Friday, August 31, 2012

The Poor


 
"You will always have the poor among you..."
 
Matthew 26:11
 
 
We hear a lot about the poor these days. It is often mentioned in our political discourse. The Bible talks about the poor many different times - over 300 to be exact. The Bible also exhorts us to be concerned about the amelioration of the poor.

So what is poor? Do poor really exist in our country? Many say no. Compared to the world, we have people who are inconvenienced, not poor. For example, as of 2008 the World Bank estimated there were 1.345 billion poor people in developing countries who live on $1.25 a day or less. That is less than $500/year. In 2012, the poverty level in the United States for a family of four is slightly over $23,000/year.

First a bit of personal perspective. I have never lived in an area of abject poverty, but I came close. When I was stationed in the Ryukyu Islands in 1970, the average income of the indigent people was roughly $500 (US) per year. Many of the people lived in huts or small one bedroom homes. No plumbing, no electricity, no heat. The bathrooms the people used were open "benjo ditches". A "benjo ditch" is a primitive solution for the toilet. It is little more than a ditch in which you deposit your waste. These flowed down the street, like a gutter, with an odor like none other. As far as food is concerned, what you could grow by your hut or catch in the ocean was what you ate. There were modest markets where locals who were fortunate enough to work for the United States military were able to trade.

Yet as bad as things were in 1970 on the Ryukyu Islands, they were good compared to large parts of the world today. Three billion people, almost half the people in the world, live to survive day to day. Just like in the animal kingdom where animals spend most of the day foraging for food, many of the world's ultra-poor people are consumed with daily survival. According to UNICEF, in Africa alone, over 15,000 children die every day from starvation or malnutrition. That is a mind numbing statistic. In our country, we have people who are hungry, some even malnourished. However, if someone actually starved to death from not being able to obtain food, it would be front page news from coast to coast.

I have often thought the poor in our country have a distribution problem more so than a resource problem. If you live in a land where there is basically nothing, the best distribution system will be of no help. However in America, we have resources abundant. In fact, we produce so much food, we not only feed our people, but we are able to give over two million tons of food to worldwide charities every year.

It is often said the poorest person in America would be well off on the world stage. Just by looking at the statistics alone, I believe that to have merit. What we can do is help ourselves so that we may be able to help others. In a epidemic the first to get vaccinated are the health providers. They can only help others if they are healthy. We need to be healthy, financially healthy, so we can continue to help those who have nothing. Many who have nothing often watch their children live a shortened and painful life due to the ravages of hunger and starvation.

We have been blessed in this country not only with abundant resources, but also the technology on how to maximize and multiply them. We have proved Robert Malthus wrong many times and have the capacity keep doing it. However, with over 15% of our people living under the poverty level, it impedes our ability to help those who have nothing. In fact, we have some areas in our country where poverty is abject - like the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. To help ourselves, we need to fix our economy and strengthen our distribution systems so we in turn can aid those in countries who have life threatening problems due to resources which are rare or non-existent.

The Bible also tells us to take care of the least of us, to be our brother's keeper. We can do that. We have done it before, and we can do it again. We have the technology to help, we have the resources to share. The Bible is right - the poor will be with us always - but we can sure cut down the numbers. 

"For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required."
 
Luke 12:48

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Achievement Gap



Many years ago, Dr. William Bradford Shockley, who shared a Nobel Prize in physics for his role in the creation of the transistor, earned the enmity of many for his views on the genetic differences between the races. He preached a philosophy of ''retrogressive evolution.'' Stipulating that intelligence was genetically transmitted, he deemed blacks genetically inferior to whites and unable to achieve their intellectual level.

Shockley's theory on racial differences set off a national argument over the use and applicability of I.Q. tests. Evidence that blacks tend to score lower than whites was discounted by most experts who saw the explanation in cultural and social rather than genetic terms. In short, as much as Dr. Shockley gave to society in the field of transistors and semiconductors, was offset by his unfortunate foray into genetics, intelligence and the field of eugenics. In other words, just about every study conducted since Shockley's theory has proven him wrong - period.

Flash forward to today. It has been reported the city of Minneapolis has the highest achievement gap of any large city in the country. The achievement gap being defined as test scores between white and students of color, most prominently, African American. Every time I hear a story on this subject it makes my blood boil. In my career in both industry and the Navy, I have worked with all races, many African Americans, both male and female, from all over the country. I have seen absolutely no difference what so ever in how people learn or apply that knowledge, regardless of race. None.

I will say this however - I do believe many children of color in the Minneapolis school district are victims of low expectations. Many years ago I knew a man who taught science in a middle school in the district. After many years of being enculturated by the district, he believed that many students of color were in his class to do anything but learn. He gave up on them before the opening bell had even rung. He would start the first day of class by saying "Those that want to learn sit up front - everybody else sit in the back of the room and keep quiet." Low expectations, and sometimes no expectations.

I have thought for years that education is like a three legged bar stool. The bar stool only works if all three legs are solid. If one leg is weak or broken, the stool will tip over - fail for the purpose it was intended. The three legs in education are 1) the student 2) the teacher and 3) the parent(s). As with the bar stool, if one is not involved, the student will probably not succeed.

I believe most teachers care about teaching and want the items taught to be learned. There are some which are just "mailing it in", but I believe the majority are professionals that care. In addition, I also believe that the majority of kids would choose to succeed rather than fail - in other words, they would like to learn. The weakest link (in my opinion) are the parents, or lack thereof.

Someone once said it is possible to raise a family with one parent, but that parent often needs to work twice as hard. What has happened to many single parent families in large metro areas, rather than working twice as hard, the effects of poverty have caused dysfunction which make the home learning environment strained. Being a single parent does not necessarily lead to failure, being a two parent family and living in poverty does not necessarily lead to failure, however being a single parent AND living in poverty greatly increases the chances for failure of the student. And this, is where I see the achievement gap.

More money poured into the education system is not the answer. The City of Minneapolis, like most big cities, spends more per student on education funding than suburban or rural districts. Nor is the answer that kids of color are not smart enough to learn.  As stated earlier, many tests have been done with the same conclusion - students of color are every bit as intelligent and able to learn as white students. The answer is now and always has been poverty.

This one is going to hurt a bit. Father-absent families—black and white alike—generally occupy the bottom rung of our society’s economic ladder. Unwed mothers, regardless of their race, are four times more likely to live in poverty than the average American. Female-headed black families earn only 36 percent as much as two-parent black families, and female-headed white families earn just 46 percent as much as two-parent white families. Not only do unmarried mothers tend to earn relatively little, but their households are obviously limited to a single breadwinner—thus further widening the income gap between one-parent and two-parent families. Fully 85 percent of all black children in poverty live in single-parent, mother-child homes.

We need to stop this needless slide into self inflicted poverty before it becomes generational. If we cannot stop it, or do not have the will to do so, I am afraid that the achievement gap will be with us until the end of time. This is a problem that can be fixed. However, just like with any type of addiction, the first step is problem recognition. Recognize it, address it, and then fix it.




 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Great Divide...


We have two great divides in our country - who pays and how much on income taxes and the second is abortion. These two issues have divided our country like no other since slavery. It took a civil war with state against state, neighbor against neighbor and sometimes brother against brother to finally settle that painful issue. Let us hope that history will not repeat.

Since the issue of taxes has already been addressed in my previous article, Exactly Who, Specifically How Much, this posting is going to address the equally thorny issue of abortion. This issue has driven an impenetrable wedge throughout this nation since the historic 1973 Supreme Court ruling, Roe v Wade. It was hoped that once the Supreme Court ruled on this issue, the losing side could be somewhat accepting of the decision and we could move on. As it turned out, this ruling settled nothing and the issue is still as contentious today as it was pre-1973.

My purpose in this article is to frame the debate with facts - nothing more. Since I have friends and family on both sides of this issue, I don't want to offend. Offensive comments in the past made by both sides have done nothing but widened the divide. Even though I have my own personal feeling, I feel it is important to understand both sides with clarity.

First some facts. Since the Roe v Wade decision in 1973, nearly 50,000,000 legal abortions have been performed in the United States. For the past decade, the number of abortions have been dropping from year to year. The per capita number of abortions in the United States is more than Canada, but less than China. In the United States, African American women are over three times as likely as white women to get an abortion; Hispanic woman are over two times as likely to get an abortion as a white woman. Poverty plays a huge roll in abortions. 40% of all legal abortions are performed on women who live under the Federal Poverty Rate; 9% of all legal abortions are performed on women who live above 220% of the Federal Poverty Rate. Finally, twice as many abortions are performed (per capita) in the Northeast part of the United States as the Midwest.

There are so many sides to this argument, it can make one dizzy. They range from one extreme which believes a woman has the right to choose, and what happens with her body, including a fetus, is her business. The other extreme is that all life is sacred and abortion is akin to infanticide, or murder. In between are the laissez-faire viewpoints. Some don't care as long as tax dollars are not spent; others say abortions reduce down the numbers of a particular party, religion or race; still others see abortion as birth control which saves tax dollars in the long run.

I have no clue to what the answer is. As a former negotiator, I was trained to always find a solution by first determining middle ground for compromise. On this issue I am stumped. Middle ground has and still proves to be elusive. All I know is this - the issue of the unborn was addressed thousands of years ago in Psalm 139, verses 13-16 (NIV) in the Bible:

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

Other than that, guidance on this issue is not clearly addressed anywhere else, not even our Constitution. What I do know is this - it was decided in 1973 as a legal matter, when it really is a moral matter. More than any Supreme Court decision, how our country continues to morally evolve (or devolve) will be the ultimate arbiter on issues such as abortion. Until then, we will continue to disrespectfully disagree with each other.

Earlier I said I had a personal feeling on this matter. It is simply this - every person I have met or known of, no matter what race, nationality, or origin - regardless if the finest of deeds have been performed or the most heinous of crimes committed, have one very important thing in common. All, without exception, have been fearfully and wonderfully made.





Monday, August 27, 2012

Game On!




As they say in sports, "Game On!". The yearly battle is in full swing with two of the biggest perps in the neighborhood - Jeff "Sticky Fingers" Squirrel and Blue "Bandit" Jay. Every year my wife and I try to be good stewards of nature and feed the ever growing number of birds which visit us. We buy copious amounts of bird seed, suet, grape jelly, thistle and so on. We spare no effort nor expense in taking care of our fine feathered friends.

In the midst of all this goodness comes an evil - it comes from the forest. The evil is familiar as it comes cloaked in stealth and deception and invades the yard every daylight minute of every day. This evil comes either by land (traveling from tree to tree), by air (swooping down from the tree tops), or both. It is insidious. This evil (in the form of Sticky Fingers and Bandit) comes for one purpose only - to strip every seed, every morsel that we have put out to feed our non-offending birds. This is war and victory must be claimed at all costs. I have used every weapon in my arsenal. I have yelled, chased, chained my loyal dog in the back yard and yes, even resorted to using my single pump BB gun. I have the tools, they have the numbers. Game on.

At the time of this writing, the battle continues to rage. Both sides are tired and are licking their wounds. My dog goes to bed every night so tired she can hardly walk up the steps. I am running out of ammunition and I search the seed catalogs for more food as the attrition by the enemy is high. I don't know how much longer I can hold on. Both the Bandit and Sticky Fingers gangs are adept and resilient. I will fight the good fight and hold on as long as possible. However, in the end I might have to say what the Minnesota Twins say annually....."wait til next year..." Until then I will continue the fight and continue my yearly battle cry.."GAME ON!".....

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Higher Education Quiz

 
 
Years ago, long before the bubble burst, I would look at the annual increase in the value of our home. I, like many others, got caught up in the intoxication of the euphoria - I was making money cash over fist just by living here! Then one day it hit me - if the price of our house keeps going up, I will be rich when it comes time to sell it. One minor problem - who will have the money to buy it? In other words, what I should have seen coming long before the housing crash of 2008 was this - unsustainable.

Every now and again my wife tells me I say the words "I wonder" too much. I hear things, read things or see things about topical items and I think about them afterwards. One of the things I have thought about, wondered about for years is why the cost of higher education is so out of control. When I say out of control, I mean that the yearly increases in higher education is much higher than the cost of living increases we all experience. As with the price of my house going up year after year, so goes higher education. The end result will be the same - unsustainable.

Recently there is been quite a bit of discussion if a higher education degree is worth the cost of takes to get one. Students today are graduating with debts ranging from the thousands to tens of thousands to sometimes over a hundred thousand. Many times they are met with frustration and disappointment once they entered a very restrictive and constrictive job market. It is important that our young people today feel this huge expense they are making is a solid investment, and not just a "dry hole" which will saddle them for years if not decades. 

What really got me thinking this time was an article I recently read which stated that due to the recessed economy, many private colleges are holding down their tuition increases to somewhere between 4 and 5 percent. Others however, are still up around 8 percent. The cost of living increase this year is projected to be nowhere near that amount. So the question I ask this year is the same I ask every year - what are the cost drivers in higher education? What makes it so unique? The only question the media seems to have on this issue, is why are we  not paying more tax dollars to higher education? Somehow this gotten to be our fault, and our fault alone. 

With the CPI (which includes lots of items) averaging slightly less than 2.8% during the decade of the 2000 - 2009, it is hard to fathom why higher education goes up so steeply year after year. We all know the reasons (the cost drivers) why health care goes up faster than everything else, but education? Again, questions are asked and reasonable answers are never given.

My solution to how to fix this problem is simply this. Don't play the game the way it is presented. Change the rules. In other words, if private colleges cannot control their costs, avoid them like the plague. Use the state university system instead. If their increases are unsustainable, use the community college system. If those too are out of control, find some online, easily transferable classes to take. It is all about supply and demand. If we tell our higher education institutions that we are not going to support them anymore until they get their costs under control, one of two things will happen. They will cease to exist or they will be better stewards of the money that we (privately) or we (publicly) send them. This is a quiz they must be able to pass.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Night Camille Came a Knockin'



...43 Years Ago This Month...


On the evening of 17 August 1969, the storm made landfall. Hurricane Camille was one of very few storms to have recorded sustained wind speeds of at least 190 miles per hour and remains the only confirmed Atlantic hurricane in recorded history to make landfall with wind speeds at or above such a level. The actual wind speed of Hurricane Camille will never be known, as it destroyed all of the wind recording instruments upon making landfall. By central pressure alone, Camille was the second strongest U.S. land falling hurricane in recorded history. It was a monster.

My story of Camille really starts eight days prior to the landfall of this historic and deadly storm. Late on a very hot and steamy afternoon on the 9th of August, my plane touched down in Pensacola, Florida. I was amazed when I got off the plane - I thought Minnesota was humid this time of year - Pensacola was brutal. After departing boot camp and spending a week at home on leave, I traveled to a place I had never been to learn about subjects I knew nothing about.  After taking a taxi from the airport to the base, I checked in and was assigned berthing in a WW II vintage building called "501". It was old, hot and stuffy, barely suitable for Navy standards - however, it would be the place I would call home for the next six months.

Shortly after arriving, I was assigned to a work detail for the time prior to class starting. Every day we would travel around the base picking up litter, cutting grass or sweeping streets. Every night after chow, with the humidity so thick you could cut it with a knife, we would strip to our underwear, sit in front of huge fans, and watch the TV in the commons area.

The meteorologists were getting more and more excited about a storm developing in the Gulf. Knowing absolutely nothing about tropical storms, I found this fascinating. It sat in the Gulf, not really going anywhere, churning and getting stronger every day. As a Minnesota boy, I knew about thunderstorms and maybe an occasional tornado. However, this thing was something else. It was big, very big. It was like a huge thunderstorm, on steroids, moving in slow motion. In short, at the end of every day,I could not wait until chow was over to watch the progress of this massive storm.

Weather guessers who track tropical storms use something called a "cone of uncertainty", which is nothing more than a computer projection of a defined area of possible landfall. On August 15th, Pensacola was in the "cone", and it looked for a while like it might be ground zero. Because the water temperature was so warm that time of year, the longer it sat in the Gulf, the stronger it got. Category 1, then 2, then 3 - now it was a major hurricane. My fascination and excitement to see how this storm would develop now had turned to dread and fear. It was starting to look like Camille would come knocking at the place I was living.

On August 16th, the day before the storm made landfall, the base went on lock down. No leave, no going outside unless specific duties were authorized. Unless assigned to a fire and security watch, everyone was confined to the barracks with meals consisting of on site emergency rations. Late in the day, the storm made Category 4 and many of the hurricane experts were now predicting this storm could get even stronger. There was something very bothersome about Camille - when the storm planes flew into the eye to take barometric readings, the instruments recorded near historic lows. Word was spreading that this hurricane could now strengthen to a rare and catastrophic Category 5 thereby unleashing unbelievable damage to the pristine Gulf Coast.

The next day dawned with the worst fears coming true. Overnight, the storm had strengthened to Category 5 and the track was now becoming more defined. It had veered into a more Northwest track, away from Pensacola. However, since Pensacola would be on the East side of the predicted landfall, wind speeds would still be very high and massive bands of rain would cause some flooding. In the afternoon the winds and rain started in earnest. It seemed like every hour, the sky got darker, the wind blew harder, and the rain went more from vertical to horizontal.

Shortly after dark, this monster made landfall. The windows in Building 501 were boarded so we could not see outside. However the sound was something like I had never heard before. It was a loud, steady roar with loud bangs as items propelled by the wind hit the side of the building. At 10:00 pm, I was assigned to a fire and security watch at one of the schools located in an old hanger on the other side of the tarmac. Going outside wearing my Navy issue raincoat, I got my first look at Camille. It was like a scene from Dante's Inferno, minus the flames. Walking across the tarmac was as difficult as I had seen on TV or read in books. I had to lean into the wind at almost a 45% angle just to keep my feet. The roar of the wind was deafening - however I did hear something that stood out from that horrible noise. Blowing across the tarmac was a sixteen foot metal dumpster - blowing just like it was a large paper bag. Garbage was flying every which way the wind would take it. It is a sight I will never forget.

My duty in the hanger lasted four long, nerve racking hours. The roof of this old building was corrugated metal and many times in that four hours I thought it was was going to come off or fall inward. The power was gone and the only lights were the emergency lanterns. For the second time in my very short Navy career, I really thought I might die.

At 2:00 am my relief came. I was never so happy to see anyone. I left and began to the walk back to 501. During my duty time I could see the storm had somewhat died down. The wind was still strong, the rain was still coming down, but not like before. Once safely back in 501, I got into my rack and fell sound asleep until dawn. Once daylight broke, we were allowed outside to start with the massive cleanup. The damage to the base was unbelievable. Sand was everywhere - considering the base was over a mile from the beach, that was impressive. The base had survived, but it was a mess and took weeks to get back to normal.

In the days that followed, the clouds parted, the sun came out and the wind and rain were gone. However, life was certainly not back to normal. As lucky as Pensacola was just to get the edge of the storm, the winds were still estimated in excess of 115 miles per hour. The bulls eye of the storm hit somewhere between Pascagoula and Biloxi, Mississippi. The damage was extreme. Based on that damage trail of the storm, some hurricane experts estimated the eye wall had winds of an unprecedented 205 miles per hour at landfall. However, that will never be confirmed as the storm was so strong it destroyed the instruments made to measure wind speed.

My wife and I visited Pensacola earlier this year, just for old times sake. It seemed that most of the local folks these days talk about Ivan instead of Camille. Ivan hit Pensacola in 2004 and is much fresher in many minds. Even though damage from Camille can still be seen in parts of Mississippi's Gulf Coast, most is repaired and memories of that horrible night are starting to fade. However, this former 19 year old sailor will never forget that August night when the most unwelcome of guests came a knockin'.  



Thursday, August 23, 2012

Obesity: Who is Really to Blame?

 
 
There is an old expression that goes "Success is always a father whereas failure is most surely an orphan." Most of us have heard in the current health care debate various opinions on what the drivers are for the skyrocketing cost of health care. Smoking, alcohol, sedentary lifestyles and obesity are the most common lifestyle causes I have heard. For the purpose of this posting, I will address only obesity.

One of the many things the CDC (Center for Disease Control) is currently investigating is why obesity is epidemic among our population in general. Some racial subgroups are more prone to affliction from this disease and our children have shown the greatest increase in the last 30 years. For example, over the last 30 years, the obesity rate for Americans has risen from 10% to 20%. Some experts predict if we do nothing to curb this problem, the number could climb as high as 40%. In addition, 30 years ago, our children had an obesity rate of 4% - it is now 20%. African Americans have a slightly higher propensity for obesity than Caucasians so their overall numbers are higher.

We live in a society that gravitates towards food. Listen to the radio, watch TV, drive around town and all you see are temptations for eating. We now live to eat rather than eat to live. We have all you can eat buffets, happy hours (snacks included), two for one specials, Wednesday freebies and so on. The temptation to stuff our pie holes is with us 24/7. Many people blame McDonald's - they deserve part of it for sure. However, it goes much beyond Micky Dee's. It goes to our grocery stores, restaurants, as well as other fast food establishments. There is plenty of blame to go around, including us. If we did not crave over indulgence, there would be no market for it - period.

As obesity is caused by over and incorrect eating, it is also caused by sitting on our butts from sun up to sun down. We get in a car to go to work, sit at a desk for hours, get back in a car to get home, have supper, and then watch the tube until bedtime. The next day it starts all over again. Groundhog Day.

For our kids it is worse. Take the bus to school, sit in class all day (PE has become elective in many schools) eat some government subsidized crap for lunch, take the bus home and sit in front of the computer or TV until it is time for bed. We are hurting our kids, sentencing them to a shorter, unhealthier life style by allowing this to go on.

So what to do. It is easy to see the problem and complain about it, but are there some simple things we can do right now? I believe there are. First and foremost, this has got to be a cooperative effort between government, industry and us. Schools should have mandatory PE, even if it means extending the school day to fit it in. All companies and institutions should encourage flex time, telecommuting,  or flex days to help us from being too stationary, too long.

We need to stop buying the types of fast food garbage with the regularity we do. The market will prevail - companies like McDonald's will start offering more healthy (yet tasty) alternatives. We all need to walk more. Mark Twain, a voracious walker, use to say he had two doctors - his right leg and his left leg. Walking, bike riding, treadmills need to become a mandatory part of our daily regimen rather than something we will get around to eventually.

We need to buy healthier at the grocery store. The stores could continue to put up nutritional guides and suggestions for shoppers on what to buy for maximum health benefits yet minimal costs. As obesity is also a poverty issue, encourage through the food assistance programs healthier choices and more restrictions on foods which are high in starch, sodium and empty calories.

This problem started with us and will end with us. There is no evil company that started this and made many of us fat. We just have companys that are reacting to supply and demand. Good habit are like bad habits - both take a while to develop. Lets start with the good habits to fix this problem once and for all.

"Dysfunctionate"


A very good friend I worked with at a company long, long ago had a favorite word. Every time something got more screwed up than Hogan's Goat, she would shake her head and say, "That is so dysfunctionate!". She was a very bright, successful woman with a good vocabulary. It pained me to have to remind her that dysfunctionate is not a word - or as some would say, it became an Al Haig word (General Haig was famous for taking a real word and make it into something which was not in the dictionary).

One day when we were having coffee, she again used the word as it related to some asinine policy we were forced to deal with. I once more told her the usage of this "non-word" worried me as I was afraid she might use it in front of customers or during an executive review. She understood my concern and then told me the following - "Sometimes when something is soooo screwed up, the word dysfunctional just is not good enough. Dysfunctionate is one step beyond dysfunctional".

After a while I became accustomed to hearing this word. In fact, even though I never use it, I  also like it better than dysfunctional. It is more impactful (another non-word) - it is more far reaching. Then I think of using it today as it relates to how our huge problems are being handled. For example:
 
  • After spending over 1/4 trillion dollars on the Department of Energy, rather than reducing our dependence of foreign oil, our DEPENDENCE has increased from 40% in the 1970's to almost 60% today. Dysfunctionate.
  • Our electricity demand is going to increase 20% over the next two decades and we are trying to regulate coal burning power plants out of existence and legislate away the chances of building any new nuclear power plants. Dysfunctionate.
  • While suffering through the worst drought in decades, we continue to use 40% of our corn products to be burned up for ethanol. Dysfunctionate.
  • With our National Debt getting ready to crest $16T, with the last four years showing deficits of $1T or more, the Federal Reserve is ready to do yet another money printing binge to further risk the specter of inflation on top of everything else. Dysfunctionate.
  • With the "financial cliff" fast approaching by year's end, with no plan by anyone to fix it, the CBO has just released an opinion that failure to resolve this issue will result in another recession early next year and U3 unemployment rising to 9%. Dysfunctionate, once again.
  • I could go on with more examples, but truthfully, it is too depressing.
 
Sometimes it just makes sense to use a word which is nonsense to describe things that make absolutely no sense what so ever. We are a clever nation - the world has looked to us for solutions for decades. How in the world can we end up tripping all over ourselves when problems of this magnitude face us all? As the world waits and watches to see if once again America will light the way, show the example of how make the hard look easy and the impossible look difficult, we are instead showing them our new word. Dysfunctionate.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The BEST State Fair (almost)...




♫ Our State Fair is the best State Fair, ♫ Don't miss it, don't even be late! ♫



Who could forget that line from the 1962 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical State Fair. Even though this musical took place at the Iowa State Fair, it could have happened anywhere. However, according to people to keep track of stats like this, the Iowa State Fair is the fourth largest (and best) and not the first. Texas once again is the first with Minnesota coming in second. That being said, State Fair  was a hit musical because lets face it - most of us love going to the fair, no matter what state we live in.

My memories of going to the Minnesota State Fair go back to when I was a very young boy. Actually, according to my Mother, my first trip to our state fair was when I was a fetus. Prior to having kids, my parents, along with my grandparents, would go to the fair every year. Grandma would pack a huge lunch and the four of them would spend the day there, and come home after the Grandstand show. When my sister and I were very young (walking age), our family would continue the annual pilgrimage to the fair.

Every year it was the same route. First the animal barns, then Machinery Hill, followed by various exhibits, and finally after hours and hours of unrelenting begging, my folks would take me to the Midway. The Midway to me was forbidden fruit - it was the "R" rated section of a "G" rated fair. It had everything that would interest a young boy. The rides were scary and spectacular, the fun house was neat and the Carney games were a must. However, it was all the risque exhibits and attractions which were off limits that were the most alluring. Fun and excitement, mixed in with a small amount of exotic danger and daring - that was the Midway, and I loved it.

Years went on, I got married and had kids. Going to the Minnesota State Fair continued to be an annual tradition. Everybody in the family had their favorite thing to do or see. As I grew into manhood, the alluring nature of the Midway had long since worn off . Call it Karma, but I was paid back for dragging my folks year after year into the Midway. Yes, I had grown to absolutely detest going in the Midway. However, both of my girls loved it, so I was stuck going in there until they were old enough to go by themselves.

The girls have grown up and left, my wife and I retired, yet we still do our annual trip to the state fair. After all these years, one part of the route has stayed the same - we start out in the animal barns. I have included a breakfast stop for a foot long hot dog, smothered in onions. Definitely the breakfast of champions. We sit more now, and don't stay as long. We go early in the morning and leave by mid-afternoon. "People watching" is always at a premium  and we usually come home with stories to share.

Yes, our state fair is the BEST state fair, I won't miss it, or even be late. I don't care if the Texas fair is bigger - to me, ours is very special. Every year, I could not think of a better way to wrap up the summer and get ready for fall. Each year, memories are made at the fair, and many of those are passed on from generation to generation.  The fair is part of our tradition, our legacy - it is after all, our great Minnesota Get Together. 




Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Exactly Who, Specifically How Much?


Every once in a while, I hear something on the news that really excites me. It excites me because it mirrors exactly how I feel on some issue. That happened the other day when I was listening to the morning update on one of the cable stations.

The pundit I was listening to put forth the following premise - a close election this year will settle nothing, in fact, it might make our national divide worse. It will not matter who wins - if it is a close election, nothing will be put to rest. On this issue, I could not agree more.

This issue that divides us has been, is today, and always will be the same until addressed, discussed and finally settled. That issue is taxes. Exactly who pays, and specifically how much. As a nation, we have tinkered with our tax code so much for so long, it is as complicated as reading the Dead Sea Scrolls. Nobody understands it, not even high priced tax attorneys.

First some facts. Even though this data is a few years old, not much has changed and I believe it still to be valid. The basis of this data comes from the IRS. In 2008, the top 1% of all income earners, the group which has been excoriated by the Left for over a year, paid 38% of all federal income tax. The bottom 50%, paid 3% of all federal income tax. The top 10% paid over 70% of all federal income tax and the top 50% paid 97%. Get the picture? Our current tax system is progressive to the max.

More than once I have heard someone on the Right ask the question to someone on the Left, "Okay, how much would you like me to pay? In your mind, what is my proper amount to pay?". The answer from the playbook is "First off, lets get rid of some of the Bush tax cuts, and have the wealthy go back to the Clinton tax rates". In other words, for people making over $250,000 a year, their top tax rate would go from 35% to 39.6%. With annual deficits over $1,000,000,000,000, the 4.6% increase is taxes over $250,000 is a drop in the bucket.

The next example takes this logic to the extreme. If we taxed at 100% all the income of people who earned over $200,000 (not $250,000), it would yield about $1.89 trillion.  This amount is enough revenue to cover Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security expenses for 2012. So for 2012, this confiscation of wealth would take care of that year's financial problems. However, the next year the expenses would be the same (or larger) and since we squeezed every drop out of the 1% the prior year, we would not get the 38% they had paid in the past. In other words, one year of euphoria will lead to decades of depression.

So what is fair? The proponents of the progressive tax system believe that the sky is the limit. Rates could go as high as 70%, maybe more. The other side of the argument believes that everyone, regardless of income, needs to have "skin in the game". One of the solutions would be the flat tax - if the tax rate was 10%, every dollar earned would yield 10 cents paid to the federal government. The federal income tax code would be one or two pages. No credits, no deductions, just a percentage of what was made paid in taxes.

So this is the framing of the argument which divides us. People don't have to like paying taxes, but they should not feel ripped off either. A national dialogue needs to happen with both sides realizing the current path will lead to nothing but continued resentment. We need to heal this country from the social engineering we have baked into the tax code. People who have never paid a dime into the federal income tax system need to realize they too, need to help. To help fix our out of control debt, we ALL might have to pay slightly higher taxes which unfortunately, could take us to the boundary of another recession.

This is it, plain and simple. The question was "exactly who, specifically how much". The "who" should be all of us - no exceptions. The "how much" should be incremental at best. Our debt is based on spending much more so than insufficient revenue. A balanced budget amendment to the constitution would help - in absence of that, we need strong national will to adhere to a firm budget. If annual deficits were "trued up" by all of us, rather than putting the shortage on our credit card, the "how much" would get very small, very fast.  

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Futurist


I was very fortunate to have graduated with an undergrad degree from what is now known as the Carlson School of Management in 1975. Having interviewed on campus with different companies my senior year, I was even more fortunate to have received three offers of employment upon graduation. Those offers came from Dayton Hudson (now Target), First Bank System (now US Bank) and a company I knew very little about, Sperry Univac (now Lockheed Martin).

I did remember working with some equipment from Sperry Univac when I was in the Navy. That is really all I knew about what they did. However, the opening offer was slightly higher than the other two, so I accepted and began my professional working life on December 22, 1975. Little did I know that choice would have such a profound effect on the rest of my working career.

Shortly after I started, I was invited to a "all hands" presentation by the company "futurist". I was intrigued - I had no idea what a futurist was. This man had a PhD and his job was to study current trends as to predict the future as it related the the product mix the company developed. A futurist was the type of job I thought one would never get tired or bored with.

In early 1976, the only computers we had to deal with were the large main frames that did all the batch processing. The more common languages in that day were ALGOL FORTRAN and COBOL, that were known and loved but to few, and those few worked downstairs in the very mysterious computer room. In other words, most of us knew computers existed, there were some very nerdy people who took care of them, and we got to use the byproduct of what they produced. Case closed.

Back to the meeting with the Futurist. You could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium when he started out by saying before most of us were done with our careers, we would each be using a small computer on our desk. In addition, at the end of the day when we went home, much of what we did there would be governed by our home computer. Yes, most, if not all of us would have a home computer. A computer capable of not only taking care of our family budget, but also one which could help maximize the efficiency of the home's utilities and schedule family activities. In other words, it would change the way we lived our lives.

I have thought about that man many times over the years and how prophetic he was. Towards the end of my career, a laptop computer was standard issue with my job so I could not only use it at work, but also on travel as well as at home. I could assess the company mainframe to input as well as retrieve data. At home, the family PC contained all family pictures, favorite music, financials and games. It was as popular to use as the TV - actually, you could watch TV from the desktop computer. In short, it did everything the futurist said it could do and then some.

Flash forward to today, thirty-six years after the futurist made his bold forecasts. Many homes not only have at least one PC, but also a tablet and smart phone as well. Each of these has amazing computing power. The displays on each device are crystal clear, so much so they will never be improved. Why? When I was at IBM I attended a technology conference where it was disclosed that the clarity of displays could be improved more, but it would not do any good. The technology was at the end of the rainbow - the human eye could not discern any more clarity in displays so why bother to sink cost into improving them.

Look at today's smart phones for a minute. The fact they are called phones is by itself laughable. Being used as a phone is only one of a myriad of tasks these little computers can do. Most smart phones are a phone, MP3 player, game boy, GPS unit, camera, camcorder, dictation device, social media device, e-mail device, web browser, Internet TV viewer, and much more. All this in a device which is smaller than a pack of cigarettes that fits in your shirt pocket. With tens of thousand of new apps coming on the scene annually, what has the smart phone done? Changed everything, and more is yet to come.

I often wonder what today's futurist would vision for the next decade or two. I can't imagine things getting much smaller or more powerful. In 1965, Intel's co-founder, Gordon Moore developed Moore's Law which states the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. At times this two year period became eighteen months. However, many experts think we are getting to the point now by the end of 2013, the number could stretch to three years. As with displays, we might be getting to the end of the rainbow with Moore's Law.

What does the future hold? Wonderful things to make our lives easier and more enjoyable. However some sociologists and psychologists are concerned we are drawing inwards with our technology and interacting with others less. Watching a group of young people at a bar or out to eat, one might tend to agree. Everyone has phone in hand, checking messages, Facebook, or whatever.

Consequently, a futurist today might not look at the world with such rose colored glasses as in 1975. Our technology is to be used as tools, not just as toys. If we cannot use or control our wonderful technology the right way, it will turn out to be a Trojan horse rather than a gift horse.




Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Long Affair with Gitche Gumee





"Superior is more like a ocean than a lake. Duluth is the San Francisco of the Midwest."


Like many of us in the upper Midwest, I have had a long standing affair with something outside of my marriage. Alright - a poor choice of words. It is more like a Ménage à trois than an affair, as my wife has similar feelings about that something. That something has been known by many names to many different people over the years.

The first French explorers approaching the great inland sea by way of the Ottawa River and Lake Huron during the 17th century referred to their discovery as le lac superieur. Properly translated, the expression means "Upper Lake,"  the lake above Lake Huron. Today, most people use the most common name, Lake Superior. However, I prefer to use the Native American name Gitche Gumee.

It is a bit of a misnomer to say that Gitche Gumee is the proper Native American name.
The Ojibwe call the lake Gichigami, which means "big water." However in the book The Song of Hiawatha,  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the name as "Gitche Gumee". Gordon Lightfoot really gave this name recognition in his award winning song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

I love this lake - loved it ever since I was a boy. When I was a young lad, I had allergies which peaked in August. My parents would take up to Duluth for some relief. Every year we would make our pilgrimage to Duluth and sometimes points north from there. One year, my Dad (who was very good at things like this) talked the Aerial Bridge operator into letting us ride up on the bridge when a big ship came through. It was awesome! I have many boyhood memories of visits to our world famous inland harbor, named after a French explorer, which sits on a lake the size of an ocean. 



My wife and I fell in love by the lake, we spent the first day of our honeymoon there. We took our kids up there from the time they were in strollers to when they were young adults. Now that the kids are raised and living on their own, my wife and I continue to travel up to Lake Superior at least once a year. Missing our annual trek to Duluth would be like missing the state fair.

My fascination of the lake is not just the beauty, but the unbelievable size as well. Here are some fun and interesting facts about Superior:

  • Lake Superior contains three quadrillion (3,000,000,000,000,000) gallons of water. That's ten percent of the world's fresh surface water and over half of the water in the Great Lakes.
  •  Lake Superior contains enough water to submerge all of North and South America under one foot of water.
  • Lake Superior covers 31,700 square miles, about the same size as Maine or the combined provinces of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. It is the greatest Great Lake--the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area, and the third largest by volume. Only Lake Baikal in Siberia and Lake Tanganyika in East Africa contain a greater volume of fresh water.
  • Lake Superior could hold the water from all of the other Great Lakes, along with three more Lake Eries.
  • Because of its great size, Superior has a retention time of 191 years. Retention time measures how long water stays in the lake, based on volume and the mean rate of outflow.
  • Lake Superior is the deepest of the Great Lakes. Along much of Minnesota's North Shore, the lake is 700 feet deep within 3 miles of land. 
Last year we made our first trip to Gitche Gumee much later than usual. The storm that affected the North Shore did quite a bit of damage to infrastructure so we wanted to make sure that we would not be getting in the way of repairs. An interesting fact of the storm is the amount of rain which fell. State meteorologists estimate that over 2 trillion of gallons fell just from that storm alone! So much runoff went into the lake that it temporarily raised the lake level of this behemoth by three feet.

The affair with Gitche Gumee continues and shows no signs of abatement. Our greatest of lakes always interests, fascinates, relaxes, impresses and sometimes surprises. In short, the lake is our gift that keeps on giving. Gitche belongs to us, all of us. Together we have uncounted memories of countless trips to visit our state's most majestic treasure. Thank you Gitche for the memories you have given, as well as the ones yet to come.





Saturday, August 18, 2012

Why we HATE each other....

 
 
We hate each other. We don't get along, we fight, and we agree on practically nothing. No, I am not talking about my relationship with my wife - this is much more insidious. I am talking about how we act as a country.
A former Governor of Minnesota used to refer to the Republicans and Democrats as "Crips and the Bloods". In other words, they were fighting like rival gangs demonstrating a visceral hatred for each other. In short, today rather than having one party in power and the other being the "loyal opposition", we now practice the politics of personal destruction as winning at all costs has trumped everything else.
This is not good for our country now (as we are embroiled in the war with terror) or during times of peace. We have problems - daunting problems which need to be addressed immediately. As the constituencies of each party have become so radically different from each other, finding common ground is the first victim of the skirmish. With the country divided ideologically almost totally in half, any solution which does not involve finding common ground will result in hard feelings and bitterness. The smell of blood in the water is so strong that we have minimized external threats in favor domestically attacking and damaging our national fabric. We have become the cancer and the host, both living in the same body.
To me, what is really interesting is the root of the problem. We have danced around it, used synonyms, and code speak to describe it. Simply put, the real issue is money. Who will pay and how much will it be. Currently, nearly 50% of the people in this country pay no Federal income tax. As the financial requirements of what we need to have done or want to have done increases, the solution seems straight forward. We can either raise taxes on the 50% who already pay taxes, or borrow money or print more money. The camps have become polarized into the "haves and the "have-nots", the makers and the takers or the crips and the bloods. We call each other every name we can think of, except Americans.
Many of the 50% of the Americans who are paying the taxes say they have had enough. They don't mind paying their fair share, but there is a limit to how deep the well is. On the other hand, many of those who do not pay taxes believe that this is a fairness issue, a human dignity issue, and the ability to pay needs to be addressed in greater detail. In short, who is going to pay the tab is the core issue.
In absence of common ground, this issue has become just as polarizing as the abortion issue. We have lost all decorum on how to resolve or even discuss rudimentary solutions to this problem. In the not too distant past, then President Ronald Reagan would argue with Tip O'Neill (Speaker of the House) during the day and at night play cribbage while sharing a glass of Scotch in the White House. They had policy disagreements, but they liked each other personally. Can you imagine Nancy Pelosi coming over to have some social time when George Bush was president after hours in the White House? It never happened because the political fight went on 24/7.
Many years ago, then President Kennedy was told by the Soviet Union that they would "bury us" without having to fire a shot. The prophetic statement may come true sooner rather than later. If we can't learn to talk to each other rather than at each other, we will fail as a society. An old adage states "United we stand, divided we fall". I think it is time to revisit the wisdom of that pearl and look for common ground in our deliberations before we too, become a tragic learning point in world history.

Like a Boy Scout 2.0



This is an update to a posting I had done earlier in the year. I am updating because of some of the shocking tales of survival I have been reading coming from the East Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Some of the suffering could not have been avoided, no matter how much prep was done. However, for the most part, proper preparation would have helped thousands.

I need to first disclose I have never been a Boy Scout. I was never in the Cub Scouts. My youthful associations were with the YMCA. However, I knew quite a few kids in the Boy Scouts and developed a lot of respect for the program. They really do teach and promote the right stuff. In particular, their motto of "Be Prepared" is more appropriate today than any other time I can remember.

This is not about being a survivalist. It is about being prepared for an event that could disrupt our distribution system. Many experts believe a family of four should have emergency provisions on hand for a week, others say three days, some say a month. My personal feeling is a family of four should have enough to survive on for a month. If a disruption goes longer than a month, all of us will be in survivalist mode and we will be in big, big trouble.

First and foremost is water. It is amazing as humans how quickly we can become dehydrated, even to the slightest degree. For example, Mayo Clinic believes a family of four would need 2.5 gallons of water a day for normal hydration. In time of emergency, that number could be safely reduced to 2 gallons a day. For a thirty day event, assuming the normal sources of potable water were not available, sixty gallons would need to be on hand. Take a look around your house to see how much potable water you currently have. Chances are it is no where close to sixty gallons. The good news is it is not expensive and it is easy to start stocking up on. In addition, if spring water is stored in a area which is not exposed to sunlight, the shelf life is just short of forever. Remember, if you run out of water, any other preparation you do won't mean much.

In addition to water, consider having the following items on hand for a thirty day disruption:

  • At least ten gallons of fresh gasoline properly stored in your garage. If gas stations run out of gasoline, ten gallons would be enough to use in an emergency.
  • A good power generator. This should be powerful enough to run at least the refrigerator, freezer or electric heater.
  • Adequate first aid kit with everything needed for emergency triage. Also regular aspirin should be in the kit.
  • Fresh batteries for flash lights and emergency radio. Every pack of batteries have the expiration date, so make sure the batteries have a good amount of life remaining.
  • If the power is off, food in the freezer or fridge will only be good for a day or two. Make sure adequate non-refrigerated food is on hand that will feed your family for a month. It does not have to be fancy - the name of the game is to stay healthy and alive.
  • Have a small amount of cash on hand (like a few hundred dollars). If the banks are closed, even a small amount of cash could be helpful.
  • Matches and candles.
  • Charcoal and/or propane for cooking.
  • Paper plates and plastic silverware.
  • Fire wood if you have a wood burning fire place or stove.

One final thing. Many people will have not done any preparation in the event of an emergency. If possible, share with friends and neighbors who are not as prepared as you. However, dehydration or starvation will cause good people to commit desperate acts.  Make sure you can protect your family in the event someone comes  uninvited in your house to take what you have.

All of us hope that by stocking up on some essentials is just like buying insurance - we hope we never need it. However, if becomes needed and is not available, your life can take an unexpected and tragic turn. I could think of a dozen scenarios where our distribution system could fail and goods and services would not be available. However, it is an event that I can not yet imagine that concerns me the most. The only think I can do is listen to the what the  Boy Scouts have now preached for decades - Be Prepared....

Friday, August 17, 2012

True Grit






Here is an article I wrote for our church paper a few years ago when I first got the sense we were in for a bumpy economic ride. It is somewhat of a preview of a future article which will be called Its time for the church to once again become the church.

There is a storm coming, and its’ going to be a whopper. The clouds are forming, and it has nothing to do with the weather. We are in tough times, and if you believe the experts, they are about to get tougher. For those less fortunate, less prepared, it will be a very bumpy ride. The rising costs of energy, food, health care and so on, have even the most well healed diving for cover and rethinking priorities. Most will cut back - unfortunately, giving is usually the first to go.

Churches in poverty zones deal with tough times even when times are good. Many of these churches are located at ground zero where the struggle for subsistence is a daily event. Poverty, hunger, illiteracy, and teenage pregnancy dwell in these areas and cultivate chronic hopelessness. However, many of these churches that battle daily with societal problems that come in bunches and groups, practice what now is a rare trait – grit.

Having grit means coming up with reasons for success, not excuses. Having grit means that failure is not be an option when it comes to helping the hurting. Having grit means running to, not from problems. Having grit means knowing when Mathew 25:40 convicts us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter the homeless, we are being called to do so.

We know that tough times have been around since the beginning and will be around until Christ returns. We can’t change that – Jesus himself told us that the poor would be with us always. However, how we respond to the poor in these tough times is the test. The world will watch us. This is an opportunity for us as a congregation, as part of the Body, to really show our true grit. Today, in these tough times, we need to give more and do more to meet the call.

True grit means being the light on the hill for all to see; true grit means becoming increasing relevant in an irrelevant world; true grit means swimming against the tide and letting our faith and actions become one in the same. When the world tells us to do less, our faith tells us to do more. To find out more what true grit really means, we don’t have to look in the dictionary, we just need to listen to the Word.