Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Obviously, my musings on all sorts of subjects did not result in my being discovered as a brilliant voice in a sea of mediocrity. I didn't even make it to mediocrity. I went back to look at some of my old posts. Some are bad. Some are vain. Some are poorly written. On the other hand, some of them weren't half bad.
The last couple of years have been complicated, frustrating and even extremely dangerous. I stopped because I simply couldn't do much of anything except work to eat and work hard at other things in order to live. I have learned so much in the last couple of years. I began to wonder whether I should take an hour or two each week to offer some opinions, suggestions and questions to think about. Given a few more important experiences, maybe I could help someone. I have no idea but it poses little threat of doing any harm to others or myself.
If you care, visit the site when you have a minute. Be brutally honest. I can handle it.
Monday, June 27, 2011
There is more work to do, though. Achievements made in the last 50-75 years are being threatened. There are elected officials committed to destroying a social contract by radically changing or repealing legislation that established Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and a host of federal and state benefits and rights that most of us began to take for granted. A fiscal crisis caused by squandering federal budget surpluses to start a military adventure in Iraq, among other terrible public policy decisions, makes it easier for enemies of dignity and freedom to claim we cannot afford to maintain, much less improve, access to health care, fully funded secondary education or a long list of other programs that are relied upon by some our most vulnerable fellow citizens.
Everyone with a paycheck and a checkbook knows that spending more than one earns cannot go on forever. Federal tax policy ignores this reality. We are sold the often repeated line that we can grow more prosperous by limiting taxation on the wealthiest households and corporations but, frankly, that is simply not true now, if it ever was in the first place. Modest increases (or repealing tax breaks that are unnecessary) in taxes do not make us a Socialist nation. They make us a responsible nation that can well afford to take care of the most vulnerable among us.
It's a choice. What kind of communities do we want to build or maintain? For me, I want to know that my Mom's next-door neighbor at 90 years old and entirely dependent on Social Security and Medicare can live in dignity and remain in her home. I want to know other vulnerable people who have committed no crimes and ask for very little beyond roof over their heads and food in the house get those things. Many devoutly religious people know that most mainline religions ask us to remember that we are our brothers' keepers. They also know that we cannot trust individuals to do the things their religions teach them. To me, that is when our federal government needs to step in and make hard choices about taxes (and, yes, spending) so we achieve some stability and keep our promises. Philanthropy is a big part of keeping some institutions alive but it is optional. Helping others retain their dignity requires more than lip service. It does not matter whether the check comes directly from me to them or that I leave my checkbook at home and pay slightly higher taxes. The issue is about stability. When we get so disconnected from the reality of others' lives, it is easy to forget that people with substantial wealth can, through a rational tax policy, well afford to stabilize and guarantee that market-based capitalism is not destroyed by a social safety net. It means we are a pragmatic, caring, understanding citizenry that pays its bills. That is hardly radical.
Monday, April 4, 2011
Monday, March 7, 2011
Sunday, February 20, 2011
Teaching is a good example. I think many of us forget that teacher salaries - with some exceptions - have traditionally lagged behind those of occupations requiring the same (or less) formal education and the real bargain most teachers made at the time they were hired was to get job security, good benefits and a decent pension in exchange for accepting less salary. Some - particularly the brightest, best educated women in the 1950s through the early 1980s - had few choices if they chose to work outside the home. Less than 10% of women earned a bachelor's degree in the late 1950s. Their choices were generally limited to teaching, nursing or secretarial work. Let's not forget that Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman on the Supreme Court, graduated at the top of her law school class at Stanford University in the 1950s. The only private sector work she could get at a top law firm was as a secretary. She had more opportunities in the public sector, took them, worked hard and became the most important swing vote in the Supreme Court for over 20 years.
The same is true for other types of public employment. It's a fair trade. If we now want to to change that social contract that has existed in some states for more than 50 years and individualize negotiations with every teacher, whether a new hire or a 30 year veteran, your kid's art teacher will make a lot less than the math teacher even if your child wants to be an artist, not an accountant. Your football coach will make a lot more than your English teacher even if you see a budding poet at your dinner table. Those who think that is acceptable often speak about unregulated market economies being the perfect 'invisible hand' that ensures compensation matches the value of the employee to the enterprise. If that is true, why did so many of us decide that multi-million dollar bonuses to people employed in finance were grotesque? There were no relevant regulations on compensation for most finance jobs. Those employees knew that they either performed and contributed to creating profits or were out on the street. Personally, and I have said this before in other posts, I think it is silly, insulting and counterproductive to broadbrush an entire industry as being filled with incompetent, undeserving employees, whatever the industry. There will always be bad teachers. There will always be bad finance employees. In most teaching jobs, there is a three year probationary period before achieving tenure. You can tell pretty quickly if a newly hired teacher can deliver and terminate them at will if they cannot get up to speed. It may take a bit longer to locate the bad hires in finance and, other than a severance package, they have few rights to challenge their termination even after 20 or 30 years of employment.
You can bet on one thing: if you attempt to strip non-managerial public employees of their right to collectively bargain and get a due process hearing before firing them, there will be chaos and it won't be primarily of their making. If you think your teacher earns too much, shadow them for a day. Having grown up with one, I can tell you that good teachers get up at 5:30, are exhausted by 4:00 p.m. and after dinner, most are not watching television. They are grading papers, fine-tuning lesson plans and do not get to sleep by 10:00 p.m. It is certainly true that I experienced some really terrible teachers in junior high school and high school. The blame rests squarely on the school administration for not identifying them early and terminating them or being squeamish about seeking their termination and letting an arbitrator decide whether their decision holds water or doesn't. Not for nothing, but my mother's salary went a long way towards helping me end up in a tax bracket most Americans would find pretty satisfactory. I have paid more federal and state taxes than many people my age and although I don't consider myself wealthy, I do not think I deserve a tax break.
This last couple of years is so full of craziness and shifting allegiances it's hard to get one's arms around the whole thing. First, demonize the finance industry. Three cheers for the common man! Then, let's go after public employees. They are lazy, stupid and are not like the rest of us. Three cheers for the people who toil in the private sector with no job security! Mandated health care coverage for people in their 20s and 30s? They'll never use it and just subsidize those who are older and use too many resources. Three cheers for the young and healthy!
If people care about other hardworking people or those who have very limited choices and few resources, agree to cough up a little more in taxes or raise taxes on people who can best afford it. This is not about charity and don't forget that most families making under $50,000 per year effectively pay no federal taxes at all.
The vast majority of us would have to admit that we want excellent public services, no matter what our income. There is nothing wrong with that. There is something wrong when we're not willing to pay for it or negotiate with a union over the ability to pay for increases in salary or benefits.
Please don't tell us you did not realize that many states were headed toward a fiscal crisis long before the recession hit. They were borrowing money to pay for day-to-day expenses with no assurance that tax revenues would rise quickly enough to pay it back. Meanwhile, our sage leaders decided to grant wage increases and improved benefits to themselves and public employees. New York State counted on free flowing tax revenues from those working in finance to cover the State's obligations. Forget party affiliation. The worst spending blunders came from a Democratic-controlled Assembly and a Republican-controlled Senate. I certainly love the term "tax and spend" liberal a lot more than "borrow and spend" conservative. They are the ones who say 'vote for me, I won't increase your taxes'. What they don't say is that eventually taxes will have to be increased or your garbage won't be picked up, your streets won't be plowed, your schools will have outdated textbooks and your teachers will end up spending hundreds of dollars of their own salaries to subsidize your child's education. Honestly. Who is more responsible? Is it the candidate who says we have to pay as we go or the one who says we have to borrow as we go?
How about some common sense: To States: Borrow to build your bridge (even if it goes nowhere). Pay cash for services. Not enough money to pay cash for essential services? Increase taxes or find a way to make delivering services more efficient. Tell the union at negotiating time that you are broke and can't afford wage or benefit increases and propose cuts. If the union screams about it, make sure you have a system where a neutral arbitrator is appointed with a legislative mandate that he or she cannot impose a contract that has a potential to bankrupt the state. Impose layoffs if you have to but understand the consequences of doing so which include, among other things, paying unemployment benefits and filling up emergency rooms with people who lack health insurance for primary care.
It's no different from the advice a rational family would give: Borrow to renovate your house if it will increase its value. Borrow for post-secondary education for yourself and kids because it is the best investment you can make. Pay cash for everything else. Not enough cash? No flat screen TV. No vacations beyond your back yard. No eating out. No ordering in. It's actually pretty simple, right? Sure, this is a political game, but at its root is really about the value we place on people who teach kids, protect us and help lock up criminals and rescue you from a house fire that might even be the result of your own negligence. If you have a specific number in mind for the salaries of these folks, let us know. The last time I checked, contracts get signed by at least two parties - the union and the employer. If you think the employer made a bad deal, let them know. I promise you that eliminating collective bargaining won't do a thing to make it cheaper to provide essential services. When you see the foreclosure notice and badly peeling paint on the house of the teacher who inspires your kid and wrote him a recommendation that helped get him into college and who took a 20% pay cut because she had no collective bargaining rights and based her purchase on a social contract that she was reasonably certain would not radically change, don't complain that the value of your own house is diminished because the neighborhood is perceived as going to Hell in a handbasket.
Friday, February 11, 2011
A friend on Facebook suggested a link to the following URL. It's worth reading. My comments after having read many posts may sound like absolute drivel but you can skip them if you want.
The more posts I read, the more convinced I am about all of the missed opportunities to admit our lack of understanding of other nations, cultures, religions, creeds and how they are intertwined with economic, political and social systems that grow from them. It seems to me that we could easily have studied our own history to understand the Middle East at critical moments in its history. Many of the first European settlers in what is now the United States claimed they were motivated by a desire to guarantee themselves the religious freedom they lacked in Europe. I am certain that there was a percentage of those early settlers who were very sincere about their motivation. I am also certain that there were many early settlers who envisioned building an economic system that better suited their spiritual beliefs and a political system that would be more consistent with their faith.
The reality is these early settlers accomplished very few of their stated goals. They imported existing European common law on property ownership, the rights of women and until the middle part of the 18th century, tolerated the notion that the nations of their birth considered them as merely colonizing land in the name of the U.K., the Netherlands, and other countries with no true democracy as we understand it today. Religious sanctuaries were certainly built but what we now understand as our Constitution's protection of the free exercise of religion and the prohibition on the government's establishment of religion was not in place for at least 150 years after the Mayflower's arrival in what is now Provincetown, MA.
These new colonists realized they needed to develop trading relationships with the nations of their birth in order to survive and until the second half of the 18th century lacked the military power to resist European domination. Of course, this includes newly created slave trading that forever changed Africa and what became the United States. By aligning themselves with British, French, Dutch and other nations, the colonists cleverly exploited old hatreds and used the militaries of those nations to protect themselves. Once addicted to those trading relationships and the material wealth they created on both sides of the Atlantic, it didn't require much imagination to understand that the socio-political ties could not be easily severed.
It seems to me that modern revolutionaries reject the notion of voting with one's feet as early U.S. settlers did and with few exceptions, when governments do not answer their people, they will eventually be replaced. Other than European pilgrims to the U.S., the main exception to staying put and not 'voting with one's feet' are European Jews, who learned early their survival in Europe depended on a strategy of elevating the importance of education, the development of portable skill sets that permitted them to pull up stakes when it was clear they would otherwise be divested of whatever wealth they had amassed or killed. Their ability to move, adapt, offer necessary services and preserve their traditions and religion left them permanent outsiders wherever they settled because, as most of us know, the most portable, critical professions and endeavors were ultimately more lucrative than the endeavors of the agrarians around them. Of course, we know how well that strategy worked in the long term.
When compared to the colonization of North America by Europeans, it's not difficult to understand the similarities between the U.S. and many Middle Eastern countries, particularly as it relates to the importance of religion, attempting to avoid European domination and maintain cultures and value systems thought to be existentially important. Religion played a key role, as did the necessity to develop trading relationships amongst themselves and with other nations. Skipping over the next 150 years from the U.S.'s political independence from European powers, the West's insatiable demand for crude oil inflated the potential of Middle Eastern military and political power, bringing with it wealth but not the kind of independence it sought to preserve. European and U.S. businesses flourished in the Middle East and, once addicted to the wealth that came from trading with the West, Western nations came to dominate the Middle East's political independence and autonomy. The 20th century is littered with American and European involvement in determining the leadership of individual Middle Eastern nations, often preferring dictatorships and sales of military equipment to cut out the middle man in negotiations over crude oil and the future of Israel. The resentments of Middle Eastern citizens inevitably led to protests and in some cases, revolutions.
It should come as no surprise that Egyptians have been watching Middle East conflicts and, despite their peaceful end to decades of wars and skirmishes with Israel, do not want a dictator or to be bought off for a few billion dollars that apparently have not trickled down to its poorest citizens. We played a large role in creating an environment that has already led to chaos in other Middle Eastern nations. If we haven't learned any lessons at this point, we better start to do so. Mubarak may be considered a long term "friend" but if his citizens want him out, the only answer that will save us in the long run is to either help the Egyptian people pursue peaceful, democratic change or stay out of their way by acknowledging Mubarak must go and permitting their autonomy and will to govern their future. They already know we will support Israel in the event a new Egypt decides to attack Israel. I, for one, believe that ordinary Egyptians will give the U.S. a great deal of credit for permitting the peoples' will to be done and will find ways to punish us if we don't. The United States slogged through years of war to win its independence. We should understand that other nations, whether toppling a dictator or king or taking other actions to improve their collective lot in life, deserve the same respect we demanded for ourselves in the late 18th century. An apology might not hurt, either. I think it's important to add that this involves listening carefully to what is being said by ordinary Egyptians. As with any other issue involving human beings, listening is essential. It is why I started this whole blog in the first place.
Monday, January 31, 2011
I see some parallels in our philosophy today that I did not see until recently. We both place a great deal of value in listening closely to what others say, how they say it and why. When I launched this little blog, it grew out of a desire to start conversations on topics that are often political and controversial. (I haven't done a thing to advertise it and have no idea if it would be popular if I did.) This post is more about foundation, principles and style than who wins the argument or sells his product.
Recently, we were writing back and forth about intelligence, social grace and how it is that each of us are in the early stages of starting our own practices (mine in law, his in business realignment) that have been, so far, gratifying and objectively successful. He suggested that what I consider to be my own oddities might actually be gifts. He always manages to say something no one else would think about, much less articulate, and turn (at least my) oddities into attributes. He believes I am much more socially graceful than I think I am and believes I am empathetic or sympathetic, intelligent and humbler than I do. He is also an expert in telling me I am full of crap when I lament my shortcomings. That's what good friends do.
To some extent, I think he is right and I would tell him the same thing about himself. I am usually polite and can summon up the energy to exhibit some social grace although I think politeness and social grace bleed together and for a person who is as generally shy as I am, I cannot say that whatever social grace I have is primarily rooted in shyness or something else. I like leaving very light footprints wherever I go although I don't always achieve it.
For me, trying to be more polite and actively listening to others is about avoiding conflict, especially in my personal life, because my professional life is almost always about dealing with conflict even when I am not the person at the center of the conflict. If intelligence plays a role, I'll take the compliment but I think it is not so much about native intelligence. If I had a nickel for every intelligent person who lacked a molecule of social grace, I would be happily working for free. At least for me, it is mostly about two things that I think are often underappreciated - truly active listening and having read enough books to turn an otherwise unsatisfying conversation into something distracting and interesting.
When I am able to tell someone that despite their troubles they remind me of a character in a novel where everything works out fine in the end, I walk away thanking my mother for telling me to read everything I could get my hands on. Doing that, appreciating the sincere efforts of others without regard to their immediate success and keeping an open mind make life a great deal easier. Let's not forget smiling and making the person with whom you are speaking feel like they are the only person in the room. It's not phony. It's smart.
We both go to a fair number of rubber chicken dinners with rooms full of people we barely know. 20+ years ago I would have been terrified. Today, all I truly dislike about those events are the bad food and mean drunks. I have been asked many times about my background when at these sorts of gatherings and have learned to keep it to a couple of sentences. To the extent I am perceived as "lucky" in my solo practice, the people with whom I speak seem to think I have some social or class advantage. Note to parents: I think it has more do with having decent table manners and what people consider to be my unaccented English which, of course, is silly because what I believe they really mean is that I sound far more patrician to them than I actually am and it is generally because I have a relatively flat, Midwestern accent. All English speakers have an accent. Mine just happens to sound more standard on television.
I continue to believe my best skill is to leave an event after speaking to 5-10 people in any depth never having revealed very much about myself. I don't think the people with whom I speak at these events even realize they learned nothing very personal about me because they are hungry to be heard or, more specifically, are hungry to have someone really listen to them. Those I know very well already have all the personal information they need about me and if they need more, they ask. Whether I tell is another story. One colleague who knows me pretty well, including aspects of my private life, asked me, quite audibly - at a table of 10, nine of whom were perfect strangers - whether gay men in long-term relationships were generally monogamous. I was more than a bit shocked at first but I knew it was not meant to embarrass me. I deeply value my privacy but would never hide my sexual orientation because I believe it is important that people understand that every profession includes lesbians and gay men and am a firm believer in being out and moving on quickly to a more interesting topic. I answered the question at the same volume he asked it, told him I could not speak for others but that I was monogamous after 17 years with the same guy and then we talked about other things. No one at the table flinched. Perhaps it was because my colleague is far, far more prominent than I am in my field and if he felt comfortable with me and was my friend, they should be, too. If I am right, I am delighted. If I am wrong, that's fine, too.
Ironically, the best conversations I have with strangers start with professional discussions and end, if they ask, with the person finding out I am gay. They are the people more likely to contact me on a professional basis. Merit first; irrelevant personal information second. If you flip the conversation around, the entire thing becomes about me and the focus is completely different. I don't want any conversation to be entirely about me. We cannot tackle any issues or solve any problems if all that I am is a member of a small demographic group with a decent resume.
If you have read this far, thank you. If you have a business in need of realignment, my best friend is your guy. He's an excellent listener and radiantly energetic and smart.