If We Could All Be Rotarians

June 11, 2018

Recently I became a member of the local Bridgewater, Massachusetts branch of  Rotary International organization. I joined a wonderful group of friends and neighbors who live by the motto ” Service Above Self.” At each meeting after the pledge of allegiance to the flag, a prayer and the singing of a patriotic song, members recite the Rotary’s 4- Way Test- a short listing of  values that guide the work of the thousands of clubs around the world.

The Four Way Test is really quite simple – reminding members of the way they should think, speak and take action as they serve others. The 4- Way Test is as follows:

Is it the Truth?

Is it Fair to all concerned?

Will it build Goodwill and better Friendship?

Will it be Beneficial to all concerned?

As you can see the 4- Way Test accents some key values – truth, fairness, goodwill, friendship and service that benefits all  people.

As someone who has taught and written about politics for decades I wondered what would happen if the 4-Way Test were included into the oath of office that our political leaders swear on the Bible. Wouldn’t it be helpful during this time of stress, strain, division and anger if those who are charged with making public policy lived and worked by the Rotary’s values?

Pledging to uphold the Constitution and to protect the United States is certainly the foundation of what political leaders must adhere to as they hold public office, but we have come to a time in our history where simple humane and decent values are either ignored or thrust aside in the quest for a win or a power grab. Political leaders at all levels often refer to themselves as public servants but too often they forget the other half of  the call to duty – Service Above Self.

The over one million Rotarians around the world perform countless acts of service from hurricane relief efforts to planting trees to what our local group does – award college scholarships and donate dictionaries to middle school children. If there is a need in the community or in a country far away, it is certain that the Rotary will be there to provide assistance.

Our country and our democracy is facing a host of domestic and international challenges that will define the future of the United States. One way to ensure that the future of our great nation is secure is to put service about self and to implement the values of the Rotary 4-Way Test in our daily lives – Truth seeking, Fairness, Goodwill, Friendship and spreading the Benefits of our wealth and power to all Americans.

 

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The Sources of our National Divide

May 7, 2018

As a result of responsible data collection, reasoned analysis from trusted public thinkers, and some old fashioned common sense from those with a keen historical sense it is now clear what has driven and continues to drive our terrible political polarization and unrelenting social anger. Let’s take a look at the sources of our national divide.

One of the primary foundations of our national divide is income inequality. The renowned French economist Thomas Piketty in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century  and University of Michigan social scientist Ronald Inglehart use a wealth of data to verify a twist on the old adage- the rich are getting richer the while rest of us are standing still. In the United States the top ten percent of Americans now take home nearly half of the national income. For the rest of Americans wage growth is relatively stagnant. There have been some recent small gains, but most of the working classes are pretty much where they were ten years ago. The nation’s largest employer, Wal-Mart, pays most of its workers in the $ 8-12 range. The United States is now one of the leading countries in terms of income inequality.

With that kind of pay inequality it is no wonder that people are angry as they live paycheck to paycheck and have to scrape together money in case of a family emergency, even as simple as paying the deductible for a car accident. That anger is part of the answer for Donald Trump’s base of support and the joy over the tax cut which put some money, usually a modest amount, in the pockets of the “forgotten Americans.” But a few more bucks in a paycheck is not going to ease the anger or solve our national division. That same Trump tax bill actually increased the gap between the rich and the working class and will continue widening the gap in the coming years.

Then there is the 21st Century equivalent of the industrial revolution – the information revolution. As documented by Walter Russell Mead in the Wall Street Journal and Foreign Affairs and Paul Krugman of the New York Times that smartphone or laptop may be a godsend to you and your family but it is part of a gigantic shift in how we work in this country.  Foreign trade is not putting people out of work, rather it is automation, all those mechanical robots on assembly lines, those cameras that have replaced toll takers, the swanky new garbage trucks that pick up the refuse without the help of two assistants, and computerized banking programs that have put tellers on the unemployment lines.  The list of automation destroying old line jobs is endless and will only grow in the coming years. It would be great if there was a public-private partnership to retrain workers in the new growth areas of work, but right now there is only anger and despair as the information revolution replaces the industrial revolution. The divide marches onward as more and more Americans blame somebody, anybody, usually a politician for their sad future. Of course the answer is in the willingness of people to adapt to a new age, but that is easier said than done.

Then there is the immigration/racial divide.  The history of this country has too often been defined by periods of anti-immigration nativism, racial animosity and plane old bigotry. From “No Irish Need Apply” to the Know-Nothing Party to the Neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville there has unfortunately been a strain of antipathy toward those who appear different and are not “American.” Trump used this antipathy for his benefit as he championed the wall, harshly criticized Muslim-Americans, and made clearly racially charged comments against African-Americans. He got the votes he wanted but in the process pushed this country into a national divide as too many of us forget how we became a great nation and how we often welcomed those “huddled masses longing to be free.” Sadly, it has become easier and easier to find a racial reason for our all that ails us, rather than see racial harmony as the key to building unity.

Finally, our national divide continues and even spreads because of our longing to return to the days of family, church and community of the 1950’s. Especially for those who were brought up in that era of calm and order, today with its open society of gay marriage, LGBT rights, recreational marijuana, pornography, violent video games, atheism, and a growing secular bent America is a place that is viewed as headed to hell in a hand basket unless we return to the old days when we didn’t have all these free thinking abominations. If we would only say Merry Christmas rather than Happy Holidays in order to accommodate those who make up a growing diverse nation, all would likely be better, at least that is the argument from  those who remember the Ozzie and Harriet 1950’s television show. But of course the 1950’s are not coming back – the family is in tatters, nearly 40% of young people are irreligious, and more and more people are holed up in their bunker homes afraid to become part of a vibrant community.

So what to do? Peace and unity are not around the corner. We will just have to struggle through this mess for a while, perhaps for another generation.  We just don’t have the political leaders or the political will to unify and compromise and find consensus. We very well could be headed to hell in a hand basket, but one thing to remember, this country, despite difficult times in the past, has always found a way to rebound from adversity. The American spirit may be in retreat but it is not dead and likely will re appear to bring us to a better day; it just won’t happen next year.

 


Trump – Trusting his Gut

March 13, 2018

The State Department is a shell of its former self, there are no ambassadors in key countries in Asia and the Middle East,  economic, domestic and foreign policy advisers in the White House who are level D minds keeps growing, and the lobbying swamp is not being drained but rather is filling up. What this country is left with is a president who now claims that it is better if he just trusts his gut when making important decisions. This is now what the term “unconventional president” has come to mean – play to your base, use Twitter to lash out at opponents, and allow a gigantic ego to control the direction of the country.

Apologists for the President and even some mainstream pundits are beginning to claim that the “unconventional president” is keeping his campaign promises, challenging national and international rules that have gone years without serious review, and playing the tough guy (or madman) in order to Make America Great Again.

But the world works, or a least has worked, since the end of World War II on a foundation of trust, cooperation, consensus, and mutual respect. While the stock market is erratic but upward bound, the economy is strong,  and unemployment is down, there is no doubt that the United States under President Trump has lost influence in the world and is fostering a climate of unilateral protectionism. If Trump’s developed a catch phrase for his ” gut ” policy perspective it would be The World Be Damned ( except Russia).

Following the ” gut ” and damning the world may sound good to those who live in a time long gone and think that policies are best defined as implemented on a foundation of testosterone. But we live in a time when the world is inter-connected, there are multiple powers around the globe, expert analysis and the truth still hold value, and relying on the “gut” is so filled with risk and miscalculation that one wrong move could spell economic, domestic and foreign policy disaster.

Those who support President Trump may feel a rush of energy and revenge when their guy takes on the establishment, but feeling good about ridiculing fake news, that weakling Obama or the globalists at the UN or the World Trade Organization does little to repair the damage to our international influence or reputation. What the “35 percenters” fail to realize is that feeling good is temporary, but losing influence and reputation to other world powers can easily be lasting. There is no doubt that the US is one of the richest country in the world and a major military power, but the US has slipped in so many socio-economic categories and most importantly is no longer as Ronald Reagan said, “that shining city on a hill,” Trusting your ” gut ” does not lead to a “shining city on a hill.”

 


Football or Baseball

October 31, 2017

Some of you may remember the classic George Carlin comedy routine in which he compares football and baseball by describing the language of both sports. As Carlin saw it, football has a distinctly militaristic tone –  marching down the field, blitzes, sacks – while baseball has kind of a milk toast verbiage – pop-ups, runs, errors. Football also has a special kind of fan base, action aficianados – those that love hitting and tackling, while baseball fans are a more serious lot -patient, number-crunchers.

Because this is fall, the World Series and the National Football league games overlap and this year there can’t be a more stark contrast between the two games. While the NFL is embroiled in a desperate controversy over players taking a knee, owners threatening to fire players and calling them ” inmates” and our president wrapping the game in the flag, baseball has become a breathless series of exciting and interesting games that keep people glued to their wide screens till the wee hours of the morning.

For most of the last twenty or so years football has become America’s game as baseball was viewed as too boring. But just maybe the Astros-Dodgers series has turned baseball back to America’s game.  Football still gets great ratings, but fans and pundits say the game is the sport that is getting boring and also brutal as name stars get carried off the field with neck and head injuries and field goals dominate the scoring. Meanwhile, home runs are flying off the bats of the Astros and Dodgers, reckless base-running is the norm, and god-like pitchers hitting the strike zone with supreme accuracy keep viewers in awe.

The American sports fanatic may be tiring of a game of concussions, political statements, threatened boycotts, and billionaire owners who get paranoid when African-American players challenge the system. Instead there is baseball, which may be slow and deliberate but in this age of stress could just be the calming influence on viewers and the nation. Personally, I hope the World Series goes to Game 7 so this country can witness a beautiful sport that is far from boring and requires special skills  of concentration, timing, and power that have been downplayed in football to be replaced by helmet hits to the head.


Who Shot JFK?

October 23, 2017

President Trump’s decision to release over 3,000 pages of still classified documents related to the assassination of President Kennedy is sure to restart the debate over who killed the President that sad day in Dallas. Over 40,000 books have already been published on President Kennedy, most on the question, ” Who Killed the President?” This release of the documents is certain to get the presses rolling again on new conspiracy books. Talk about a cottage industry.

The debate over the Kennedy assassination intensified over the years as many Americans did not believe the Warren Commission report that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone; in fact currently polls point to nearly 60% of Americans who believe that Oswald was part of a larger conspiracy. The conspirators include the Mafia, the CIA, the military, the Cubans, the FBI, the Russians and a whole host of shady characters with ties to right-wing groups and anti-Kennedy haters. Despite the scientific work of forensic experts who examined the bullets, police radio transmissions, the path of the shots from the Texas Book Depository and the now famous Zapruder video, the conclusion was that there was only one shooter with one rifle ( no mysterious second shooter on the grassy knoll ).

And yet now over 50 years later there are still doubts about “Who Killed JFK?” It is always difficult for many Americans to come to the conclusion that one man acting alone was behind the murder of the century, so these documents may shed light on the unanswered questions that the Warren Commission failed to address or hid from public view. But don’t count on any new blockbusters, just more conspiracy talk that will fill the airwaves and the Internet. What the documents will do is just rekindle the assassination talk and disappoint those who feel that Oswald couldn’t have acted alone.

But if you are an anti-Trumper you will certainly see the President’s decision to release the documents as another savvy ploy to keep the media and the American people occupied instead of turning their attention to Russian meddling, sexual harassment, Obamacare, tax policy,  dead soldiers in Niger,and white supremacy. Americans love a conspiracy more than the dismal details of legislation, law suits, electioneering, and the dark side of our national psyche.

Maybe the mafia, the CIA or the Cubans did conspire to kill John Kennedy but what would such information ( certainly not incontrovertible proof) do other than further erode confidence in government? It is better to think about the loss of a promising and visionary president cut down in the prime of his life.

 


The 25 Issues That Shape American Politics

October 16, 2017

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USVI. and P.R.

September 22, 2017

My wife and I and our daughters have been to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico many times, always to enjoy the beautiful beaches, those delicious Pina Coladas and most importantly the wonderfully warm people. It looks like we will not be returning to these US territories any time soon- Irma and Maria have destroyed the American paradise.

Like typical American tourists we often spent our time at the centers of sun-bathing, dining and of course shopping. But in walking around St. Thomas, St. John and San Juan we made a point of going off the beaten path to walk around the neighborhoods that are less frequently visited.

What we saw in those walks is the stark economic reality of these islands. Our Caribbean possessions are more than tourist paradises, they are home to thousands of people who are just making a go of it. Cinder block shacks with tin roofs on dirt roads are commonplace, men and women sitting around idly because they can’t find a job,and kids begging for dollars in front of a J. Crew outlet are proof that all is not well on the islands.

Watching the reporting from the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico confirm that it will take years to rebuild the islands. But because so much of these dots on the map are dependent on the tourist trade, the poverty endured by the people will only deepen. The spirit to make the USVI and Puerto Rico a tourist destination again is present among the people, but it will easily dissipate as aid falls off, unemployment skyrockets and international attention turns elsewhere. Already some of the interviews of hurricane victims bemoan the fact that the Americans only care about these possessions during the tourist season and view the people as put on the islands to care for their vacation needs.

It is truly sad to see the devastation of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico – two truly magical places on the planet. One can only hope that our government and the private sector do not forget these paradises and the wonderful people who live there, after all they are Americans like us.