Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Truth Shall Set You Free

As Barack Obama settles into the Oval Office, he has issued a guarantee we all have been pining for since early 2001; transparency in the White House. Imagine, we, the people, may actually have a shot at knowing what our government is up to... one can only dream.

I am duly impressed with Mr. Obama's commitment to pulling back the curtain where George "Oz" Bush hid out for eight years, but I think there's a component in this equation we are all missing.Transparency is only as valuable as the honesty used to make decisions in the first place.

Obama appears, so far, to be willing to tackle the hard issues without the veneer of political correctness, or constant-loop campaigning double speak we've grown accustomed to. Yet, while I've heard him offer platitudes about new challenges that require bold action, I've heard less about some of the blatant realities which got us here.

I recognize that calling out some of these atrocities would likely be political suicide, a risk Obama can't take. He CAN hold the Bush administration accountable for its train wreck policies, and reverse said policies, a measure he's doing pretty well with. However, let's get real about some of the base level issues we face, and what the origins of the problems really are. I will take a microcosm of America, my hometown, as an example to illustrate one of the biggest challenges we face today.

Like it or not, our economy lives and dies by the quality of our education system. Obviously, there are market forces, economic theories, global considerations, a whole host of factors which determine the health of our economy. Yet, education and the economy, two major challenges we face, are inextricably tied to one another. An educated work force, prepared to meet the demands of a changing market, is the only hope of an industrialized nation.

Now, let's travel to Shreveport, Louisiana, a place I'm proud to call my hometown, despite its various, uh, issues. The economy and education have been long-running problems for Shreveport, but instead of even the hope of peaks and vallies, it's just been a long history of downturn, in both areas. Nowhere is my philosophy of education/economic correlation more evident than in Shreveport. The population is ill-prepared to fill 21st century jobs, the education system, by the numbers and the morale, gets worse by the year, and the cycle continues.

Leaders in the community are currently working double time to find solutions to the education crisis, as record numbers of schools become "unacceptable", with the threat of state take-over looming for many schools, and an actual reality for two schools. Proposals include longer school days, retrenchment of staff, curriculum overhaul ( a dubious, vague suggestion, at best), and character ed. It's hard to exactly disagree with some of these recommendations, but wouldn't you agree it seems like more of a band-aid approach than getting to the root of the problem?

The reason leaders are avoiding the origins of the problem is because they are about as messy as it gets. Shreveport has a VERY long fabled history of troubled race relations, with a continuum that includes oppression and degradation toward African-Americans, generalized resentment toward whites, regardless of the individuals beliefs and intentions, and uneasy mixing between the two races. Education has never been particularly valued by the majority of either race in Shreveport, but the higher the poverty rate has risen, the more disdain for education has grown. Also, in the name of political correctness, discipline has effectively been removed from the schools, with a clever mandate coming from on high recently concerning suspensions; regardless of what the kid does, don't suspend him. Hmmm..... one wonders why so many young people are ending up in jail as soon as they become adults. Could it be that the lack of discipline in the schools socialized them to believe consequences simply don't exist?

Now, with all that background, where am I going with this? The bottom line to the education problem in Shreveport is this: African-Americans, on the whole, are not going to listen to a bunch of preaching from a few well-meaning whites espousing the value of education. The trust isn't there, it's not going to happen. The poverty cycle is so wide-spread, and nobody wants to acknowledge that's a huge part of why children aren't doing well in school. The correlations have been proven time and again, but we are so afraid to "insult" any segment of society, we perpetuate their misery instead of enacting pro-active solutions to address the real problems. These facts are very uncomfortable, things leaders wish to sweep under the rug, offering pseudo-solutions instead, with "full transparency". The access to information is welcomed, but what information are we really getting?

President Obama must be mindful of this as he attacks the key issues we face today. His intentions are obviously good, but he may have to say and do some things that make people squirm a little. Cheers to the notion of transparency, but please, let's make sure the basis for decisions involves measures of the God's honest truth.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Disappointment in Illinois

It is with a heavy heart I blog today...... a man I deemed above reproach has crashed and burned, apparently in a big way. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has taken some very noble service and tossed it with some corruption that can't be ignored.

The layers of disappointment in this one are multiple. The governor of Illinois stood up to a wayward Superintendent I once made a chance acquaintance with further south; he bravely stood toe to toe with Dr. Robert Schiller, a corrupt hatchet man whom, in my experience, made back-door deals, as only the best BUSINESS men can. Yet, he ( Dr. Schiller) was in education, not business. It's my understanding he( Dr. Schiller) is currently a consultant for an education service ( read: think tank for educators), probably one of the best suited positions for him in the free world. The governor of Illinois had the audacious idea to stand up to this man and call him out for the micro-managing charlatan he is. He ran him out on a flag pole and deposed him of the lofty position he had gained in the Illinois Department of Education. This good deed will get lost in the shuffle of some serious allegations.

Moreover, Governor Blagojevich, as recently as yesterday, stood with the little guy, demanding Bank of America deal fairly with some factory workers robbed of their jobs in Chi-Town. There is now speculation the Governor knew what was coming down the pike, trying to head off bad press with a story about his loyalty to the American worker. Cynicism tinges even this, the sweetestof Christmas stories.

Governor Blagojevich squandered these two instances, and, presumably, dozens of others, in favor of participating in "pay to play" politics, something Lynn Sweet, the editor of the Chicago Sun-Times asserts is normal procedure for local politicians. However, no matter how common place it may become, that never makes it right. The tragedy here is two-pronged; not only does another official go down in disgrace as a casualty of money and position, the good deeds committed by the story's villain loses all credit for the positive changes initiated by his hands. Let this serve as a graphic lesson to the incoming public servants elected to institute some much needed change. Check your highly personal ambitions at the door.... please serve at the pleasure of those who elected you. We are waiting for some restored honor to American government, the kind promised by the current administration, yet sorrily not delivered. Please do good, and keep the balance sheet of corruption blank. We are in no mood to abide officials who cash out of the game when a personal opportunity comes along, regardless of how it compromises "We, the People." No amount of good service can erase a vastly corrupt over-step, as we see with Governor Blagojevich today.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Big "R" appears propelled by the " Big Mo"

George H.W. Bush famously stated, in his 1980 bid to capture the Republican nomination for the Presidency, his campaign was being propelled by the " Big Mo." This ill-fated comment referred to his decisive defeat of Ronald Reagan in Iowa, with Bush implying the momentum of victory was sweeping him toward the top spot of his party's ticket. The momentum, as we now know, would have to build until 1988, when he rode the wave of his previous opponent's coat tails.

The media informed us today we are currently in a Recession...... Recession with a capital "R"...... a fact most of us have been well aware of for quite some time. Apparently, since December, 2007, our economy has shown signs of recession, with a lower case "r"..... reduced consumerism, reduced access to credit, encroachment on job security, with job loss an increasing reality for millions of Americans. Now, as these conditions have ballooned over the past year, with all elements becoming undeniably worse with each passing month, the lower case "r" has grown into a full-fledged capital "R". We now have "official" confirmation of what the average American has painfully grasped far too long.... our economy is in a world of hurt.

That last phrase was not chosen lightly; we are in a world of hurt. This economic downturn is not exclusively an American problem. Our friends abroad are hurting as well, but as the world turns, where is the center point most look to for prosperity? That answer seems to be changing faster than stocks rise and fall.

Considering the landscape, let us return to the Big "R" and the "Big Mo". We have endured three recessions in the past thirty years, the first one in 1981-82, with unemployment hovering around 10%, inflation bursting at the seams. A messy scene indeed. The government's answer to this crisis? Supply Side economics, Trickle Down theory, whatever one wishes to call a reverse Robin Hood syndrome. Allow the rich to disproportionately skip out on taxes, and they will reinvest into the economy, ensuring prosperity for all. Warren Buffet and George Soros followed this directive, but the majority of the wealthy failed to read that memo.

Then, we entered into the second recession in 1991, with eleven years of G.O.P. leadership, the above mentioned Trickle Down as the order of the day. Bill Clinton seized the moment in 1992, with the Carville styled " It's the Economy, Stupid" motto switching the gears. The "Big Mo" of economic hemorrhaging seemed to be stemmed.

In 2000 we saw a minor blip in the economy, but not severe enough to be labeled a recession. However, post 9-11, the country, understandably, slumped into an economic downturn, with the man at the helm offering the same solution as two Repubs before him; Supply Side to the rescue.

The only trouble is, now we are in the deepest "R" yet..... the current conditions eerily resembling a big "R" that quickly morphed into a Colossal "D". Irresponsible policy created an economic reality we couldn't have fathomed; a tragedy- produced lower case "recession" was actively stoked into a capital "Recession", something most agree could have been avoided. There is a new sheriff in town, and all our wishes rest with him and his talented team, hoping against hope there is a viable plan to slowly, but surely, raise America out of the latest Big "R".... the one we deeply hope does not have the " Big Mo."

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Giving Thanks Never Goes Out of Style

As I sit here waiting for the turkey to be table - ready, with the smells of apple pie and oyster dressing wafting in the air, I realize how fortunate I truly am. In a few minutes I will join with my greatest blessings, family and friends, to celebrate with food, a warm fire and good conversation. All of these elements of our joyous feast sound so basic, so simple, yet they are so precious. More than this, they are more scarce than we may care to acknowledge.

Barack Obama and family were caught by the media yesterday..... they were caught doing a good deed. A local Catholic church hosted Thanksgiving dinner for Chicago's south side residents, providing a much welcomed meal to many hungry souls. Obama did not invite the press to come cover his participation in this event. To my knowledge, the national media did not pick this story up. Yet there it was, for his constituents to see and admire. The best part is, Obama didn't appear to do it for the admiration; he did it for the sheer joy of helping his fellow man. He was also quoted as saying he did it with his daughters to show them how blessed they are, and how important it is to give back when one has a dime, or some time, to spare.

Before my grandfather passed away he, my grandmother and I had a rotating tradition. Every even year we would go see a blockbuster movie Thanksgiving evening, after dinner had been well savored and digested. Every odd year, however, we would go after Thanksgiving dinner and serve at one of the local Soup Kitchens. As a child I preferred serving at the Soup Kitchen,even though movies were a special interest. I used to look in the eyes of the people as we'd serve the turkey and dressing; there was usually a mixture of despair, gratitude, hopelessness, bewilderment, and spirit. I would always smile and try to touch their hand as I gave them their plate.... I sensed a brief, empathetic interaction would be as nourishing for them as the food. Even at ten, eleven, twelve years old, I instinctively understood the need for human dignity, the need to feel cared about. No condescension, no "charity" handshakes; no, a genuine connection, from one human to another. I also instinctively understood I had to take a different approach with children, even the ones my age, than I did with adults. I would ask them about things I knew they would surely have some knowledge of, to establish a common foundation, then just hang for a bit after they'd been served, and I got a fifteen minute break. Connection to nourish the spirit, food to nourish he body.

As you sit around your table today, feeding your mind, body, and soul, feel good about how blessed you are. Give thanks to whom/whatever you feel has a hand in ensuring your blessings. Look around your table and quietly thank each person who is there, thank them for filling the spaces in your heart. Then, as everyone walks out the door, and you return to your kitchen to scrub down the cabinets, and clear the table, reflect on how many blessings you can count, just for today. The delicious meal, the delightful warmth of companionship. These are the things we hold to in life, the blessings we hold so dear. Then, as you thank whom/whatever you feel has brought these things into your life, think of those who aren't as fortunate. What could you do to share your blessings? No grand gestures required; sometimes, the clasp of a hand is good enough.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Obama's Job Plan

Watch it here

So this is the 'New Deal' of this era.......Not a bad idea. It parallels Roosevelt's plan, but obviously has modern tweaks to it.

It worked once, it can....and hopefully will.....work again.

I hope workforce education and training for 21st century jobs is cornerstone of the plan. We need people who can design and manufacture microchips and infotech, not know how to run a machine in a sock manufacturing plant.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Quick Observation

I was sitting in church today wondering how many people actually believed. This is something that has plagued me over the years....when I was Catholic, agnostic, now presumably Episcopalian.....Do people TRULY believe? Or do they go every Sunday out of habit?

The great Richard Dawkins opened my eyes to the world of evolutionary biology, the selfish gene, and memetic theory. Was God truly a delusion? Who knows? I thought that for awhile, but now it seems like the empty void just keeps getting "emptier"....

There's got to be some middle ground for us who are not truly sold on the idea of virgin birth, resurrection, etc. I'm not saying I am an atheist or anything, just a 'questioner'. Atheism is fine for those who prescribe to it. So is Islam. So is Hinduism. So is the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I don't care what faith (or lack there of) anyone holds on to as long as they don't hurt anyone or forcefully convert people.

But anyway, back to my observation. I was literally staring at people today trying to figure out why they were sitting in the pews. I'm sure most were there for the right reasons. Maybe 'right' is not the right word to use. Maybe I'm being confusing, but religion is inherently confusing. Right?

So why are these people coming every week? Why am I? My story is a tad different than most, but I guess we all have the same motives down deep. We're just trying to figure it all out.....

Right? Maybe not?

Finally! Ready, Aim, Fire!

By all appearances, the American people did a very smart thing on November 4. We finally elected someone who is disciplined, yet adaptable; firm, yet not rigid. Team Obama is demonstrating very good judgment as it prepares to transition into the White House. All appearances indicate we have a president-elect who recognizes the balance between transparency and folly.

At the moment Obama is in a unique position; his every move is scrutinized for clues as to how he will govern, yet he is not quite in a position of governance. Obama clearly sees his station in this temporary no-man's land. He is, wisely, keeping all major decisions close to the vest, even as juicy, titillating bits are "leaked" to keep the media feeding frenzy well oiled. Hillary as Secretary of State? This story has sufficed as fodder for the weekend, giving Team Obama more time to fill in more gaps, without the hot lights of the camera squarely on them. Obama is also taking cues from the Lincoln playbook; Hillary has the chops to fulfill this role, she is a power player in the party, and keeping her so near, yet so far is good strategy. Obama is obviously a man who doesn't take it personally, a crucial characteristic in governance. This one example summarizes the apparent Obama strategy : Team of Rivals, distracting red meat (with reality based substance), tight restrictions of information not ready for prime time (in terms of comprehensive strategy.) If Obama can maintain this operation, he has great prospects for swimming with the sharks.

What does this all mean for the American people? It seems we now have a leader who is the ultimate pragmatist; where Bush has been an antagonistic, secretive despot, Obama

appears to be a practical realist. He wants transparency, but only after the entire map is drawn. He wants to govern for the People, but he is asking the People to give him some latitude to chart the waters before he puts his oars in the water. He is a man of vision, but many times vision can be deceptive; in order to get a completely clear picture, one needs time to bring it all into focus. Obama seems to understand this principle. He is patient, and he will, most likely, ask the American People to marshall all the patience they can muster. Conditions dictate this is going to be a bit protracted; no magic bullets will rescue us, but disciplined, consistent leadership, with a foundation of respect for the "bottom up" nature of some of the problems we face, these components will eventually return some light to a very dark situation. Again, Obama appears to understand the chess element. We have to make deliberate moves, our values in tact, our optimism balanced, our perseverance undeterred. Most importantly, we must commit to remaining undistracted.

Obama seems determined to actually "stay the course." He is not in a sprint; all actions on his part point to him being fully aware of these conditions. Obama appears committed to a ready, aim, fire approach, with full disclosure after the first shot goes across the bay..... but not before. This is the measure of a focused, disciplined leader, our best hope in a time of great uncertainty.

Spaghetti Against the Wall

Okay, everyone, what is up with our economy? I mean, really, what is truly up? Hank Paulson came out six weeks ago telling us we HAD to get on board with a Congressional bail-out for the financial systems, otherwise liquidity would freeze, leaving small businesses and ever-beleaguered home owners out in the cold. Now, Paulson comes out and tells us " Meh, my bad. We're not buying 'bad assets' (read : troubled mortgages) with the bail-out money after all. We've decided we are going to do something entirely different." Mr. Paulson defended his position late last week by asserting "changing facts" led him to revise his original plan. The sudden burst of adaptability from this administration is welcomed; however, it's a day late, a dollar short, and, frankly, with this cause, seemingly a political two-step swagger.

We now see the auto industry in dire trouble, a predictable turn of events, given the American auto downward spiral we've plainly seen over the last two decades. Some argue that GM should be allowed to fail, they have a poor business model, and that's the way things go in a Capitalist society. There is some validity in this theory. GM has refused to adapt, much as our government has refused to adapt, leaving it vulnerable to implosion, much as the G.O.P. name brand imploded after years of leaders plushly sleeping at the wheel. Should we reward faulty practices through a commitment of more tax dollars, particularly after we've seen a clear abuse of that trust with a recent ploy into our pockets? The answer is mixed, at best. We know we can't trust the current government to implement a plan as proposed; the excuses for revision abound, but the bottom line is this: the recent Bail-out, under Paulson's present direction, is not going to assist the average American. So, we are now told that we are in a fight for our lives, we either commit to helping out the Big Three American auto companies or face dramatic consequences.

I ache for the poor workers and their families, the ones who truly will suffer if GM ultimately goes down. It's not fair, it's not just, it's a complete betrayal of the loyalty they have shown " the company" for so many years. Yet, I can't bring myself to support a measure that would sink more tax payer dollars into an endeavor that fails to under gird the greater good. What is the national benefit if we agree to another bail-out? We know we can't trust the current stewards, we hope and pray we can trust the new guard. Can GM file for protection under bankruptcy, sparing the poor worker, saving the company, while also preventing the country from assuming another debt? If so, why are we having this discussion, with terms set forth to further sink the American economy?

We, the People, need to become better informed on large scale economic issues, as they increasingly affect us all to the same degree. We are no longer in a position to view "politics as local", as former House Speaker Tip O'Neill famously once said. Politics are local, but they are also national, and international. The well being of our families, communities, and beyond are at stake; we no longer have the luxury of thinking local. GM's bottom line has become inextricably connected with the government's bottom line, which, we have seen, has become irremovable from our kitchen tables. The time has come where we each, optimally, have an educated answer to the question " Hey, so what's up with the economy?" Throwing spaghetti at the wall, hoping a strand will stick, is no longer an option.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Meltdown Indeed

As President Bush prepares to "govern" for the duration of his term, legacy concerns seemingly abound. The president is rushing around sucking air out of all kinds of venues; today, he is offering his economic thoughts at The Manhattan Institute. Never one to waste an opportunity, Bush is currently pushing his latest trade agreement, insisting the only way out of our present financial debacle is dependent on forging yet another questionable trade agreement, a measure completely unrelated to the housing and credit crisis. Meltdown indeed.

The meltdown consists of a logical leap we all see takes us off a cliff.... Bush is a master at the Republican tactic of staying on message, delivering said message in a way which confuses the listener into agreement, leaving one without knowing why one lends support. Bush began his speech detailing the economic woes we currently face, seizing particularly on the housing crisis, expressing his shock and dismay over the situation we find ourselves in. He deftly transitioned into why this crisis wasn't due to deregulation, and, further, why government intervention was NOT necessarily the answer! Considering he and his appointed Treasury Secretary authored the largest government bail-out in American history, this rings a bit hollow.

Government has turned a blind eye to corporate greed and excess; this fact, nobody can deny. Yet Bush is trying to run around, shore up his "legacy", and convince the American people that his administration's policy of coddling corporate interests, with the typical neo-con disdain for regulation of any sort, is GOOD for the country, good for the economy in general. I'm not sure about you, but this makes me mad as Hell. After the American people soundly rejected this top heavy style of governance, Bush has the audacity to rub it in our faces that regardless of what conditions on the ground tell us, regardless of what we see in our gas bills, our mortgages, our grocery bills, our friend's faces as they lose their jobs, our grandparent's despair as they choose between groceries and prescription medicine, our sadness as we see our neighbors face foreclosure..... he has the temerity to run around and tell us that despite all this evidence to the contrary, we aren't seeing things correctly. He, obviously, is STILL RIGHT! Can't we see that?

No, actually, Mr.President, we can't. We don't see things your way.... at all. We demonstrated this a week and a half ago at the polls..... we demonstrated this two years ago during the Mid-term elections. The "thumpin" you alluded to? The woodshed Mr. McCain has spoken about since the 2008 election? Those are the new reality for the G.O.P. if the party refuses to change course. The president does his party no favors by adamantly defending policies which clearly have this country in ruin.

I like gracious W. much better. W. on the defense, telling us to suspend our disbelief and buy into his version of the miserable new reality, is more of a pill than most of us can swallow. We spit it right back at him a week and a half ago; please, in service to your country Mr. President, quit trying to force-feed this bitter, deceitful pill most of us are unwilling to stomach.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Anti-Intelluctualism and the G.O.P.

Check out this story about the G.O.P.'s disaster last week. The narrative is from a right-wing perspective. The author is a good friend of mine and someone who is neither hyper-partisan nor biased.