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Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Missed Opportunity

The other night I watched an NBC segment on how the people of the remote community of Gander, Newfoundland in Canada responded to the thousands of air travelers that were forced to spend several days in their community in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the complete shutdown of air travel in North America. It prompted me to reflect upon the reaction of the American people in the days, weeks, and months after these attacks. It seems like such a distant memory as I recalled the uplifting stories of people helping strangers all across our land. Memories of emergency personnel traveling to New York and Washington at their own expense to help in the search for victims and survivors. Stories of strangers coming together to share suddenly scarce rental cars in their attempts to get home to family and friends. Stories of sacrifice and sharing on a heroic scale. I even had faint recollections of how it seemed that we were coming back together as a people, that our shared tragedy would restore a level of national unity and shared purpose.

As I look at the social, political, cultural and religious atmosphere in the United States today, I have to wonder if we didn't miss out on a golden opportunity to restore our historical sense of pride and unity. Would anyone have predicted, in the aftermath of 9/11 and our shared grief, that less than a decade later our country would be more divided, more partisan, more rancorous than at any point in our history since the Civil War? What would the 9/11 victims have to say to us as a nation if they could speak to us now? Personally, I think they would be utterly disappointed that their deaths didn't result in a greater sense of unity among the American people. I think they would wonder out loud whether the terrorists hadn't in fact accomplished one of their primary goals: scaring and diving the American people. No one can legitimately argue that we are stronger, more prosperous, more secure, more at peace in our divided state than we would be if the promise of that initial post-tragedy unity had been achieved. Is it too late to change it, or is this outcome the final, lasting legacy of 9/11?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Andrew Stack is NOT a Hero

In the wake of flying his airplane into an office building in Austin, Texas there are people, including his daughter who are calling Andrew Stack III a hero. Let me be really clear: he is NOT! a hero. He is a cold blooded murderer who took the life of an innocent person for an illigitimate reason. He should be considered more a traitor than a hero. He attacked the government of the United States and because some people dislike the IRS, they believe anyone who attacks that agency is a hero.

We have seen a growing tide among normally rational people being influenced by radical fringes who think it is appropriate to attack and kill people who work for the government in a misguided belief that this somehow makes them patriots. Too many television pundits and bloggers around the country have whipped up this anti-government sentiment to such a level that many ordinary people now believe it is ok to use violence against their own government. Murder is NEVER an acceptable form of protest!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Symbolic Lesson for American CEOs

I am a staunch and vocal critic of American CEOs. I believe, that as a group, they they have become a clear and visible example of how greed and selfishness have overtaken American society, especially in the area of large, corporate business.

They have grown to be overly greedy, believing they are entitled to multi-million dollar compensation packages, even when the company loses money or goes bankrupt. They treat their employees as just another resource manipulated for profit, quick and eager to lay off workers and transfer jobs overseas so their already profitable company (and by default, themselves) can earn a few more dollars.

They decry the lack of loyalty among employees toward the company while displaying little loyalty to those same workers who lack anywhere near the job security their parents enjoyed. They have completely forgotten their real place in the grand scheme of things, forgetting that without those employees working hard and producing quality products, there would be no profits and no excessive pay.

And they lack the understanding that profit is but one of the responsibilities of a business in the community. There is an unstated covenant between employers, employees, and the community. While a business has the right and the responsibility to make a profit and owners and managers have a right to a fair and just compensation, the business also has a responsibility not to unfairly take advantage of workers or cast them aside in the pursuit of excessive profits as if the employees do not matter. A business also has a responsibility to the community to operate in a way that promotes stability and growth rather than plundering the community in which it operates.

Fortunately, there are exceptions to this trend. ABC News did a story the other day on an entrepreneur who built a large business and decided the best thing he could do as he approached the end of his life was to divest himeself of the company. Instead of selling it for what I'm sure would have been millions of dollars, he GAVE the company to his employees. This means that each of several hundred employees now has a stake in the company worth several hundred thousand dollars! When he was asked why he did this, he talked about how his employees were part of his family and that it was because of their talent, commitment, and quality work that the business had grown to be so profitable and valuable. You can see the story by clicking on this link: http://abcnews.go.com/WN/owner-multi-million-dollar-company-hands-business-employees/story?id=9875038

Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating that every business owner go and give away their company. Obviously, public corporations don't really have that option. And families have the right to pass the business down to younger members. The point is that this dramatic gesture is just the culmination of a philosophy of life and business which recognizes that wealth matters less than family, relationships, and loyalty. It is no mystery to me that Mr. Moore's business was successful because his employees have always given him their best effort, just as he gave them his best.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Supreme Court Ruling On Campaign Finance

There has been a huge furor over the Supreme Court's recent decision striking down campaign finance laws aimed at limiting corporate spending in the electoral process. Polls show that 80% +/- of Americans believe the court was wrong in their ruling and these numbers are consistent across party lines.

As much as it pains me to say it, the Supreme Court was correct in their ruling. Don't misunderstand, I don't like the idea of corporations being able to finance elections without limits. However, if we look at current law from a strictly objective point of view, it is the only decision they could make. Current law in the United States recognizes corporations as essentially equal to an individual. Though the officers of corporations enjoy some legal protection from financial responsibility, corporations themselves are afforded most of the same rights and responsibilities as individuals and can in many instances be held to the same standards of behavior and face the same consequences. As long as this remains in American law, you cannot deny them the right to use their money as an individual would and as they choose. The fact that they have more money, while disturbing to some, isn't really relevant when deciding the Constitutionality of law. Even individual citizens can incorporate themselves, so do we apply the same standards to them that public opinion wants to impose on multinational, multibillion dollar corporations? What about churches that have subsidiaries that are incorporated because they're outside the scope of the 501-c protections offered non-profits?

These facts won't appease those who are outraged by the decision, so what can be done? First of all, the Supreme Court was clear that there can be reasonable legal limits. It is quite clear from the decision that laws can be implemented to prevent foreign corporations from using their money to influence American elections. Laws limiting direct contributions to individual candidates remain intact. I believe legislation requiring greater openness and accountability with stockholders would be upheld. This could force corporate executives to be more careful and more open in how they use money in the area of electoral influence.

More extreme measures are available as well. Lawmakers could change the status of corporations, stripping them of many of rights and protections they share with individuals. This would have potentially massive effects on the business, governmental and legal systems, some of which could be difficult and troubling. But it is an option.

I admit to being a bit confused by the reaction of the two parties. For at least two decades we have been hearing from conservatives about how the courts have become so activist, creating new law rather than just interpreting it. The court certainly cannot be accused of being activist in this case, yet they still cannot get any loving from conservatives. And liberals aren't any better. They have warned us for years about how the courts were (or would soon) limit free speech. Here, the court rules against limitations, and liberals are unhappy. The fact that both sides are upset just makes me more certain the court ruled correctly.

Finally, I question whether the decision will really matter in the long run anyhow. Even if the court had ruled in favor of the limitations, corporations and special interest groups have long proven adept at finding loopholes. And I'm not convinced that corporations or special interest groups are really concerned about who gets elected. While they may campaign against certain candidates with negative attack ads, their real concern is having access to officials once they're in office. The real corruption begins with the lobbyists, the gifts, the socializing, the expense-paid junkets, etc. that occur once a person is in office. In reality, this decision had nothing to do with that aspect of being beholden to the moneyed interests, so I question whether a different court opinion would have even mattered.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why You Should Register As A Follower Of This Blog

I don't know how many people are actually reading my blog. Given that it's new and not associated with a newspaper, magazine or blogging site, I know it's a small number, mainly family and close friends. It may not even be in double digits yet. Nevertheless, I encourage everyone who is visiting this site to register as a follower. Why?

Recently, somebody I consider a good friend wrote to me at my private email concerning their disappointment at what I wrote about the Tea Bag movement. Although I felt like they misunderstood the purpose of what I said, that is not for me to judge and I would have willingly posted the comments because they were respectful and heartfelt.

The goal of this blog is to try and promote a middle ground and compromise in our nation, whether it's politics, culture or faith. I really want people to comment on what I write, whether they agree or disagree. I want there to be discussion. However, in order to post comments on this site, you must register as a follower. This allows me to review comments before they are posted. I choose to do this for one reason, and it isn't to censor anyone. I review comments first to ensure that they are respectful. I do not want any profanity or name calling or any of the other invective that is damaging our national conversations.

I don't want this blog to be followed only by people who always agree with me, I want to hear what those who disagree have to say. I am not afraid of hearing opposing comments/beliefs. When I was in business school, we were taught an interesting adage about leadership in business (which I believe can apply to politics and perhaps the church as well) that said if two leaders of a single business always agrees, one of them is unnecessary. Or what about the old saying that there are three sides to every debate/argument: your side, my side, and the truth. It is only through honest and robust discussion that any progress is possible.

So, please register as a follower and join the discussion.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

What the Tea Party Polls Really Tell Us

Tea Party supporters (and by default Republicans) are ecstatic after recent polls showing that nearly 1/2 of voters agree with at least some of their positions. Some inside and outside the movement are reading this as a clear sign that this could be viable Third-Party movement in the elections of 2010 and 2012. But I think not. Why?

One must pay very close attention to a variety of polls, the actual questions asked, and what they really mean in order to decipher what is really going on. And the fact of the matter is that these poll results don't have anything good to say for the two major parties or the Tea Party.

Let's start with the Tea Party. If they are striking such a chord in the political heart of America, why do they only poll favorably at around 45-50% at best? Even more importantly, how can they expect to overtake the two parties with what are very high negative numbers? An even greater question is how can they expect any real success when their premier "candidate" Sarah Palin is believed to be qualified for President by only 29% of all Americans and by less than half of conservatives! To think that any other Tea Party candidate can generate numbers greater than Palin's to become a viable national candidate isn't even reasonable.  But, Tea Party supporters respond, many Americans agree with us on many issues. That is true, but they are misreading the importance of that fact. Given that most Americans are actually moderates, many voters will answer that they agree with numerous positions of Republicans and  Democrats as well. Agreement on "some" issues will be insufficent to build a foundation solid enough to elect candidates outside of the two party framework. Tea Party supporters are likely to be limited to impacting local races and a few Congressional races.

This brings us to what the numbers mean for Republicans. While many Republican leaders are hyping recent poll numbers as favorable to the conservative party, the truth is they should be greatly concerned that the Tea Party movement could blunt what ought to be mid-term election gains. Tea Party supporters are only slightly less unhappy with Republicans than they are with Democrats. Given the fact that Tea Party supporters are overwhelmingly conservative, if they choose to participate within the two party system it will be within the Republican Party. The problem for Republicans is that the Tea Party is far more extreme than most Republican candidates. When the primary season comes, the Tea Party is likely to force competitive primaries in which candidates that are far more conservative are selected. Unfortunately for Republicans, the more extreme a candidate is (whether conservative or liberal), the less electable they become. The result is that a combination of misreading voter angst as a significant move to the right and the uncompromising views of the Tea Party will lead to the presentation of candidates with a lower ability to actually win elections.

So, should Democrats feel good about these facts? Absolutely not! The truth is that Congress (both parties) has lower approval ratings than either party as a whole or than President Obama. The Tea Party movement is more reflective of a general discontent in the nation that leaders of all types (political, financial, business, insurance, etc) are failing miserably in working for the good of the nation. Until some segment of American leadership steps up and shows they are actually working for the people, polls are likely to vascillate wildly between the three choices. This is where the battle for political control will really be won. At this point, neither the Democrats or Republicans, nor the Tea Party should feel confident about their political fortunes. The reality is that at this point anything could happen. Democrats could still salvage their majority. Republicans certainly have a golden opportunity to improve their position. And the Tea Party could muddle up the whole system, especially for Republicans.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

There has been quite a story in television news over the last several days, one I found very inspiring. The Salwen family of Atlanta sold their large historic home, moved to a home half the size, and donated half the sale price of the first home to Hunger Project which works against hunger in Africa. To truly appreciate this story, you first have to understand that this was no ordinary family or home. It was a $1.8 million historic mansion in the heart of Atlanta and the net proceeds were around $800,000.

Many people serve their community and the Salwens are no exception. In fact, the father Kevin is on the board of the Atlanta chapter of Habitat for Humanity. However, few people ever make such a dramatic and impressive commitment to be part of the solution to serving people in greater need than themselves. It seems to have been a family decision. It started with some observations by the 15 year old daughter Hannah when she saw a homeless man and a new Mercedes at the same street corner in Atlanta. After repeated discussions, it was the mother Joan's idea to sell the house (her self-described dream house) and donate the money.

This family should be a great example for everyone in this country during this economically difficult time. I'm not suggesting that people sell everything and give it to the poor (the Salwen's still live in a fairly large, nice home), but rather that we recognize that there are many people in need and we need to step up and make more than just token efforts to help. Real giving often requires real sacrifice. Giving $100 when you have a million really isn't a sacrifice. Devout Christians especially should consider their giving in light of stories like these. Jesus gave everything for us, so we should ask ourselves how our giving compares in the context of his total sacrifice. I encourage everyone to take the time to evaluate what you are truly able to give, compare it to what you have actually been giving, and answer the question of whether you can do more.

I hope you are as inspired by this story as I am. Here is the link to the ABCNews video: http://video.search.yahoo.com/video/play?p=Salwen+family&n=21&ei=utf-8&fr=yfp-t-701&fr2=tabweb&tnr=21&vid=0001864041973

Saturday, February 6, 2010

What You Can Do About Exessive Bank Executive Bonuses

Recently there has been a lot of controversy concerning large bonuses paid to CEOs and other top executives at the nation's largest banks. Ordinary people and politicians alike have been loud in their criticism of these bank executives taking large bonuses, especially in the wake of their recent bailout by the federal government (and thus, ordinary people) that saved them from certain collapse. I have long been a critic of executive compensation practices in America's largest corporations. Too many executives think that they are solely responsible for the success of their company, reaping huge windfalls at the expense of the ordinary workers who are actually responsible for generating corporate profits through their skill, hard work and dedication to that enterprise.

But what can an ordinary citizen do about this situation? PLENTY! In our free enterprise system we all have choices as consumers and those choices have real impact on the profitability of corporations. If you, like myself, are disgusted by these bonuses, you have options.

If you have money in these large banks it is as simple as withdrawing your money and taking it to another financial institution. There are scores of small local/regional banks, savings and loans, and credit unions where you can deposit your money safely. I personally moved my money several years ago to a local credit union with 8 locations, all within one state. These institutions offer the same or similar insured safety as the large banks. In addition, because they are local, they tend to lend money to those in your immediate community, so your deposits help locally rather than in some metropolis hundreds of miles away. In addition, few of them engaged in the kind of risky investment and loan practices that brought so many of the national banks to the brink of collapse. In fact, a suprisingly large number of them reported record or near record profits even during the recent financial meltdown, thanks primarily to their adherence to traditional and secure financial principles.

If, as these "too big to fail" banks seem to believe, money talks, then let yours talk by walking down the street to a local bank that cares about and supports your community. If enough people heed this call, it will send a loud and clear message to the "Wall Street banks" that business as usual will no longer be tolerated and failure to change will result in lower profits.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Stop Bickering!

Do you remember when you were a kid and you would get in a fight with your brother or sister? Remember how it would degenerate into the blame game and name calling with snappy comebacks like "I know you are, but what am I?" and "it takes one to know one"? Am I the only one who sees this in our political system today?

And do you remember how Mom would handle it? After she was done banging your heads together, what did she do? Did she worry about who started it and was to blame? Or did she come up with a solution that worked (at least in part) for both of you? Bingo, she made you compromise and if you objected, she made sure that the next solution was completely impalatable. With my own children I have always made it clear that, in most cases, I don't care so much about who started it as I am with who is mature enough to end it!

I think our two political parties, particularly in Congress, could learn a very valuable lesson from this example. The American people are tired of hearing politicians bicker and blame. They want leaders who are mature enough to get beyond that immature approach and find solutions to the nations' problems. They want leaders who care less about who's to blame (there's plenty of that to go around) and care more about actually leading us to better places. And yes, that means they want leaders who have the maturity and courage to compromise so that each side gets some of what they desire. People are tired of watching the political equivalent of stomping your feet and pulling your hair, when you don't get your way. It's time for our leaders to get down to doing productive work and demonstrating the character exhibited by the leaders that founded this nation 234 years ago.