements, with writing credits on such enduring comedies as National Lampoon's Animal House, Stripes, and Ghostbusters (Ramis co-starred in Stripes and Ghostbusters), plus such directing efforts as Caddyshack , National Lampoon's Vacation, Groundhog Day and Analyze This. Many of his movies have ended up in the American Film Institute’s 100 Best Comedy Movies of all time.
I know in the course of the past couple of years of writing this column that I quote from his movies or use them as an example for making a point. I often refer to Groundhog Day when talking about the working of our government. Year-after-year, it seems like Washington DC does the same exact thing. Unlike Bill Murray in the movie, though, our leaders never seem to learn. The quotes I have used from these movies were to emphasize something. This shows two things. One, is that while comedies make us laugh, there is often truth in them that can make you think. The second thing is that I realize I can remember every scene and dialogue from Animal House but can’t remember a damn thing from an Academy Award-winning movie like The English Patient (other than it was hard to stay awake to it.) I don’t know what that says about me!
It is not easy to be funny or write funny. People that can do that are a gift we probably don’t appreciate while they are around. I remember working at Yards Creek Scout Reservation in 1981 when Stripes came out that summer. We had a camp director who liked us to say things like “Yes, sir” when he talked to us in front of the campers. The look of shock that came over his face when the staff spontaneously shouted back at him on one such occasion, “That’s the fact, Jack,” was worthy of a scene in a Harold Ramis movie.
One observation I have made over the time I have been writing Common Sense, is that people have to lighten up. I have been part of conversations and social media dialogues on many different issues. Yes, there are many things we need to treat seriously, but it is ok to laugh about them too. Sometimes making jokes not only alleviates the tension, but often there is real truth in humor that can help people see a different side of a problem. I am not talking about mean humor here, either. You know, in the grand scheme of things, life is very short. Laughter keeps things in perspective.
My prayers go out to Harold Ramis’ family. It is difficult to lose some one, but his legacy will live on. His movies are discovered by each succeeding generation because his comedy is timeless. With all of the depression and anxiety in the world, sometimes medications don’t really help. If you feel like that at times, shut off your phone and computer, pop in a DVD or stream one of his movies. Get lost in the antics of Bill Murray, or John Belushi in college, or a bunch of grown men battling the Stay-Puff Marshmellow Man. Take the time to let go and laugh, dear reader. You will be better prepared to deal with life.
February 25, 2014
No, this column is not about the Obamas’ children or any other president’s offspring. Nor is it about the current administration (though it is tempting). I am talking today about a road trip to see the President by supposedly upstanding and mature citizens: the nation’s governors.
You see, they came out from a meeting with President Barack Obama on Monday claiming harmony. This lasted for all about five minutes until they got into an argument along party lines…in front of the media and news cameras. Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal lashed out first, saying if Obama were serious about growing the economy he would approve the Keystone XL pipeline project and take other executive actions.
Instead, Jindal said, Obama "seems to be waving the white flag of surrender" on the economy by focusing on raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10, up from $7.25. "The Obama economy is now the minimum wage economy. I think we can do better than that," Jindal said.
This is a lot like being invited to dinner, playing nice with the hosts, and then trashing them as soon as you are out on their front porch.
Apparently, other governors had been interested in expressing agreement and appreciation for the President's time. As Jindal spoke, some of his colleagues began shaking their heads, and Hawaii Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie began audibly mumbling to others around him. Then the bitch-slapping picked up. Connecticut Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy took over the microphone from Jindal and responded sharply, "Wait a second, until a few moments ago we were going down a pretty cooperative road. So let me just say that we don't all agree that moving Canadian oil through the United States is necessarily the best thing for the United States economy."
It went on from there. You don’t need a blow-by-blow. Just imagine any of your family holiday gatherings deteriorating into chaos. You kinda get the picture.
Hey, I don’t think anyone in Washington is doing anything about the economy, but that is beside the point here. Sometimes people respond well to an illusion. The American people can use a little believing that parts of our government have the potential to get along. Let’s face it, it won’t take much for the average person to grasp some hope. We are starving people that live outside of the Washington Beltway looking for a sign that things can start moving in a positive direction. It is like looking for the first bud on a tree to indicate the long winter is ending.
Instead, we get a bunch of governors who see their shadows and promise us six more weeks (years, decades) of a government winter. I think the one hope many people have is for their governors and states to at least function semi-normally. We like to think that not everyone in charge is radically dysfunctional. I know the governors represent different states and parties with widely different agendas, but is getting a nice group photo too much to ask?
This is why Americans are so disgusted with how our government works. It is like getting a bunch of kids hyped up on sugar to calm down and do something constructive instead of raising hell. One of my main themes since I started Common Sense is that we get what we deserve. If we do not pay attention on who is running for office and cast a “thinking” vote, then we get the people now in charge. This often happens when people blindly follow party. Yes, stick with your beliefs, but if the person you are voting for is a clown, is it worth it?
Someday the adults may return to Washington and the state capitals to govern us, but right now, they seem more interested in self-gratification and ego boosting. While it makes good comedy theatre, a lot of our foundation is crumbling around us (Literally, if you look at a lot of roads and bridges.). There are many big elections this November. Think, before you endorse or vote. The sad thing is, we are all to blame for the children’s choir that is running the country right now.
February 24, 2014
Thoughts on the Winter Olympics:
February 21, 2014
I enjoy the Olympics and I can learn the intricacies of curling, and then be perfectly ok not thinking about it for another four years. Ever since I was a kid, I always thought that one of the greatest feelings in the world was to be on that podium and receiving a medal while you are representing your country. I was also very aware that for the three people that got to the top for any event in the Winter or Summer Olympics, there were a whole mess of athletes who were behind the winners. And when in some sports, positions are determined by a nanosecond, I never thought any less of the others, they just were not quite good enough that day.
Watching the Olympics last night made me think of a conversation I had a couple of weeks ago with a school administrator. The school just conducted a science fair and it made me reminisce when I was in eighth grade. I built a space station, won for my grade, got sent to the state science fair, and received a nifty award from NASA. (Probably the last time I ever did anything in the science field!) When I asked if they still did things like that, I found out that “they just give everyone a participation certificate.”
I know schools do many things where there is no winner or loser in competitions or events. That is ok to an extent because we do emphasize winning and losing too much in life (just check out how the news media treats politics). However, somewhere in life, kids have to learn what it means to win at something, and likewise, what it means to lose. There are times in my life where I came out on top whether it was sports, school, work, etc. There are also a lot more times where I did not do as well as I wanted. Not only did I not make it to the top, but I ended up at the bottom of the barrel.
One thing I have learned in life is that those moments of success can bring a smile to my face, but losing taught me a heck of a lot more than winning ever did. The lessons are many when you fall short. The lessons range from learning to cope with losing to figuring out how to evaluate what you did so you can improve next time.
We are all going to fail at something. We shape our character by how we deal with it. If a person’s instinct is to blame everyone else in the world when something goes wrong, that person is going to have a tough time in life. You do not have to like losing, but it is valuable to be graceful in defeat as you try to figure out how to be better next time.
As parents or teachers, part of our responsibility is getting kids ready for life. You are not helping them if you are going to keep them in a productive cocoon, and then when they leave the nest, letting them get hit between the eyes with reality. Learning to deal with winning and losing will shape a person’s life as much as learning to read, write, and do math. I have seen kids devastated when they do not get into the college of their choice, because at 18, that was the first defeat they ever faced. Heck, I have seen adults laid off from a job they had for years who could not rebound in order to find something else.
Everything does not have to be as high profile or pressure-filled as the Olympics. But giving kids a taste of competition, teaches some of life’s chief lessons. Recognizing everyone is like a bronze medal, but healthy competition is gold.
February 20, 2014
Here in New Jersey and much of the country, winter has more than made up for the last two years that were fairly mild. As we go through a mini-thaw for a couple of days, the damage from the excessive snows is evident – mainly in the condition of roads. I have driven over areas the last few days in various parts of Jersey that now resemble unpaved roads or something resembling mortar shells exploding all over the place.
Yesterday, I pointed out that our government tries to figure out economic policies based on a philosophy that worked fifty years ago, but may be outdated for addressing issues in 2014. As I bumped and dodged holes in the road yesterday that could swallow up a tank, it hit me that much of the government works the same way. Most local, state, and national offices and agency work on the “lowest bid” principle. They are often required to hire the company who submits the lowest cost for any job that is up for a contract: roads, building a school, computer services, etc. The concept is that the government office in charge is being financially responsible.
The reality is that you many times get a job that is either substandard or has huge cost over-runs because the company who won the bid was just fooling themselves when they made their bid. Worse yet, they have experience with the government and know all they have to do is get their foot in the door. They know if they go over budget, the department or agency they contracted with usually has no choice but to stick with the original company, because it often costs even more to go with someone else.
Roads are such a good example. One of the basic jobs at any level of government is to maintain our streets and highways. (There is another entire article here on our deteriorating infrastructure, but I will save that for another day.) European roads hold up longer and so much better than many in America do. They undergo the same weather conditions and traffic volume as we do, but their builders often use a different material that is much more durable, but costs more than used in the United States. In the end, it is cheaper because it lasts longer, but that type of long-range thinking would hurt the brains of government politicians and bureaucrats.
Let’s look at Obamacare. Who would have thought that something so important would explode from the gate with a whimper, instead of a gallop? Certainly not President Obama and the White House. It is his biggest black eye to date. They followed the usual procedures in hiring the companies that put together the program. Who knows if they received the proper information by the White House to do their job properly (that is another issue of incompetence). What President Obama wanted to show was a blockbuster. What he got was a show that was ready to close on opening night. In true government fashion, they threw more money and a few months at the problem. Therefore, what was the additional cost doing things this way instead of doing it right the first time? (Really, that was not a rhetorical question. What did the damn thing cost? I have seen nothing on explaining that to us yet.)
The point is that most sections of government have to think differently. Businesses that thrive are those that think ahead, are innovative, and know that the economic landscape is constantly changing. If they do not keep up, they die. After all, we do not have a thriving horse carriage industry going anymore. The government really needs to do this too. Attacking problems as usual is not working. Being penny-wise and pound-foolish constantly just costs more. Why is it ok to spend more money and time on so many different things to fix them, instead of giving a little more thought and a little more money up-front? It is much better for everyone to do things right the first time.
When evaluating whom you are voting for, really listen. The same tired arguments and rhetoric are not going to cut it for our future. We want to keep to the principles of the Constitution, but that does not mean it is going to be accomplished using policies of 50-60 years ago. If you believe that, buy stock in a horse carriage manufacturer.
February 19, 2014
This week the controversy du jour revolves around what the minimum wage should be in the United States. This is a hard one to answer because there are as many opinions on this as there are economists offering one. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, they ran the numbers on President Obama's proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from $7.25, by 2016. Doing so would boost the income for about 16.5 million workers, the agency says — but at a cost of around 500,000 jobs.
I do not have a problem with a minimum wage in our country. Since many companies get drunk on greed, they need to abide by a minimum wage. In addition, if you factor in inflation, the minimum wage of 1968 equals $10.10, so it seems logical that it should go up. A person is not going to get rich on $10 and hour, but they may eke out a living. (For you nay sayers, do the math. If you are fortunate enough to put 40 hours together between one or two jobs that pay this much, you are receiving a grand total of $1600 a month…before social security, taxes, etc. are pulled out.)
Having said that, I think Republicans and Democrats use the minimum wage debate as a misdirection to hide their inability to do anything real to solve the unemployment problem in this country. One reason they talk about the minimum wage so much is that we have too many people making that. Where are the decent jobs? If we had a booming economy, jobs would be following strictly capitalistic principles. There would be so many jobs to be had, that the employment pool would be reduced and job seekers would be in short supply. A McDonald’s or Wal-Mart would have to raise their wages on their own in order to attract people.
Now the cynic in me would begin to think that corporate America is very happy that we are in the economy we have. After all, if you go by the stock market, corporate profits are booming, and the real income of the average worker (and I am not even talking about minimum wage here, but decent salary earners) is stagnant or going backwards. Just take into account the rising cost of living and the absence of decent raises over the past 10 years. It certainly pays off for companies when there is a surplus of potential employees out there. Unless a company is looking for someone with highly specialized skills or experience, they can pretty much dictate the salary and benefits they offer. It is easy to operate on the “my way or the highway” approach when you know you have an abundance of people to pick from. Never mind that this does not inspire morale and loyalty in the company. What does that matter when the stockholders are happy?
It is time for the country and Democrats and Republicans to wake up. This is not the same industrial country we had in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. The same policy arguments are being used now, as they were 50 years ago. Does that mean our politicians cannot come up with new ideas to address a problem in the context of 2014? Pretty much – yeah!
Does corporate America want problems to be addressed in the context of 2014? Pretty much –no! If they did, their profits would be a bit lower. The unfortunate thing is that like the middle and poorer classes in America who take a disproportionate hit when the economy sours, the midsize and smaller companies suffer more if the government steps in. Life in America is getting where only the big and the rich continue to thrive no matter what.
I am for capitalism and democracy and never want to see us go any other way. But for that to work, it means the corporate and government entities need to get their heads out of the sand (or wherever else they may be stuck in) and work towards the good of all. The good of all does not mean mandated wealth distribution, but it should mean better wealth acquisition opportunity. And that opportunity is just not there for 80% of the country.
February 18, 2014
Sometimes a single photo can bring up strong, and opposing, emotions. The picture of a little four-year-old boy I have here broke my heart yesterday. He is a Syrian refugee discovered alone in the middle of the desert. He lost his Mom as they were fleeing the madness of Syria. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees humanitarian workers spotted him carrying a small plastic bag. The good news is that the workers were able to reunite him with his mother soon after they got him across the border to Jordan.
I admit I am a sap when it comes to kids, but for a minute I tried to think about what it would have been like when my kids were that age. Imagine if we had chaos erupt in America to the extent that we would have to flee for our very lives. That can send a chill down your spine. It is hard for the majority of us to have empathy for what people in places like Syria are going through since we live kind of fat and happy, but our heart can certainly go out to them.
Then this morning I heard a report of the atrocities going on in North Korea. I wished I were not eating breakfast while I was listening. “Horrible” is not a strong enough word for what that regime is doing to their own people. It ranks right up there with the greatest hits of Hitler and Stalin.
So where am I going with this? I am not advocating the United States rushes in and plays the world’s police. It costs too much in money and lives, becomes incredibly complex to sustain, and tends to bite us in the ass in the end. We might be able to do more with our diplomatic and economic power that we can still throw around. Sometimes it sounds like Washington gets a little too worried about offending someone, but sometimes we should act a little more forcefully in our diplomatic efforts when we are the 800 lb. gorilla in the room.
I have three points. The first is directed at those who think we should wash our hands worrying about other countries. Hate to break this to you, but the isolationist ship sailed about 114 years ago. The truth is that the world is so interconnected that problems anywhere will affect the USA in some way. It can never be avoided whether something ends up affecting our economy, national reputation, or just having fellow Americans in a problem area.
The second point is that we are a blessed country. No place in the world is so full of natural resources and had early leaders with the enlightenment to set us up as a democracy. We are the grand experiment that is still plugging along. I have said it before in my column, but “God Bless America” is an appropriate theme song for our country. He truly has. It is not a mistake that the land we live on is so rich, and that the people govern it. (To the atheists out there reading this, I apologize that I am not apologizing to you.) But being blessed by God means you have a responsibility to help others.
My third point relates to the second. I was told the other day by someone that they want to see our country governed by the Constitution. Ok, here is another reality check. We are. Is it being done to the letter of the document formulated 225 years ago? No. Do I bitch and complain about some of the abuses I perceive being done in Washington DC? Oh, yeah!! However, I do realize that the Constitution protects bitching and complaining, so I am better off than if I lived in many countries throughout the world.
I have realized through the feedback to my writing over the last year and a half, that people fall on the argument that the Constitution is not being followed as an excuse that they don’t agree with how things are being run. We need to jealously guard that the Constitution is followed, but not use that as an escape goat when we do not agree with whatever the opposing party is doing. That becomes a lazy argument. You really think government is not operating properly, then push the people we elect to do something about that instead of preparing for their next election. I think President Obama is over-stepping his bounds with his executive orders and changing laws on a whim, but apparently our politicians of both parties don’t want to dare get into anything controversial since most are up for re-election in nine months.
So to sum this up, thank God for what we do have. Look closely at your motivation and be honest when you debate what is wrong in our country. Healthy debate is good; hysterical pronouncements are not. Pray and support those agencies and groups that risk their lives helping the oppressed in other countries. Because without the grace of God, that could be us.
February 17, 2014
Americans are enthusiastic about science and technology, but are deficient in basic knowledge. In a poll conducted by the National Science Foundation of more than 2,200 people, one in four respondents was unaware that the earth revolves around the sun!
This blew me away. Even a lousy student in grammar school probably had to put together a model of the solar system at one time or another. It is as much of a rite of passage as learning the alphabet. (Now that I think about it, some of the things people send me to edit are so full of basic grammar and spelling mistakes that I want to weep.) I have to admit, I wondered what the 25% who did not know the earth revolved around the sun thought. Do they think we are just sitting there in space and the various seasons roll around the earth so we get spring, summer, fall, and winter on a schedule? Or do they think that there is some cosmic App somewhere that controls earth? Do they think?
I have seen shows where Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel go out on the street and ask people questions having to do with politics or some type of current event. I am hoping they edit out the serious answers because they are doing these bits for a laugh, but the amount of ignorance out there in our country is appalling. There are so many folks who are oblivious to how the United States government operates, how to spell, how to do simple math, and apparently, basic science. By the way, the science poll asked ten questions about physical and biological science, and the average score, 6.5 correct, was barely a passing grade. It seems like Americans are happy with D-.
Look, I know a lot of school is learning in order to pass a test, and then we feel free to let that knowledge go. I would be completely lost if someone gave me ten calculus problems to do right now since the last one I did was about 30 years ago in college. My career path meant I did not have to do that stuff. I do not understand how you can forget the fundamentals, though.
I remember learning in school the history of how humans thought of the relationship of the earth and sun and the intellectual debates that went on. For centuries, man thought the earth stood still and the sun revolved around us. Since we live in a society where many people believe the world revolves around them, I guess we have not really progressed too far. The Catholic Church branded Galileo a heretic for proving with his new-fangled invention, the telescope, the true order of the solar system. Now the Church, or another country, would just think Americans are stupid.
We are not stupid, but too many in this country have let their brains become dusty with disuse. I believe our country is in the state it is in because too many people do not take an interest in what our government does, or they do not try hard to understand a particular law. When people…when voters…are like that, then a good politician is certainly going to take advantage of the situation and construct his message accordingly. Even folks who are politically active may not exactly be political astute because they do not understand America’s history or how the government works. However, they are great at constantly babbling away at some talking point that they have adopted as gospel.
Not everyone is a scholar, but almost everyone can make a better effort at being in-tune with how the world works and what is going on. One reason we are at such a technological progressive age is because mankind has a thirst for knowledge. We do not have to just sit on the sidelines and read about the newest and coolest discovery. Most of us will never have a scientific breakthrough, but we can certainly keep our minds open and have an intellectual interest of how our country and the world works. It will be a paradox that with so much knowledge out there, we as a country stumble back into the dark ages.
February 13, 2014
Quick History Lesson: Niccolo Machiavelli was an Italian diplomat, historian and political theorist in the 1500’s. He wrote The Prince, which is regarded as one of the first works of modern philosophy, especially modern political philosophy, in which the effective truth is taken to be more important than any abstract ideal. The central theme of Machiavelli’s piece is how the government’s leader (the Prince in this case) effectively rules the land. He spends a great deal of time talking about how that leader needs to use his talents and powers of manipulation to ascend to and maintain his power.
With the most recent version of “Let’s Make a Deal” in Washington, no elected official appears to be more astute in the ways of Machiavelli than Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Refusing to follow the House’s passing of an increase to the national credit limit without any conditions attached to it, Cruz demanded that it could only pass in the Senate with 60 votes, rather than a simple majority. This meant that at least some Republicans would have to vote for it in order for it to pass. The gloom and doom predictions of what would happen to America’s economy if we couldn’t pay our bills overrode party philosophy. It forced Mitch McConnell, the party leader who faces a tea party challenge back home, to finally vote yes. An equally grim-faced Sen. John Cornyn, the party's No. 2 leader and Cruz's Texas colleague, changed his vote from no to yes.
Cruz showed no mercy in exposing Republican leaders to widespread criticism from their primary challengers over a procedural vote on the debt limit after their pronouncements about the imperative of spending cuts. It could have been a simple 50-vote requirement, with Democrats delivering the votes to lift the debt limit, but Cruz insisted. After the vote, Cruz was unapologetic. "It should have been a very easy vote," he told reporters. "In my view, every Senate Republican should have stood together." He added that the verdict on McConnell "is ultimately a decision ... for the voters in Kentucky."
Throw in Ted Cruz’s efforts last fall to bring about the 16-day government shutdown with his demand that Obama gut his 3-year-old health care law, and I have to wonder about his endgame. He is acting as the opposition to the Democrats. That is fine and the role of the minority party. There is no doubt that he is appealing to the Republican’s most conservative members. He is obviously making life difficult for his fellow Republican senators who face Tea Party – type challengers in this year’s election. If they defeat the incumbent senators in the Republican primaries, then the challengers have a chance to win their state in the November elections, which will bring more super conservatives into the Senate. It appears that he is trying to facilitate his philosophical aims by getting more people into place who will support his goals.
I guess that is my question: what are his goals? Maybe it is clear to his constituents in Texas, but they seem hazy to the rest of the country. It is fine to oppose the President and Democrats, but I want to know how he would run things differently. Call me crazy, but I do not get all hyped up just because somebody opposes someone I also am not crazy about. I want to hear a clear vision coupled with concrete policy initiatives on how to deal with the myriad of problems the country faces. Off the top of my head, some of our major issues are lack of decent jobs, the ongoing immigration mess, and healthcare (and I don’t mean just repealing Obamacare, I mean a solution that addresses the problem). Throw in addressing the major entitlement programs like social security and medicaid so they don’t make our current debt limit look like small change (which is now at $17 trillion dollars – how sick is that?!), and the enormity of our problems is incredible.
The Tea Party and far right of the Republican Party bring up important points for how our nation operates. But it is not enough to just say “no”. From my perspective, what Ted Cruz does is important, but falls short of the mark. Anyone can bitch (and as Americans, we excel at that), but it takes a real leader to show and promote a clear path of how to fix the problems. That is also part of what Machiavelli talks about in his writings. For me the jury is still out if Cruz is a Prince or a Pretender.
February 12, 2014
Yesterday, Pat Buchanan wrote a column titled “End of the Line for the Welfare State?” In it, he goes through a brief history of the social programs offered in the United States since the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt through those that began in the 1960’s. Many of these are still around today and have grown big time. I was a little kid then, but the programs of the 60’s were labelled the Great Society. This was a set of domestic programs announced by President Lyndon B. Johnson and promoted by his fellow Democrats in Congress. Two main goals of the Great Society social reforms were the elimination of poverty and racial injustice.
As Mr. Buchanan pointed out: “If the goal of the Great Society was to turn America's tax consumers into taxpayers, it has been a total failure. We have now a vast underclass of scores of millions who are dependent upon government for most or all of their basic needs, a class among whom many, if not most, have lost the ability to survive without government money, food, and shelter.”
In case you think I dash these columns off the top of my head, you would be wrong (well, most of the time). I really had to think about the point Mr. Buchanan was making here. He is correct…to a point. All of these programs came into play to combat the inequality that was going on in America at the time. A great deal of it happened along racial and poverty lines. The majority of the people who were suffering and needed help were in those geographical areas known as the “inner cities.” The programs started to bring some people out of poverty and those who took to the educational components were able to pull themselves way up and out. That would classify as an American success story; except that most people didn’t progress and many did come to depend on the government for their existence. It still goes on today. In hindsight, the government added another layer to the poverty culture that already existed.
I say Pat Buchanan is correct to a point because the picture is much more muddled today. You have people who depend on the government who live everywhere from the remains of Detroit to the plains of Nebraska. What ails our country has blossomed into more than racial and city problems. For years now, and especially since the crash of 2008, the issues of unemployment, lack of opportunity, mobility and just trying to stay even with the cost of living has transcended all races, geographic areas, and education levels. Some areas are doing better than others, but overall, it comes down to the absence of decent paying jobs for people.
Maybe the government blew it in the 60’s and did not implement enough programs in the area of improving schools and education to really make a difference in lives, but it is hard to turn around a culture on a dime. The sad thing is that not only does that same problem exist now, and indeed may be worse, but many people who have turned to the government now are those who grew up living and believing that they can make it in this country. It is a rude kick to the teeth when your life is knocked off track by a changing economy.
This is where I disagree with the loudmouths who use that same old argument that “the government is just coddling people without jobs.” I do not believe that, especially for those who have lost their jobs and cannot find something even close to the income they used to make. I know a few in this situation and nothing would put a fire in their eyes and pride in their stance like a good job again.
Maybe that is where we have screwed up as a country for the past fifty years. Band-Aids are often necessary, and easier to do than long-term solutions to a problem. That is what Washington has excelled in – band-aids. Politics and rhetoric are plentiful; firm economic policy that can give Americans hope is not.
Bandages can only hold a bad wound together for so long. I do agree with Mr. Buchanan on the conclusion of his article:
But we may be coming to the end of the line. From Detroit to Greece to Puerto Rico, government's ability to expand the benefits of the welfare class by taxing the working and middle class is reaching its limit. Taxpayers are rebelling, budgets are falling dangerously out of balance, and the welfare state is beginning to buckle under the load.
Even Rome, which lasted for centuries, finally crumbled under the weight of its own version of welfare.
February 11, 2014
Something is very wrong at the White House. The President of the United States is supposed to:
“… faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Implied in that oath of office is the concept that the President is the watchdog over all United States’ laws since they were enacted by the procedures set down in the Constitution. This covers all laws. There is nothing in the Constitution that says its rule do not apply to a President’s signature effort. And, once again, President Obama and the White House have taken upon themselves to change the deadlines established in the legally passed Affordable Care Act.
The Obama administration announced it was exempting mid-size businesses, or those with 50-99 employees, from the law until 2016 and are allowing large businesses, with more than 100 employees, to phase in health care coverage during the next two years. The large businesses would have to cover 70 percent of employees the first year and then 95 percent the following year and beyond.
Why? The framework is certainly in place to handle this part of the law. The insurance companies have had their act together since the beginning of Obamacare. The management team of the various companies must cringe every morning when they come into work to see what the President has changed in the law today.
It is not like fully enacting the law is going to have an effect on the economy. I mean it will, but it seems nobody has a clue of what the economy, unemployment, etc. is going to be a month from now, let alone 2016. It seems the best possible scenario the country has is very slow steady growth. As far as the average worker is concerned, they are flat-lining, and the full implementation of this law is going to hit their pocketbooks sooner or later.
The businesses affected by this part of the law are running around like Justin Bieber in a car on a Florida highway. They had to be ready last year, then it was delayed and they geared up for the next deadline. Now they can back off again for a bit. It is hard to run a business. Having a law whose mandates change with the frequency of snowstorms this year, a company has a difficult time operating. It takes a lot of effort to be productive without playing Russian Roulette with government regulations.
Gee – maybe it is because it is 2014 and all of the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate are up for re-election. Democrats are already distancing themselves from the President faster than the 1% are making money. The Republicans chose to continue making Obamacare the target of this year’s campaign. I do not understand how delaying this helps the Democrats. It is the equivalent of putting your head under the covers and hoping the day goes away. It is going to happen anyway. I guess the President is so afraid of how his legacy law actually affects business that he doesn’t want to be around for the carnage. By 2016, he is almost out of here and can plan on making big bucks with book deals and on the lecture circuit.
I wonder what he will talk about in those books and in front of an audience. Will he talk about how he thought he was so much smarter than everybody else that he was able to arbitrarily and constantly change laws at his whim? Will he laugh at how the Republicans actually had an impeachable offense to nail him with as he overstepped the bounds of his office and didn’t do anything about it? Or will he say that his greatest legacy was not Obamacare, but how he enabled future Presidents to ride the coattails of his example, and constantly bypass the checks and balances of the Constitution?
I have something to say to the members of Congress. To the Republicans: you seem so hell bent on dealing with the sty in someone else’s eye (Obamacare), that you are missing the log in your own (a President totally misusing his power). To the Democrats: you may be reluctant to do anything since the President is of your party; but you are going to be devastated when a Republican is in office and he or she takes advantage of the traditions President Obama has started.
If our own government is incapable of playing by the rules, where is our nation going?
February 10, 2014
I enjoy the Olympics. I find sports the only true reality show on television because, for the most part, it is as unscripted as you can get. It is great to see people who have been training for so long put it all out there in front of the world to do the best they can in whatever their sport is. I like the opening ceremonies where all the countries come filing into the arena or stadium. There is such an enthusiasm by all of the participants that is just fun to see.
In the ancient Olympic games, all of the city-states involved put their wars on hold to come together for the athletic competition. That is impossible to do now, but many nations tone down the rhetoric while the games are going on. If nothing else, I believe the Olympics give all of us a chance to appreciate the diversity and energy we have on planet earth.
I find nothing wrong with that. Even though we have immediate access to news and information around the world because of the internet, there is usually such a disconnect when we look at this stuff. It is hard to put a human face on what is happening in Norway, for example. NBC manipulates how we see the Olympics, but their highlights of individual athletes are often eye-opening. The Olympics brings very real people into our living rooms, and with that effort a little bit of the barriers are broken down.
Look, I know there are problems with the Olympics. They are filled with politics and intrigue. The International Olympic Committee is a bunch of narcisstic divas in how they go about their mission. (More on them later in the week.) Many countries who vie to host the Olympics want to do so to put a feather in their hat as a status symbol in the eyes of the world. They may only be fooling themselves because it is like putting lipstick on a pig! (I apologize – that is probably unfair to pigs.) The world still knows what goes on behind closed doors in these countries.
This year is a good example. I am sure President Putin would rather have the signs around the venues read “Putin 2014” than “Sochi 2014”. He drove this Olympics forward and spent scads of money creating everything having to do with the Olympics in Sochi out of nothing. It was an old, quiet resort town before the Olympics invaded. On television, anyway, the buildings and designs look spectacular. And except for a snowflake that didn’t open on cue, the opening ceremony was a visual masterpiece. I would love to watch what went into creating such a technical showcase in such a large arena. But that doesn’t mean Russia is free of problems. In fact, I think countries that want to host a winter or summer games have to be careful what they wish for. With the sophistication of news gathering organizations, these countries are squarely in the spotlight and the world will see the good and the bad.
I realize that not everyone in the United States thinks of the Olympics as sports for some reason. I do not do winter sports and the only one I follow on a regular basis is hockey. Plus, they have some events that the average person may never have heard of. I think they would have “sliding down the slope in a cardboard box” if that was an organized sport. As for me, I have a bias to athletic events where people have to win against others head-to-head or against the clock. I have issues with competitions that are decided by judges. But there is no denying that these men and women are world class athletes. To watch the grace and strength of ice skaters who fly and spin across the ice is a wonder. And while watching a woman’s cross-country ski race yesterday, I wondered how far into the race the medics would be administering CPR to me if I gave it a try.
It is ok to forget about politics and the problems in the world for a little while. They won’t go away and will still be here when the Olympics close in a couple of weeks. But something is wrong with you if you don’t smile when you hear that the United States won a medal in curling, even if it sounds like something you do to your hair. It is not a bad thing to get caught up in the enthusiasm and gusto these young people bring to these games. Optimism is contagious and that is what these athletes show – even if they know they only have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting to the medal stand. They do their best. A worthwhile example we all need in our day-to-day lives.
February 7, 2014
A new report released Tuesday by the Congressional Budget Office says the government's budget deficit is set to fall to $514 billion for the current year, down substantially from last year and the lowest by far since President Barack Obama took office five years ago. This is attributed to higher tax revenues from the rebounding economy and sharp curbs on agency spending as the chief reason for the deficit's short-term decline.
This seems like positive news, but the CBO sees the long-term deficit picture worsening by about $100 billion a year through the end of the decade because of slower growth in the economy over the coming decade than it had previously predicted. CBO sees the deficit sliding to $478 billion next year before beginning a steady annual rise through 2024 that would bring deficits back above $1 trillion a year.
I respect the Congressional Budget Office because it is as unbiased and nonpolitical an agency as you can get in Washington. Dems and Republicans will play with the report to their own advantages, but forget them for a minute. I want you to keep in mind that what I am talking about here is the portion of the CBO report that talks about the annual deficit. It is not talking about the aggregate debt the United States is in which is somewhere in the $12 trillion dollar range.
These numbers are thrown around in conversations like you are talking about Monopoly money. I believe that is just how politicians think of it. But for most of us who struggle to support ourselves as we would like, we pay a great deal out of our pockets to support the government lifestyle. I guess that makes us enablers, and it is way past time for a government intervention where we sit down with our leaders and politicians and help them with a reality check of what they are doing.
Imagine for a minute that the United States Treasury printed a million dollar bill. One thousand of these $1 million bills equal $1 billion dollars. For the end of this fiscal year, you would need to bring a stack of 514,000 $1 million bills into the Treasury Department to bring America’s balance down to zero. Now let’s look at the country’s total debt of $12 trillion. 1,000,000 $1 million dollar bills equal a trillion dollars. That means you need 12,000,000 million dollar bills to pay off the country’s debt! Just try for a minute to wrap your head around that amount. I cannot.
In December, a budget agreement and follow-up spending bill cobbled together by Congress promised to buy peace through November's mid-term elections. Republicans also appear to be taking a less confrontational approach to legislation needed this month to increase the government's borrowing limit to avoid defaulting on its obligations. It’s a relief that Congress can play nice on occasion, but they are incapable of tackling issues that are really going to shape our country through the 21st century.
Since elections are coming up, I would like to point out that whatever government offices you are voting for where you live, ask yourself if business as usual is what you want. Because business as usual in our government is irresponsible, bankrupting policies cloaked in partisan fighting that someday is going to implode. Our politicians can only see to the next election. I think most of us wonder what our children and grandchildren will be facing!
February 6, 2014
CVS/Caremark, the country’s largest drugstore, announced yesterday that it planned to stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products by October. This is in accordance with CVS’ desire to be perceived as a healthcare provider rather than a regular retail store. Early estimates have the decision costing CVS $2 billion in tobacco sales annually. It is a small percentage compared to the company’s $123 billion in total annual sales for 2012 (the latest figures available), but a billion dollars is a billion dollars. Not exactly what you would call chump change.
Larry J. Merlo, chief executive of CVS said:
“We have about 26,000 pharmacists and nurse practitioners helping patients manage chronic problems like high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease, all of which are linked to smoking. We came to the decision that cigarettes and providing health care just don’t go together in the same setting.”
I applaud this decision on several levels. I lost my father to lung cancer and it is not a pleasant way to go. Anything done by anyone to curtail smoking is to be congratulated. It also is great that CVS solved its paradox of being a place to go to for solutions to health problems while it was selling products that lead to so much sickness and death.
What I admire the most is that we have a company that puts principles over profit. There has to be CEOs around the country saying to themselves, “What the hell was Larry thinking? How dare he do something that doesn’t increase the bottom line!”
What CVS did was show that there is a lot of room in business for profit and integrity. It all comes down to the motivation of the corporation. Everybody wants to make as much as possible, but there should be a conscience in business where a CEO or a Board needs to ask: “At what cost?” We read many stories where a hedge fund takes over a company and milks it for as much money as it can wring out of it before leaving a lifeless shell behind. In many cases, this means a great disruption to pay or layoff of employees as the name of the game is maximizing those profits. CVS shows that there can be other considerations brought into play as it sets its policies to show a united front of health to its customers and its employees.
I do not expect businesses throughout the United States to start looking at how they operate, but CVS shows that a change in company philosophy can do wonders without disrupting the bottom line too much. Too many of us, including corporations, look at the government as the scapegoat when it comes to producing jobs and treating employees fairly with wages and benefits. The truth is that not enough companies do something about this on their own. Is a slight increase to the cost of benefits or giving a raise just to keep pace with inflation going to kill a company? Only if they are operating on the bare fringes of making a profit, but it shouldn’t be an excuse for those companies that are doing well or holding their own.
More companies need to exercise Corporate Integrity. Chasing the almighty dollar to the detriment of employees and even customers is going to hurt a business and the community it resides in. This isn’t a theory; there are plenty of case studies that bear this out. We talk about how the government and individuals need to take responsibility for their actions, but why do we not expect corporations to do the same? Capitalism means you make money from your goods and services. It does not mean that you are exempt from doing what is right. I believe that is an element missing in many discussions today.
So Huraay for CVS. Maybe other companies will do a little more thinking before they act.
February 5, 2014
I think we have gotten lackadaisical where recreation drug use is concerned. I believe the various law enforcement agencies still have it as a priority, but the “War on Drugs” has faded into the minds of most people and the media as a neighborhood scuffle. Unfortunately it takes the death of a celebrity like Philip Seymour Hoffman to die of an overdose on Sunday to bring the sorry subject back into the spotlight.
Philip Hoffman was a great actor and I enjoyed watching how he became the character he was playing in his various movies. His range was great and is probably the male counterpart of Meryl Streep among actors today. But he has battled drug addiction since his early twenties, and has gone through various rehab treatments. And on Sunday he used drugs one too many times; this time with heroin apparently being the culprit.
Drugs are still a big problem today and they transcend all races and economic levels. Is this something else our society is accepting as a way of life? Not to get into the marijuana debate here, but having states starting to legalize the stuff is undoing so much work that has been done over the past 50 years. I do not have an addiction to anything (ok, maybe pizza, but that isn’t a controlled substance), but I have known many people who can’t break the habit of cigarettes, alcohol, pot, or drugs. And most people don’t get addicted to the hard stuff right away, they work up to it. Look at people who have alcohol problems. It may start with a few beers in the early years and eventually people raise their game to harder stuff where they always have to have something in their system. Drugs work the same way and the usual entry level substance is marijuana. People tend to advance from there. That’s where I have a problem with the legalization of pot. It isn’t hard to move up the drug chain if a person has addictive tendencies.
Even our movies and TV shows reflect the phasing out of drugs into the background. Back in the 70’s and 80’s many storylines were driven by the bad guys dealing in illegal drugs. Now the main themes of the plots have to do with terrorism. Granted, that is a sexy concept and on everyone’s mind these days, but that doesn’t mean drugs are any less prevalent than they were 30 years ago. Indeed, many statistics show it is even worse among young people and adults now than before.
You hate to have someone’s death be a wakeup call, but that is how Mr. Hoffman’s death hit me when I saw it on Sunday. I flashed back 32 years ago when John Belushi died of a drug overdose. He was one of my comedy heroes back then and I had the same thought on Sunday as I did when Belushi died: what a bloody waste. Both of these gentlemen had so much talent and they couldn’t get control of their demons so that we and their families could enjoy them longer. The entertainment landscape is littered with talented celebrities who died way too soon because of their addictions.
But it is just as much of a waste for any person to die because of something they couldn’t get over. Addictions are hard to overcome for many people. It is especially true when a young person dies before they have a chance to experience life because of problems with drugs.
The warning here is more of a reminder: that drugs are out there and we can never let up warning our kids about their dangers or being aware when they or another relative or a friend needs help. Not too many people conquer addictions on their own. They need assistance and support and may only require someone to hold out a hand to start the process. And don’t think that because you live out in the country or not dwelling in the city that your loved ones are protected from drugs. Nothing can be further from the truth as they are in every corner of America.
Maybe we have let our guard down a little about drugs. It’s time to get it back up. We have to always be vigilant.
February 4, 2014
We have a surplus of statistics when trying to figure out who is where in the United States today. One of the complaints I have when filtering through the many economic stories that are online every day is determining whose numbers are accurate. This is true where unemployment is concerned, the strength of our economy, and what effect the stock market actually has on Main Street America. Something that is predominant in the news lately is how the middle class is eroding in our country and this is either proven or discounted with whatever numbers an “expert” wants to throw at us.
I read a great article yesterday by Nelson D. Schwartz in the New York Times. He said:
As politicians and pundits in Washington continue to spar over whether economic inequality is in fact deepening, in corporate America there really is no debate at all. The post-recession reality is that the customer base for businesses that appeal to the middle class is shrinking as the top tier pulls even further away.
He pointed out that retail stores like Sears and JC Penney who are in trouble made their reputation on catering to the middle class. They are now hurting and high-end stores like Nordstrom and others are thriving. This is reflected in the stock prices of the corporations that own these stores. And to bookend what is going on in the country, the stock of stores that serve the lower economic scale, like Dollar Stores, are also going great guns.
This trend is also manifested in other areas of consumerism. High priced resorts are doing well while hotels that traditionally went after the middle class dollar are not. Chain restaurants that were strictly targeting the middle income levels are struggling and high priced eateries are booming. It is even evident in manufacturing where the more expensive home appliances are doing quite well while the middle-of –the road goods aren’t exactly flying off the showroom floor.
If you think of the simple economics of it all, this isn’t surprising. With the relatively small but affluent segment of the population riding the wave of the stock market over the last few years, they have a lot more discretionary spending. And they have the money to purchase top-of –the –line goods.
Many that make up the middle class only have any interaction with the stock market as it pertains to their retirement accounts. Most of these people depend on their salaries. The truth is salaries have been very stagnant since the 2008 recession but everything else has gone up: food, medicine, insurance, consumer prices, etc. Throw in the people who used to make salaries in this group who are no longer working or who had to take lesser paying jobs when they lost their old ones, and you see the dismal picture.
Commenting on all of this Mitchell Goldberg, an independent investment manager says the rising stock market has encouraged people to open their wallets and purses more. “It’s going to be hard to maintain strong economic growth with such a large proportion of the population falling behind,” he said. “We might be able to muddle along — but can we really recover?”
That is the question government and business leaders better start taking seriously instead of giving lip service to it. My father worked for General Motors and I learned when I was a kid that they made more money selling one Cadillac than 10 regular Chevrolets. The problem was when the rich people were hurting and couldn’t buy the Cadillacs anymore. Then you made your living on the Chevys. You have to maintain your base and your foundation for economic longevity.
If the middle class foundation keeps slipping away, life isn’t going to be pleasant in this country. We are going to have a domino effect that will shake our economic ideals. If stores and restaurants and manufacturers go out of business, you put even more people out of work. This gives you a bigger population that cannot afford goods and services, which will continue to put others out of a job, and so on. Then where do you have your tax base for the national government, or home buyers to pay the local property taxes for schools and municipalities? Pretending to care about this issue is over. It is past time to address what is going on in America.
February 3, 2014
I recently read Chris Matthews Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked. It is his version of politics in Washington DC in the 80’s when Republican Ronald Reagan was President and Democrat Tip O’Neill was the Speaker of the House. Mr. Matthews was a chief aide to Speaker O’Neill and the book is understandably tilted towards Tip and the Democrats point of view. I am not going to comment on that part of the book because Chris Matthews has continuingly showed his preferences on his Hardball show on MSNBC and his other appearances in the news.
When you filter through the bias part of the book, this is a very interesting narrative of how Washington worked thirty years ago. I was in my 20’s back then and very interested in decisions made on a national level since many were directly affecting me as an adult in the working world, and would have an impact on my new children’s future. Back then the situation was the reverse of today, a popularly elected President (this time a Republican) whose party was different than the majority in the House of Representatives (Democrats). The difference was the attitude towards getting things done. (OK, it is also bothering me that in essence I was reading a history book on a time that I actually lived through. How depressing!)
The most telling quote in the entire book to me is when Reagan becomes President and Tip O’Neill realizes is now the head of the opposition in Washington. But he approaches this situation by saying, “We will oppose, but we will not obstruct.” He was a great believer in the power of the United States and took seriously his role of being one of the chief architects of policy. Reagan and O’Neill had some great battles. Neither of them ever completely got their own way. And there were also times they worked together closely to get things done. One of the things Reagan is remembered for is slashing the income tax rates in this country, especially for higher earners. His first round of cuts were helped by conservative Democrats on the Republican bandwagon early in his presidency, but other tax cuts after that could never have happened without O’Neill’s cajoling of his fellow Democrats. Of course, Tip did this because he was also getting something out of the deal that supported his policies, but it worked. Like it or not, that is how a democracy is supposed to function.
The other thing that struck me is the extravagant tapestry of history that transpired over the six years Reagan and O’Neill were in office together. (Tip retired in 1986). To me it is an illustration of how everything our government has to deal with is interwoven. Rarely does one issue stand alone and does not touch on another aspect of life. This means there are so many considerations that have to go into formulating or voting on a certain policy. There are many areas of gray and rarely are things black and white.
What does this mean today? One of the lessons is that we know Washington can work. Look at it logically…we have been in existence for over 230 years and that would never have happened if the system didn’t work. What it does take is the “will” to make it work. Tip O’Neill wasn’t going to stop the work of the government just because he didn’t agree with Reagan. And Ronald Reagan realized that he couldn’t pass all of his policies without help from Tip. That contrasts now with a President who circumvents laws on technicalities through executive order when he cannot get his way. And a Congress with a Republican Party where some members and their supporters do think life is black and white which prevents them from working towards a solution.
Pundits look at the recent agreement on a national budget as signs there is a thaw between all the different factions. I say Congress and the President should not be congratulated on something that is a basic part of their job descriptions. Between elections coming up and constant bickering, it is not surprising that they could work out a budget. Part of it is probably the result of fatigue from the perpetual fighting. The budget didn’t break any new ground – it was pretty much status quo spending. I think we need to see if anything else gets done in 2014 before we make any conclusions on the government being able to function properly.
The biggest lesson from Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked is one of hope. Reagan and O’Neill were as opposite in the political spectrum as you can get. But America moved on in the 80’s. It can be argued that we had one of our biggest squirts of growth in that time frame. All it takes are politicians whose main goal in moving America forward as opposed to anything else. It means working together with the opposition a great deal. Do we have anyone left in the USA who is not afraid of being a real leader?