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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Why is Trump Still Popular, It’s Easy

June 5, 2018

Legions of liberals scratch their heads when they see polling data that show President Trump’s approval rate over 40%. Despite the stupid tweets, the lies and exaggerations, the flaunting of the rule of law, the destruction of presidential norms of behavior, blatant corruption, and the embrace of public policies that isolate the United States and pose real dangers to our future as the leader of the free world, Trump trudges on not just with his base but also with independent-minded voters who are unwilling to denounce him and push for his removal from office.

So what’s going on here with the stability of the Trump approval? It is really quite easy. Trump supporters see more money in their paychecks, and some have seen bonuses or small increases in their salaries, jobs are so plentiful that workers can now pick and choose, the stock market despite regular ups and downs is generally on the uptick, inflation is minimal, and areas of the economy once viewed as dead are no longer on life support. As the Democratic strategist James Carvelle reminded Bill Clinton’s staff, ” It’s the economy, stupid.”

Although some in his administration and certainly those among the punditry have called him a “moron” or just plain “dumb”, Trump knows the current state of American political culture – flag waving patriotism, fear of minorities, militarism, disgust with political correctness, support for small town Americana, and hatred of the eastern and California elite. Somehow the Democrats forgot that our political culture can be defined by what the working class believes is what America stands for, not what the New York Times editorializes. Trump has tapped into this working class culture and is not afraid to use it to bludgeon the left. Few people read the Times but they do listen to the President.

Of course having an approval rating in the low 40% range means that somewhere in the 60% range Americans either despise Trump or have serious questions about where he is taking the country. But if liberals are to make any serious dent in that 40% they have to admit there are now two competing political cultures in our country and begin to make efforts to understand the Trump culture and where possible make efforts to offer realistic alternatives.

What does that mean – “realistic alternatives”? In no particular order liberals must tag Trump with the inevitable increases in health care premiums, offer a better package of tax cuts that puts more money in the pockets of working class people, stop making pro-choice the signature position of the left, forget the big cities and take bus rides to rural America for listening tours, show the American public that patriotism means more than the flag,  and last but not least ask Nancy Pelosi to retire.

The challenge of the liberals as they try to compete with Trumpism is like moving a huge aircraft carrier on a different course; for years liberals have forgotten that they were originally the party of the working man and woman and that their support came from the heartland. If the Democrats hold to their old model of politics the blue wave of November 2018 just may fizzle out as the economy hums along. Trump may yet set himself up for self-destruction, but the liberals must change or face their own self-destruction.

 


The Madman Approach to Foreign Policy

May 15, 2018

Many foreign policy experts and media pundits are up in arms over the approach that President Trump has used in his dealings with North Korea and Iran. Trump has used outlandish name calling,  heavy-handed military threats, tough economic sanctions, and a willingness to take policy responses to the brink of hostilities, all in an effort to send a message to Kim Jong Un and the mullahs in Iran that the United States means business when it says that nuclear weapons will not be tolerated by these two members of the Axis of Evil.

Since this approach, which some have termed the “Madman” strategy, is the opposite of Obama’s “diplomacy of hope”, there is a natural fear among many in this country that Trump is not only pushing the foreign policy envelope but more seriously is taking this country down the road to war. By giving off the presidential vibe that the United States is willing to bring down the governments of North Korea and Iran, even if that means a military strike or perhaps even some sort of invasion, the president is sending the signal  that he must be viewed as unpredictable, perhaps even unhinged, and can’t be trusted to solve disputes and threats through conventional diplomacy.

Trump’s supporters and his foreign policy advisers likely wouldn’t use the term “madman” to describe the chief executive, but they clearly agree that the only way to deal with bad guys in the world is to scare the devil out of them with outrageous threats and tough name calling. As the argument goes, taking on the persona of a madman is more effective than diplomatic compromise that does little to change the behavior pattern of disruptive regimes. Scaring the regimes is the only way to get the attention of the bad guys and force them to renounce the way they operate on the international stage.

Trump is too narcissistic and arrogant to self-describe himself as a “Madman”. Yet he certainly relishes the tough guy approach to foreign policy that depends on tactics suitable for a leader who isn’t afraid to signal that he just might be a little unhinged and willing to take the ultimate risk in order to make his adversaries bend to his will.

Of course there is only one fatal flaw in the Madman approach to foreign policy – it could easily lead to war as adversaries call the Madman’s bluff or engage in tactics that avoid the prospect of regime change or modifications of behavior patterns. There is nothing inherently wrong with diplomacy,  negotiated solutions, compromise, consensus building, and moderate approaches to solving disputes; there are countless examples where these approaches have been effective. But we now live in the time of Madman foreign policy, which means we all need to pray that taking the country to the brink of war does not mean that the Madman takes us over the brink.

 


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.

 


Defining Age in the Age of Youth

April 30, 2018

Our son-in-law Jim called during a recent wind storm and said he was following the directions of the television meteorologists who said that the elderly should be looked after to make sure they are safe, especially if they are without power. My wife and I know that Jim was only kidding (we think) but it did strike up a conversation about how best to define two 70 year olds.

Are we best described as retired folk? Are we elderly? Are we part of the aging population?  Are we seniors? Or are we just plain old? Defining the best title to use in defining age is not a matter of great import but for two people who are moving forward in the journey of life picking the proper demographic title does spark a discussion.

First off, 70 is not the new 50 no matter what Madison Avenue may try to sell with those Botox and Viagra ads. Let’s face it, most of the ads on the evening news or Jeopardy target our peers who have some sort of health dysfunction. Thankfully my wife and I are still in good health and have most of our thought processes in working order, although the hearing is slowly slipping away. 70 may not be the new 50 but in our case it doesn’t feel like the end of the road of life.

After an animated discussion, my wife and I kind of settled on the senior citizen tag line because it seemed to add a bit of dignity to our status as in “senior manager”, “senior vice president” and “head of the senior class.” “Retired” seemed to suggest that we are just sitting around and looking out the window, while “aging” suggested a process of decline.  For a moment “elderly” did cause us to think about this option but we were just not ready for a term often linked to retirement housing or God forbid assisted living.  Finally, “old” just was too negative- it may be accurate but we are not ready to go there. We also liked the fact that senior is linked to citizen, suggesting that we remain part of a larger community and can still have an influence on the world around us.

As semi-proud senior citizens my wife and I listed all the new found benefits of our status – those 10% discounts on Tuesdays, doors being opened by concerned folk, and the occasional compliment that “you look great for your age.”  We also agreed that perfecting the art of looking a bit confused can trigger the sympathy vote. We know that we have entered the so-called “slow go” years when vacations, nights out on the town and sporting events have to be planned with some attention to the impact on the heart, the legs and the back. But at this stage in life we are not hesitating to move forward even though it may be at a slower pace and an occasional Ibuprofen. At 70 we would like to state with confidence that we feel great, although at this stage in life not everything is working to perfection.

My wife and I are enjoying our senior years, still working a bit, traveling to distant locations, and most of all enjoying our company. We really don’t mind if Jim in jest (we think) calls on us to see how we are weathering a storm; even if the lights go out there is still a few Maker’s Mark bourbons on the rocks to pass the time away. At this moment in our lives my wife and I believe we have many good years ahead of us, so we will hold onto the senior citizen tag line and put off titles like retired elderly, aging or just plain old.


World’s Not So Great Democracy

April 19, 2018

Pundits and politicians, largely of the liberal persuasion, have been bemoaning for some time now the threat to democracy and democratic norms since the arrival of President Trump. Language such as ” democracy is under attack,” ” the rule of law is being compromised,” ” the first amendment guarantees have been weakened,” and traditional presidential conventions are being, ” abandoned,” fill the airwaves and print media. And then there is the Russian attack on the 2016 election, our most sacred foundation of democratic life.

And yet despite these outcries about the decline of democracy, President Trump’s popularity – never really outstanding – has not eroded below a consistent 40%; in fact as the economy moves forward, his popularity has picked up a few points in recent polls. Americans appear not to be overly upset about the signs of democratic demise.

So why the disturbing lack of interest by so many Americans in our apparent democratic decline? One possible answer is that the current state of our democracy is suffering from what some call a civic deficit or perhaps a more negative title – political illiteracy. Americans today are shockingly uninformed about their democracy and the democratic values that form the basis for our claim to be the world’s greatest people-based government.

For example, in recent studies researchers have found that only 34% of Americans know that there are three branches of government, a tiny percentage can name only one Supreme Court judge, while an overwhelming majority are clueless, over 200 million of our citizens believe our constitution is based on the Bible, even though God is not mentioned once in our sacred document, and a bare majority can name but one of the four freedoms contained in the 1st Amendment. What a dismal civic deficit scorecard! It is really next to impossible to defend our democracy if the citizenry has little understanding of what our democracy means, or how it runs, or what it stands for.

Correcting these glaring deficiencies in our civic deficit will not come overnight but action must be taken and soon. Here in Massachusetts there is a movement afoot to bring civic education into the classroom and teach the new generation of Americans what their democracy is all about. Through the efforts of organizations like Generation Citizen a bill is working its way through the legislature to begin addressing the civic deficit.  Called an Act To Promote and Enhance Civic Engagement the legislation is designed to direct a modest amount of taxpayer dollars – $ 1.5 million – to develop programs in our schools to promote civic learning in the classroom curriculum and to encourage project based activities to strengthen participation and involvement in the public life of each community. Eventually, civics like math, science and English would be required.

Knowing about democracy does not mean that Americans will automatically come to appreciate and protect their form of government from those who would weaken it. But knowledge can be transformed into power, the power to demand that elected officials never abandon what our founders and those who have died on the battlefield held as a precious gift worthy of protecting.

 

 

 

 


Facebook, Twitter and National Security

March 21, 2018

There are 2.2 billion Facebook users and 974 million Twitter accounts. In the spirit of transparency, I am on both these social media sites. But my comments today are not about who is on Facebook and Twitter, rather I want to go back to the 1950’s and 1960’s and remind people about U.S.-Russian relations and patriotic fears about threats to our national security and national reputation.

When the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957 it was the first artificial Earth satellite. A few months later Sputnik 2 was launched with a living animal, a dog named Laika, who died a few hours after launch. It was not until early in 1958 that the United States launched Explorer 1, this country’s first satellite.

The launching of the two Sputniks not only embarrassed the United States but initiated a frantic effort to catch up to the Soviets in the space race and win back its reputation as the world’s leader in science and technology. Schools from elementary through college stressed the value of science and math and urged young people to become interested in space. Generous National Science Foundation grants were offered to budding scientists to attend graduate school and create a “technical army” to challenge the Soviets. And the Kennedy administration pledged to win the space race and eventually place a man on the moon.

But the most important result of Sputnik is that it awakened a realization that this country was threatened by the Soviets and patriotic Americans needed to take steps to win the space race and overcome the Russian threat to our economic, educational and governmental system. Space became a national security issue and Americans climbed on board to take on the Russians and beat them at their own game.

Today this country is again threatened by the Russians only  now with cyber security “Sputniks”, well planned and executed activities to hack our electoral system, divide our nation with fake news, and weaken our democratic institutions and democracy itself. But like our naive attitude toward space science and technology during the 1950’s, today our social media companies like Facebook and Twitter were easily duped into being party to this attack on our country.

What is most disturbing is that the patriotic spirit that filled this country after Sputnik is sadly missing from not just the social media giants but too many leaders in our government. Those who head the social media companies and indeed many who work for those companies seem more interested in increasing their bottom line, piling up stock options, buying fancy cars and living the good life.

Far too many of our best computer minds are in the start-up mode as they develop new social media sites, useless apps, and silly games. Of course all this energy is about making a quick buck and becoming an instant millionaire. Few of these bright minds are going into cyber security, government intelligence agencies or the military; there just isn’t enough money to be made in national security and patriotic employment that protects our democracy.

What this country is experiencing is a social media divorced from real world threats and hostile governments bent on weakening our country. It’s not how many friends you have on Facebook or retweets on Twitter but how we are responding to our enemies who are working overtime to play upon our obsession with social media in ways that divide us.

Hacking our elections by the Russians is the new version of Sputnik – science and technology designed to embarrass the United States, show up our weaknesses and threaten our democracy. Just like in the post-Sputnik era what we need in this country is a patriotic push to challenge and quickly defeat the Russian threat.