Sunday, December 16, 2012

WHY...


Part of the wall-to-wall national coverage of the shooting in Connecticut was fact gathering.  Who, what, where, and when dominated the commentary.  However, all of the media scrutiny was carried forward by a rip current caused by the fifth "W"...why?   Why did a 20 year old apparently kill his mother and then go to her school to kill what she loved most, her students?  Why did he snap?  Why was he angry or depressed or both?  Why did his mother own three powerful weapons, one of which would have been illegal if we still had an assault weapons ban?  Why was there a shooting in an Oregon shopping mall?  Why did an NFL player riddle his girlfriend, and mother of his child, with bullets and shoot himself?  Why a mosque in Wisconsin or a theater in Aurora?  It's a tsunami of whys.

     At the time of the attack in Connecticut, another was happening at a school in China.  A man stormed the school and attacked the children.  20 children were wounded, but none killed, according to CNN.  20 children were also targeted in Newtown and all of them died.  Is it as simple as acknowledging a man with a knife, bat, club, spear, sword, bow and arrow cannot do as much damage as one with modern weapons of destruction?  Which would the parents and residents of Newtown have preferred...the 20 year old having a gun or a knife?

     Why are we so afraid to engage in a discussion about guns?  Our nation resembles a group of people standing waist-deep in gasoline and someone has the brilliant idea of giving everyone a book of matches under the premise this will make everyone safer.  Why do we accept this state of affairs?

     One week ago, USA Today had a cover story about professional athletes and guns.  It seems almost all own one or many guns and see nothing to be alarmed about athletes who earn their living being angry and violent wanting these weapons around their home and in their cars.  What is scarier is to read their comments supporting this position.  The gist is now that they are making a lot of money, and acquiring valuables, they need guns to protect their stuff.  The inclination was not to install sophisticated security in their homes, or hire professionals to protect them...not to build safes or use safe deposit boxes...but instead to strap on and accept that the best way to preserve their property and selves was to obtain multiple guns.  They are so scared of the culture they come from, in this country, as soon as they achieve some success, they fear someone will try to take it from them and they are ready to defend all of this to the death.  There are rich athletes in Canada, Britain, throughout Europe, why don't they feel the same fear and resort to the same solution and why don't they have similar tragedies as occur here?

     We are an angry nation.  You don't have to look any further than the recent presidential election to prove this fact.  We are angry about everything.  Perhaps the anger is a product of the reality we are a terrified nation.  Everyday we are told there is more and more for us to be scared of.  Economically, we are all to be terrified of going over the fiscal cliff...of the lack of jobs and what will happen to us without enough of a pension and medical care.  Workers fear declining wages and a political class which wishes to make it more difficult for them to organize and fight for a share in the enormous profits being generated.  We have to be afraid of terrorism.  We have to be so afraid we watch the government eliminate the 4th amendment and create invasive databases in order to spy on us and we don't raise a finger in protest.  We are told to be afraid of China and terrified of what is going on in the Middle East.  In America's cities, we are bombarded by stories about violence and mayhem and the need for more police and more guns resulting in more tension.  In California, we spend more on the prison system than on the entire U.C. system.  Why?  We are so afraid of each other we think locking people up will save us.  How else do you explain wrecking the premier education system in the world in favor of guards and bars?

     We are afraid of growing old and getting sick and wonder who will take care of us.  We have to defend a social safety net from "them".  "They" will kill it or tear it to shreds leaving us sick and impoverished and operating in a social Darwinism based on survival of the fittest.  We have to be afraid of our own bodies which attack us with various cancers and other diseases.  We have to be afraid of what we eat.  The Wall Street Journal reported on pork producers who fill their pigs with antibiotics creating "super" bugs which resist medicine and infect us.  Refined sugar, and who knows what else, is making us obese and diabetic and this will bankrupt the nation, kill a lot of us, if something isn't done.

     When you are scared, and on edge, and under pressure, the slightest event or provocation can set off a chain reaction which ends in a shopping mall in Oregon, or a school in Connecticut or a village in Afghanistan, (where a soldier walked from house to house killing those inside), to Columbine, Aurora or a schoolyard in Stockton.

     So, the first question is do you agree we are a frightened and tense nation?  (why do we spend billions on anti-depressants and treat mental health problems, as something akin to Astrology, which we don’t believe, is real?)  What is the source of this fear?  Are we an angry nation?  Why and who are we angry with?  If we are tense and angry and scared on a daily basis, does it make sense to flood the country with easily obtainable weapons, kept on our night tables within easy reach when we lose control?  (There are those who also want these triggers in churches and on college campuses and in bars, to make us safer)

     One Connecticut parent told CBS the shootings in Newtown were a parent's worst nightmare.  The reality is parents today are harangued with a thousand similar nightmares every day.  It's a wonder they can sleep at all.  What do we do?  Do we become "preppers" and hoard stuff waiting for Armageddon while hiding behind our deadbolts armed to the teeth?

     I'm not smart enough to offer a comprehensive solution.  I do know when you combine a scared, tense, on-edge population...angry and stampeded by a corporate media which seizes on every opportunity to frighten...with an easy ignition source like guns...we should stop being surprised when something explodes.  20 children are alive in China because their attacker had a knife instead of a gun.  This cannot be ignored.  However, we have to address and confront the origins of our fears and anger and distrust.  If we don't, what happened in Connecticut will continue to occur with increasing frequency.

     Is it too clich├ęd to remind us all this tragedy too place during a season of Peace on Earth, Good will to all people?  I'm tired of being afraid and tired of being scared of my neighbors and angry with them too.  Are you?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A GIFT OF HOPE...


Here are three new blogs from the Lion of the Left:

It is that time of year to write a Christmas message.  Despite a campaign of commercialism and crass merchandizing, which has turned the smart phone and the flat screen TV into holiday symbols, this is still, at it's core, a celebration of the birth of a Jewish baby who replaced a dark world filled with despair and angst with one filled with hope and light.

     We all too familiar with darkness, despair and fear.  We encounter these on a daily basis as we struggle to cope with all life throws our way.  Some of us are alone while others fight with the family they have.  Some of us are separated from family due to our own stupidity and choices.  Each day carries with it fears of what tomorrow will hold.  Will we still have a job?  Will our children be healthy and happy?  Can our marriage last or can we find someone to share our future with?  Only those with their heads buried deep in the sand can avoid the implications of climate change and how it will affect our weather and environment.  (think of Sandy or the drought which plagues huge regions of this nation)  It is so easy to give in and give up...to embrace the culture which says whoever dies with the most stuff wins...to be overwhelmed with sadness at this time of year because reality does not match the ideal which has been laid out for us over the years.  My message this year is don't give up...the birth of the child is the answer...hope is alive and well.

     Ask any parent their wish for their children and you will consistently hear about how we want them to be happy and to have a full life.  Parents aren't naive enough to believe their children won't face sadness and disappointment and fear, but they hope their children will know how loved they are, how lovingly they were created and how we are there if they need us.  We try to be role models and to show them how to make good choices and to persevere when things don't go their way.  (then there are some of us who make poor choices and don't love them enough and who disappoint them and go away....yet they continue to love us)  Why would God be any different?

     God created us out of love and a desire to know us and feel that love returned.  This is not the classic image of God pushed by fundamentalists.  This is not the all-powerful, all knowing, all present God of traditional orthodoxy.  (that God doesn't need anything, including creation)  God created us to be in relation with us...to talk with us and to listen to us...to have us talk to Her in return and listen to Her.  In the gospel of John, the Jesus born on Christmas gives us His ultimate insight into God.  We were created to have life and life to its fullest.  Christmas is the celebration of the hope we will all discover and the experience of a full life.

     Celebrating Christmas is a faith statement.  We can't prove this is the purpose of life, but we have faith that it's true.  The birth of Jesus is a celebration of the person who finally understood the reason for creation.  He proclaimed the good news that life is full of hope and joy and those living in the darkness will see great light.  He lived a life so intimate with God He saw what God wanted for us...to be filled with joy...not be afraid...treat others like we wish to be treated...forgive even our enemies and be forgiven in return and the result would be the gift of a full life.  Because of the birth of this carpenter's son in Bethlehem, God was finally able to share all Her love and thoughts and dreams with Her creation and because of this experience, She offers the same thing to everyone of us because of the humanity we share with Her Son.

     MERRY CHRISTMAS!!  It is a celebration of a holy night when Christ was born.  Even the name proclaimed on this day tells us what this is all about...Emmanuel...God with us.  We are not alone.  We don't go through this by ourselves.  This is the fifth Christmas I celebrate separated from you and my family.  It would be easy to slip into a funk and let the darkness surround me.  How can I celebrate in a place like this?  What about all the pain and embarrassment I have caused?  Yet, on Christmas, I will celebrate how loved I am and how many people care for me and the gift of life I was given.  I will fight being afraid of the future depending on the promise if I live the best life I can my life will be full.

     Perhaps you could spend a few minutes on Christmas imagining what a full life would look like.  (hint: it doesn't involve a flat screen TV)  If you have lost someone, or are separated from those you love, this is a day to know you are not alone.  The birth of Jesus brought light to an otherwise dark world and brought hope to all of us.

     I miss you all and hope for the day when I can join you and my family in celebration of the hope and joy this day represents.

     To paraphrase St. Francis.....

          God, on this Christmas day bring light to those in darkness and help those in despair to have hope.  Help us to appreciate family and friends who love and care for us.  Thank you for the gift of your Son, and for the good news His life proclaimed.  On this day, we join with the angels and shepherds to sing of your glory and revel in the knowledge we never have to be afraid.  May we understand and experience life, and life to its fullest, knowing the world is alive with the grandeur of God.

CLIFF DIVING...


At the moment, I'm willing to speculate the powers-that-be in Washington will not come to an agreement in time to avoid a swan dive over the fiscal cliff.  Good!!  As I have written before, it would be to the long-term benefit of the nation if no deal is made and the unthinkable happens.  Top tax rates would go back to what they were under Bill Clinton.  (when 27 million jobs were created)  The payroll tax would rise.  (it's not good for Social Security to keep it at its present rate)  Military, and other government spending, would automatically be cut.  (the military can easily absorb these cuts.  They have seen their budgets grow for years to a point where we spend more on the military than all other nations on earth combined.  They have experienced deeper cuts in the past and handled them.  These cuts will barely slow growth.)  The end result would be significant progress in getting our fiscal house in order, reining in out-of-control military spending, increasing the progressivity of the tax code and leaving America in better condition than it is now.

     At the bottom of the fiscal cliff is supposed to be death and destruction.  Many Americans, and small businesses, will be hurt by the re-emergence of the Alternative Minimum Tax.  (This tax was intended for the 1%, but because of the craven cowards in Congress, it wasn't indexed for inflation so it engulfed larger and larger numbers of American taxpayers raising money for government without Congress having to do a thing)  This would force Congress to finally solve this problem and return the AMT to its original purpose.

     The military would no longer get a blank check.  We spend more money on the War Department and get less for it and threaten our fiscal health.  It is not sustainable.  Priorities have to be set.  What kind of wars do we predict in the future?  Where will they occur?  Do we expect traditional conflict or an increase in asymmetrical encounters?  As we shift our emphasis to the Pacific, what are the implications for our commitments to NATO etc.?  (Is Libya the new model where we insisted on other nations carrying a much larger load?)

     American families will see their taxes increase.  Going over the fiscal cliff changes the entire nature of the debate about taxes.  Now we will have the Republicans and Obama arguing over tax cuts not increases.  The increased revenue coming into the government coffers will mean the President can propose finally rebuilding the nation's infrastructure and electrical grid. (resulting in tens of thousands of jobs)  Grover Norquist would crawl back under the rock he emerged from and the "tax pledge" will be a thing of the past.  Republicans would be complicit in raising taxes eliminating one of their favorite attack lines against Democrats.  The entire tenor of the discussion in Washington would dramatically change if we go over the cliff.

     Going over the cliff would make it easier to address Medicare and how to return it to fiscal solvency.  Right now, the Republicans can hold Medicare hostage.  They can use it as a bargaining chip to force Obama to agree to deep cuts in the social safety net in return for their support of some kind of deal to avoid the cliff.  If we go over it, then their leverage is gone.  Repairing Medicare can be debated on the merits and the fixes can actually fix it.  (remember, the Republicans don't want to fix Medicare, they want to end it...privatize it...just like Social Security)

     The point to remember is this cliff is the product of an agreement between Republicans and Democrats.  Everyone signed off on this deal.  There is no one to blame if we go over because that's how this was designed by the two parties last year.  Going over the cliff will result in some fiscal discipline as well as force everyone to compromise.  It is exactly what the rating's agencies and European bankers say must happen.  It may be the only way this happens.  It may be the only way to get some control over military spending and open the door to real entitlement reform.

     If you feel so inclined, write to the President, or email, or tweet or just shout and tell him we are willing to lock arms and jump together.  We are all ready to change our names to Thelma and Louise.

RETIRE AT YOUR OWN RISK...


 I.B.M. recently announced it is only going to contribute to employee 401K plans once a year on December 31.  If you leave the company on December 30th, you lose a year's worth of benefit.  Once at the forefront of offering generous employee benefits, I.B.M. is now going down the same road of most of corporate America and cutting or limiting retirement contributions.  Being an I.B. Memer isn't what it used to be.

     We need a new retirement model.  The old one is dying the death of a thousand cuts.  Defined benefit plans are gone.  (where earnings and years of employment produced a fixed sum each month)  401K plans are inadequate to meet the needs of most Americans.  Social Security cannot support retirement by itself and most Americans have little in savings accounts.

     401K plans were sold as equal to defined benefit plans.  They were going to provide for a comfortable retirement.  It was always a lie.  Americans are not financially sophisticated.  Fees, and other charges, quickly eat up much of the money being put into 401k's.  Employers never ponied up as much in contributions as promised.  Many Americans treated these plans like savings accounts leaving them sitting, not monitoring them annually and unaware of whether or not they were producing the necessary revenue for retirement.  This is true for Americans who have such plans, however most do not have anything, or started so late in life there won't be enough to support them.

     The single most important aspect of 401K plans is the mix of stocks, bonds etc. in the package.  Most Americans have no idea how to navigate Wall Street and how to re-balance the mix to produce the maximum return.  Even more troubling is the recent experience of a Wall Street collapse which wiped out most of the gains accumulated over years of contributions.  If you were 55 years old in 2007, and watched 50% of your 401K savings disappear, you don't have enough years left to rebuild what you had.  While those who sunk Wall Street have returned to record profits, most Americans sit up at night wondering how they will make ends meet and can they continue to work into their 70's.

     All of the above is the reason unions have fought so hard to protect pension benefits.  Unions are one of the few places where this issue is still on the front burner.  Ironically, despite contracts spelling out pensions and benefits...despite years of agreements about company obligations...despite promises in writing...the American courts have allowed companies to cut and run from these obligations.  Courts have allowed companies like United Airlines to go into bankruptcy and end all of their pension obligations.  People who worked 30 plus years playing by the rules find themselves out in the cold with their pensions cut by 90%.  Putting icing on the cake is the fact whatever obligations were left were dumped on a government agency and became a taxpayer liability.  Justice for all is an illusion in this country if the "all" is working, middle class Americans.

     No one is talking about this.  This is the real fiscal cliff.  This is the real economic time bomb.  No one in Washington is addressing this issue at all.  It's as if they believe there will be a pension fairy leaving checks under pillows of Americans when they retire.  Instead, we debate whether the rich should see their tax rates rise.  We hear proposals to end the inheritance tax and we watch as the Mitt Romney's of the world pay virtually nothing in income taxes because their wealth comes from investments which produce "carried interest" taxed at maybe 15%.

     My children face a future of trying to put aside enough resources for retirement.  They are left at the mercy of a bet placed at the world's biggest casino, Wall Street.  They face a future so insecure as to create an anxiety which will permeate all of our society.  It doesn't have to be like this.

     We need a new model.  I am not smart enough to offer a concise framework of what that model should look like, but I know the current system is broken and can't be fixed.  This new model could take advantage of some things already in place.  We already have the mechanism to withhold wages for income tax purposes.  Why can't we do the same for retirement savings?  Why can't we have a vehicle in which we determine what percentage of our "pre-tax" income we want withheld for retirement?  The funds could be invested in a conservative strategy aimed at long-term growth.  An agency could be created to manage the funds.  Everyone would know the formula.  You put away X amount for Y years and this is how much you will get at 65 or 70 or whatever the retirement age is at the time.  Americans could vary the contribution levels once a year. (maybe 2% when you are young, but 5% as you make more money)  Annual statements would-be issued.  Your employer would have to contribute to this fund as well.  (I would like employer contributions to be at least twice the rate an individual has chosen to be withheld.)

     Corporate America should love this idea.  They no longer would have pension obligations to worry about.  This would also cut down on the need for government, and private charities, to provide for those who don't have retirement accounts.  Americans would be able to feel secure about their future.  Between Social Security, Medicare and this new system, Americans wouldn't fear aging and all that comes with it and wouldn't be nearly as much a burden on their families.

     I am not smart enough to have covered all the holes and problems with my suggestion.  There are people who are smart enough, but they aren't talking or even focusing on this coming disaster.  The model is broken.  It's every man and woman for themselves as it stands now.  The gap between the 1% and everyone else will continue to widen as this financial nightmare increases in scope and infects our dreams.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Communicating With the Lion of the Left...

Dear Lion of the Left fans,
     Many of you have requested to communicate with the Lion either by email or snail mail.  The Lion has very limited direct email access; so no email address can be given out.  I would be glad to give you the Lion's snail mail address so that you can write to him:

                  Mr. Bernard Ward
                  #90569-111
                  FCI Low
                  3600 Guard Rd.
                  Lompoc, CA 93436

Please feel free to write to the Lion; he would love to hear from you!  Sincerely, Girl Friday