Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Materialistic individualism is undoing us

I recently read Michael Lewis' enlightening and sobering article California and Bust in the November issue of Vanity Fair. He explores the financial crisis facing many communities, triggered as the Federal and state governments "solve" their financial woes by cutting expenditures and leaving the shortfall with the cities and towns. While this isn't fair, the cities and towns are not blameless, having made unsustainable financial commitments to their public sector employees over the decades.

Lewis portrays dire situations in San Jose and Vallejo, California, that are similar to the events in Wisconsin and Ohio and Rhode Island and Alabama and who knows how many other states and cities. The financial calamity began with the implosion of the housing bubble that froze the liquidity of the capital markets and created record and prolonged unemployment. Tax revenues are down while the costs of the social safety net are up, yielding unconstitutional deficits for the states and municipalities.

To eliminate deficits, you either cut expenditures, raise taxes on those who still have revenue to contribute, or blend the two. This dichotomy has become the ideological argument cementing the gridlock in Congress.

Looking beyond the political drama that fills the cable programs, Lewis points to the deeper cultural and moral issue exposed by the recession:
Americans knew exactly what they wanted to do, from the top of the society to the bottom. They’d been conditioned to grab as much as they could, without thinking about the long-term consequences. Afterward, the people on Wall Street would privately bemoan the low morals of the American people who walked away from their subprime loans, and the American people would express outrage at the Wall Street people who paid themselves a fortune to design the bad loans.
During my lifetime, I've observed that the rugged individualism that forged America has shifted to a materialistic individualism, exemplified by the sardonic bumper sticker: He who dies with the most toys wins. (Contrast that with Jesus' admonition: It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Matthew 19:23-24.)

The purpose of life in our consumer culture seems to be to amass as much wealth as possible and use it to acquire as much as we can. In addition to breeding entitlement and narcissism, materialistic individualism leads to conflict and traumatic pain when the economic system can no longer support the largess.

So airlines go bankrupt, and pilots lose their pensions. Retiree health care costs make the price of a new car noncompetitive  Pensions and benefits for public sector employees command an unsustainable share of tax revenues. Health insurance co-pays and deductibles rise year after year.

Amid the frustration and fear of an impending train wreck, the Tea Party emerged, finding government the root of the problem. Occupy Wall Street blames the wealthiest Americans — the so-called 1%. The rights of collective bargaining and tenure for teachers are challenged.  Economists argue for increasing the retirement age, an idea no politician will endorse.

These events are the collective result of our individual beliefs and actions. We are too focused on our personal desires, not considering the larger society we live in and unwilling to sacrifice our interests for the common good. We keep reaching for more and feeling justified — entitled — to do so. As Michael Lewis aptly diagnoses, the problem isn't just them, it's us.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

The purpose of a business

“We should think of revenue as the way people think of breathing; it’s necessary for life but it’s not the purpose of life.” — Twitter CEO Dick Costolo


Making money is not the purpose of a business. Making a profit is necessary to sustain the enterprise, to reinvest in the future and provide a return to those who have invested the capital to launch it. But it's not the raison d'etre, the vision of the founders.

Too many companies forget this along the way.

Monday, September 05, 2011

A meteorological journal of the mind

I'm listening to a fascinating audio course on the Transcendentalist Movement and the role it played in American history. The movement is inextricably linked to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, so the course focuses on their lives, world views, and the important roles they played.

Both Emerson and Thoreau wrote journals where they noted their observations of the world and developed the thoughts and ideas that later took form in their essays and books.

I like their characterization of these diaries as meteorological journals of the mind. Seems an apt description for this blog.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Debt Ceiling drama continues

Despite meetings, proposals, votes, and lots of talk behind closed doors and before TV cameras during the past week, the gap seems to have widened between the President and the Republicans in the House—even between the President and his own party. Yesterday, the debt ceiling talks dramatically fell apart, apparently prompted by Speaker Boehner and punctuated by dueling press conferences.

The President said his proposal was “extraordinarily fair” and justified his position, in part, by the heat from his fellow Democrats and interest groups, protesting the proposed cuts in entitlement programs. President Obama testily asked if the Republicans would agree to anything. Speaker Boehner claimed the President “moved the goal posts” by asking for $400-billion more revenue late in the discussions, what Republicans say is a tax increase and is simply not negotiable.

The President demanded that the leaders of the House and Senate meet with him at the White House this morning. He expects them to advise how they intend to raise the debt ceiling.


While we definitely need to reduce our escalating debt, I don't believe it should be done solely by cutting expenditures. Reasonable increases in revenue, either by reducing or eliminating tax deductions or increasing certain taxes, should be part of the strategy. The Republican House is obstructing such a balanced resolution to adhere to their pledge of no new taxes.

Their position reminds me of the aphorism:
Don't let your principles keep you from doing the right thing.
Unfortunately, I think the principle of lower taxes has become a rigid ideology, and I'm afraid the country is going to suffer.

I expressed my concerns via a couple of Twitter posts earlier today.

Here's that last paragraph from President Lincoln's first inaugural address:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
If I were in Washington today, I would go by the Lincoln Memorial to see if there are any tears in his eyes.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Debt Limit

So far politics trumps statesmanship, as the Republican-controlled House doesn't appear willing to compromise with the President in finding a mutually acceptable path to raising the debt ceiling.

Despite admonitions from credit rating agencies and China, everyone's sights seem focused on the 2012 election, rather than defining the best fiscal path for the country.

My usual optimism is eroding.

Nonetheless, to do what I can to influence the situation and relieve my increasing anxiety and frustration, I put fingers to keyboard (the modern version of pen to paper) and sent the following to Eric Cantor (the pivotal figure in the House), Speaker John Boehner, New Hampshire Representative Charles Bass, and New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte:
I write to urge you to seek a compromise that will 1) allow the debt ceiling to be raised before the August 2 deadline and 2) not enable further erosion in the confidence of the U.S. Government. We already have the basis for a solution in the recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson commission.

To believe the debt can be comprehensively reduced by simply cutting spending and not raising additional revenue strikes me as ludicrous and an unreasoned adherence to ideology. I also find it somewhat hypocritical that the Republicans are pushing so stridently for cuts in spending, when the debt rose from $5.8-trillion at the end of FY2001 to $10.0-trillion at the end of FY2008, under a Republican President and when the Republicans substantially controlled Congress.

Please don't play politics. Do focus on the best outcome for the American people.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Why I hate politics - one more example

A scene from the latest political theater:

Republicans and Democrats are battling over the budget. Republicans want to cut spending to trim the deficit and to align the government's policies with their own philosophies. Among the lightning rods: Planned Parenthood, which receives some $360-million from government grants and contracts (per Planned Parenthood's 2008-2009 annual report) and provides abortions (although, by law, federal funding cannot be used to provide abortions, so the federal dollars are used in other areas).

Jon Kyl, U.S. Senator from Arizona, made the following statement on the floor of the Senate:
If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood. And that's well over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does.
However, Planned Parenthood's 2008-2009 annual report shows only 3% of its services are abortions (see pie chart).

When the discrepancy was pointed out to Senator Kyl's office, they advised that the 90% figure was “not intended to be a factual statement.”

Just what is that supposed to mean? If we were arguing over a few percentage points — Kyl said 95% and the number was actually 91% — then Kyl's argument is valid. But the difference is between the implications of totality and minimal. Kyl's number is not even in the ballpark.

To not issue a substantive correction reeks of politics and a lack of integrity, so much so that I felt compelled to submit the following message to Senator Kyl's web page:
Senator Kyl,

Shame on you for grossly misrepresenting Planned Parenthood's services and then having the audacity to defer any correction by stating that your statement was not intended to be factual.

While I respect (although disagree with) your opposition to abortion and Planned Parenthood, your tactics reflect a disappointing lack of integrity — especially considering you are a United States Senator.


Gary Lerude
Fortunately, in this 24x7 cable news and Internet age, Kyl's misleading statement and clumsy parry have generated considerable commentary and satire (see below). Bowing to the pressure, Kyl has revised his remarks in the official public record. No apology, but the “well over 90%” phrase is long gone.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Religion - a Force for Good?


"Do you think, if religion were extinct, the world would be more or less loving?" asked Rev. Meg, Senior Minister of The Church of the Larger Fellowship

My Answer

I think religion can be a force for good in the world. However, religious institutions, like all institutions, can become self-righteous and, without limits to their power and self-interest, betray the ideals at the nucleus of their formation.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Move to repeal same-sex marriage in New Hampshire

Two New Hampshire legislators, David Bates and Leo Pepino, have each introduced a bill to repeal the legality of same-sex marriage in the state, barely a year after it became legal. HB 437 and HB 443 are now with the House Judiciary Committee, which has scheduled a public hearing on both for February 17.

Fortunately, it's easy to send an e-mail to the committee members, which I did, expressing my opinion and recommendation:
I write to oppose HB437 and HB443 and any other proposed legislation intended to repeal same-sex marriage in New Hampshire.
Homosexuality exists and is not a life-style choice. As such, gay and lesbian couples deserve the same freedom to marry as heterosexual couples. This is a moral right that is consistent with the ideals of our nation and state, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and New Hampshire's own motto.
That society has not recognized same-sex marriage until now is no justification for maintaining an ancient and outdated tradition. After all, the same argument was made for preserving slavery and disenfranchised women. Society must continue to evolve, ever widening the circle of freedom and justice to include all people.
As a heterosexual who has been married for over 20 years, I don't see same-sex marriage as any threat to my marriage, nor to the institution of marriage.
I have been heartened that my children's generation regards sexual orientation like hair color: no big deal and certainly not the basis for bestowing society's rights and privileges. And I fervently hope that their legislators will exhibit the same enlightened view.