Thursday, February 25, 2016

Journalist Quotes



I recently read a collection of quotes by a German-American Journalist from Baltimore named H. L. Mencken, who wrote in the early part of the last century.  I found the collection interesting and decided to use it as a springboard for some thoughts on the ideas they conjure up.  I recognize not all the quotes may be exact or may be quoted differently from different sources.  But, they are close enough to suffice.

#1)  American’s admire the most daring liars and detest most those who try and tell them the truth.”  It is true that we probably wouldn't vote for somebody who told us the truth.  Rather, we'll vote for the guy/gal who tells us we can cut taxes, expand our pet programs, and do it all while balancing the budget.  I recently heard an interview by a candidate who is high in the polls who said the same thing.  He claimed he could represent the interests of all the citizens while cutting govt. spending.  Everybody will vote for that, even though it makes no practical sense.  He was pointedly asked by the interviewer for some specific details, but failed to offer any.  See one of my previous posts on what I would do if I were president.

#2)  Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”  When you study the writings of many of the men in the constitutional convention you find that they were terrified of giving the vote to the common man.  Rather, they wanted it to remain in the hands of the educated, landed gentry.  When the common man believes things that don't make sense or votes for somebody based on how well their hair is made up or whether they sweated during a debate, I fear the founding fathers were right to fear.  I believe in representative government, but think it can only thrive under the direction of an educated and moral electorate.  I also think we ought to take responsibility for the government we have created by whom and what we have voted for.  In the end, regardless of how horrible we think it is, a representative government can no more than represent and mirror society as a sum of its sometimes ignorant and immoral whole.

#3)  The press is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.”  Both sides of the political debate accuse the oppositely aligned press of being biased and ignorant.  They are probably both right.  Everything is based on the spin of the message and its sensationalism.  When the most prominent thing on the news is the shenanigans of some celebrity or whether a football had the wrong air pressure in it, what does it say of our society, its priorities, and its values?  When you find an article which attempts to give a reasoned and fact based representation of multiple sides of a truly important issue, count yourself lucky for handling such a rarity.

#4)  The aim of public education is to put down dissent and originality.”  It is a sad truth that education does tend to reward and advance conformity.  Facts can trump reason.  The ability to regurgitate ideas on standardized tests is more important than critical thinking, cogent analysis, and the ability to clearly and convincingly communicate advanced thought.  Our education system should primarily be teaching students how to learn and evaluate—turning facts into wisdom.  But, how would you accurately assess that?  It is a quandary, but one we shouldn't give up on.

#5)  A judge is a law student who grades his own examination papers.”  I feel greatly for somebody who is put in the role of a judge and empowered to so deeply affect the lives of their fellow humans.  There is so much room for error and so little oversight to correct excesses, intentional or otherwise.  In the end, we are the imperfect passing judgment on the accused sinners on behalf of the damaged.  At best we can reward those who care more for those they serve, both victim and accused, than they value their own opinions and rulings.

#6)  A philosopher is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there.  A theologian is the man who finds it.”  Lest I raise the hackles of the religious who might read this, know that I too am a believer.  However, I also look around me and see so many different beliefs—many held as dearly as my own—and do not wonder how some can scoff and claim it is all made up to opiate the masses.  There are thousands of Christian congregations, most of which claim to study and draw their beliefs from the same Bible.  Yet, they can interpret the same passages in opposite ways, then claim their interpretation is ultimate truth while consigning those who read it different to an eternal fire.  Clearly if there is an ultimate truth to be found, it needs to come from a higher source than the words in a book, whether it be Bible, Qur’an, or Bhagavad Gita (all of which I have read).  Even if we feel we have encountered that higher source, we should retain some humility and charity for the beliefs of others—including the skepticism of the non-believers.

#7)  The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.”  Some of the greatest tyrants in history have burst onto the stage claiming salvation for their respective groups.  Hitler preached a renewal of German pride and accomplishment.  Lenin and Stalin claimed they were freeing the oppressed masses from the excesses of capitalism--promising bread, land, and peace.  We should only seek to serve humanity.  There is only one empowered to save them.  Reserve a healthy distrust for the person who promises to solve all our problems without little or no pain.  Remember the line from The Princess Bride, “Life is pain princess, anybody who tells you different is trying to sell you something.”

#8)  Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.”  I have quoted this often referring to first marriages, with second marriages being the triumph of hope over experience, and subsequent marriages as insanity for doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  Certainly it is true that romantic attraction, which too many in society label love, must eventually and soon grow into something deeper and less grounded in physical and emotional attraction or it is destined to die quickly away under the heat of reality, leaving the individuals involved to wonder how they could have been so mistaken.  Then, they will just as quickly dive into the next infatuation and claim true love at last.

#9)  For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”  Complex problems rarely have clear and simple answers.  Politicians try and reduce complex problems to sound bites, then throw over-simplified answers at them.  The devil, or angel, is always in the details.  We are right to not trust generalized statements such as “close the borders,” “stimulate the economy,” “reduce government,” “address homelessness,” “fight terrorism,” and “support our troops and veterans.”  If there aren’t some comprehensive details presented, those phrases mean nothing!

#10)  Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution.”  There are many who claim that families are falling apart, the sanctity of marriage is disappearing, and that family has been redefined out of existence.  I think there is evidence out there to support all those statements.  I also think we are missing the mark in terms of an ultimate solution.  This isn’t a problem that will be solved through legislation or hatred towards those we disagree with.  Rather, I think our emphasis should be on educating and changing the individual expectation about what marriage really means and its realities.  Society’s expectations are dangerously skewed and unsupportable—resulting in marriages either ending or disintegrating to relationships of quiet desperation that leave us bitter and cynical.  We must change the perception of what a long term marriage means, what it takes to be successful in terms of near heroic sacrifices and selflessness, and how to deal with the myriad of problems that will always come.  Societies will only change in the long run when a critical mass of individuals have a change of heart.

#11)  In the battle of the sexes, women fight from a submarine and men from an open raft.”  It is certain we often fail to communicate successfully with the opposite sex.  It is also true that there are differences in how we think and approach things—although perhaps not as different as some would suggest.  These barriers will only be overcome as we follow Covey’s admonition to seek first to understand and then be understood rather than expecting the other person to just get it.  But, of course, that takes effort and if they really loved me I wouldn’t have to be so overt.  With such an attitude it is a battle that both sexes will lose.

#12)  We value rights less than we do privileges. The average person doesn’t want to be free, they just want to be safe and comfortable.”  Our reaction as a society since 9/11 has made this statement a painful truism.  We seem unwilling to comprehend that everything we ask government to do to “make us safe” through increased and more intrusive monitoring, suspending the rules of evidence, and allowing arrests without warrants, takes away our individual and societal freedoms.  Regardless of what they may have done, holding individuals arrested without warrants and then leaving them in prisons without charges and without trail until they rot, should be an affront to anybody who cares about our constitutional justice system.  Add to that torture and other abuse, all in the name of getting information that may increase our security, and we should be ashamed to call ourselves a beacon of freedom to the rest of the world.  We allow the government more and more access to our most personal information as a supposed deterrent and we gently, carefully, but willingly, give ourselves over to the Big Brother system that Orwell warned us of almost a century ago.  We cannot accept and use the methods of tyranny to accomplish the designs of freedom and democracy.  To the degree with do, we justify everything the violent extremists perceive in us.   If we ignore the abuse, discrimination, or dehumanizing of any individual and take away their due process under law, we ultimately subject ourselves to the possibility of the same treatment when our benevolent protectors turns tyrants.

#13)  An historian is an unsuccessful novelist.”  We delude ourselves to some degree when we accept historical interpretation as non-fiction.  It has been said that history is written by the winners, or at least those left standing.  No historian presents facts and evidence without some interpretation and analysis, even if it is only in what facts and evidence he decides to present.  The same historical events can be seen and interpreted from many different perspectives.  Was the document of 1776 a declaration of independence from tyranny, or the ungrateful, rebellious treason of citizens?  Was Lincoln the great emancipator, or the greatest suspender of individual and state’s rights in the history of our country?  Depending on who and when you ask, both answers will be espoused as truth.  And, there are historical facts to support both conclusions.  I have long felt that if you don’t know enough facts and haven’t considered enough varied perceptions to argue an issue from at least three sides, you don’t have the right to a reasoned opinion.  I feel the same way about historical analysis.

#14)  If you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.” What is a good person? How do we identify them?  Are we willing to admit the stock we put on labeling people as good those who believe like we do, look like we do, live where we do, and act like we do?  Isn’t there some standard that rises above all that and is applicable to all cultures, languages, creeds?  If there is, I think some key words would be tolerance, forgiveness, kindness, and charity towards others in both thought and action.  Let us all spend time forgiving others and winking at those that might otherwise be passed over.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Goal of Goals



I was asked by one of my children to talk some about goals.  I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject.  I’m not one of those who has a long list of goals, sub-goals, and daily accountability.  That said, I do believe there is a place, indeed a necessity, for goals in our lives.

I think there are two types of goals.  The first I would call mile marker goals.  They represent points in time and accomplishment that can be identified and easily measured.  The second type of goal is directional goals.  Less measurable, and more difficult to clearly identify, they represent the vision of what we want to become or the state in which we want to exist.  Mile marker goals, by themselves, can keep us busy and focused, but they don’t provide purpose for our efforts.  Directional goals, without some degree of measurable progress, fade to little more than empty wishes and dreams.  So I believe that both types of goals are necessary to really achieve our life objectives.

The effective use of goals will require first identifying the directional goals we want to work towards.  Second, we need to identify measurable mile marker goals that will help us gauge progress and give us feedback on whether we are headed in the direction we want.

In identifying empowering and motivating directional goals, I believe we must ask ourselves such questions as:  Who do I want to become?  What characteristics do I want to have?  What do I want to be remembered for?  What is most important in my life?  If I could imagine the perfect life, what would it look like, sound like, feel like?  In other words, what matters most and how would I describe it?  Once imagined clearly and in fine detail, we can access the power of our vision by focusing on what needs to happen to make that vision a reality.

To begin moving from directional goals to measurable mile markers we need to identify what accomplishments and practices will result in our maintaining the direction we want and putting them within a context of time.  For instance, if we want to achieve a higher state of spirituality, our mile marker goals may include daily scripture study, twice daily sincere prayer, and daily pondering and meditation on whether our life is in line with our beliefs and standards and what we need to do to bring them into harmony.  If we have a goal to improve our relationships, we might identify specific things that will lead to that improved direction.  Perhaps we decide that we will spend a certain amount of time in deeper communication each week.  Maybe we will identify expressions of appreciation and praise that we will share each day.  Maybe it is the commitment to a date night with a spouse or one-on-one time spent with children each week.  Regardless of the specific activity or accomplishment, mile markers should be specific, measurable, realistic, and time limited.  What does that mean?

Specific:  We must identify in enough detail that we can clearly describe and recognize the outcome.  The more detail the better.
Measurable:  At some point, the goal needs to be quantifiable—something we can count and keep track of.  If nothing more than a tendency or feeling, it isn’t a mile marker goal.
Realistic:  A realistic goal is something we can reasonably attain and do so in the time frame identified.  While we shouldn’t hesitate to push ourselves and aim high, something completely out of reach will only lead to discouragement.
Time Limited:  A goal without a deadline lacks the power to motivate and push us.  It is knowing the clock is ticking that will add immediacy and urgency to our actions.

The final, vital activity in goal setting is to take the time and effort to analyze whether your goals are leading you in the direction you want.  This comes in two parts.  First are you meeting your goals?  If not, are they realistic?  Are they important to you?  What is getting in the way?  Will power is important, but so is identifying goals that you are passionate about and that are empowering and motivating to you.  If they aren’t, you are probably in need of the second activity.  As life goes by and circumstances change and lessons are learned our goals may change.  They may change in substance, or they may change in particular.  On a regular basis we need to put everything back on the table and see if this is still the directions we want to head.  If not, make necessary changes.  Even if the directions still apply, maybe the mile markers we’ve identified are no longer as applicable or useful.  If not, change them.  Nothing is written in stone and life requires adaptation on a continual basis.  Whenever our goals aren’t coming to pass, it isn’t a sign that we need to get discouraged and give up, but that we need to re-assess our goals and make changes to either them and/or our personal efforts and commitment. 

Goals can be a wonderful help in giving our life direction and in helping us measure our progress.  But, they are tools and should never become masters.  If we identify our visions and directions with sincerity of heart and inviting the guidance of the divine, the goals we ascribe to and work towards can help us become who we and God want us to become.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

AGENCY & RESPONSIBILITY



For those who read my last post, this will seem like a variation on that theme.  So be it.  I think it is a question that begs of further investigation.  I believe it was Ghandi who expressed the danger of concentrating on rights without giving equal consideration to responsibilities.  I want to suggest that true freedom comes from the appropriate exercise of agency, and not only from a constitutional guarantee.

In my religion we often talk of a God given gift of free agency.  That is an unfortunate term as agency, by definition, implies a free exercise thereof.  The more accurate term from the scriptural reference is moral agency rather than free agency.  In other words, the freedom to discern and chose from what we believe to be right and wrong in our decisions and actions.  We believe that prior to our mortality we were faced with a decision.  On one hand, God desired that we have the opportunity to exercise moral agency, knowing that some would not choose the right and would be subject to the consequences of their decisions.  On the other hand, Lucifer proposed that moral agency be withheld and all individuals would be forced to choose right from wrong.  For a third part of the hosts, being forced to choose right seemed preferable than the risk of choosing wrong and they followed Lucifer.  The rest accepted a mortal probation that would test the content and strength of their innermost character—allowing them, through big decisions and little ones, to exercise their moral agency and accept the consequences of their determination.

The problem with Lucifer’s plan is that it was unworkable in determining who would choose to progress and what ends they would achieve.  An achievement forced upon us has little meaning.  A condition un-chosen is little more than a prison—even if it be an opulent one.  While on the surface success for everyone may have seemed desirable, it was an illusion.  And, once chosen, the illusion lead only to misery, for those who followed it found its inefficacy and now suffered only the misery of wanting and grasping at what was impossible to have.  Nonetheless, misery loves company and the demonic is tasked to convince us that we also can have, even deserve, something for nothing—rights without responsibility—pleasure without conviction—power without moral purpose—selfish indulgence without consequence.  Hence comes upon our condition the nature of evil, which is the choice to act regardless of the negative consequence to ourselves or others, or even to seek the negative consequences for others for the sake of our own pleasure, power, or gain (See a previous post on the nature of evil).

Setting the religious background of the philosophy aside, what is the manifestation and danger in our society?  We tout freedom and rights as cornerstones of our political and economic system, and so they are.  But, they are only one side of the equation.  Separated from their conjoined twins, they are illusions which lead to evil.  What are these twins?  Responsibility and charity are the counterbalances and fulfillers of freedoms and rights.

When our children were growing up, we instituted and attempted to enforce a number of family rules to maintain order and safety in the home—to varying degrees of success or failure.  Since it appears to be human nature to explore the edges of the envelope and look for the loopholes, I quickly learned that governance by statute seemed to require an every increasing codification.  Every rule had its exception and every exception required a new rule to adequately establish a workable boundary.  In a move that was part epiphany and part frustration, we finally threw most of the rules away and established two principles upon which all behavior in the home could be judged.  Was it responsible, and was it loving?  Responsible referred to whether the decision or action brought negative consequences upon others, self, or the environment—if it broke mom’s lamp, stained the carpet, or sent your brother away crying and bleeding then it wasn’t responsible.  Loving went one step further and asked if it would benefit and improve the condition of others and self—was the action born of or ruled by kindness and consideration?  If the action was irresponsible or the opposite of loving, then we determined it was in some way morally wrong and inappropriate in the family.  Did that solve all the problems in our oh-so-human household?  No, but maybe it did set a direction and hopefully increase the potential for a positive result in the one thing that all parents hope for, that their children develop moral character and turn out to be good people.

There is a popular saying that you can’t legislate morality.  This is usually used by somebody who wants to argue against the moral standard behind a law.  The reality is that most of the laws on the books are based on somebody’s standard of what is right or wrong, or in other words, what is moral.  Stealing and murder are crimes because as a society we determined that these behaviors were wrong.  Speeding and running a stop light have been determined to put others and self at risk of death or injury, and therefore they are wrong or immoral behaviors.

So, let’s talk some examples of this thesis applied.  There are those that read the constitution to say that we all have a right to bear firearms (that is a somewhat limited and biased reading of the amendment which concentrates on one part of one sentence to the possible exclusion of the rest of the paragraph—but that is another discussion and I want to go on record that I do agree that most Americans do have a right to the appropriate use of firearms).  That freedom may be exercised appropriately in target shooting, legal hunting, or as a last recourse in self defense.  Or, it may result in evil if used for violent coercion, revenge, or to maim or kill for pleasure.  If we are to accept this right as a society, then don’t we also have the obligation to try and ensure it is exercised so that those that bear arms do so responsibly and with charity?  Should it be expected that they be trained in the safe use of the gun, that they keep it secure from children, that they hunt with it only in a legal manner, and that it be used in self defense only as a last resort when all other options have failed—rather than at the mere hint of danger?  Whatever we define as the responsible and loving use of the firearm, does society have a right to regulate such?  Or, as some suggest, does any regulation concerning the possession and use of the firearm somehow negate the right to bear it?

Property rights are another example.  In a perfect world there would be no need for regulation of how an individual or business is allowed to utilize their property or capital.  They would adequately judge and care about whether their use and development would have negative affects upon their neighbors, including their employees on the part of a business, or on the environment.  Self benefit and profit would be weighed against the short and long term consequences for others.  We don’t seem to live in that perfect world.  While waving the flag of property rights and anti-regulation, individuals and businesses often make decisions that harm those around them or destroy the environment.  We say that we have a right to do what is best for us.  We say that competition and profits are the names of the game and therefore some are bound to lose in our zero-sum world.  I suggest that rights without responsibility and human charity are just another name for evils.

I think it is sometimes appropriate to take to the streets and protest in defense of our rights.  But, I wonder what it would be like if we took to the streets in support of our joint responsibilities and mutual concern.  Why can’t we spend at least as much time talking about our obligations?  We could condense our libraries of legislative code down to a few pages if we fully committed to live by the golden rule and exercise our rights responsibly and with charity.  Will it happen?  Probably not outside of some great societal leap forward or divine millennial reign.  But, next time we want to stand up for our rights or pass judgment on legislated morality, perhaps we would do more good to seek out our obligations and concentrate on them.  When we begin to measure our use of moral agency by what is responsible and charitable in exercising our rights, the world will truly be a better place.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

The Real Questions



Once again I asked my children what I should post.  My oldest suggested I post something on goals.  That is a worthy subject and will likely be the musings of a future scribble, but when I sat down and put fingers to keyboard it wasn’t what sparked my passion.  Two things seemed to weigh on me.  I have said before that a person who does not understand multiple sides of an issue does not have a right to an opinion, or at least no claim to a reasoned opinion based on more than mimicry or emotionality.  If you combine that with previous claims that I feel an excessive, almost dogmatic, partisanship is bringing our country and society to a standstill, you come to the ideas I want to put forth.  In summary, I’m suggesting that we must get beyond our emotionally charged positions and come to know the interests of all sides so that we can begin to arrive at workable solutions to the quagmires that beset us.

In order to achieve this reasoned approach, I would put forth that we need to get to the root of the questions we face.  Further, I state that the roots we are looking for are seldom found in the arguments of either side, but lie in a deeper understanding of the fundamental differences in those arguments.  I could try and explain this concept further, but for the sake of brevity and easier understanding I will use some examples of key issues facing our society today and what I think is the missing profundity in the approaches to those issues.

Let us start off with a hot topic, gay marriage and whether it should be legally recognized by society.  For this discussion, my opinion on the matter isn’t of much interest; rather, let’s look at the opinion of the two sides and the supporting arguments.  Those against legalized gay marriage state that expanding the definition of marriage beyond that between a man and woman will weaken the sanctity of the union.  Further, it will undermine and disrupt the concept of family and its place in society.   They feel that a society that allows and sanctions marriages outside of the traditional nuclear view of the family will lead to the collapse of social order and bring children up without a clear definition of who they are and how they fit into an ordered and successful culture.  In summation, marriage between individuals of the same gender is not good for society and not a legally viable option and therefore should not be recognized or encouraged.

On the other side of the issue, proponents of gay marriage state that it is matter of equality and anti-discrimination.  Without a legally recognized union, their partnerships will always be either ignored, or worse, deprecated by society as a whole and in particular when it comes to benefits, ability to secure financial loans and housing, being recognized as heirs, and sanctioned in the legitimate parenting of children.  They see any attempts at limiting the ability to form legal unions as discriminator, barbarous, and backward thinking, if not outright persecution.  They see it as a matter of freedom and equality under law.

Opinions on both sides are deeply held and freely exchanged—to little or no affect upon the opinions of the other side.  Neither side, with the exception of some who come across as extremists, are willing to openly state the core difference, that being whether homosexual behavior is a moral choice.  If I believe that a gay lifestyle is contrary the laws put forth by my belief in divinity, then arguments around freedom and equity under law carry no weight.  No legal code of man can supersede or negate a commandment of God.  On the other hand, if I don’t believe that there is such a divine condemnation of the gay lifestyle and that God, if I believe in such a concept, sees my choice as valid and acceptable, then no argument about the affect on society is going to make any sense.  And so, rather than debate all the other stuff, we should confess the true issue.  If we think homosexuality is a sin, then we are against gay marriage.  If we see homosexuality as a moral lifestyle choice, then we are in favor of its legal recognition.  And there is little either side can do to influence the other without first influencing that fundamental question, is homosexuality a sin?

Let’s take another example, the role of race in our society.  We’ve come a long way from the 60’s when many still openly admitted that they thought that one race was superior to the other.  I’m not saying that there aren’t still those that feel that way, but few would dare openly express it.  Now the debate flows about the need for forced integration, or whether races long discriminated against should now be given preferential treatment or other similar programs to try and reverse the long term effects of discrimination and somehow equalize the playing field.  The reports and committees try and determine to what affect stereotyping and race profiling continue to affect hiring practices, the judicial system, and the ability to escape generational poverty, gang involvement, and inner city blight.  All of these discussions are based on very real problems and represent serious concerns to our society in both the short and long term.  While we may claim to be a melting pot, we are a long way from universal assimilation and equality.  Nor have we yet even been able to define what equality would look like as many suggest there is a need to maintain and utilize a certain level of diversity in society.

In order to demonstrate what I think is the real question here, let me harbor back to a training I had many years ago as part of my employment.  It was on diversity and how to manage it.  I was a supervisor then and would later go on to serve for a time in upper management.  The trainers, in order to raise awareness, provided videos and discussions to emphasize the racially involved problems that still plague our society.  The presentation was very effective in explaining how individuals of different races viewed society and what they thought the true nature of the problems were.  During the training I sat next to an African American lady.  We had been supervisors in the same area for a time and while we weren’t close, I did know her.  At one point in the discussion she was asked for her perspective.  While she didn’t claim that anybody had persecuted her or overtly mistreated her, I was a little shocked to here her say that she often didn’t know how she fit in and felt alienated.  I had thought she was well liked and for the most part respected.  As I pondered further I asked myself what it was that separated the two of us and I came to a bit of an epiphany.  When asked what I thought, I admitted that I must be prejudice.  It wasn’t that I felt superior or inferior to her race, or any other race.  What made me prejudice what my lack of understanding of what it was like to be a black person in our society.  The same might be said about being a person of another gender, religion, or ethnic background.  Indeed what separates most of us from each other, regardless of characteristic or circumstance is our inability and often lack of desire to understand the other person’s experiences and feelings.  A failure to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes and experience life as they experience it leaves us to fall back on intellectual arguments and endless analysis of socio-economic factors and historical predispositions.  At its core, it isn’t race or other characteristics that separates us, it is the difference of our experience.

I like threes so let me illustrate one last example.  I read an opinion lately that said Abraham Lincoln was one of our most disastrous presidents because he started us down the road of big government that has lead to the major problems facing us today.  Being a big fan of Mr. Lincoln, I had a hard time coming to terms with that opinion.  Nevertheless, having studied the man and the history of his times, it is undeniable that he took upon himself presidential powers that were unthinkable to previous administrations and which many of his day labeled tyrannical.  Further, his justification for the preservation of the union by emphasizing the supremacy of the federal government over the rights of individual states, while justified in my opinion, can logically be extrapolated to contribute to the rise in federal power exhibited after his death.  So it begs the question of whether our society needs and should depend on as much federal power and oversight as we now have, or whether our freedoms are better served by a decentralization of power, a decreasing in regulation, less economic aid, and an increased emphasis on the rights of individuals and other entities such as businesses to operate as they see fit with little governmental involvement.

Here again, the usual arguments often skirt around or miss the deeper questions.  The real question is whether individual rights are going to take supremacy over the rights of society to govern itself.  On the one hand, a complete granting of individuals to do what they want and how they want to do it would easily be defined as anarchy.  Without limits, I could do what I wanted regardless of its effect upon other citizens or the environment.  On the other extreme is the idea that people are insufficient to govern themselves and societal interests can only be served by giving oversight and regulatory powers to a governing body such as a supreme council, congress, soviet, etc., or even a king or other despot.  I think most in our American society would find either extreme unacceptable, so it comes down to where we want to draw the balancing line between societal interest and individual freedom.  Even more fundamentally, it asks to what degree mankind or his organizations such as cities and businesses are able act in his or their own interest without acting contrary to the interest of the rest of society or the environment.  It might even be tied to our individual philosophy about whether or to what degree we are inherently good and cooperative in nature, or whether we are basically selfish and destructive in nature.  How different the debate would be if we conducted it around these questions rather than endless debates about government spending, the need for certain laws, or the excesses of anecdotal situations.

So, what would it mean if we debated the more fundamental issues?  On gay rights, for instance, as a larger part of the society sees homosexual behavior as morally acceptable, then arguments around the sanctity of traditional marriage will fall away and arguments about equality will gain ground.  Only the most extreme opponents will dare talk about morality and proponents of gay rights will not care to discuss it in those terms at all, unless it is to decry the backwardness of organized religion.  As for the race issue, we’ll continue to debate immigration, inner city crime, and economic inequality rather than get at the differences of experience that divide us and leave us unable to relate to each other.  Finally, we’ll debate regulation policy, government economic intervention, and the need for phone monitoring rather than make decisions about where we want to draw that balancing line in the sand between individual freedom and the good of society, or whether we as a people can make choices in our own interest while still taking responsibility for the effects upon society and the environment.

In wrapping this up, how does this relate to my two introductory themes of having an informed and reasoned opinion and in defeating the excessive partisanship that I feel is tearing our society apart?  It really comes down to two things—or maybe two aspects of the same thing.  First, we must be willing to dig down to the fundamental questions and courageously bring them out into the open and make them the focus of our discussions and debates.  Second, there must be a willingness by all sides involved to, as a popular author suggested, seek first to understand, and only then be understood.  Applied to our three examples, when we as a society decide where we stand on the morality of homosexuality, we can best decide what legal protections, if any, we give to gay couples.  When we seek to understand the experience of those diverse portions of society, then we can better know how we can change hearts, minds, and laws to support a healthy diversity and equal opportunity for all.  Finally, when we frame policy and legal debates about the role of government in terms of what personal freedoms we are willing to subject to the good of society or the environment, and vice verses, then we can really see the reason behind whether a governing policy or power is healthy or detrimental.  Thus we can put in proper check the unhealthy partisanship that is so destructive to our search for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Economic Virtue



My daughter in-law, an excellent addition to the family, suggested I write about something she labeled economic virtue.  As I understand it, she was thinking about the virtue of seeing ourselves as a contributor to society as apposed to having an entitlement mentality.  That is an interesting subject.

With 25 years working mostly in the area of government assistance programs, often titled welfare, I’ve seen my share of individuals who are poster children of the entitlement mentality.  I’ve also seen the majority that use government assistance programs appropriately—meaning as a temporary crutch until they can get back on their feet again.  Somewhere in between there is an elusive line in the sand that separates what some have called the worthy poor from those that abuse the system or are content to let society financially support them for extended periods, even when they have the ability to support themselves.

Government policy makers have tried to define that line in the sand by identifying the circumstances in which people find themselves and determining who is eligible (worthy) and not eligible to receive benefits.  In addition, the receipt of employment support programs are often contingent upon policies that require individuals to participate in activities that are hoped to lead towards increased earnings and the end of the need for public assistance for that individual or household.  That, it seems to me, is a logical approach.  But, as with most things in life, the logic can break down when diving into the details.

Without spending a lot of time trying to outline thousands of pages of public assistance policy, eligibility for programs is usually based on the income of the individuals or families applying.  How much money coming in is weighed against the size of the household.  Some programs, like Food Stamps, also consider expenses such as rent and utilities as a deduction against the countable income.  In addition, most programs look at resources or assets—money in bank accounts, or the value of property that can be sold.  Countable income, less allowed deductions, compared to the household size, and the value of assets form the basic factors of eligibility for somebody applying for government programs.  Contrary to popular belief, illegal aliens are not eligible for most programs.  In addition, other restrictions can be imposed based on whether a person has quit a job, is a non-working college student, or is cooperating in collecting child support from an absent parent.  As mentioned before, some programs require that the person be involved in educational or job search activities as a condition of getting assistance.  These conditions are often waived for somebody who is aged, a child, taking care of a young child, or considered disabled by the rules of the program.

These conditions of eligibility for assistance programs form the government’s attempt to weed out the unworthy poor.  But, as with most laws, there are loop holes and exceptions to the exceptions.  It doesn’t take a lot of looking to find anecdotal circumstances that appear to demonstrate widespread program fraud or unworthy access to assistance.

Before we get to the meat of my conclusions, let me propose some definitions to some terms that people casually banter about without having any universal agreement as to their meaning.  First, the term poor.  The government sets limits of income under which a person or household is considered in poverty.  While the calculation that goes into these limits is complicated and probably makes sense at some level and given certain assumptions, it often feels like an arbitrary number.  For my own purposes we will define a poor person as somebody who cannot, with their income, meet the basic needs of food, shelter, and life saving medical care.  That definition, as with all others, is subject to a lot of assumptions about what is adequate shelter, food, and medical care.  If a person decides to live in a nicer apartment or eat more expensive food, or eat more than they need, and then can’t meet their bills, can they still be considered poor?  I don’t know if anybody has those answers when we get to applying general concepts to individual situations.

The second definition is that of welfare or public assistance.  I remember a day at work that a disabled individual came into our office and saw a sign that talked about being on welfare.  In a fit of rage, he tore the sign off the wall while yelling that he was not on welfare.  He considered that any assistance he got was his right based on his disability and therefore he was not on welfare.  I’m not suggesting his attitude represents that of other individuals determined disabled by society, but it does illustrate how different people feel differently about what is welfare.  I think most farmers or businesses who receive government subsidies or price supports would bristle at the thought they were getting something labeled welfare, but I would suggest that welfare is any assistance for which the person or organization does not provide a product or service at fair market value.  Included in that would be food subsidies, business subsidies, housing assistance, tax credits, educational grants, or government funded rebates and credits on purchases or investments.  Given that definition, most of society has received or benefites from welfare at one time or another, if not regularly.  All of these programs filter tax payer money to individuals and organizations without requiring something in return and meet the definition, therefore, of a redistribution of wealth from parts of the populace to the other parts.  I would label them as welfare.

Hopefully my ramblings to this point have suggested that the subject of public entitlement is not as simple as some would like to make it in their criticisms.  That isn’t to say that all such criticisms are invalid, but they are more often than not uninformed.  In my opinion, unless you understand enough to present multiple sides of an argument, you probably don’t have much of an informed opinion.  I would suggest that the real problem isn’t the assistance or welfare itself, but the individual and societal attitudes that allows and encourages its prolific use.  This I would label an entitlement mentality.

So, here is my thesis.  We have become, as a society, too dependant on welfare for our daily life.  Further, this reliance on entitlement programs represents less the fault of government programs and more on a society that expects outside forces, and especially government, to make every set-back in life right.  This is an entitlement mentality or attitude that says I’m entitled to the basics of life regardless of my circumstances or even the efficacy of my decisions.  It goes beyond economic assistance programs to the attitude that we should be able to experience whatever the majority of society is privileged to experience or have, even if we haven’t the means to access it.  It manifests itself in many ways such as children who want most if not all of what their successful parents have without the years of hard work and sacrifice that may have gotten their parents to that point.  It is expressed in the employee who demands they be rewarded the same as others who put in more effort and were more proactive in learning the job and in producing better results. 

I would suggest that a government that offers more and more assistance programs is doing nothing more than responding to the demands of voters who reward such behavior with votes while often proclaiming the opposite in their opinions.  Many, especially those labeling themselves as conservatives, want cuts in welfare programs, but we continue to elect those who support us in the way we feel entitled.  In the mean time, we criticize and pass judgment on those that get other types of assistance.  As an example, most people don’t know or don’t choose to remember that the Food Stamp program (now called SNAP) was established not primarily as a hunger relief program, but as a way for the government to offer price supports to farmers and distribute excess commodities, hence the fact that the program is administered by the Department of Agricultural and not the Department of Health and Human Services.

So, what can be done?  How do we, as a society, starting with individuals and families, begin to wean ourselves of a mentality that says we are entitled to so many things in life?  It is hard.  It is really hard to look at somebody who has just survived a hurricane and is without home, or a farmer who has suffered through years of drought, or a businesses who despite their best efforts are falling behind competition using cheap foreign labor and say to them, “tough, life isn’t fair, deal with it as best you can, but the government can no longer afford to help you or continue to enable an entitlement mentality.”  It is hard to draw a line in the sand and say that everybody on this side are the worthy poor and everybody on that side should fend for themselves.  At some point all those judgments have to be made as best the decision makers can.  But I am suggesting that the solution is not found in finding where, exactly, to draw that line in the sand.

I believe the solution starts in the hearts of individuals and families.  In individuals it goes back to President Kennedy’s declaration, “Ask not what your country can to for you, ask what you can do for your country!”  In addition to the word country, insert words like family, neighborhood, city, county, state, etc. . .  When we can turn our focus away from what we feel entitled to (our rights) and towards how we can help ourselves and others (our responsibilities), we will begin to free ourselves from an entitlement mentality.  As parents and caregivers of children, we must set aside the temptation to provide them with everything we can, and instead focus on their basic needs and then teach them work and reward for effort in getting the finer things.  Tie allowances to efforts.  Teach the consequences of not valuing things and money.  Say no to the latest thing or the nicest new toy—be it childish toy or grown-up toys.  Involve children in budgeting and finance.  Be an example of staying out of debt, living frugally, and preparing for a rainy day with adequate insurance and savings.

We all know of wealthy people who flaunt their economic advantages.  We’ve seen how even the richest people can end up bankrupt.  I read an article recently that said that the majority of highly paid sports players end up bankrupt within a few years of leaving their multi-million dollar salaries.  Why is that?  Some of us have also seen wealthy people who don’t live extravagantly, whose children hold down jobs in their youth and help pay for their educations.  This isn’t a question of what we have, but how we use it, and what our attitudes are towards what life has blessed, or cursed, us with.

Until we, as individuals and communities, can start to look in the mirror and begin to correct the attitudes and behaviors that have gotten us to this point, we cannot realistically expect societies and governments to change and solve the problems that face us due to our entitlement mentality.  Before we are tempted to talk about big government, the unworthy poor, or all the money wasted on hand outs, whether they be to individuals or corporations, may I suggest we shut up and put up in the form of our own houses being put in order.  Is getting out of debt and staying out of debt your priority?  Do you live within your means, even if it means doing with only the basics in food, shelter, and necessary medical care?  Do you look with charity on others, while holding yourself to the highest standard of self sufficiency?  Do you lobby for and vote for politicians who tell it like it is, meaning that no budget will be balanced without cutbacks in even your favorite program?  Finally, do you practice what you preach to others within the confines of your own home and heart?  Only such will battle and ultimately win against the entitlement mentality.