Monday, September 19, 2011

One thing: we're going to need a bigger kitchen table

I've noticed recently that politicians of most stripes (many should be wearing stripes, but that's for another time) like to analogize around our national economic situation by comparing it with that of a family sitting around the kitchen table trying to make ends meet.

One side talks extensively about not having enough money to spend on unnecessary things. So, the family cuts out the yard man, the pool man, eating out more than occassionally, finds ways to cut the utility bills, etc.  The comparison with the federal government seems to make sense.  We must find ways to cut out the unnecessary and wasteful spending that is included in almost everyone's budget including that of the leader of the free world.  Where it falls down, however, is that it doesn't take the next step.

What if the family has no income or it's income is severely curtailed.  They cut out all the stuff they can't afford anymore, but then they find they still can't afford the things that are: 1) generally important (like health care, taking care of Gramma in the nursing home, making sure the house doesn't fall down); and, 2) what they want (like eating out, going to the movies, cable TV).  So then what?  They just suck it up and persevere?  I don't think so.   I think they go out and find a way to get more money coming in. 

And that, as they say, is where the analogy breaks down.

It breaks down because there is a strata of thinking that says that they (the family) and/or we (the country) don't actually need the extra money to afford the extra things we want.  That they and we should be willing to live more austere lives; do with less. 

Now, would they and we prefer to not have to go out and do what it takes to get more money coming in?  Of course!  They and we would much prefer not to have to do anything to have everything we want, but they and we know that's not how it works.

So to those who say that we, the American people, have to make our lives and this government work just by cutting out the "unnecessary" I say that doesn't work at the kitchen table and it probably won't work in Washington.

Of course, I could be wrong.  One, there are no simple answers--or analogies--to complex political and economic questions; and two, it's just an analogy, after all.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Forgive me for asking, but...

So there's this flap right now after Fox News' Chris Wallace asked Representative Michele Bachmann if she's "a flake."  Bear in mind, she's said some things that other, less sympathetic audiences have called just plain crazy.  So for a bona fide newsman in a bona fide interview (albeit on Fox;  you decide) to ask her that question seems pretty reasonable to me.  In fact, given that it was Fox, Wallace probably thought he was throwing her a softball.  He certainly should not be apologizing unless it's a blanket apology for Fox News generally.  If newsmen start apologizing for questions they ask, well there'll be no end to it.  Most reporters' questions have the potential to offend the questionee.

"Of course, I'm not a flake!" she might have said.  And then she could have gone on with her recitation of her bona fides.  Which she did.  Which, incidentally, are pretty impressive.

I recall several years ago on the Today show, Bryant Gumbel said, in a question to former President Jimmy Carter, something along the lines of "you're widely thought of as perhaps the most ineffective President in history."  Gumbel may have phrased it along the lines of "what would say to those who say," and perhaps this is what Wallace should have done.

Carter's response was that he thought that such an assertion would be harsh and unfair and then he went on to respond with his bona fides.  That was it.  No apology from Gumbel (who was playing a newsman at the time.)

For Bachmann, it's a fair question. She's been quoted as saying some flakey things (virtually everyone in public life has, by the way.)  In today's media environment she's been called worse and will be called worse than that before this whole election thing is over.  It's the world we live in so she should be prepared to dispel the notion.

Uphill battle for her, in my opinion, but best of luck to her.  This IS America, after all.

Monday, May 9, 2011

With enemies like these...

Colleagues, there's the old bromide that you can't have too many friends. Could be true, but more to the point, I think we don't have enough enemies. God knows, I don't. In fact, I'm not sure I have any except those which I've manufactured. Which brings us to the point of this missive: the need, nay, the necessity of enemies.

Back in the day, one could have enemies. Whether it was the British or the French or the Indians or the Blacks or the Whites or the Democrats or the Confederates, everyone had enemies. And they were mortal enemies, too. They'd just as soon kill you as look at you; you felt the same about them. And the important thing about them was that they defined who were your friends. How can you have friends if you don't have any enemies?

Today we have what we call "friends," but in so many cases, they're really just really good acquaintances. They're folks that we "know" by sight and whose names we remember (although we rarely remember both their last AND first names; we usually refer to them as "bud," or "pal," or "hombre" or any of a number of names that almost certainly telegraph that we don't have any idea who they are). Anyway, we think we like them and that they like us and, in truth, they and we probably do, but we don't know if they're our "friends" because we don't know who our enemies are. Sad fact: we may not have any.

Oh, I'd like to hate the Republicans or the liberals or the conservatives or the commies or the hillbillies or the hippies or the Methodists or the Scientologists, but I can only do so in the abstract. Like when I'm sitting here blogging.  Those bastards! Or when I read in the LA Times what boneheaded thing they've done or said. Why, if I oughta...

But the reality is that if given the opportunity to stand in front of them and confront them, I'd probably like them; I'd like having dinner with them. I'd enjoy them as people.  I might not like their ideas, but we'd both probably have the good taste not to mention the things we disagree on.

Oh, I've known a few real jackasses in my years; folks that I would cross a busy LA street to avoid if I saw them coming, but they are few and far between. And despite the minor enmity that I feel for them I'd be hard pressed to say that I hate them or that they're truly mine enemy.

If only we had enemies, we'd know who to hate at any given moment. It wouldn't matter what they did or said; we'd just hate 'em simply for taking up space on the sofa.

These days, we're civilized. We're sold on the idea of free speech. That whole thing of, "I will disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" is a wonderfully civilized sentiment. It takes the edge off what all the pinheads in the world do and it makes it not just hard, but virtually impossible to hate them.

That kind of sentiment puts us all on the same footing; it recognizes that we all have opinions and that we should respect the opinions of everyone and expect that they will respect ours. We don't have to agree with them, but we have to respect their right to have their opinion and their right to express and our right to disagree with it. It's very adult. Very civilized.  And very frustrating.

Case in point: it never ceases to amaze me how lawyers can beat the crap out of each other in court and then walk down to the corner and have a beer at the end of the day. Wouldn't it be more satisfying to simply shoot your opponent on the steps of the courthouse for making you look like a horse's ass in front of your client? Aren't they enemies? Wouldn't it be easier to beat up on your opponent if you really hated his living guts?

Seems to me that if you don't hate his living guts you're probably just play-acting. You're probably just pretending. Why, you're probably committing malpractice on a grand scale every time you set foot in the courtroom!

Dang, I hate lawyers. But not really.  Too many of them are friends.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Rule No. 1: Always have someone to blame

Several years ago, in the course of my work, I sat before a public utility commission hearing and argued that restrictions should be put on a large telephone company because they spent so much money on marketing that my employer, a smaller phone company, couldn't compete.  It was a stupid argument, but in my line of work one sometimes makes such arguments in the hope that someone will bite.  This commission didn't, but we all had a good laugh and I got credit for trying.

Yesterday I sat through a discussion of public employee pension benefits and how they are, at turns, outlandishly lavish, unfair to private sector workers, bankrupting our society.  And the blame for all this was laid at the feet of the public employee unions.  The arguments were that the unions control the elections so they determine against whom they have to negotiate; the unions give so much member money to politicians that the pols are afraid to vote against union positions lest they be attacked by said union and it's money.  And, the unions spend so much member money in elections that they can control the outcome be it a candidate or an initiative.  I thought the whole argument sounded vaguely familiar and equally stupid.

In Orange County, CA there are scant few elected officials that are pro-union and yet in almost every instance it was elected officials who sat across from union officials and negotiated/bargained for the benefits the union members now enjoy.  Was it union money that elected these officials?  Not likely.  So the officials were elected by someone and something other than unions and their money and yet, the unions still received extraordinary pension benefits in their contracts.

Did the unions "buy" these elections with their money?  Perhaps, but you'd hard pressed to find a conservative/Republican politician in OC who's willing to 1) accept union money or 2) admit to having accepted union money.  So the electeds were not bought off by union money and yet, the unions were granted really good benefits.

Finally, is it unfair that unions "have so much member money they can control the outcome of elections?"  Maybe, but the other side of that coin is there is another special interest that has a lot of money--business interests.  Admittedly they're not as well organized as unions (unless you consider Chambers of Commerce), but they do have a lot of money and could very well use it in elections if they saw fit.  The Supreme Court's made it much easier for business to spend such money in elections.

Here's my take: elected officials won't stand up to pressure put on them to do things that often don't make sense.  They won't tell a union "no, you can't have that lavish pension benefit."  I have no idea why that is, but it's clearly true.  It's not a question of who has the most money or even a question of fairness.  The plain fact is that elected officials at the city, county and state levels negotiated and then voted to give contracts to public employee unions and those contracts have extraordinarily generous pension benefits.  Now they want to renege on those contracts for a variety of what are probably very good reasons, but renege nonetheless.  And they want to blame the unions for what?  Bargaining and then accepting those contracts. 

I said I thought it was a stupid argument.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Arc Support of History

I was watching the coverage of the debate and negotiations in Congress and waiting with bated breath to see whether the government would shut down.  In the course of that coverage it was reported that Rep. Michele Bachman (R-MN) said something along the lines of "I'm ready to have the fight over issues that will change the arc of history and this is not that fight."  I don't have any idea which fight she's talking about although I imagine I'll find that, as usual, she'll be on the wrong side of the argument.  I don't have much regard for her; she seems like a lightweight who, before the age of 24 hour news, would be just one more congressperson from some backwater district in Minnesota who would have to commit a crime to get news, let alone TV, coverage.  But I do agree with the notion of having the fight over the issues that change the arc of history.

The fight; the debate are what it's all about.  I think I mentioned in an earlier post that there's an enormous push these days of everyone wanting to silence everyone else and we can't have that.  We have to have the debate.  My concern these days is that just fighting, just debating isn't enough.  It's important, but it's not the end.

In the end, we the people need to know that the electeds are not going to have the fight, never come to an agreement and either do something illegal, unconstitutional, or so draconian that we all go over the cliff rather than reaching an agreement.

Do we have those people these days or is everyone so sure of the absolute righteousness of their ideas and their position that if those ideas don't find voice they'd just as soon see us all go up in smoke?

I'm not sure.  I'll have a post about fear shortly.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Forgive me. And Brooks, too.

David Brooks, for those of you who do not partake of the Eastern Establishment Media Elite, is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s also a self-identified conservative with whom I disagree more often than not, but a pretty smart guy nevertheless.  Lately his writing has taken on existential bent.  The very latest has to do with forgiveness and he writes about a point of view that says something along the lines of acts of forgiveness may give rise to bad acts by the forgivee.

Anyone who’s read of the stuff I’ve posted on FB and elsewhere knows where I stand generally on forgiveness.  My point of view on Michael Vick comes to mind.  As to whether my forgiving someone may mean that they’re likely to do more bad stuff; well, that’s not my problem.

Withholding forgiveness because it may lead the forgivee to do other bad things is very similar to not giving a street person a few bucks when they ask because “they’ll just use it to buy drugs or booze.”  The fact that I might have used those bucks for the same thing doesn’t seem to be responsive.  The important thing, it seems to me, is that forgiving someone (or giving them a buck or two or, doing both if you’re in that kind of mood) is really more about what it means to and for me.  I think I’m not supposed to carry around the weight of resentment for an offense; it’s simply not good for me and my mental and spiritual health.   Forgiving is my letting go of the offense.

I don’t have to forget the offense, but I shouldn’t be harboring resentment about it.

The fact is, if someone offends me in some way it may or may not matter to them one way or another so forgiving is not for their benefit (it may benefit them if they owe you money, for example, and you forgive that).  Giving money to someone on the street is not for their benefit, no matter how much drugs and alcohol they buy.    I think it’s about my willingness to let go and extend my best self to someone else without thinking about what I’m going to get out of it or whether they’ll offend again, or what they’re going to use that five bucks for.

It is, after all and as you all know, all about me. And you.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

And I love it when Apu says to Homer, "Why don't you shut up?"

We live in an amazing time for communications, friends.  Today's media allows everything from me writing this for free and you reading it for free (and then you judging me; oh, please, you know you are) all the way to channels on TV programmed almost directly to our individual tastes, beliefs and/or desires.

Now, my little effort here is pretty benign.  I write whatever I'm thinking, post it on Facebook or e-mail it around to my relatively small universe of friends, acquaintances, and people who think they could do better if only they had the kind of time on their hands that I do (jokes on you  guys; I do this whole thing in about 15 minutes; sometimes in the bathroom.) Anyway, my point here is that there are guys on cable TV who are doing a lot more of this than I am.  They're louder, better financed, and in many cases a whale of a lot crazier than me.  Right this minute I'm thinking Glenn Beck.  Here's a guy who's either a total charlatan and cynic spouting absurd doomsday theories and pushing a serious return to the gold standard or he's a true believer in all he stuff he says in which case I feel for the guy.  He's got to be the single most frightened guy in America today.

He's not the only guy who has a worldwide platform and says all kinds of crazy stuff.  Guys like him exist on both of ends of the political, religious, and social spectrum.  He just happens to be the one who comes to mind because there was an ad on a website the other day that suggested that we all join in and boycott Beck's advertisers.  Evidently the thinking is that if enough people send a message to those who use Beck to get their advertising messages to his enormous audience we can somehow shut him up.  This gives me heartburn from a First-Amendment-to-the-Constitution-point-of-view because while I think, again, he's either a cynic or a really paranoid guy I think he does have a right to say pretty much whatever he pleases (or whatever Rupert Murdoch thinks will sell soap).   And no matter how irritated we may become as he spouts his ideas I don't think we should be looking for ways to silence him.  It's like the old saying, "never wrestle with a pig; you'll both get dirty and the pig will like it."  So what are our alternatives?

The one I like the best is simply to not pay attention to him.  I don't have to watch his show; I don't have to read stories in the papers or on the web about him and his ideas.  I can vigorously ignore him.   But there's another whole approach that I like even better.
Allow me a brief digression that will, I believe illuminate and illustrate the point that I will eventually get to.  

I used to work for a guy who ran a Public Access outfit.  Public Access, for those of you not schooled in the arcania of 80's cable television, was programming produced by citizens that the cable companies were required to carry.  This programming ran the gamut from tapes of community meetings of every stripe, to preachers, to folks reading to children.  It had some pretty weird moments, too, because it was the ultimate in First Amendment expression.  Individuals fancying themselves video artists could do all sorts of weird stuff and just put it on TV.  People could show the video they shot of their vacation.  Get the idea?  It was anything and everything out there right on TV for anyone and everyone to see.  But back to my friend.

He was essentially in charge of managing not what went on, but the technical and logistical aspects of scheduling, etc.; making sure that the stuff was watchable in the broadest possible sense.  And he was the guy in charge whenever some viewer took offense at something that was put on.  Another brief digression.

Most of this programming was crap.  It was stuff that was usually produced for an audience of one: one family, one club, perhaps even just one person.  Average TV viewers never tuned in.  My guess is that some of you are saying, "wow, they had that?" because you didn't even know it was out there.  But, to the people doing the producing they were making stuff to ON TV!  Whether anyone watched, while beside the point to most of us, was not even a question to these producers--they were making the next "Gunsmoke" or "60 Minutes."

Getting back to the premise here, one day the Klu Klux Klan contacted this Public Access outfit and asked how they could get their cinematic treasure, "Race and Reason" on TV.  Without blinking my friend explained the technical requirements for the show to play, when it could be on, how many times it would play, etc.  All the while they were asking how to participate they were also going to local press and suggesting that it was highly unlikely that they would be allowed to participate.  They were certain that they'd be rebuffed and denied the right to put their racist white power stuff on TV like anyone else.  They held a press conference on the lawn of the Public Access building announcing to whoever was listening that they were going to be on TV and heaven help anyone who tried to stop them from exercising their First Amendment rights.

The show aired.  It was not only as racist and hateful as you might expect it was also just generally stupid in its premise and approach.  And, predictably, there were people who contacted the Public Access organization and asked 1) how they could possibly allow that stuff on TV; and 2) what did they have to do to make sure that it was never allowed on TV again?  My friend’s answer was that they had every right to be on irrespective of how offensive some might find their message.  He went on to invite those who disagreed with the Klan to do a program of their own—counter-programming, if you will—from their own point of view that would answer or speak to the Klan program.    Exactly zero people who complained took him up on the offer.  Zero.  None.  Not one.  And this is my point.

Despite how strongly we disagree with someone’s point of view the answer is almost never to silence them, but to speak up on our own.  None of us will likely ever have our own show on Fox the way Beck does,  but that doesn’t change the enormous number of opportunities that we do have to speak up and disagree with Mr. Beck or anyone else.  Enough people using whatever means they have at their disposal to speak up and express themselves and their views can accomplish quite a bit.

Ask Hosni if you don’t believe me.