Friday, April 06, 2007
I feel I owe you something of an apology.
I haven't written for three months, and you may be wondering what happened to me.
I'm still here.
My new job drains away creative energy that I used to tap for this blog and others. I spend my days writing letters to VIPs, explaining the complex operations and programs of a giant government enterprise in simple, clear, direct language. It's not as easy as it sounds.
I also do a huge amount of editing of the written work of others.
Intense pressure and amazingly short deadlines - yesterday I had four hours to comb through a year's reports and make a half-dozen phone calls, then compile a report - these have taken a toll.
Jane says I'm a lot more grouchy than before.
My home business is starting to take off - we are consistently turning a solid profit from week-to-week. And I have discovered that I enjoy using my wits as an entrepreneur and succeeding well at it. In short, making money can be fun.
But, like everything else, it takes time.
I have no plans to abandon blogging. I have some initiatives under way to shed some responsibilities at work and simplify, through automation, others. I am refining my home business operation so that certain tasks that took as long as an hour now take only a few minutes.
So check back in a month or so. There might be something here worth reading.
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
We Can Win Iraq - But We Don't Want To
Regular readers should be surprised to learn I believe victory in Iraq can be won. Not only can we win the war, but we can also win the peace. Moreover, the problems we face have more to with our own irresponsibility, stupidity, self-centeredness and lack of resolve than the recent explosion of sectarian violence in that horrible place.
In short, we are unwilling to make the sacrifices needed to win.
Tonight, as I write this, the president is expected to repudiate former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's war policies by announcing a substantial increase in the number of American solders sent to Iraq. He is also expected to announce a jobs program for Iraq.
Mr. Bush remains true to form with too little, too late. But why too little?
In thinking about what it takes to conquer a nation with a dictatorship form of government and install a genuine, functioning democracy, we should look to the successes of the past. We need not look too far, because we can fairly claim success in Germany and Japan.
At the end of the Second World War, Germany lay shattered and broken. The vaunted German military machine which had rolled over the European continent with astonishing speed was smashed; the great arms factories shattered, along with much else. Clearly, they no longer threatened us or our allies.
We could have withdrawn, as we did at the end of WWI, but we did not. Instead, under the brilliant Secretary of State George C. Marshall, we gave Europe $20 billion, a staggering sum in those days. The Marshall plan required the Europeans to work together to decide how to spend the money, which they did. Some thinkers believe the bodies created by the plan eventually evolved into the European Union. (Read more about the plan here.)
We also established many military bases in Europe, and especially Germany. And guess what - we're still there, some sixty years later.
Not that it took them sixty years to establish an effective democracy; that probably took much less time. However, you can bet it took more than four years.
The United States made huge sacrifices for WWII. People at home accepted rationing and wage-price controls, while the nation fielded huge armies in a titanic struggle.
Nowadays, the vast majority of Americans are unaffected by the war. We continue to drive our gas-hogging SUVs, much to the delight of our enemies. We mourn the loss of over 3,000 American lives over the course of the last four years, but really, that's a tiny fraction of the number killed on our highways each year. (42,000, or 168,000 over four years.)
During WWII, everyone bought bonds to finance the war. But this is being financed by the Chinese buying up our debts. We are not even expected to pay higher taxes to support the war, though it appears likely our children and grandchildren will.
Many of the same things principles that applied to Germany also applied to Japan. That nation is the only one in history to have been attacked with nuclear weapons. We're still there, too.
While we're considering the lessons of history, let's think about the big war we lost - Vietnam. We tried to install a democracy there, too. We tried to turn the war over to the local forces there, too. We left, promising the South Vietnamese aid that, as it turned out, the Congress was too stingy to send. President Lyndon Johnson's request for a half-billion dollar aid package was turned down, and Siagon fell two months later.
If we pour enough into Iraq, we can the outcome we want. To win would require genuine sacrifices. Not an increase in troops of ten or twenty percent, but a doubling or tripling of the forces there. The aim would be to disarm the Iraqi people, and to protect the defenseless survivors. We would need to search every shed, every house, every building for weapons on micro-destruction; pistols and rifles, as well as bomb making supplies. We would need to watch and patrol every street in every city, day and night; siezing arms and explosives and arresting people. At the same time, we would need a new Marshall plan. Money could be given to the Iraqis, conditioned on their internal agreement on how to spend it.
Lastly, we would have to recognize we are there to stay. It might be possible to reduce our troop levels after two or three years of intensive pacification, but we would still need a sizable force, more or less permanantly.
This would work. But we do not have the will to make it work.
It would require tremendous sacrifices of the American people. It would require a military draft, and untold billions of dollars, and tax increases. It would take too much.
But too little effort can only worsen the situation. We cannot build a house with just one nail, or a village with a single barrel of nails. Anything we put up will fall back down. In a previous post, I detailed why the "surge"can only worsen the situation.
Perhaps the president will explain tonight why he is ignoring the lessons of history. Perhaps he will put forth a compelling case for his "surge" in troop level. Perhaps he will give us an intellectually honest, rigorous and thorough discourse which will persuade us that our assessements and the assessements of his generals are mistaken.
But don't bet money on it.
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
I Fear to Speak
I fear the words in this space will be used against me.
I know that my fear seems a little, well, paranoid. Most any reasonable person, looking at my writing as a whole, would conclude that I am a patriotic American.
But reasonable people do not worry me. The people I fear measure your patriotism by how closely your words match their thoughts. They say it is unpatriotic to disagree with the president - which I do. They say opposition to the war encourages the enemy - and I oppose the war.
Reasonable Americans value our long traditions of civil liberties, freedoms that come to us earlier than the Bill to Rights to pre-revolution days and back to very old British common law. I fear the guys who arrested and held an American citizen without trial. I fear the guys who feel that they should be allowed to torture anyone they suspect of being a terrorist - and they decide who that is.
I fear the equation that says opposition to the war equals aid to terrorists equals being a terrorist.
In todays news we learned that the NSA, the most secretive spy agency in the country, has established a cozy relationship with Microsoft. Read about it here. The spies helped the giant software company create security for their newest operating system, Vista. We also learned that other operating systems, including Apple's OS X and Windows XP, have been operated on by the wizards at NSA.
Who knows more about electronic security than the master spy agency? No one.
But in a climate of warrentless wiretaps and expanded presidential power to open our mail, the thought that the NSA may have written code used in computers all around the world gives one pause. Who know what they did with that opportunity? It's plausible that they could plant a few lines of code to enable them to spy on any computer, any time, for any purpose.
Six years ago, anyone saying the United States would launch a war on Iraq based on thin, possibly fabricated intelligence would have gotten zero airtime. The notion that we would spy on our own citizens and open mail without a search warrent would have been dismissed as absurd. That we would hold people without trial or charges, that we would operate secret prisons and condone torture would have been labelled hopelessly insane.
Paranoid beyond belief.
Like the Germans in the 1930s, we would be saying, "It can't happen here."
I fear speaking out. I feel paranoid.
But I fear remaining silent even more.
Friday, January 05, 2007
Drownings of the New Year
Individuals and cultures change, over time. My boss and I had a short philosophical discussion about that change, and the shape it takes. His thesis is that people no longer care about anything that does not directly affect them; moreover, interest quickly dies beyond the very short term. He thinks people used to care - our parents' generation did.
They are all of sufficiently advanced age, if still living, not to care any longer.
Pinpointing the sea changes of the culture one belongs to must be one of the hardest tasks imaginable. I cannot imagine how to do that. It's like swimming in an ocean and trying to rise up high enough to see beyond the waves.
We often observe how we detest that awful rap music, just as our parents hated rock-n-roll. Of course, our grandparents hated the music of their children, and so on, beyond living memory.
And people still complain of the same flaws from generation to generation. Ever since the sixties (my generation) the indifference of the young to social and moral responsibility appears to worsen continually.
But does it, really?
We can point to the structure of TV shows, movies and video games to see an erosion of attention spans. The news cycle gets shorter and shorter. People not much younger than myself don't read newspapers - our house is the only one on the block with regular delivery. Ours is also the only one with a re-cycling bin at the curb every week.
But we can see very clearly that something in American culture has changed - as if the waters we swim in had cooled, or the waves become rougher. Silly us, we forgot to pack the thermometer.
It is said that a culture and a society, particularly a democracy, gets the leadership it deserves. A rougher, cruder nation earns rougher, cruder leaders. Where are the Truman's, the Adlai Stevensons, the Kennedys of today? If we don't vote - and the number of people exercising that right continues to decline - we mute our own voices. The loudest, emptiest voices are all that's heard. We get stuck with dull, dumb leaders lacking in foresight but full of themselves and arrogant pride, drowning out the sounds of moderation, temperance and wisdom.
If we remain silent when injustices are inflicted on others, then only time lies between us and fresh pain.
This New Year marks the start of a new presidential campaign. (Does a shorter attention span require a longer campaign season?) As of today, ten men and women are running for president.
How's this for a resolution: I resolve to work to deserve the best leadership.
Happy Bloody New Year.
Friday, December 29, 2006
Iraq - Blame the Victim
The argument, superficially valid, points out that the civil war in that long suffering country consists of Iraqis killing each other. The United States did not start the sectarian violence, we have been trying to stop it.
For those who avoid the depressing news, the KC Star ran a fascinating look at the current situation in Baghdad in today's edition. The streets are full of armed men, belonging to various groups. Trucks piled high with belongings ferry the last few stragglers in and out of enclaves. Illegal checkpoints dot the roads; people are detained and killed pretty much at random, based on the most superficial signs of which sect a person happens to adhere to. Anyone foolhardy or desperate enough to leave whatever shelter they've found must carefully consider how they tie their head scarves, which colors they wear, and what phone numbers are programmed into their cell phones. Even if you don't make any mistakes, you still risk death by torture.
Much of the violence is between Sunni and Shiia followers of Islam.
Before the United States travels too far down the road of blaming the Iraqis for the current state of affairs, a review of very recent history would be helpful.
Under the leadership of president George Bush, the United States invaded and occupied Iraq. Under Mr. Bush, the United States dismantled the Iraqi military and police forces, and nearly all the government. Under the direction of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the occupying force was too small to replace the functions of the police force. Looting broke out almost immediately. With the advice of Vice-President Dick Cheney, the United States, instead of employing the jobless men of Iraq, awarded no-bid contracts to Halliburton and other rich domestic companies to re-build the nation. The United States made no discernible effort to disarm the Iraqi people, who were already well armed by Saddam.
Therefore, the United States created a large, hostile, idle pool of armed men in a nation which already held deep sectarian hatreds with long histories.
So be very clear; yes, the Iraqis are killing each other. But it is the United States that bears the brunt of the moral responsibility for allowing that to happen.
Thursday, December 28, 2006
The Power of No and the President
Ford reluctantly took office in the spirit of public service, to help the nation overcome the disastrous end of the Nixon administration. Although one could argue Nixon's foreign policy included some brilliant successes, his domestic policies were an unqualified disaster. Years of wage-price controls only worsened the economic problems they had been designed to cure.
Who remembers the short-lived "Whip Inflation Now" campaign? Ford's first attempt to fix the economy pitted implacable market forces against slogans, buttons and stickers. It didn't work.
But Ford hit the brakes on Congressional spending. His vetoes saved billions and billions of dollars of public spending. Even though he was a Republican and the Congress was in the hands of the Democratic Party, most of his vetoes were upheld. When he left office, the nation was much better off than when he took office. We were at peace, and the economy had improved.
As many will say in the next few days, Ford helped heal the nation after the trauma of Nixon's resignation and the bloody end of the Vietnam war. But Ford deserves quite a bit a credit for his veto record as well, something often overlooked in noting his accomplishments.
Friday, December 22, 2006
The Xmas Season - Xcess, Xhaustion, and Xscasty
First, an Xcess of material goods must be amassed; gifts, we call 'em. These objects embody in physical form our love for our family and friends. We hope the Xpressions on the faces of those recipients unwrapping our presents to them will justify the Xtra effort and cost of placing those things in their hands. The children, unskilled in the poker game of social relations, will give us honest answers with their smiles and grins, and the twinkles in their eyes.
We wish we could give a facile dismissal to the crass materialism of an American Xmas, but we cannot. The tradition thrives because so many people use it to confirm the tender feelings we have for each other. To those of us who grew up poor, a new tv, cell phone or camera means we are loved. To those of us who grew up poor, giving an expensive gift represents the sacrifice of love.
Yes, time, attention, devotion and providing food, warmth and shelter for another are superior markers of affection; but the material gifts of toys and gadgets also symbolize and convey love when the other needs are already abundantly met.
The frenzy of wrapping means four hours of sleep on Xmas eve, typical for a parent. Long after late night church, long after the kids begin to dream of Santa, Mom or Dad or both, labor to produce those golden early Xmas morning minutes. In the wee hours we manufacture those happy moments, a few hours later, when the kids wake and the gift exchange starts.
Legend holds that gift giving on Xmas began with X's birth, when the Magi rode into town carrying gifts for the baby X. But the ancient rituals pre-date X by untold centuries. The traditions varied greatly, so what we know today really is the product of today.
Even in the good old USA, Xmas itself declined sharply during the early 1800's. It fell out of favor for a while, and was barely practised. A fellow named Dickens revived it, almost single handedly.
Nowadays, midnight or late church services mark Xmas eve. For me, the church service is the highlight and the best part of the whole Xmas season. Holding a lit candle, in a large darkened room, singing with hundreds of others about the most holy and elevated feelings, is close to Xcasty. The feeling of joy lightens my heart and removes the crushing oppression of the many Xcesses and Xhaustion.
Each Christian forges his own relationship with X. So, too, Xmas means something different for each practitioner.
Incidentally, the versatile "X" as stand-in for the word "Christ" goes all the way back to very early Greek versions of the New Testament. The letter "X," or Greek "chi" is the first letter of the word, "Christ."
Merry Xmas, gentle readers. Merry Xmas to you all.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Blood Will Have Blood
"It will have blood, they say, blood will have blood." MacBeth, Act III, Scene 4.
Less than 60 days after we were assured that the escalating violence in Iraq was aimed at influencing our own elections, the folks who always get it wrong are now saying we need to throw more troops into the fray.
Fellows, if the October violence was aimed at dislodging Republicans from power, why is it now so much worse? What kind of arrogant narcissism thinks that mass killings half a world away are aimed at prying loose the scoundrel's grasp on power? Try to grow up and face your mistakes: you got it wrong, wrong, wrong.
Bill Kristol, among other talking heads, advocates a short deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Iraq, and soon. He says we could change the mission (again) of the occupying force to secure the city of Baghdad.
Boys, here's a tip you can use: don't hose a blaze with gasoline.
In Act III, Lady Macbeth sorrows deeply; grief and conscience stricken, she clearly foresees the deadly consequences of her murderous acts. Shakespeare illustrates the tragic consequences of greedy ambition, pride, and blind lust-for-power. The path of vendetta must run its course; the tragedy, once set in motion, cannot be stopped.
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it
-- Omar Khayyam as translated by Fitzgerald.
I would not expect the frat boys in the executive branch to know Macbeth or Omar Khayyam; but you would at least think they looked at Machiavelli back in college.
"The injury we do to a man must be such that we need not fear his vengeance." The Prince.
The United States, under the leadership of the Bush administration, attacked and occupied a foreign land out of pride, ignorance, blind ambition and endless arrogance. The United States, its leaders and its people, neither understand nor care to learn about the ancient tribes now suffering in that miserable place. How many Americans know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite? Do Americans know where the Kurds live? (No. The newly appointed head of the Senate Intelligence Committee was embarrassed last week because of his stunning ignorance. Learn some history here.)
The brutal dictator Saddam held the various factions of Iraq together by ruling with an iron fist. By all objective accounts, his treatment of his subjects was horrendous. The world reacted with horror as accounts of attacks on civilian populations with poison gas leaked out.
Before the latest war with Iraq, the suspicion that he still had weapons of mass terror seemed quite reasonable. Saddam himself wanted to make it appear he was hiding those weapons. The world situation called for prudence, wisdom, and strategic thinking.
But the United States cast aside prudence, wisdom and strategic thought by recklessly invading Iraq without bothering to learn about it. Saddam's armies and his political party were crushed. The iron fist restraining the ancient feuds and hatreds was broken.
This is the kind of action one would expect from a power grown soft in the head. It is the act of a bully, taking his fury out on a target, not because he was wronged by that individual, but he was wronged by someone, and someone has to pay.
The phrase coming from our leaders, spoken at various times by president Bush, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Homeland Security Chief Chertoff, the phrase that will become the most haunting and telling phrase of our times is, "No one could have foreseen this."
The truth is, many, many, many people foresaw the bloody consequences of smashing Iraq's iron fist.
Now we are left with "ignorant armies that clash by night." We are left with too many blood feuds and vendettas to count.
The facts on the ground are that Baghdad has already split geographically into Sunni and Shiia neighborhoods. If a Sunni or Shiia strays into the wrong part of the city, death will be slow and painful, but certain. But factions of the Shiia and Sunni camps are also waging war on themselves. The fact is inflation runs at 50 percent in Iraq. The fact is that 60 percent of the men are unemployed.
They join militias because they can. They join militias to protect themselves. They join militias to get revenge.
The facts is that more US troops will not bring back the dead; more US troops will not employ millions of men; more US troops will not bring security to the city.
The fact is that our own general in command of US forces in Iraq opposes bringing more of our troops to the battle.
The "surge" theory finds support from the same right-wing talking heads who thought the invasion was a fine idea. These guys spin their fantasies from the safety of their studios and then go to a comfortable home at night; while on the other side of the earth, real people die.
Please pray with all your might that our leaders become wise. Pray that God will open their eyes. Pray for the poor people of Iraq. Pray for our troops. It would appear that only God can save them now.
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Time for JoCo RINOs to Switch Parties
For you out-of-state readers, Zombie Klien was the man overwhelmingly rejected by the county and the state as a leader in last month's election. The now undead former Kansas AG sustained his political life with his binary view on abortion. In fact, he achieved his 15 minutes of fame on O'Reilly, when host Bill claimed to have received inside information from private abortion clinic records Kline had subpoenaed. Of course, if Kline did give the talking head information from those files, then Kline would have violated any number of laws. Kline claimed the records contained evidence of crimes. To date, no charges resulted from his fishing expedition into the private lives of Kansas women.
Because Morrison ran for Johnson County prosecutor as a Republican, the party got to select his replacement. Precinct captains and party functionaries got together earlier this week to choose. One of the candidates was a deputy prosecutor who has actual experience under Morrison. Of course, Kline has no experience as a prosecutor. Kline surprised the assembled Republicans by asking for the chief prosecutor's job. The day before, he had declared his residency in a Stanley apartment belonging to two Republican party stalwarts.
If moderate voters needed proof that the Kansas Republican party is totally uninterested in their views, this Kline appointment is it.
So, as we moderates wipe this spit from our eyes, lets wipe away some illusions, too.
Like many others, I registered as a Republican because Kansas has a long history of electing only Republicans. I hoped to influence the party to become more moderate by voting for moderate candidates in the primaries.
This strategy failed. The Kansas Republican party has moved right while the rest of us returned to the center. The party has become more monochromatic than ever.
As proof, consider their taking this proven loser and installing him as DA. The project should have been DOA, but the party just can't seem to get too far too the right to suit themselves, so it made perfect sense to the right-wing activists in charge.
The time to switch parties is now. Let them keep their progress towards an ever more radically conservative party. Let them cling to 19th century thinking. The rest us of need to move on.
Information on how to switch party affiliation can be found here.
The elections of last month prove that Kansas moderates do have a voice and do have a chance to get elected - if they run as Democrats. Look at Nancy Boyda, Paul Morrison, and Dennis Moore.
Both national parties look at the numbers of registered Republicans and Democrats when deciding on which races to support with money and volunteers. Growth in the numbers of registered Democrats in the county and the state will definitely attract attention. So will losses on the Republican side.
Help bury the political career of Phill Kline - the dead should stay dead, it's not right that he walks among us in Johnson County.
The time has come to register your protest to the Kline fiasco by registering your vote with the other party. Let them know how you really feel.
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Never have I written one of these letters, but this year, for the first time, I will mention some of the blessings we have been fortunate to receive:
- We shared our wealth, giving what feels like a substantial part of our income to the church and to others less fortunate than us.
- We shared a trip to a fabulous Mexican Riviera resort with a friend who is suffering from cancer.
- Natasha traveled hundreds of miles on a church mission trip to help people she had never met.
- Samantha helped every day with Vacation Bible School.
- We bought three gallons of milk every month and donated them to a food kitchen.
- We set out and took up flags marking the graves of vets during the week of Memorial Day.
- We taught Sunday School.
- My lovely wife and I attended religious instruction at a friend's home.
- We organized activities at church.
- My lovely wife served as Girl Scout leader.
- She also continued as President of a VFW Ladies auxiliary.
- We helped a neighbor who had an unfortunate incident with her dog.
- We helped a friend who's baby was born with no mental functions.
- We went to funerals.
- I posted stories, opinions and ideas to the Internet, hoping to increase awareness and to provoke thought.
- We regularly went to church.
- We donated food to the school food pantry drive.
- We donated to the charity drive at work.
- We recycled plastic, metal, cardboard and newsprint every week.
- I continue to try not to speed on the highway.
Gentle readers, you may think these activities blessed others, and you would be right. But these things blessed us more. Forgive me if I regard these as the really noteworthy accomplishments for the family in the past year.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
That's right, nearly 12% of American households lacked food; looked at another way, that's over one in ten.
Skeptics have frequently claimed in the past that the annual report by the USDA was fabricated. According to an article in the Washington Post, Texas governor George Bush said words to that effect in 1999, accusing the democratically controlled administration of trying to cast Texas in a bad light. Texas is one of the worst states for "food insecurity," which is the current term used to obfuscate the issue. This year, the report was delayed until after the election, and Democrats charged the department with political motives.
Politicians can attack the motives behind the report, but curiously, there does not seem to be specific criticism of the methodology and process used to compile the figures.
Nearly 11 million Americans reported actually going hungry in 2005.
The data bolsters my contention that we are becoming more like a third world nation every day.
The statistics show some improvement of the problem; the current "food insecure" figure of 11% is higher than the previous year's 11.9%.
We can only hope and pray that God softens the hearts our people; for Americans are a stiff-necked people, unable to hear the words of hope and unable to answer the call to compassion.
(The report itself can be found here.)
Monday, October 23, 2006
Kansas Gov Cadidate Barnett Visits Adult Sunday School Class
Such a nice man, a doctor, and pretty well-informed. He is, of course, wrong on many things, but I must say, he struck me as sincere. He just needs someone with a deeper understanding of public service to brief him.
He opposes school vouchers, for the same reasons right-thinking Kansas everywhere oppose them. Vouchers undermine public schools by taking tax money and spending it on private schools.
He is running against the state government, a time honored tradation now - to run on a platform of attacking the institution you wish to head. He says the state government in Kansas has grown faster than the governments of the other 49 states, and points to numbers of employees as evidence.
This is worth talking about, because the number of employees is only one indicator of the size of government. Because many government services are contracted out, the actual numbers of employees could decline markedly over a few years while the size of the government mushrooms. (In fact, this is precisely the situation at the federal level - we now have far fewer feds, but the size of the national goverment has exploded. We now have vast numbers of "shadow" employees through contracters.)
A more interesting measure would be percentage of gross state product spent on government - sort of GDP at the state level.
I asked Barnett about the school finance formula. He said he would change it by increasing the local option budget, but not by too much. In essence, he would leave the present system in place, with only minor adjustments that would appeal to Johnson County.
If you read my posts of a few months ago, you know I feel the whole rotten system must be scrapped.
He did take the time to denounce governor Sibelius, although his manner was polite.
Barnett feels very strongly that the current system of health insurance does not meet the needs of the state. He would patch the current system by requiring insurance companies to offer low cost coverage to certain classes of poor people.
He rightly identifies part of the problem, but the solution still escapes him. His proposal simply shifts the cost of an expensive, ineffective system to those who already have insurance, with a dollop of gravy reserved for the insurance companies.
Barnett would require proof of citizenship before any state services would be permitted to an individual. When asked if he would give medical treatement to somebody without papers, he said he would.
As a nation, we are moving towards having a national i.d. card. Resistance to the idea has waned in the face of terrorism. I can forsee a day, soon, when any person can be stopped at any time, and have to produce proof of identity. Although I'm sure Barnett would argue that his proposal does no such thing, I fear it is another step down that path.
Barnett looks you right in the eye. He says "I'm not a politician." For the record, he talks like a politician, walks like a politician, shakes hands like a politician, and thinks like a politician.
Friday, October 06, 2006
Foley: Hysteria or Hype?
"Leaders" in Congress and the talking heads on Fox news blame the democrats and ABC news for Foley's troubles. The democrats are to blame? Those antics make it hard to keep a smile off my lips.
But a more thoughtful response might put Foley into perspective.
Let us note: he did not take bribes from contractors working on Iraqi reconstruction; he did not (as far as we know) take money and favors from the crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff; he did not order troops into battle or start any preventitive wars.
In fact, no body fluids were actually exchanged.
Not that I condone sexual messages from an adult to a minor, far from it. But I'm not going to froth at the mouth over it, either.
On the grand scale of outrages, this hardly registers. My concerns are the increasing concentration of wealth and widening pool of poverty in this nation. I worry about the 8,000 kids in my town who go to bed hungry every night. I worry about friends and acquaintances who, despite having good insurance, cannot afford life-sustaining medicines.
Every single day we waste time focused on this scandal, we are not focused on the men and women fighting and dying in Iraq. Every hour we worry over some instant message to a 16 year-old, is an hour not spent pursuing the billions of dollars being stolen from the United States and Iraq by crooked contractors; each minute of airtime spent castigating the Speaker of the House is a minute spent not working to end the genocide in Darfur.
Foley did wrong; he resigned, he's in treatment and under FBI investigation.
Lets move on to truly important issues.
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
Did Al Qaeda or Bush Start the War in Afghanistan?
Thanks for taking the time to comment on my blog. You have a legitimate point to make, though I feel you could have made it better.
If I took your comment at face value, it would be like saying "Oklahoma declared war on the United States when Tim McVeigh blew up 195 of our people." But I will try to respect what you meant.
Given the tolerance the Taliban had for Osama and his minions, the case for going to war in Afghanistan was pretty strong. That being said, it's crystal clear that the Taliban is not the same thing as Afghanistan; and, of course, Osama and his followers are not native to that country. If we are to win, we must be clear about the facts and not blur important distinctions for the sake of scoring rhetorical points. Neither Afghanistan nor the Afghan people attacked the United States.
I urge you to think, write and speak clearly, long-term and strategically; our enemies do.
Try thinking through the purpose and operation of terrorism. It is not simply a blind outpouring of hatred; it has its own "think tanks," sophisticated logic and ideology. The September 11th attack proves the danger of underestimating the enemy.
We chose our response to the attack on September 11, and we chose war. We could have responded by narrowly focusing on Al Qaeda, the gang that instigated the attack. Instead, we invaded. Given the facts on the ground, that is, that a narrow retaliation like the cruise missle strike Clinton ordered during his term would most likely fail, war to rout the Taliban and Al Qaeda was logical.
Of course, from a larger, strategic perspective, the issue is more problematic. One of the certain consequences of war is to make more enemies. This calculation, incidentally, is the logic that drives genocides.
The purpose of terror tactics, briefly, is not merely to strike terror in the heart of the enemy. In fact, history shows that a people's resolve is strengthened during a struggle; so long as hope of eventual victory remains, people will keep on fighting. No, the purpose of terror is to provoke an overwhelming and disproportionate response that harms innocents. The aggrieved innocents then become the enemies of the one struck by terror, and allies of the terrorists. This is why the national intelligence estimate says that the war in Iraq has actually made us less safe.
We must understand history, politics and look at how other movements have succeeded or failed. Our enemies do. At this point, it would be most illuminating to examine the French experience in Algeria. (Here: http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0PBZ/is_4_85/ai_n15674586)
I think it is important that we explore whether or not agreement on the facts is possible as part of working together towards making us and the world safer.
So, yes, there is a sense in which you can say Al Qaeda started the war; just as you can say the United States fell into the trap and continues to respond according to Osama's plan.
Sunday, October 01, 2006
(Note the photo is a link to a larger version of the image.)
These guys are actually descended from the ancient Mayans. They dress up for the tourists and strike a pose as part of the show put on at Xcaret.
The show features these guys, barefoot and barelegged, playing hockey with, literally, balls of fire. The wooden balls are about the size of a basketball, and have been soaked in some flammable liquid. The guys slap the ball hard enough to send if flying across an 80 meter or so long arena. Sometimes the ball shatters in a shower of sparks and flaming shards. The arena has a stone floor, and seats maybe five thousand or so. The games and show are way cool - highly recommended.
They also play a traditional game with a heavy leather ball. In this game, only the hips can contact the ball. A sideways stone hoop is mounted on the wall; the first team to get the ball through the hoop wins.
The Mayans were playing these sports and building a high civilization at about the time of Plato and Aristotle. I seldom think of any ancient civilzation as very advanced other than our own ancient European ancestors, but that's a bad habit.
Monday, September 25, 2006
Vacationing With Cancer
She fights her cancer with dignity and determination.
(In the photo at left, we see Dawn with a hat made from a cloth napkin.)
Some time ago, Jane and I laid plans to travel up to Canada in July. A nice vacation to get away from the heat of what we thought might be an unusually hot summer. Our children wanted to visit Chicago on the way; I have never seen Niagra Falls. But when we learned of Dawn's diagnosis, we reconsidered.
Dawn had never been to the Carribean; never been in waters so clear you can see fifty feet; never had a vacation that didn't require at least a few chores each day; never been snorkling; and never had done many things we thought she would enjoy. So Jane and I invited her and her son to accompany us to a beach resort in Mexico, south of Cancun. At the resort, literally everything would be done for her and provided for her; all meals were included, full maid service, room service, entertainment, beach activities, etc., etc.
She could hardly contain her excitement.
Though I worried about whether her health would hold, it gave Jane and me a lot of satisfaction. As Jane said, this trip gave Dawn something else to live for.
We cancelled our Canadian reservations and made arrangements to travel to Playa del Carmen.
When our closest friends learned of our plans, they wanted to come, too. One of our friends stepped up and paid a share of the cost of taking Dawn and her son.
Nine of us flew to Cancun at the end of July. Our flights went well. Dawn, in a wheelchair, moved our party to the head of various lines. We received extra help from the airlines and at the airports. We got a chuckle out of the helpers in the Cancun airport who assumed that Dawn and our single gay friend were married.
Funny how things work out. Dawn gets comfort and relief from an herbal tea she brews at home. Since the rooms at the resort lacked any kind of cooking facility but did have mini-fridges, she brewed up some in advance. The tea, packed in a cloth cooler and surrounded by frozen water bottles, survived as a carry-on quite well. Of course, only a week after our return home all carry-on liquids were banished.
We went to the beach or the swimming pool or both every day. The weather remained perfect for us all week long, never raining and never getting as hot as it was back home. The ocean waves helped with Dawn's arthritis, and she was getting around better when we left than when we arrived.
We went to the ruins and the world-class beach at Tulum; we toured the fabulous eco-park at Xcaret; in short, we had a wonderful vacation.
What does it mean, to vacation with cancer? What is it like, to think the time left might be only months and not years? Of course, what cancer brings with it is immediate awareness of mortality. But are we not all mortal? Do we not all choose how to ration our days? Dawn's example teaches us to make these choices carefully; to spend time with friends and loved ones; to do that which matters and forsake that which doesn't.
Her example teaches us to rely on God for sustaining strength.
Dawn gets around with a walker now, and continues to fight for her life. She works every day, and does what she can for charity and to help others. She also continues to plan for the future; she knows who she wants to conduct her funeral services.
In her quiet, determined way, Dawn shows us how to be worthy.
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
My friends, sensible, reliable, people you would be glad to have in your home, grew up on a Republican party that stood for high moral values. The party they supported stood for fiscal conservatism, personal responsibility, small government, and maximum personal freedom. They were from the proud tradition of Abraham Lincoln.
Theirs was not the pro-torture, pro-secret prisons party the Republicans have become. Their party would never have openly advocated the general suspension of civil liberties. Their party, somewhat isolationist, would never have supported a "pre-emptive" war.
I remember being told by a staunch Republican friend in the 1980's that the Democrats always got us into wars. After all, a Democrat held the presidency at the outbreak of both World Wars, the Korean War and Vietnam. Well, no longer.
The new, 21st Century Republicans started two wars, Afghanistan and Iraq. The 21st Century Republican party presided over the largest increases in federal spending in history. The 21st Century Republican party vastly expanded the reach and scope of federal government intrusion into the private lives of all of us.
My Republican friends don't talk politics much anymore. But they still vote.
Friday, September 15, 2006
Osama & George Bush - BFF
If Osama is so dangerous, Mr. President, why is he still at large? Where are the resources, the money and manpower, needed to capture him?
Well, we knew he was in Afghanistan, so we invaded and now we own the responsibility for the world's prime source of opium. But we let Osama get away. Why and how is that?
And, instead of chasing him, we invaded Iraq. Why, Mr. President, why?
Why did you dismantle the CIA unit charged with finding him?
Now, five years later, Osama the bogeyman is trotted out as evidence we need to continue the policies of wars and invasions.
In a rational universe, his continued freedom would instead be taken as evidence of incompetence. He is the world's most wanted man; he has been for five years. Yet he is still free. In what warped perception can that be taken as proof of efficiency and effectiveness? How can that be used to claim we should continue with more of the same?
When I was in ROTC, they pounded a few very simple messages into my head. "Don't exploit failure," they repeated. It means do not continue to squander men and wealth in futile operations that have been shown not to work. This particular piece of military logic applies to all aspect of life, but especially to war.
Osama used modern technology, which gives great power to individuals; a mere 19 men struck on September 11. Yet they caused the kind of damage that formerly took a whole army of enemies.
What would be the proper reaction to a blow dealt by an "army" of 19 men? (We used to call them "gangs," but now that seems hardly appropriate.) The president decided the proper reaction was to marshall our own armies of and invade foreign nations. We now have over one hundred thousand troops in Iraq.
In what reality is it smart to react to sporadic attacks by a few dozen individuals with bombs dropped on the families of ten thousand innocents? What do we gain, other than whole hosts of new enemies?
In what cruel world did the United States, the "last, best hope of mankind" become the sponsor of secret prisons, indefinite confinement without trial, and torture?
The nation I grew up in was a nation of high moral standards and the best conduct in foreign affairs. It was a nation that followed the golden rule in international politics.
My father, a career Army officer, a former golden gloves boxer, taught me to never strike the first blow in a fight. But this is exactly what the president's doctrine of "preventative war" is all about. The president's notion that we should hit them first was condemned by every major religious group, every Christian denomination in the world except one. (The Southern Baptist.)
Osma is the president's best friend because he can be trotted out as justification for all the mistakes and all the atrocities committed in the name of the American people. Osama is the president's best friend because only Osama can save the Republican party.
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
In his memo, the AG also discussed plans to "Get the pastor to invite 5 money people, whom he knows can help."
Of course lawyer Kline knows a church cannot maintain tax-exempt status if it allows fundraising on the premises or actual campaigning from the pulpit. What I do not understand why the churches aren't worried about their tax-exempt status; the law so very plainly prohibits a church from endorsing a candidate.
That's why Kline will likely avoid direct electioneering during his "sermon" and will probably meet prospective contributors offsite.
One has to wonder - will the meetings discuss Jesus's concerns about the poor and needy; or the wants of those who, in Kline's words, "... can drop $1,000 to $2,000."
The thought of a candidate campaigning for office from a Christian pulpit, or any pulpit, makes my skin crawl.
You can call it a "dirt removal implementation device" but it's still a spade. And a stump speech is still a stump speech, even when given from a pulpit.
Thursday, August 31, 2006
More Work at Low Pay Increases Household Income
"A rising tide lifts all boats," lost all meaning some time ago. Of course, the economy is not an ocean tide, an information system, a price structure nor anything other than a socially constructed system of agreements on the production and distribution of the material goods of life. All such systems evolve to increase the benefit of the rule makers to the detriment of everyone else; which evolution seems to be accelerating in our country over the last few years.
We can take little comfort from the increase in real income detailed by the Census Bureau report. Instead, the brazen attempt to put lipstick on this pig fills me with revulsion. Bad enough that the children of the poor often live in environments hostile to healthy families; now we see the parents of poor children forced to take on second jobs just to survive.
Coupled with the large increase in the uninsured population, the total picture is one of increasing social inequality.
Rumsfeld & Rhetorical Errors
The ancient rhetorical tactic of attacking one's opposition in lieu of their arguments was identified centuries ago and given a Latin name, ad hominem. Beginning students of rhetoric and logic learn to recognize this fallacy in first-year classes.
Rumsfeld is further quoted as saying, "Any kind of moral and intellectual confusion about who and what is right or wrong can severely weaken the ability of free societies to persevere." So, his argument appears to mean that free and open debate will lead to our conquest by the enemies of free and open debate, thus ending free and open debate.
I guess we can no longer blog for fear of bringing down Western civilization.
Asked to name the morally and intellectually confused enemies of free and open debate, Rumsfeld flamed out, unable to come up with even a single example.
Well, Mr. Secretary, I humbly submit that you should spend some quality time in front of a mirror.
Sunday, August 27, 2006
Of Gutters and Murder
His father was murdered.
C.J.,the little boy in this picture, plays with water pistols while his sister strikes a pose. His father just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The family tells me he never hurt anyone, he was a harmless man tied up in nasty business.
C.J.'s mom works for the postal service.
I borrowed the photo from the grandmother of the kids, a woman I work closely with. Connie is blessed with a sharp mind and a kind heart. I often seek her help with puzzling questions of the application of law and regulations. She is white; her former husband was black; by the illogic of race relations, that makes the grandchildren black.
Whenever I would visit Connie in her cubicle, this photograph would catch my eye. Something about it disturbed me deeply.
It was not Imani, looking pretty and happy in the yard. And God help me, the fact that C.J.'s father was murdered didn't really hit me emotionally. I regret the man's fate in a sort of general, abstract way. Like something that happened in a foreign country, far, far away.
Incidentally, the family lives in Kansas City, Mo. Last year, that city experienced 120 homicides. Adjoining Johnson County, Kan., with roughly the same population, had a total of 10 murders in 2005. Of course, in Kansas City, virtually all the victims were black.
No, the gutter torn from the back of the house bothered me. You can see it hanging off the house in the picture, right behind C.J.'s head. The angle artfully echos Imani's pose.
In the last few years I've put gutters on three houses. The new, plastic materials make the job relatively easy, well within the reach of even a rank amatuer like myself.
I have no reason to think that C.J.'s father would have fixed the gutter, and no reason to think he would not. Connie told me that, before the murder, he had started to do things around the house. I knew after the murder, no one would fix it any time soon.
Connie told me about water problems at the house where her grandkids lived. I told her if she would pay for materials, I'd fix the gutters for free.
So, on a warm day a few years ago, I headed off to the builder's supply store and bought all the materials I'd need. I lashed them to the roof of my ancient Aerostar minivan, along with my 32' and 16' ladders, and off I went.
Once at the house, I unloaded the gutters, downspouts, nails and other stuff. I set the long ladder up at the corner of the house. The angle was less than ideal, and the ladder's feet sat on very damp soil. But I charged right up anyway, eager to get to work.
A moment after I reached the top, the ladder slid down and I landed on top of it. Stunned, I paused for a moment. My chin bled profusely and my shin hurt like the devil. After a moment, I picked myself up and went inside.
Connie gave me bandaids and tylenol. I waited to see if the bleeding would stop, but it didn't. I wanted to finish what I had come to do, but I started feeling weak and lightheaded. I decided to go home.
I drove slowly, across the state line, a drive of about 40 minutes on I-435. I left an area of smaller homes and somewhat unkept yards and arrived in my neighborhood of big houses on immaculately groomed lots. From one-car garages and torn gutters to three car garages and lawn services.
The rest of my family was at church for some social activity. I showered and put on fresh clothes and band aids, then I joined them.
As I was eating my pizza, my wife came and found me. "Someone told me you were here, and you are bleeding."
"I am?" I asked.
"Don't you think you should go see the doctor?"
"Oh, I guess so."
So I called the doctor and they sent me to the ER. I got 12 stitches in my chin and 13 in my shin. I went home and parked myself in front of the tv.
A few weeks later I called Tony, a pal at work. He agreed to help me fix the gutters, so long as he did not have to climb the ladders.
We met over at the house on a week-end morning and went to work. Tony held the ladder and watched what I was doing. He helped me think through the work and kept me from making some mistakes. After working most of the afternoon, we were done. About five hours of work.
The black spot on my shin is long gone, but I still have a little scar on my chin to remind me not to take on too big a project on my own.
And now, when I look at the picture of Imani and C.J., the hanging gutter does not bother me.
Sunday, August 13, 2006
In Memory of Abigail: June 20 - July 7, 2006
The infant cradled in my arms would never know love. She could not cry; could not suffer pain or hunger; could not see or hear.
Two weeks earlier, almost two months ago now, Abigail entered the world with no heartbeat. She did not breathe. Doctors labored heroically to revive her, to no avail. The death certificate was signed.
Then someone noticed her trying to breathe.
Jane and I, not knowing, were on our way to work. Our friend Sunny called "What are you doing?" she asked.
"Going to work," Jane said.
"Pray for my baby."
We headed immediately over to the hospital. Sunny lay in the maternity ER, suffering. The baby's father, J.P., stood close by her side. Family and friends surrounded her.
After some time, the staff wheeled in an incubator on a small cart. Little Abigail, pale and beautiful and still, appeared. She was to be whisked off to Children's Mercy hospital, where she would receive the highest level of care. But she paused in her journey long enough for her mother to touch her. Then Abigail and her attendants left.
Premature separation of the placenta from the wall of the uterus occurs in about one in every 120 pregnancies. In many cases, the baby remains unharmed by a partial separation; even with only half of the placenta working; a sufficient supply of oxygen still passes from the mother to the baby. In Abigail's case, most or the entire placenta tore off the uterine wall without warning, suddenly ripping away for no apparent reason. Starved of oxygen, her brain cells began to fail.
When I visited Abigail a few days later, in the neo-natal intensive care unit, I found the signs of encouragement I wanted to see. She appeared to respond to the sound of my voice. Her tiny hand clasped mine with a firm grip. Despite the disturbing way her eyes rolled around, I took away hope she would improve.
But tests performed a few days after birth confirmed our worst fears. Abigail's brain showed virtually no signs of normal function. The doctors said she would have constant seizures and gave her medicines to mitigate the electrical storms raging in her skull.
Sunny, J.P. and Pastor Jan from St. Paul's arranged for Abigail's baptism into Christianity to be performed at the hospital. And, the Sunday after she was born, in a large room that looked like an OR, surrounded by the love of family and friends, Abigail was baptized.
The following Sunday, she went home with her mother.
Abigail turned two weeks old on the Fourth of July. Family and friends gathered in her mother's home to wish her well. We took turns holding her. As I looked on the perfect, sleeping infant in my arms, I found it difficult to think about her spirit. Though I knew that, with no brain function there would be no mind, I found it hard to believe she was anything less than a whole, perfect human being. Though my own mind told me I held an empty shell, my heart refused to accept it.
No, if her soul had ever been present, it had left before I ever got a chance to hold her.
As human beings, we often confuse wishful thinking with hope. We grab hold of the slightest flimsy excuses to justify our heart's desire, and run with them, telling ourselves our wishes will come true.
We easily fall into the traps of cliche and empty headed repetitions of piety when faced with immediate, personal tragedy. We say "Everything happens for a purpose," and then proceed to construct our own reasons why the conclusion came as it did.
I know Abigail strengthened the bond between her parents. She did the same for Jane and me, and perhaps other friends and family. She reminded me of my own blessings, chief among which are my daughters.
But if that was Abigail's true purpose, the price was too high. The loss outweighed the gain. I can only imagine some of the pain her mother and father feel; at some point, imagination recoils and will go no further.
Here we see the defects of cliched piety. The pain of this suffering cannot be justified by anything we understand. And exactly what do we understand?
I turn to the understanding in the book of Job. I find myself thinking about it a lot. Job, though a righteous man, suffers mightily. He complains to his friends at length, and finally, to God. His complaints are well founded. But God does not justify His actions. He responds to Job in some of the most poetic language of the Bible: "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand." (Job 38:4)
Well, this answer is no answer. It explains nothing. God is God and we are not. God understands what He understands, and we do not. God does not justify Himself to us.
Even with limited human understanding, we can replace wishful thinking with genuine hope. We can face the real world, as it actually is, with clear eyes, and a calm and steady gaze. Sunny and J.P. endure, and in the midst of tragedy, they make plans for the future.
Abigail died at home Friday, July 7th.
On a very stormy Tuesday evening, July 11th, over eighty, perhaps over a hundred people came to visit Abigail and her family. As we drove to the funeral home, a rainbow struggled to appear in the East.
Led by Pastor Jan, we prayed together, commending the spirit of the infant to God.
Abigail lay by herself in a small room, away from the crowd of friends and family gathered in the larger room nearby. She looked pale and peaceful. She wore a white crotched cap and dress; beads around her neck strung together just for her; a grandfather's rosary at her feet. Ever so gently, I touched her tiny hand. Then we left.
As we drove away, rainbows stretched across the sky, under torn curtains of black and gray clouds. The rainbows reminded all of us of God's promises of renewal and hope. I, for one, could think about little else.
Every normal human being shares a heritage with his or her fellows. We occupy the time between birth and death with hopeful activities, striving to fully realize the promises within each of us. Our maker built us just so, giving us certain needs. We observe the same details of our nature whether or not we credit God, evolution or God-guided evolution with our design.
We never exist alone. We live in community. This is how we are made.
Our communities lift us up; they sustain us. Our families and friends share our joys thereby multiplying them. When we share our grief, it divides.
I also believe we find the greatest happiness and serenity when we embrace faith in God. When we choose to trust God, we find courage to endure the suffering that life inflicts on us. We do more than merely endure; we rise up out of the ashes with hope. This is how we are made.
Fluffy white clouds drifted in blue Midwest skies on the day of the funeral; the air purified by the rampaging thunderstorms of the night before. The tiny pastel casket came to rest on a grassy hill; bells rang in the distance.
Towards the end of the service, individuals took one of several dozen balloons and walked to an open space. As they handed out the balloons, a single green one escaped. It climbed quickly out of sight. A minute later, three dozen or so pink, green, white and yellow balloons took off together.
I could not help but think about April 19, 2005. Then, with a mere handful of friends, I released a balloon into the air in memory of children taken too soon. This time, I just watched.
The human condition requires us to know grief. Sooner or later, each and every one of us faces irrevocable loss. But our endowment includes the capacity to choose our response to grief. We can allow ourselves to fully experience it, and then to move on. Or we can make a vain attempt to avoid it. This is how we are made.
The weight of our burdens lightens when we choose to share them with God. This is how we are made.
Many people choose not to believe in God, choose to deny Him and therefore cannot trust in Him. They require external proof, as if it makes sense to require proof of the transcendent. By their understanding, that is the wiser path. But what a lonely, empty path; everything reduced to matter and matter in motion. Is this how we are made?
The choice, really, is one of choosing how to live. One can seek to live only by philosophically, logically justified beliefs, or not. To me, the choice is between an ultimately sterile, barren, meaningless existence; or a life worth living.
Whatever other purposes the life of Abigail served, she challenged us to hold on to our faith. She teaches us about hope, and about God. She shows us the way. This is how we are made.
Thursday, June 22, 2006
Becoming a Force for Good
No, I could never identify with those do-gooders giving away years of their lives helping others. Peace Corps - ick! Wiping the eyes of a half-starved, African child - no way. Going places that might smell bad - not for me.
I always thought of myself as a strange little man with passions that mattered to no one else. Though I sought out people like professors of philosophy and members of Mensa, I encountered few who really cared about the same things I did.
Nearly every guy I ever met really wanted to avoid talking about anything of even remote interest. Sports, cars and bragging about girls filled their heads, with an occasional movie, TV show, or work related topic for seasoning.
Every female I knew then engaged in the forensics of other's private relationships; they brought considerable analytical prowess to parsing who dated who, and why; who wore what, when, and for what reason; what celebrity committed which minor or major offense; and so forth.
Alas, baby pictures bored me. Stories about kids put me to sleep.
The things that interested me then and now are like - How and why do things really work? No, really exactly, completely and fully how: be specific, detailed, and carefully justify your answer.
For as long as I can remember, I knew the first story explaining most anything, the first notion that's planted in the ordinary mind, grows like a giant weed and crowds out any new growth. But the full story blooms only after careful tending to the garden of ideas. Try it again: how do things really work? I want details. No, really, lots of exact details. (See prior posts below.)
In addition to a passion for detail, I also crave "big picture" understanding. Why do things work? Why be good? What kind of life is most worth living?
But my horizons as a young man, for myself, were limited to what I could see close about me. My wife, my child, my job, my house, my debts - my, me, mine. My ego.
But somehow, as time passed, I began to take a genuine interest in other people. I started to enjoy looking at photos of other people's kids. I started listening more.
Like most people, I still work, I have a family, I take pleasure in television comedies, wine, cigars (though not often), music, museums, travel, etc.
But unlike others, one fine fall day a few years ago, as I drove with the top down to give a speech, it occurred to me that I had become a force for good. My speech that day persuaded people to give money to charity. In the space of six weeks, with a lot of help, I raised over $400,000.00.
A huge sum for a guy with absolutely no rich friends. For the donors, all ordinary working people, the money represented actual sacrifices.
Now, I find myself teaching Sunday school. I find myself leading prayers. I find myself helping people through crises. I find myself an authority figure, not just to my own children, but to other adults.
I find myself puzzled, wondering what happened. How did a typical, self-centered guy change to become a little less self-centered, a little more giving?
No longer a sponge, soaking up the good given by others, I now produce more blessings than I consume. How did that happen?
True believers will point to my faith, and say it changed me. Could be.
At this point in life, I find my self happier and more productive most days than I've ever been. I'm much nicer now than ever.
Too bad it took so long to reach this point.
Saturday, June 17, 2006
Personal Reflection on Father's Day - 2006
I told her that I already had all the material things any man could want.
And I do: a nice home, fun old convertible to drive, etc, etc; I already own what people the world over are striving to get.
But she cannot make me more generous and loving; she cannot reduce my ego or make me less self-centered. She cannot stop me from worrying or teach me to trust in God.
She can, and has helped me to become a better person. She can point out those things that I am blind to; things I want to see and understand but never think of.
I am a son and a father and a grandfather. Though I understand the flaws I inherited, and the mistakes I passed on to my son, I cannot place blame or fault others for my own defects as a person.
The sad truth is that I don't really enjoy my parents that much; neither do I feel all that deeply attached to them. I call them out of a sense of duty, and listen to them; I guess my gift to them is attention. My father always thanks me at the end of every call; my mother's love for me shines through every conversation. The fact that I don't enjoy talking with them just makes me feel guilty.
My own son calls me from time to time; he is 25 years old now, with a wife and children of his own. Over the last few years, I gave him money from time to time, as he experienced various crises. The very last time he asked, I said no. What's more, I didn't feel all that badly about it. He didn't call me for three months. As if I needed further proof that I am a shallow person, I really didn't miss hearing from him all that much. He always yells at his kids a lot when he's on the phone with me; I don't really enjoy listening to him.
However, I do delight in my two daughters who live at home. The older daughter, well on her way to becoming a lovely young woman, is a modest but self-assured girl. She does well in school, helps around the house, does not complain overmuch and generally behaves very well. My youngest child - let's just say she shares many of my personality flaws. I do so enjoy, however, going to her soccer games.
My friend "Ralph" puts his children above all other things. His one wish is always to do as well as he can for his kids. He devotes himself to them.
Frankly, I'm not so sure that's wholly good or healthy. Our children are reflections of ourselves; they are proxies we send into the future. By subsuming ourselves in them, do we not build monuments to our own egos? In as much as they carry on our genetic endowment, are not engaged in a form of self-worship when we make them the goal of our lives?
Of course, each child is far more than a mere shadow of her parent. Perhaps these thoughts come to me as justification for my own inability to shake off the rule of my own ego. I admit I haven't spent my days and nights wholly devoted to even my beloved daughters. I watch TV, read, or play on the computer instead of engaging them. I sporadically harass them about homework and chores, to little effect. Sometimes I play with them. Not as much as they would like, I suppose.
I must regard myself as a work in progress, not a finished product. I pray that I continue to improve; and thank God for the changes He has wrought so far.
The easiest writing for Father's Day would get all warm and fuzzy and mushy in a vaguely impersonal way. The second easiest, at least for me: commentary on the obvious ironic, oblivious, massively insensitive cultural contradictions inherent in an American Father's Day.
Instead, I served up a tiny fragment of my actual self.
Now, my Father's Day wish: That, not only I, but all men, become the kind of sons, Fathers and Grandfathers that the Father of us all would have us be.
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Shrinking Enrollments Challenge SMSD
On May 9, 2006, the Kansas Legislature passed a school finance bill which will present a significant challenge to the SMSD. The bill passed in the house on a 66-54 vote, with all 22 Johnson County legislators opposed. All the Johnson County senators also voted "Nay" when the upper chamber passed the bill.
Kansas School Finance Basics
Kansas primary and secondary education is funded through the state. The state sets an amount of money paid to each district for each full time student or equivalent (FTE) enrolled on September 20 of the previous school year. The school's FTE is adjusted by a complex formula which takes into account ten factors impacting costs. The distribution of funds was held by the state Supreme Court to violate the state constitution, which requires the provision of an adequate education.
The state funds basically come from a 20 mill levy on property.
Added to the money provided by the state are funds generated under a "Local Option Budget" (LOB). The LOB is capped by the state legislature, at 27% for fiscal year 2006 (FY06). The cap is based on general fund budget provided by BSAPP. For example, in Shawnee Mission, the FY06 general fund budget was $147 million; 27% was $39.8 million. Thus the FY06 LOB authority was capped at $39.8 million. The bill passed a few days ago increases the cap to 30% in FY07 and 31% in FY08.
Under current rules, the state compensates districts with low assessed property valuations who adopt LOBs. Supplemental general state aid ensures no district LOB will be based on less than 81% of the statewide average assessed valuation per pupil. Thus, no district's LOB can rise more than 19% above any other district in the state. If the cap were removed, increases in LOBs by wealthier districts would doubtless put even more pressure on the state school finance budget because of the equalization provision.
The district also receives a small amount of money from a ¼ cent sales tax in that applies to Johnson County. The "economic development" tax passed in 2002, with money divided among the school districts, county and cities. The cities receive 36% of the revenue generated; a portion of the county's 64% share is given to the school districts in the form of grants. SMSD received $5.3 million from this source in 2004.
Effect on Shawnee Mission School Finances
The bill provides for a $236.00 increase in the "Base State Aid Per Pupil" (BSAPP) for 2006-2007 (FY07) for the district under the formula over the previous year (FY06). The BSARPP is set at $4,316, an increase of $59 over FY06. Adjustments to the FTE for FY06 meant the district's operating revenue was $5,293.44 per student. Thus, the adjusted BSARPP income will be $5,529.43 in FY07, an increase of 4.3%, if enrollment remained stable at 27,874.9.
In fact, enrollment in the district has declined significantly over the last few years, and is projected to decline in the future. District superintendent Marjorie Kaplan said that the increase, coupled with local option funds, would amount to $14.7 million for the district with last September's enrollment. However, with the projected decline in enrollment, the increase is much more likely to be about $1 million less.
The district has had to cope with falling enrollment almost since its very inception. A peak of 45,702 students attended in 1970. In 1974, the district operated 51 elementary schools, 10 junior high schools and 5 high schools. SMSD closed 19 schools over the last 35 years. In recent times, headcount for FY05 was 28,522; for FY00, it was 31,238.
Even though headcounts continue to decline along with operating funds based on BSAPP, fixed costs move in the opposite direction. For the Kansas City area as a whole, the Consumer Price Index increased by 4.4% in 2005.
The loss of enrollment, spread as it is over dozens of facilities, does not admit of easy solutions. With student teacher ratios of 15:1, a loss of about 450 students should mean 30 fewer teachers would be needed across the district. This would translate to less than one teacher per school. In practice, the difficulties of eliminating a single instructor position in a particular school can lead to unacceptable results.
If a hypothetical school had three fourth grade classes of 15 students each, and attempted to reduce to two positions, the likely result would be two classes of about 22 students each.
This difficulty can be over overcome by pursuing a strategy of building new schools and consolidating older, smaller facilities. Since the successful bond election of 2004, the district has pursued exactly that strategy.
Likely Court Challenge
As noted above, the Johnson county delegation unanimously opposed the bill funding schools for the next three years. The Kansas Supreme Court determined the prior school finance plan violated the state constitution in two ways; first, it failed to provide for an adequate education; second, "... the ways in which vastly differing amounts of resources are distributed across Kansas school districts are "politically distorted" and "not cost-based."" One representative said, "... Johnson County has 18 percent of the state's students and will contribute 30 percent of the tax revenue to pay for the $466 million plan. The county's schools will receive only about 8 percent of the $194 million first-year state aid total."
The state Supreme Court, in a supplemental opinion to its ruling on Montoy v. State of Kansas, ordered the legislature to conduct a study of the cost of providing an adequate education to the primary and secondary students in the state. The resulting study shows substantially more money than the legislature appropriated would be required to fully fund an adequate education in Kansas.
In view of the remaining political distortion and the inadequacy of the amounts provided, additional court action, possibly the appointment of a special master, appears likely.
Continue to build new schools and consolidate old facilities. The district's policy in this regard represents sound planning in the face of declining enrollments.
Prepare updated briefs to file with the state supreme court. According to a private e-mail from Mr. Tim Rooney, the district's finance director, SMSD filed a "Friend of the Court" brief in the Montoy case. Since future court action is at least possible, and is actually probable, SMSD should be ready to make sure the court is fully apprised of the district's views.
Continue to lobby for local control of locally generated funds. Almost half the levy of 42 mills in the district, 20 mills, goes to the state and the district has no control over these funds. In addition, the Local Option Budget (LOB) remains capped.
The use of local sales tax revenue for schools will likely be challenged in the future in the legislature. The district should continue to lobby for integrity of local sales tax.
Increase the visibility of the Shawnee Mission Educational Foundation as a public/private partnership. The foundation gives grants to individual teachers and schools for educational projects and equipment. The foundation is funded by private donations. Increased visibility and the promotion of a public/private partnership could result in additional money for the schools.
Market the school system so as to slow the decline in enrollment. There are an estimated 4,852 students enrolled in private elementary and secondary schools in Johnson County. A study could be done to explore ways to bring some of those children back into the school system. Emphasizing the excellence of the product, the diversity and advanced nature of the districts programs, and the numbers who go on to graduate from college would very likely result in some home schooled or privately schooled students returning to the system. The matter should at least be studied for feasibility.
Study the effect of tuition assistance grants to boost enrollment from out-of-district. Such grants could be funded through the SMEF or other sources. A grant which resulted in cost sharing might bring students in for specific programs, such as the outstanding foreign language or culinary arts programs offered at South High School.
Existing policies to lobby Topeka and to present the district's views to the state Supreme Court are prudently being followed. The effort to increase local control over school budgets cannot worsen the district's situation even if the results have had limited success so far.
Intense opposition can be expected because the equalization requirements will force the state to ante up more money as LOBs increase. The legislature has proven that any form of tax increase is anathema; they have also directly challenged the court to make the tough decisions for them. However, the court has a reputation for being unpredictable.
Existing strategy of building new facilities and consolidating older schools is financially prudent and needs no modification, only careful monitoring. The long term effects of recent increases in gasoline prices, which appear to be permanent, remain to be seen. The higher transportation cost for private individuals may slow urban sprawl, increase density and thus affect enrollments in presently unforeseen ways.
Creative strategies to slow the decline in enrollments should be explored, such as marketing the schools. The district, like any successful enterprise, serves a specific customer base. The cost-effectiveness of various ideas to retain or even expand the customer base should be on the table.
A Personal Note
As a parent and taxpayer, my exploration of the district's finances leaves me with mixed feelings. I see the district as well run, with reasonable and prudent strategies in place to cope with the financial challenges of the present and foreseeable future. I feel angry at the legislature for shirking its responsibilities and failing the state's children. I remain hopeful the Supreme Court will remedy the situation, and that the children will get what they need.
 Kansas City Star, May 10, 2006. http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/14541804.htm
 Blue Valley School District "Understanding School Finance" Current Kansas School Finance Formula Glossary of Key Terms http://www.bluevalleyk12.org/SupportServices/downloads/
 JoCoGov "Cover Stories" March, 2004: http://www.jocogov.org/coverStories/mar04.htm
 Kansas City Star, May 11, 2006. http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/
 Inside Shawnee Mission Schools, spring 2005, vol. 13, issue 2. After Unification, Enrollment Still Counts, http://www.smsd.org/parents/
 Statistics from the Kansas State Board of Education: http://www.ksde.org/leaf/reports_and_publications/
 KC Chamber of Commerce http://www.kcchamber.com/Resource/Index.asp?IdS=03320A-3679390&x=021%7C010&Id=392
 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, 2005, p. ii. http://www.smsd.org/custom/
 Baker, Bruce D., Kansas Policy Review, vol. 27, no 2. December, 2005.
 Rep Pat Colloton, quoted in the Kansas City Star, May 10, 2006. http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/14541804.htm
 Monty v. State of Kansas, http://www.kscourts.org/kscases/
 "Cost Study Analysis Elementary and Secondary Education in Kansas: Estimating the Cost of K-12 Education Using Two Approaches Executive Study" January 2006, p.5. http://skyways.lib.ks.us/ksleg/KLRD/Publications/
 Shawnee Mission School District Legislative Platform 2005: http://www.smsd.org/parents/Documents/LegPlatform05.pdf
 Private School Review: http://www.privateschoolreview.com/county_middle_schools/
Monday, June 05, 2006
Sowing the Wind
The president saddened those of us who have faith in the intrinsic worth of human beings. He embraced a discriminatory constitutional amendment; discriminatory based on identity. But we believe morals and ethics concern action, not identity. What people do concerns us, not the endowment of DNA given to them by the creator.
Murder is wrong, regardless of the identities of the perpetrator and victim. It would be wrong to murder a black man, a homosexual, a mother, a Hutu, a Tutsi, a Serb, a Muslim, an Iranian, a Jew, a Christian, an Arab, a politician, or whomever, because it is the act of murder that is wrong, not the identity. And murder is wrong because it harms another human being.
People say attraction to members of the same sex is a choice; one supposes they would say they choose to be attracted to members of the opposite sex. As if, over coffee, one suddenly says to oneself, "I think I'll date only people of this or that sex." Evidence, as well as simple common sense, shows that homosexuality is no more a choice than blue eyes, red hair or brown skin. Homosexuals are not self-made; they are born the way they are. Believers in a just and merciful god must have faith that the choice was His, not ours.
God challenges us to deal with each other in justice and brotherhood. He requires that we have faith in Him, and through our faith, we learn to live together in community. God does not preach or teach hatred, fear, disgust, loathing or discrimination.
In the United States, we face many real and significant issues. Two wars occupy our troops, with daily violence in Iraq. And Iran pursues nuclear ambitions virtually unchecked, knowing the world's only superpower is stretched far to thin to challenge them on the battlefield. The Chinese own more and more of our debts. Decades of poor energy policy leaves us now highly dependant upon our enemies. Decades of barbaric, third world healthcare financing allowed medical costs to accelerate at double and triple the rate of inflation, so that now a cancer diagnosis often means bankruptcy. More and more citizens of the United States slide over the line into poverty every year, even as state governments slash public aid budgets. The looming debts of the United States government threaten to ruin prosperity for ourselves and future generations.
The president rightly identified the millions of undocumented people in the United States as a priority, and charted a wise policy. A moderate, reasoned policy opposed by his own base.
Now he announces this "protection of marriage" amendment. He proclaims the ancient, malleable institution of marriage in peril, and plans to freeze the form of marriage into a 1950's mold. All in the name of his god.
Mr. President, with all due respect, how can you take seriously the idea that the eternal institution of marriage, ordained by god, could possibly be threatened by mere human activity? How can you reconcile your belief that heterosexual serial monogamy is the only form of marriage approved of by god with the actual polygamous marriages blessed by god in scripture?
Perhaps the term "serial monogamy" needs some explanation. It means marriage of multiple male and female partners, but only in succession, one partner at any given time. (It could also be called "serial polygamy.") It means the actual form of marriage, as practiced in the United States, does not resemble the one-man, one-wife model this amendment is meant to protect.
Mr. President, how, exactly, are you threatened if two men pledge their loyalty to each other? Will this shorten your life by even one hour? Will it decrease the pleasure of your next meal? Will it cost your children more to drive to work? Will it place a young soldier in harm's way halfway around the world?
Mr. President, precisely how is society damaged if two women pledge an exclusive commitment, "forsaking all others?" Will the cost of educating our children increase? Will the jails fill up with felons convicted on petty drug charges? Will the poor receive even less than they get now? Will taxes for the wealthy go up? Will undocumented homosexuals pour over our borders, shouting "Casemosnos!"
Mr. President, I have friends who choose to unite and raise families, adopting children that would otherwise be raised in foster care or orphanages. Are these children harmed by being given loving homes? Or would they be harmed by an amendment outlawing the only homes they've ever known?
Mr. President, just how many wives did Abraham, David or Solomon have? Do you think god blessed their unions?
What do you think Paul meant when he wrote, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)? Do you think he meant to exclude all people who are not white, middle-class heterosexuals?
Mr. President, even your friends are saying you take this stand, not on principle, but for mere political gain. By doing so, you again align yourself with people who cannot compromise. You again support the narrow, exclusive, views of a minority of Americans. You again champion the cause of extreme Christianists. If you help elect and re-elect these people, you will again face paralysis whenever you attempt to cajole moderation and reason from the Congress. These are the same people who oppose you on immigration in the House of Representatives. You do yourself no good by currying their favor. They are not interested in governance, only power and their own theocratic agendas.
Alas, reason that does not seek power gets no power. The only course left is to beg.
Therefore, Mr. President, I beg you; the people of the United Sates implore you, forget your concern with imaginary threats and petty political machinations. Pay attention to what's truly important. You have only a short time left in office - use your time wisely. Further the ends of human dignity and uphold the rights of individuals instead of increasing the power of the executive. Answer the cries for help from the most vulnerable of our own people, instead of the imaginary oppression felt by the rich. Steep yourself in reality; do not surround yourself with people who say only what you most want to hear.
Pursue justice, not party favor.
Seek peace, not war.