Thursday, January 24, 2013


Consumer spending drives 2/3 of our economy.  The nation needs people to spend money, even if they don't have it or have to borrow it.  Advertising is designed to get us to spend that money on products we don't need, and brands that cost more while providing the same function as something less expensive.  At this moment, Americans are surrendering their privacy to Google and Facebook and offering themselves up as lab rats in a battle to see who can use your most private thoughts and desires as hooks to pitch various products and services.  Billions of dollars are riding on who is more successful invading your space and attention to sell you something.

     I understand how crass it is and it always reminds me of Marx's comment about how a capitalist would sell the rope to be used to hang him with.  I'm not naive.  Google and Facebook and network television are not free.  You pay a huge price when you use them.  You are a part of the culture of the next hot thing or gizmo.  Cynicism runs rampant as every psychological trick is used to create desire and cause you to buy out of envy, peer pressure and social rewards.  I get it.

     However, a recent Lexus commercial has riled and saddened me for what its premise says about our culture and us and I pass along these thoughts.  The ad has snippets of a couple engaging in various activities.  They are sumptuously dressed entering a nightclub...sitting near a high fashion show runway...attending a glittering party or driving through gorgeous scenery.  The buttery voiceover kicks in, "...someday your life will flash before your eyes.  (pause for effect)  Make sure it's worth watching."  (I wanted to add, "and abandon hope all ye who watch this.")

     The tag-line plays on the popular myth that just before you die your whole life is going to flash before your eyes.  We will get a chance to see a quick summary of what we have done and how we have lived.  This last ephiphanous moment is where judgment is rendered on the quality, or lack thereof, which is the compilation of our time on earth.  According to Lexus, if this flash does not include a luxurious car; glittering dressed and high-end entertainment; rich food, friends and fun all supported by a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption, it is neither worth viewing nor successfully lived.

     Yes, it's only an ad and yes, it is one of thousands shown each day.  Yes, it is aimed at a population that has the money to purchase the car and yes, I am not naive and understand what goes into selling a product.  However, I would wager this ad did not ruffle as much as a single feather for most of those who viewed or listened to it.

     Perhaps my current surroundings and circumstances make me more sensitive to all of this than I would have been otherwise.  Is it possible my, or any life, could be worth watching which doesn't include a Lexus, Mercedes, Audi or BMW...Stella McCartney, Dior, Alexander McQueen or Vera Wang...Cabo, St. Bart's, Jackson Hole or the Big Island...iPhone, iPad, or Macbook?  Am I taking this too seriously and overreacting?  According to Lexus, how would we view the flash of lives of people like Mother Theresa, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr. or the people who volunteer at St. Anthony's or Sacred Heart Community Services?  What value judgment would we put on the last view of a life like Susan Prather's?

     On one hand, I know I'm blowing this out of proportion, but on the other these ads wouldn't be run if their author, did not believe this pitch would resonate with audiences they are targeting.  They sat in a room spit-balling tag lines and hooks until they hit on this one.  This one that says if you don't buy the expensive car and aren't living the luxurious life, your life isn't worth watching or living.  They believe this approach will sell cars to Americans who have bought this intellectual baby-pool school of thought to values and living in the past.  Maybe, only after everything of "value" is taken from you, do your eyes see and ears hear for the first time in years...maybe that is what has happened to me.

     I want to believe our culture, and we who occupy it, are better than this.  I acknowledge the seduction of rich things, but hope and pray we are teaching our children how success and happiness are not dependant on who dies with the most stuff.  I have failed as a parent if my children are not loving, compassionate and empathetic and see value in how we actually live life, not the car we arrive in.
     Perhaps, like George Bailey, I have been given a chance to see life differently.  My sins and failings and punishment have me dreaming of a walk with my wife or hanging out with my children and see that as living life large.  Maybe this ad struck such a discordant note because I see and hear now and was blind and deaf before.  Whatever the answer, if these types of commercials and pitches are like water off a duck's back to you, it might be time to pay attention anew.

     When was the last time you were really happy...filled with joy, awash in feelings of satisfaction and peace?  If the answer is not quickly forthcoming, maybe together we can seek out the real thing instead of the artificial trappings of success.  It seems to me it would be worth it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


 On January 20,2009, from a prison in Beaumont, Texas, I called my youngest son's cell phone.  It was about 11am, and when he answered I could barely hear him due to the background noise.  He was standing on the Capital Mall amidst more than one million others celebrating the inauguration of Barack Obama.  I was in tears as I spoke to voice cracking with emotion.  He was present where history was being made.  He had attended a concert in Obama's honor the day before and stood at the front of the stage listening to everyone from Springsteen to James Taylor serenade the President.  I could tell in his voice he was tired and moved and excited at being there.  My emotions were on my sleeve because I was talking to him...sharing with him his observations and reactions...wishing I could be there with him.  He will always remember where he was that day just as I will always remember the joy of connecting with him for a brief moment which we can both cherish forever.

     He won't attend this year's inauguration.  Estimates are the crowd will be smaller and the event less emotionally intense.  It has been a long 4 years and many people are tired of the combat and brinksmanship which characterized much of the first term.  Obama was re-elected because his opponent could not rally enough angry white people to put him in the White House.  Americans have no illusions about a second term.  If there were some reason to anticipate an audacity of hope in the first term, most Americans would settle for a modicum of competency in the second.  The ongoing uber-partisanship exhibited already does not bode well for hope or competency.  No one has asked, but I will offer some hopes and wishes for a second term and I invite you, in your comments, to add to the list.  We do this knowing full well, if we don't get and stir things up, nothing we desire will be attained.

     Despite all the talk about Obama being a socialist..communist...anti-capitalist Muslim from Indonesia...a stealth weapon aimed at the rich and prosperous, Obama's first term saw an economic bailout and stimulus aimed directly at Wall Street and almost ignoring Main Street.  (which makes it even more stupefying to see Wall Street pouring millions into the campaign coffers of Mitt Romney to defeat Obama...I sure hope he holds grudges)  A banking industry which caused the worst depression since 1929 has been made whole with profits rising.  No one has gone to jail.  Investigations were bought off with a few billion-dollar fines.  The Dodd/Frank financial services legislation has been gelded by the moneyed lobbyists and the same banks refuse to ease lending rules stifling an economic recovery.  Hardly the record of a raving socialist.

     In his second term, Obama needs a grand economic bargain.  He needs to increase tax rates and close loopholes for the 1%, not one or the other.  He needs to reform the tax code so "carried interest", the millions Romney receives in income from investments each year, is taxed like ordinary income.  Capital gains taxes need to go up if corporate rates are going to go down.  Tax breaks worth billions for oil and gas companies need to end along with ethanol, water and other subsidies.

At the same time, spending has to decrease.  The deficit is a real danger.  Obama needs to start with the war department.  Its budget needs to be reduced dramatically.  A 10%-15% cut could easily be absorbed as its budget has seen double digit increases for at least the last 10 years.  (getting all the troops out of Afghanistan will help as will ending a number of white elephant procurement programs.  Personnel must be eliminated) Medicare spending must be reduced, but that goes part and parse with my second recommendation.  Means testing Medicare and Social Security shouldn't be anathema.  Removing the earnings cap for Social Security will put it on firm financial ground well into the future.

     In his second term, Obama has to make sure his health care reforms work.  Health care is the main driver of a fiscal time bomb which could derail any recovery.  He has to be committed to the establishment of real and competitive health exchanges in every state.  Exchanges which force health insurance companies to compete for customers and drive down rates.  He has to stop insurance companies from double digit rate increases using loopholes in the law.  There is going to be a huge shortage of primary care doctors for all the new patients his plan covers, and Obama needs to require more and larger medical school classes with a promise to forgive tuition loans if graduates specialize in primary care disciplines.  If he does this well...if Americans can get affordable insurance and access to doctors...if innovation in health care is encouraged...Obama's legacy will be assured right next to Lyndon Johnson, who started Medicare, as presidents who served the nation well.

     Obama loves Wall Street.  (just look at his economic team)  Big money can sway him and his people.  However, he has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild the manufacturing base in America creating tens of thousands of new jobs and improve the environment at the same time.  Obama has to resist the siren call to export natural gas.  Natural gas prices are so low, companies are moving back to America to set up manufacturing plants.  Low energy costs, combined with lower transportation costs, make America a manufacturing winner and counters the low labor costs of China  There will be tremendous pressure on Obama to approve natural gas exports.  It will literally kill the golden goose if he succumbs.  It will drive up the cost and undercut the appeal of made in America.  The nation's oil and gas companies will put great pressure on him to agree to exports.  They don't care about national needs or security.  The bottom line is their god.  If Obama gets this wrong, his legacy goes up in smoke from coal fired plants.

     Despite all the heated rhetoric around immigration, the facts are plain.  America benefits from immigration.  In many other parts of the industrialized world, populations are aging and not maintaining a sustainable birth rate.  Demographers recently announced California's birth rate has dropped below the level which sustains the population.  Immigrants have higher birthrates and infuse youth into the country.  Immigrants with skills also benefit the nation.  Immigrants bring a solid work ethic and desire to belong and to contribute.  An immigration bill which allows all immigrants to have a path to citizenship is an economic necessity.  They are already contributing.  It's time to welcome them.

     National security is one place we can hope a second term differs in some way from the first.  It is difficult to see where George Bush stops and Obama begins when it comes to national security.  Obama has fought for increased government spying and used national security to prevent citizens from suing the government for abuses.  He fought for renewal of the Patriot Act and is pushing for the creation of a new huge data collection center in Utah, which will allow the government to finally destroy the 4th amendment.  He has sanctioned more drone strikes than Bush could have imagined and he supports the belief the president can order the killing of any American deemed an "enemy" without due process.  His first four years have seen Guantanamo still open, a willingness to saber rattle with regards to Iran and no clear policy on dealing with China or Pakistan let alone the nations of the Arab Spring.  His national security record is a disaster from the most modest of civil liberty views.  It will continue in the next four years unless someone, like Chuck Hegel, can act as a counterbalance in the Pentagon.
     We are told the President has about an 18-month window to accomplish these goals before the race to replace him sucks all the oxygen out of Washington.  He needs to settle the fiscal debates quickly.  He should call out obstructionists in both parties and govern for all the people, not just the ones who can afford to lobby him.

     I can feel the emotion well up inside me as I think of the call to my son that day.  Despite my shortcomings and failure, he was able to be present for history in the making and soaked up the rays of hope emanating from the West side of the Capital.  I was able to share it with him for a few minutes.  These next four years will be the proof of the pudding as to whether or not that hope was justified.  God I hope it was.


 If the reports are to be believed, Lance Armstrong has admitted to Oprah Winfrey, our national confessor 'n chief, he engaged in an elaborate scheme to illegally enhance his performance during his years as a professional cyclist.  If true, he would have a boatload of company, as professional cycling appears to have had the same problem as baseball...everyone was doing it.  So what happens to Lance now?

     The condemnations will follow at light speed.  Armstrong's name will be mud in athletic circles.   He couldn't' endorse mom, apple pie or Chevrolet if his life depended on it, nor would anyone want him as a spokesperson.  He is going to have to pay out millions in civil suits and possible face a criminal probe.  (although its my belief the confession is part of an orchestrated deal to avoid a criminal trial for fraud or trials over perjured statements denying he ever doped.)  At the end of the day, the best he can hope for is after a few years, the public is willing to give him a second chance.  He is hoping there is such a thing as redemption.

     Armstrong has valid reasons to think redemption is possible.  He looks to the case of Philadelphia Eagle's quarterback Michael Vick as a hopeful sign.  Vick ran a dog fighting business.  Dogs fought, sometimes to the death, and any which were weak or not aggressive enough were murdered.  Vick personally killed dogs.  He too denied, denied, denied until he get a deal with the Feds.  He went to federal prison, came out, was hired by the Eagles and eventually signed to a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract.  Vick recently even purchased a dog for his family with little negative reaction from the public.  He has been redeemed.

     Vick has company.  Elliott Spitzer, former governor of New York, was buying sex from high priced hookers.  He too denied it until confronted with proof.  He resigned in disgrace and went into exile.  Yet, a few years later he had a show on CNN and on Current TV.  He is redeemed.  Marc Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina, who " hiked the Appalachian trail", had an adulterous affair with a woman in South America.  He lied about where he was...lied about a fact finding trip...lied and used taxpayer money for his travel...lied when he got back.  His wife left him and he became the butt of every late night comedian on the planet.  This week he is re-entering politics in South Carolina.  He has been redeemed.

     Bill Clinton treated women like tissue paper and his vows as if they were written in invisible ink.  It was so well known he cheated that in 1984, at the Democratic convention in San Francisco, Dwayne Garrett told me Clinton asked him and other democratic heavy weights about his chances for running for president.  Dwayne told him it couldn't happen if he didn't keep his fly shut.  Yet, he was elected president and then lied to the American people, lies under oath, lies to his wife and family and is impeached.  Today, he is credited with playing a huge role in the re-election of President Obama, is a multi-millionaire and an international figure of repute.  He is redeemed.

     I'm sure you could come up with other examples.  I'm sure Armstrong knows the list by heart.  He is hoping people will forget.  He is hoping Americans love a comeback story and second acts.  He is hoping American's short attention span will enable him to keep his head low, hunker down and ride out the storm, only to emerge with a book deal, (Living Strong with Disaster?), rise again, rehabilitate his image and maybe get a job on ESPN as a color commentator for the Tour de France.  You and I know this scenario is very possible.

     I don't begrudge anyone redemption.  I believe we live in a redeemed world.  Good for Michael Vick, Elliott Spitzer, Bill Clinton, Marc Sanford and many others.  No one should be crushed by a mistake or a bad judgment or because of an overheated libido or because they wanted to win and if everyone else was cheating, they would too.  (I think Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will end up in the hall of fame...both redeemed)

     However, there is an hypocrisy or double standard here which makes me wonder why we are so willing to forgive animal cruelty...serial philandering...lying...perjury...national damage...prostitution and other disreputable, illegal choices, these men made, but on a daily basis, Americans are released from prisons chastened, punished and committed to living good productive lives, and they face a series of hurdles and obstacles designed to make redemption almost impossible?  Why have we built a system which almost guarantees people who have shown similar poor judgment, made similar mistakes, and wish to do nothing more than live their lives, support their families and re-emerge back in society, are treated as pariahs, unworthy of either forgiveness or redemption.

     Lance Armstrong is hoping he will get a second chance.  Vick, Spitzer, Clinton, Sanford have already gotten theirs.  Yet, in America, people do their time only to be released into a world where jobs are almost impossible to find.  What they may know best, or the skills they have developed over years of work, they are prohibited from accessing.  (commit a financial crime and you are banned from the industry...medical fraud and you can never be a doctor again...nor can a lawyer ever practice again.)  Many employers will categorically refuse to hire someone who has been in prison...landlords refuse to rent to them...probation officers deliberately engage in behavior to which causes them to lose jobs.  The only reason Lance Armstrong is confessing in public is because he believes redemption is an attainable goal, yet it's not a goal for most of those who have spent time in prison who believe it is neither possible or probable.

     It is easy to say criminals deserve what they get, but the double standard, which exists for famous offenders who are rich or athletic, is clear.  Arnold Schwarzenegger (affectionately known as the "boobengrabber" to me) lied to the people of California, cheated on his wife, fathered a child with his maid and denied his existence, abused women on numerous movie sets and used his star status to get away with it all.  He is now writing books and has a new movie coming out this month.  He didn't even have to hang his head in shame and refused to answer questions about past abuses.  Yes he is redeemed.

     Over 1,000,000 people occupy the nation's prisons.  How have we allowed a system to be built in which all the economic incentives are wrong and which seems more geared to encouraging re-offending and returning to prison?  (the recidivism rate in federal prisons is 69% after 5 years.)  Shouldn't redemption be available to all?  Shouldn't second chances be offered to anyone willing to try again avoiding the mistakes and poor choices of past behavior?

     For those of you seething and chomping at the bit to accuse me of being self-serving, save your breath.  I will be fine.  I have an amazing family and I am loved. I've asked everyone of importance to me for forgiveness and apologized.  I have wonderful friends and acquaintances who stand by me.  I can return to my former profession, and expect to do so, and I will never make a stupid choice like this ever again.  I am very lucky.  The vast majority of those going home face a system you, and your representatives, have constructed and it's one long minefield designed to explode in their faces.  The irony is, it hurts you and society as much as it does them.  It eats up billions of tax dollars...forces you to spend more on prisons than on the entire U.C. a perpetual money machine, which will continue to drain resources forever with no long-term benefit to you, whatsoever.

     I promise you this.  If you ever screw up or make a mistake or a bad choice or poor judgment, I will offer you any help I am capable of and will be happy to let you use any talents, any skills, any professional training to reenter the job market and society and stabilize your family and yourself so you too can be redeemed.  Am I alone?

Saturday, January 12, 2013


 Happy New Year to everyone and I apologize for not writing for the last two weeks.  I haven't got a good excuse, but I'm trying to get back in the saddle and this is the first for the New Year.

     I will eagerly place my chair near the TV in anticipation of the game between the Forty Niners and the Green Bay Packers.  It's a playoff game with all the implications and a victory moves the Niners one step closer to the Super Bowl.  I have a pizza-bowl all prepared.  (layers of tortillas, sausage, pepperoni and cheese which is then micro waved)  It's as close to a real pizza as we can get here.  (Tortillas are not an adequate substitute for fresh pizza crust, but we make do)  All of this to carry me through the 3-plus hours of the game.  Oh yes, it is possible this could be one of the last football games I watch.

     Junior Seau played for 20 seasons as an all-pro linebacker for San Diego, Miami and New England.  He retired in 2009 and last year committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest.  The results of a post-mortem examination of his brain concluded he suffered from Traumatic Encephalopathy.  His brain was damaged by repeated blows to the head.  This can lead to premature dementia, depression and suicide.  Seau gave his life entertaining me and millions of other fans.  He was paid allot of money to take the field each week and it led to his death at a young age.  Unfortunately, he is not the first, and won't be the last, to suffer so we can sit in front of the television on Sunday with a pizza bowl, wings, sub-sandwich and all varieties of beer and beverages.

     With what we know about brain trauma, it appears the number of blows one has to endure to be affected are much less than you might think.  We have examples of this condition occurring in high school and college football players who had only played for a few years.  The science is clear.  Blows to the head, which jar the brain, have serious consequences.  It is also clear each blow does not have to result in a concussion for it to be a contributing factor to traumatic encephalopathy.

     So, now it begins to feel more like Rome than it does America in the 21st century.   How many of us saw Spartacus, Ben Hur or The Gladiator and cringed at the idea of men being put into an arena to fight to the death for the entertainment of the masses?  What kind of a society...what sick person...what immoral culture would be entertained by a "death sport"?  We watch these movies with an air of moral superiority because we would never go back to the gladiator age...we would be repulsed by the suggestion of pitting men against each other for amusement...we are above the idea of bread and circuses aren't we?

     Yet, we now know every week millions gather to watch in person, or on TV, athletic contests which are killing the players.  It isn't so crass as to have them killed each Sunday.  Instead, it's a slow death which takes a number of years and devastates not only the specific athlete, but also his family, wife and children.  We don't extend our thumbs up or down on Sunday, but we revel in the great know the one that make everyone go oooh!  If you didn't get to see it live, we provide highlight shows which repeat the great hits over and over again.  (anyone remember the horrible scene of Joe Theisman's leg bending and twisting in a stomach-churning way and how often it was repeated?  Why do we know the names of Jack Tatum, Ronnie Lott, James Harrison along with Dick Butkus, Ray Nietchke and Lawrence Taylor?)  As much as we love touchdowns, no touchdown in history has ever caused an entire stadium to stop in its tracks and just oooh.

     There is nothing the pooh bahs of football can do about this problem   They run ads about how they are changing the rules at the Pop Warner level so children don't lead with their heads when they tackle.  Given what we now know...given that a child's brain is still growing and developing...given we don't know how many blows are needed...why do we let children play the game at all?  Former Rams and Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner says he will never let any of his children play football.

     At the professional level you have men who weigh 300 pounds and can run as fast as running backs.  The blows they deliver are akin to getting hit by a speeding truck.  There is no helmet or rule change which can protect someone from the basic physics of the game.  One team physically dominates another until they win.  The irony should not be lost on anyone that helmets and pads and mouthpieces etc. were all mandated because the sport was considered too brutal, but the law of unintended consequences is these changes actually guaranteed more devastating physical confrontations as players became human missiles.

     If you knew to an absolute certainty some of the men you watch each Sunday will die that day, would you still watch?  Would it still be entertaining?  You know to an absolute certainty, some of them will die, just not on this Sunday, or the next, but as they turn 40 and look to the rest of their lives, the chances of reaching old age are drastically reduced.

     Ultimately, football has to go the way of boxing.  People can't continue to see men brutalize each other and themselves and not be affected.  (Boxing is trying to comeback via the mixed martial arts of the Ultimate Fighting franchise, but it will never approach the level of interest of football)  More and more players will sue over injuries and mental impairment.  Those in charge of football will try to tweak the rules, but fail to stop the damage.  Parents cannot be in denial anymore and have to refuse to allow their children to participate which will be the death knell of the sport.

     Meanwhile, I will watch the Forty Niners, and hope they win...that they knock Aaron Rodgers out of the game...have their defense totally dominate Green Bay with an intensity which results in powerful hits and takeaways and turnovers.  However, I will find myself thinking about Junior Seau or Dave Dureson and it will become more and more uncomfortable to be a willing participant in our modern version of gladiatorial combat.