Category Archives: 2012

Learning From Tragedy

(This happend in mid-2012 — One of several tragedies in our country this past year)

The awful shooting that took place last weekend near Milwaukee was both sickening and shocking. At the time I’m writing this, the shooter is dead, and can’t tell us anything about his motivations or reasoning – as if there could be any reason for such an act. We’re told that he was a military vet who had been tossed out due to alcohol problems. He is also said to have been in “skinhead” bands, with other evidence that he was a white supremacist.

The equally sickening finger pointing by some politicians and pundits regarding who might be to blame for the shooter’s actions was troubling, but it is an election year, and some apparently feel all is fair in love, war, and politics.
The people shot were at a religious service in a Sikh temple. I heard early reports that it was a Muslim mosque, which were later clarified. Sikhism is unrelated to Islam. Also, hours after the incident, I saw a reporter pronouncing the name of those shot as “Sicks” instead of “Seeks.” We may have religious freedom in our country, but not so much religious knowledge.

I did a little checking, and found out that India is the birthplace of four of the major religions of the world. Sikhism is one of them, though fewer than two percent of Indians are Sikhs. The Sikh temple is called a “gurdwara.” The Sikh religion promotes truth and selfless service.

The other religions founded in India are Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.
Buddhism has existed for 2,500 years. Siddhartha Gautama, later called “The Buddha,” is said to have gained enlightenment and an awakening of the nature of life, and Buddhism is meant to help others reach that same enlightenment.

Hinduism preaches belief in reincarnation, one all powerful being of many manifestations, the law of cause and effect, (good and bad Karma) pursuing righteousness, and the desire for freedom from the cycle of births and deaths. It is said that there are a billion followers worldwide.

Jainism, which preaches non-violence to all living things, and self-effort to move one’s soul towards divine consciousness, has six million followers in India, where it is still considered a minor religion, in that there are 1.22 billion people in India. That gives us an idea how big India really is.

But, that’s not all. There are Jews in India and Muslims as well. There is another religion called Zoroastrianism, after the prophet Zoroaster – once a major religion. Christians also live and worship in India. I’ll bet there are even some atheists.

The shooter in last weekend’s tragedy may have hated Sikhs, or he may have hated anyone different from him. He may have been mentally ill. We’ll probably never know for sure.

For those of us whose primary interaction with people of Indian descent is in convenience stores and at hotel desks, it’s easy to lump them together into one group, just as it is easy to lump all Middle Eastern people into a group, even though there are many differences among them.

I’m doubtful that any of the above information would have changed the outcome last weekend. But, perhaps it’s useful to take that horrible incident to learn a little bit about the Sikhs and how they fit in to the world of religion. It can’t hurt.

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Human Nature

Our British cousins seem to have hit their head on the Laffer Curve. Dr. Arthur Laffer, the fellow with the laughable last name, was an economic advisor to President Reagan back in the day. His name is forever linked to a scale – like Richter’s is to earthquakes – that predicts human behavior when it comes to taxes, even though he learned of that scale from economist John Maynard Keyes.

The Laffer Curve attempts to project the extent to which raising taxes beyond a certain point will actually result in less revenue coming in to the taxing authority. It seems counter-intuitive that raising taxes would result in less income, but it often happens. There are two main reasons: 1. If, say, half of what you earn is taken from you, why bother earning more? 2. It’s worth taking devious (but probably legal) steps to avoid paying taxes if the tax rates are too high.

Many people think this theory is hogwash. I’m not educated enough to know for sure if it is or not, but the government of England was surprised that when they raised the tax rate to 50% on the wealthy, they actually brought in considerably less tax revenue than they had the previous year from that group. Interestingly, tax revenues from the other tax rates – less than 50% by quite a bit, I’m guessing – were actually up.

The results were so startling to them that there is pressure building to rescind that surtax on the wealthy. Mr. Laffer isn’t surprised, of course. He’s probably just pointing to the downward slope of his curve right now.

The thing is, it isn’t just wealthy people who want to pay less and keep more. We all respond to incentives – both good and bad. Workers will pull rank in order to get hours that pay time-and-a-half. It’s good to get paid more. As cigarette taxes have gone up, the black market in cigarettes has flourished. And, many people earn income in cash or barter that they don’t report. In fact, some people think that the black market economy is what is keeping the country going, even though it results in billions of dollars of lost tax revenue.

It’s the tax season, so perhaps you can reflect on whether you reported income from a garage sale, money won at the office pool, or from that fishing boat you sold. The Wisconsin income tax form even asks you to report things you bought from another state, just to make sure you pay the sales tax. How many people do that?

The other implications of the Laffer Curve are that when taxes go down, revenues go up. During the Bush administration, taxes were put on a gradual reduction plan in 2001, and nothing much happened. However, in 2003 a significant cut occurred all at once, including a cut in capital gains taxes. The Congressional Budget Office projected a 35% increase in capital gains revenue from that, but revenue actually went up 50%.

The CBO also projected that the income tax cuts would result in a $75 billion loss in tax revenue, but the actual revenue was up $47 billion from the pre-cut baseline. The Gross Domestic Product also doubled after 2003, and the jobs picture went from losing about 300,000 in the six quarters before 2003 to gaining 300,000 in the six quarters following the tax cuts. The next seven quarters saw 5.1 million jobs added.

I’m sure there were other factors involved at that time, as there probably are in England now. It does seem that letting people keep more of the money they earn works out to be good for those individuals, for the economy, and for the tax coffers. Many people disagree, but it is certainly an interesting concept to consider.

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Masked Man

Last Saturday morning I turned on the TV for some entertainment before getting started with my weekly routine. As I’ve mentioned, we don’t have cable or satellite, so the digital conversion more than doubled the number of channels from which we can choose programs. It’s surprising how often I end up watching the channel that has shows from my childhood. Or, maybe it isn’t.

As I sat down to eat my cereal, lo and behold, there was the Lone Ranger, and his pal Tonto! To say I hadn’t seen an episode of The Lone Ranger for 45 years wouldn’t be far off. It was fun to see it again.

As usual, there were bad guys and good guys, and then there was the dynamic duo – good, but perceived as bad, because of the mask and, well, the Indian. Yes, I said it. Native Americans were called Indians then.

Viewing the plot scheme as an adult, I realized that everything that was said or done was merely to lead to another horse chase. I also noticed that horses don’t really run that fast, so the cinematographer used a little trickery to give the illusion of speed.

There was also a lot of shooting while riding at break-neck speed on horses. The chasers fired away, and the chased (chase-ees?) turned around and shot again and again. It’s no wonder nobody hit anything. Also, they apparently were using “12-shooters” instead of the more well-known “6-shooter,” since there seemed to be no limit to the number of shots they took.

I remembered that Tonto, portrayed by Jay Silverheels, spoke somewhat haltingly, which made sense, since the character was using English as a second language. What I hadn’t remembered was that Clayton Moore, who played Lone (I assume that was his first name) really didn’t speak any more fluidly than his friend, saying things like, “We… must… go to the… place… where the gang has… their hide…out.”

The mask, the trademark silver bullets, and of course, “Hi-yo Silver, and away!” were just as I remembered, along with Tonto’s “Me go to town, Ke-mo-sabe.” That name, apparently, meant “trusted friend.”

Maybe the best part about watching the show (other than the William Tell Overture at the beginning) was the first commercial that came on. It was from a “debt relief” company that would like you to consolidate all your high-interest loans into one big medium-interest loan.

In other words, I was watching The Lone Ranger, and saw a commercial for “The Loan Arranger.” I loved it! The question remains whether the Loan Arranger is a good guy or a bad guy. We can send Tonto into town to find out.

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Whitney

It was very sad to hear about Whitney Houston’s death earlier this year. She was a beautiful woman with immense talent. I actually purchased a CD of Whitney’s performance of the National Anthem which she sang before the 1991 Super Bowl. It moved me to tears when she sang – or lip-synched – it back then, partly because the orchestration was beautiful, but mostly because her singing was magnificent.

Her decline into what we’re lead to believe was a drug addled life with then husband Bobby Brown turned her fabulous career into a sad joke. The Saturday night satire program, Mad TV often parodied the Whitney and Bobbie show in skits, showing the two of them as drunk or high or both. It might have been funny if it weren’t the reality of their life together.

After divorcing Mr. Brown, Houston seems to have worked hard to pull herself together to re-start her career, with mixed results. A good CD came out of her period of renewal, but a concert tour left fans disappointed. A movie was in the works at the time of her death, and I really don’t know if it’s close enough to being done that it can be released.

Inexplicably, Tony Bennett, who I respect deeply as a musician, but have lately begun to wonder about in other regards, made an impassioned statement in favor of legalization of drugs, suggesting that that could have saved the lives of Houston, Amy Winehouse, and others who have succumbed to drug overdoses.

I know that this topic has been debated for many years, with arch conservative William F. Buckley making the case for legalization back in the 1980’s. Libertarians like Ron Paul often support drug legalization. One argument in its favor is that by making drugs a legal commodity, there would be no reason for people to sneak it into the country, taking away the motive for obscene profits by the drug cartels. Also, ostensibly, people wouldn’t have to steal to buy drugs, so all the drug-related crimes would disappear.

I get all that, and I’m a huge fan of individual freedom to make the stupidest possible choices in one’s life. Heaven knows I’ve made some. But, as it turns out, the drugs found in Whitney’s hotel room were legal drugs. Lorazepam, Xanax, and perhaps others. Alcohol, also legal, may have been a factor. Elvis died of legal drugs, as did Marilyn Monroe, though there are conspiracy theorists who have other thoughts on Marilyn’s demise.

So, I’m torn, personally, between people’s right to choose their own behaviors, and the damage I see occurring in our culture if drugs were to be legalized. People may point to the medical marijuana laws in some states, but it is clear that prescriptions for that drug are easy for anyone to get. Your malady? Sleeplessness, anxiety, a pulse – if reports from those states are accurate, it sounds like nobody has ever been denied medical marijuana. So, what if we had medical methamphetamines, medical crack cocaine, medical heroine, and medical morphine? Would those prescriptions be just as easy to get?

I have a hard time seeing how legalizing drugs will result in fewer damaged or destroyed individuals. And yet, is it the role of government to protect us from ourselves? It’s complicated, that’s for sure. It’s always the hope that others will see what happened to Whitney and others, and will walk away from the dangerous drugs that seem so readily available, even now that they’re not legal. That might make her death easier to take.

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Gives and Give-Nots

In civics class our teacher, Mr. Thompson, taught us that many conflicts in society, and between nations, had to do with the disparity of wealth. He, and the textbooks, referred to the bifurcation of societies as creating two groups: the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

If I remember correctly, he stated that there have always been haves and have-nots, but that the exposure of the have-nots to the lifestyles of the haves via television programs and movies fueled what could be called jealousy, or a perceived sense of unfairness.

Forty-three years later, I’m a friend of Dr. Thompson on Facebook, and the cries of unfairness have again come into vogue. The Occupy Wall Street crowd talks about how the top 1% of the wealthy should have their money taken away – out of fairness. The President hints that the key to a balanced budget is to tax the rich more heavily.

Michael Moore suggested last year that we take everything from people earning $250,000 or more, and everything from the Fortune 500 companies, and that would pay the federal budget of $3.7 trillion for 2011. Other than such actions being tantamount to grand larceny, the real problem is that it would only take care of one year. If we had done that, we’d be even further behind now, because there would be no wealthy people left to steal from.

So, the era of the haves and the have-nots continues. But, there is another era going on at the same time. There are people who receive money from the government and people who pay money to the government. Let’s call them the gives and the give-nots.

Up until FDR’s New Deal there weren’t many give-nots, and those who were in dire straits turned to charity and religious groups for help. Since then, many programs such as welfare, AFDC, Social Security, Social Security Disability Income, unemployment compensation, Food Stamps and Medicare have emerged. Each program has helped a lot of people in need, and some who weren’t.

Let’s take Disability Income as an example. In 1967, when the Disability program started, there were 41 people working for each person on Disability. Today, there are fewer than 16 people working for each one on Disability. Many of the $10,770,152 former workers and their families now receiving Disability payments truly need and deserve them. However, like all federal programs, this one is fraught with fraud. In fact, as the 99 weeks of unemployment payments run out, some folks transition into Disability payments with the help of a sympathetic doctor.

With one in seven people on food stamps, millions on unemployment insurance for nearly two years, and other millions taking advantage of government help, it’s no wonder our budget deficit is out of control. There are too few gives left to pay for the give-nots.

I know this probably sounds awful and mean spirited, but I don’t mean it that way. I’m grateful to have a good job and no disabilities to prevent me from doing it. I received unemployment compensation for six months back during the Carter recession, and I was humbled by that experience, and understand what a life-line such a program can be. I also know that all workers, past and present, have paid into Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance, even though all of those programs are, or soon will be operating on borrowed money.

I guess my point is that Americans were once too proud to take government handouts, while many now seem very proud to take them, even, in some cases, if they’re not needed or deserved. I don’t see how our country can be okay if so few people are paying for so many. And, I don’t know how a society that discourages initiative can remain great.

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Don’t Blink

If it seems like things are moving pretty fast these days, you’re not imagining it. At a conference the other day several people were talking about some technical improvement, and one of the participants piped up, “Well, back in the day…” The thing is, he was talking about three years ago, not 1940.

In certain circles these days, it’s expected that each individual must have complete access to all of their friends, music, videos, and the knowledge base that is the internet at all times. Thinking about going to a record store to buy an album, bringing it home, and playing it on the stereo has the sense of the Stone Age about it. By comparison, now it takes seconds to download a song and listen to it, and then share it with a friend. It can be any song from virtually any era. Listening to Gregorian Chants on an Ipod may seem like a paradox, and I guess maybe it is.

Some groups of people seem to be obsessed with being connected. Most are younger, but some folks well into adulthood are losing their fingerprints due to the wear and tear of constant texting. I know people who are frequently short on sleep as they try to keep up with Tweets, Facebook posts and texts. They wake up with a phone between their faces and their pillows. That can’t be good, can it?

It would be befitting of a person my age to launch into a diatribe about the fast pace of technological progress, but I won’t do it. I remember my own parents rolling their eyes at The Beatles and transistor radios and the like. Technology happens, and things that are proven useful tend to survive, and other things fade away.

Not many people carry pagers, for example. And fax machines are an endangered species, soon joining typewriters on museum shelves with dial phones and 45’s.

Common sense (an oxymoron) should play some role as we embrace evolving technology, but it often doesn’t. Video or computer games are fine for those who like them. Playing them at the expense of hygiene and social interactions is probably not well advised. And, the benefits of reading or experiencing the non-virtual world can’t be overstated.

I guess that’s the main thing that’s on my mind. The appeal of these new technologies is great, but our ability to use them appropriately is something we haven’t yet learned. If being completely connected and in touch all the time becomes an obsession, well, it’s an obsession, which implies an unhealthy state of mind.

I expect that at some point more and more people will withdraw from some of the technology excesses. Already some people are leaving Facebook, and I’d bet that Twitter will someday be the answer to a trivia question. But, who knows?

Television isn’t new, but it was a revolutionary invention. There are many things I wouldn’t now know if it hadn’t been for TV, but I wonder how many things I don’t know because of it. Re-runs of Hogan’s Heroes may be mildly entertaining, but reading a book about World War II would be more edifying, and unless the war was more amusing than I think it was, more accurate.

I, for one, won’t become a slave to technology. In fact, as soon as I save this document to a folder and attach it to an email and send it, I’m going to defrag my hard drive so I can update my media files more efficiently. And if there’s time, I might go outside.

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(This happened last September. I remember it as if it were yesterday.)

My hands are sore from pulling weeds that are taller than I am. My shoulders too. And my hamstrings are sore from pulling weeds that are tiny and close to the ground, which seems to get further away every year. And, I’m irritated about getting older. So, I’m crabby.

As a crabby American, I have given myself permission to share with you a number of things that I’ve had just about enough of. Like ending sentences with prepositions. Or sentence fragments.
Here’s my list:

• Cooking shows on TV. How many times can I watch somebody roll out dough, or sauté onions and garlic in extra virgin olive oil? And, is there such a thing as “just enough virgin olive oil?” Also, just once I’d like to see one of these television chefs taste what they’ve prepared and say, “Oh, this is just terrible!”
• Spam texts. Robo-calls to my cell phone – especially the one that starts with a horrible boat horn. I’m not sure what that one is trying to sell, because I hang up instantly.
• People who write “your” instead of “you are.” Nobody’s perfect, and I am far from it, but it amazes me how often otherwise intelligent and well-educated people type things without proofreading before posting them on Facebook.
• Speaking of Facebook, I’m tired of people making cryptic remarks about something really bad or really good happening to them. Just tell us. Don’t make us ask.
• Some people, like the guy who was interviewed by one of “The Daily Show” reporters, who said, “I’d never call a redneck names.” How magnanimous.
• The guy ahead of me in line who buys eight different kinds of lottery tickets, three obscure brands of cigarettes, and pays with a check.
• Reporters who interview other reporters instead of bona fide experts.
• Candidates, state parties, national parties, Senate campaign committees, House campaign committees, and various other political groups who incessantly ask for money by phone, mail, and email. I understand their desire for money, but enough is enough.
• Fountain drink dispensers in convenience stores that are out of the flavor I want.
• Crickets.

So, as you see, I’m a pretty crabby American. After a good night’s sleep, and a couple of aspirin, I’m sure my attitude will improve. And, all I’ll have to do to keep my positive perspective is not turn on the TV or my cell phone, and stay out of convenience stores.

The crickets, on the other hand, will be around for a while. And the politicians.

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