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.”

 


The 25 Issues That Shape American Politics

October 16, 2017

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Politics Go

July 14, 2016

If I had any tech savvy or marketing skills I would try and develop an app to mimic the widely popular Pokemon Go, which is getting people out on the streets chasing those odd looking figures down alleyways and into buildings. But my app would be called Politics Go and would take the players on a trip across this country to find real Americans, real Americans who are struggling with serious economic, social and personal challenges that the political system is either ignoring or refuses to face.

The Politics Go app would take players to search for a veteran of our two recent wars who are suffering from post traumatic syndrome and contemplating suicide because there is little help available from the Veterans Administration.

The Politics Go app would take players to find the 43 million people mired in poverty in urban and rural areas in what is claimed to be the richest country in the world.

The Politics Go app would take players to meet those honorable police officers who risk their lives everyday to bring safety and order to a divided society.

The Politics Go app would take players to the mansions of the rich and well born who hide their wealth offshore to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.

The Politics Go app would take players to a gun shop to purchase an AR-15 long rifle that has no purpose other than to kill people, a lot of people.

The Politics Go app would take players to Washington D.C., the center of our democracy, to find just one statesman or stateswoman willing to work with those they disagree with in order to fix our decaying country.

Sadly, my Politics Go app would be rejected as not interesting or exciting. The new world of augmented reality is about fun not about finding out about American reality. It would be great to see Americans walking the streets of this country trying to find veterans, poor people, police officers, tax dodgers, gun fanatics and failed politicians but a Politics Go app just wouldn’t sell; it would be too depressing.


In the Bunker

June 27, 2016

My wife Carol recently signed up for one of those complete dinner programs from Blue Apron with all the ingredients included in the UPS delivered box.  All the meals were simply delicious and easy to make, if you can follow directions.

The delivery of the latest box of dinners got me thinking about how we have begun to live these days and what the future may hold in terms of contact with the outside world. Just think about it, we can now work from home using our latest tablet or smart phone; we can have our clothes delivered by Amazon Prime; we can have our furniture sent to our door from Wayfair; we of course can have our pizza delivered hot and juicy with the new Domino’s “oven car”; and we can sit in our easy chair and watch the world of politics, sports, movies and music with just the flick of our clicker, or now by just talking into our clicker.

If you take this trend forward into the future we will not have to leave the house and stay protected from the challenges and dangers of the world in our cozy bunker- no need to interact with strangers, no need to drive in traffic, no need to dress for success, no need to go anywhere but the other rooms in the bunker. Add the fact that in perhaps twenty years each bunker will have a robot to do the mundane work of keeping everything ship shape and we are certain to be the definition of couch potatoes.

This bunker mentality likely will not be for everyone, especially those who get a feeling of joy and fulfillment by interacting with another human being, but the foundation is in place to build a better bunker, particularly if evil and violence lurk outside the door. Let the UPS driver deal with the evil and violence as we stay calm in our bunker.

Orwell in 1984 worried about Big Brother watching every move we make, but in the new brave world of the 21st century Big Brother will be joined by the Big Bunker. The sad part of this prediction is that many of us will buy into the Big Bunker mentality as we change our lifestyle from social interaction to social isolation. Got to go now, the UPS driver just pulled up to the door.


The 47%

May 24, 2016

There are a laundry list of reasons why Americans are angry, disillusioned or filled with anxiety these days. For some they feel the country is headed in the wrong direction or is directionless, for others they do not trust President Obama, others are concerned about the impact of diversity on the white population, and others just see Washington as broken and a partisan mess.

Let me add another reason to this laundry list of national depression. In a recent issue of The Atlantic, Neal Gabler, an award winning writer, talked about the travails of the middle class. In his piece he referenced a yearly survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Board that monitors American consumers. One of the questions asked was how the respondents would likely pay for a $ 400 emergency. The answer from 47% was that they would cover the $ 400 by borrowing the money, selling possessions or they would not be able to come up with the cash. Let me say that again, 47% of American consumers polled said that they could not come up with $ 400 for an emergency.

Now these Americans without the $ 400 are likely a cross section of our country – some may be receiving assistance, some are seniors on a fixed income, some are making minimum wage and some are folks from what used to be the solid middle class. (  I suspect a goodly number of the respondents were from what is generally described as the middle class since we are talking about a huge number- 47% of those who answered the questionnaire).

You want to know why people are angry and in a foul mood toward political and economic elites, the lack of $ 400 to cover an emergency is certainly at the top of the list. Income inequality is a fancy term used by economists to describe that in our economy there are winners and losers, but in the last twenty years, especially since the Great Recession, the number of losers has exploded and the middle class is in tatters.

Sadly, there is no short term solution to the $ 400 dilemma of the 47% – a comprehensive minimum wage increase is years away and is a band aid; significant pay jumps  for workers are not in the cards, only incremental cost of living bonuses; corporations are either sitting on trillions in cash and doing little with it or are shipping it offshore to avoid government-sponsored distribution programs; and any talk of freebies, whether college tuition, universal health care, parental leave or day care, are dismissed as socialistic and contributing to a furthering of that gaping hole in the national debt.

So the short and long term condition of the middle class is an acceptance of economic and financial struggle as a fact of life and a continued erosion of the American dream.What’s astounding is that at first glance $ 400 is really not a lot of money, but tell that to the 47% of American consumers.