50 Examples of Diversity: The United States of America

I love California. I am typing this blog right now on my patio. It is mid January and it is 80 degrees outside. The sun, blue skies, warm breeze and palm trees are such a part of my life that I used to take them for granted. Then I started traveling for work. It was a slow (albeit obvious) realization for me that the vast majority of the country is not sitting on their patio in mid January getting a tan.

But living in California is not all sunshine and lollipops. We have terrible traffic in Southern California. There are parts of the state where illegal immigration and a decline in farming have caused pockets of third-world-like poverty. Legislators in California have been so irresponsible with state spending that California now faces a 28 billion dollar annual budget shortfall. That makes us worse off fiscally than Greece, and California has the 8th largest economy in the world. The voters themselves have been complicit in the problem by making it easier for our state government to spend and more difficult to raise taxes.

So what’s a Californian to do? Apparently many are giving up on the Golden State. For the last six years California has lost more domestic population than it has gained from other states. The only reason that California’s population has not declined as a whole is the continuing influx of immigrants from other countries to California – both through legal and illegal immigration.

When my sister wanted to rent a truck to move to Texas in 2009, U-haul told her that the cost to rent a truck from California to Texas was three times the cost of renting a truck from Texas to California. Apparently the traffic has primarily been moving one way. Reagan used to say that people voted with their feet, or their U-hauls, as the case may be.

If too many businesses and taxpayers are leaving California for greener pastures in Texas, Nevada, Arizona and Washington state, maybe the Powers That Be in California will learn something from those states that are attracting ex-Californians. The genius of 50 United States over one State is that good state government will be rewarded and bad state government will be culled – eventually.

The states’ differences also allow a more representative democracy. People are not all alike, so why would we want states that are all alike? Texans think differently than New Englanders in many ways. Those differences are reflected in those state’s governments. If California’s government is at odds with my principles, I have the ability to move to a state that more closely mirrors my beliefs. (But oh boy would I miss the weather!)

Finally, states can act as the petri dish for progress. If Maryland has excellent education results, states with failing schools can learn from what they are doing. In the same way, districts within a state can learn from the success or failure of programs in other districts.  If Nevada’s zero tax rate draws a lot of business to that state, other states should consider that a lesson. If California’s AB32 cap and trade system is a success and creates a new green jobs economy that grows revenue and revitalizes California, then I would expect other states to follow suit. If AB32’s new environmental  regulations hurt California’s economy and constrict business growth, then I hope other states learn from our mistake.

The reason the founders wanted so much independence left to the states was that they understood the importance of the competition of thought and approach to governing. The federal government exists in large part to make sure that the states do not infringe on citizens’ constitutional rights. For example, recently the Supreme Court declared Chicago’s ban on guns unconstitutional because it violated the 2nd Amendment. Outside of the power delegated to the federal government by the constitution, powers are “reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” 

They say that the best politics are local. Local leaders understand their constituents’ priorities, neighborhood’s challenges, and the area’s needs in a way that Washington cannot. The power in our government should be greatest with those closest to the people they represent and smallest at the federal level, where decisions impact us as one monolithic state.

In America we strive to protect and appreciate diversity of speech, religion, and ethnicity. Let’s not forget to also respect and value the differences in our 50 states. Without it, we have only our own mistakes or breakthroughs to learn from.

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The Importance of an Open Mind

I had a chance recently to catch “True Grit” with the family – the remake of the 1972 classic starring Jeff Bridges in the John Wayne role.  Like most, I really liked the original classic, but I was excited about seeing the remake.  I’m a fan of the filmmakers (the Coen brothers – “No Country for Old Men,” “Fargo”) and the film has Oscar buzz, so I was intrigued to see how they would adapt the Portis novel differently.

My point is not a movie review, but to share the conversation I had with a good friend beforehand.  I knew my buddy was a huge fan of the original “True Grit,” but despite being a cinephile AND a fan of Bridges, he wasn’t at all interested in seeing any remake.  His reasoning was that there was no reason to fool with perfection, and a new version was completely unnecessary.  After a few minutes talking, I realized my buddy had completely closed his mind to even the potential that the film could be worth his time.

That’s sad to me. The idea that you would close yourself to a new experience, a different point of view, simply because of some self-pronounced boundary or litmus test.  My buddy simply refuses to acknowledge the validity of the film because of his affection for the original.  And nothing was going to change his mind.  He simply closed his mind to even the idea of appreciating the remake.

Such is my fear about our elected officials and some of our own partisan rhetoric.  There is too much of the thinking that nothing good could possibly come from so-and-so, on this-or-that.  And because of this contempt, too many times we stop bothering to listen or trying to absorb what is being said.  We say we’ll listen to other opinions, but really we’re only listening to those voices that come empirically “pre-approved.”

In a time when America faces tough challenges we must embrace the ability to be open-minded.  As the year begins with newly electeds at every level of government, we must hope both the new and sitting can be open to new ideas, new tools, new solutions, a new way of doing things.  It starts with mutual respect.  It continues by listening to each other.  The common courtesies we’re taught as kids.  

Now the truth of the matter is that there’s no way to remove the biases and self-selection we bring to everything – even if my buddy had seen the movie, it’s very doubtful he would like it as much as the original, or even like it at all.  But maybe, just maybe, he might respect the effort.  Or maybe he might see one thing the new version did just a little better than the old.  At the very least, he would be able to appreciate his beloved original in a different light.

I’d like to think we are on common ground that we insist our elected representatives keep an open mind.  Even though we want them to stand principled in their values, we should also want them to consider new legislation and new proposals with intellectual curiosity.

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Keeping the Season … Free from Politics

Every year we all receive forwarded e-mails with inspirational holiday messages, be it thinking about our troops during the season, “keeping the Christ in Christmas” or remembering the “reason for the season.” They are mostly inspirational messages produced by a stranger, usually with some beautiful photography, Bible quotations and prayers. Nice reminders for any Christian who can appreciate the holiday for more than wrapped presents around the tree. 

But then there are THOSE viral e-mails I could really do without – the “Christmas is under attack” missives. Dire warnings that Christmas is in danger of losing all its spirituality in America because of hell-bound liberals, the ACLU or Democrats in general. Here’s one recent example claiming the White House wanted to rename “Christmas trees” as “holiday trees.”

Our common ground when it comes to Christmas is that we all want to celebrate our holidays however way we want.  We appreciate the personal freedom to put a couple thousand lights on our house, decorate a live tree in our living room, put a Nativity Scene on our front lawn, or ignore the whole thing altogether. And the thing is, I don’t think celebrating Christmas is a big problem in America. I don’t think faith is in any danger of being wiped away from those who want to celebrate Christmas that way. But I do see these viral e-mails as an attempt to USE Christmas spirituality as a political-motivated propaganda tool.

I’ve never had to hide my Christmas faith, and no one I know has ever had to hide it either. From the faith-based Christmas cards we mail out, to seeing our kids in the church’s Christmas play, if you want to inject spirituality into your Christmas, there’s plenty of chances. And no one has ever admonished me for wishing them a Merry Christmas either. But at the same time, most of us don’t have a problem with the secular Christmas either. Santa, Rudolf, lights and presents are all fun traditions many families have adopted while celebrating the birth of Christ. 

Now this doesn’t mean I don’t respect the fact that others may NOT share my perspective on the holiday. To this end, there’s nothing wrong with wishing a generic Happy Holiday.  For my client “Christmas cards,” I pick “holiday greetings” out of respect of the fact I’m not familiar with everyone’s beliefs. In group situations when I’m unfamiliar with the crowd, I will wish Happy Holidays with the same sincerity as I would Merry Christmas. And when I do, I certainly don’t feel my faith is being put into the back seat.

Sure, there are some in the population who are militant in their ANTI-Christmas agenda, and I know there are battles being fought in local jurisdictions. But really, are these isolated cases really enough of a problem that we need to forward the angry e-mail that implies if you don’t, you’re not a real Christian? The real reason for the season is love for your fellow man – and let’s keep politics out of it.

Merry Christmas everyone, and I wish you a very peaceful, safe and joyful holiday.

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I will Gladly Pay You in 2085 For Some Benefits Today

I have been researching this blog for a while. I looked at graphs that show our government’s debt, projected debt, current and projected cost of interest on that debt, solvency problems with Medicare and Social Security and the ticking time bomb of unfunded public employee pensions. I will include links at the bottom to some of the research that I looked at. Otherwise, this posting would be 27 pages long and have 13 graphs. So I am starting with the assumption that America is on a dangerous fiscal path. If you don’t agree with that premise, start with the links at the bottom.

America being so far in the red should be a concern for Americans across the political spectrum. I don’t care about assessing blame to Democrats or Republicans for the mess. There is plenty of blame to spread around. The overspending under Bush doesn’t excuse the current government’s irresponsible spending. Nor does the increase in spending under current leadership vindicate the unacceptable spending on Bush’s watch. Nearly every congress and administration in the last century has over spent. It is easier politically to add to the deficit than it is to raise taxes or cut services. That is why $0.40 of every dollar the federal government spends today is borrowed money.

Europe right now is providing us a glimpse into our future if we continue to kick this can down the road. If you think that drastic austerity measures and violent riots by students and organized labor sounds like a good time, then by all means, let’s keep spending. I don’t know anyone who agrees with all the recommendations just released by the president’s deficit panel, but I applaud the existence of such a commission for advancing the conversation. Just like any 12-step program, the first step is admitting that you have a problem.

I consider my own life to be a microcosm for what is wrong with our nation’s spending habits. Earlier in life my income did not cover what I wanted to spend money on. Unfortunately for me, I had dozens of credit cards and credit offers to enable me to spend beyond my means. Now, later in life and making more money, I am still paying for the overspending of my 20s. By the time I am done paying off my credit cards, I will have paid more than double the price tag of the items that I purchased on credit. I am personally paying for my past lack of restraint and prudence in spending. Because of that, it is a lesson now drilled into me. I no longer buy what I want; I buy what I can afford and what I need. Apparently that’s a lesson being learned by many Americans. U.S. Consumer debt is down 15.5% since 2008, even as public debt moves sharply in the other direction.

The primary differences in effects felt by private versus public debt are the reason federal spending per citizen has increased so drastically over the last 100 years: 

1. The government does not have its own money. Government spends taxpayers’ money. All exponential future costs will likewise be shouldered by the future taxpayer.

2. The consequences of public debt can be deferred to future generations while the benefits are enjoyed by the generation doing the spending

Sometimes it’s hard for the average American to relate to what the federal deficit means to them personally. Under current deficit projections by the Congressional Budget Office, by 2020 just the cost of interest on our debt will amount to over $1,800 per person, per year. Considering that half of American citizens and most illegal immigrants do not pay federal income tax, that number is more than doubled when laid at the feet of the taxpayer.

We are practicing generational theft. It is immoral to saddle our children and grandchildren with insurmountable debt and unsustainable, unfunded liabilities because we do not want to make tough cuts or difficult sacrifices. How is it fair that a child born today enters this world with a $1 million dollar share of America’s unfunded liabilities and public debt?

Our responsibility to future generations is to leave them a planet not trashed by greed or laziness. The same morality demands we not bequeath our children a deficit ballooned by selfishness or weakness.

At the risk of “founder thumping”, I leave you with three quotes from Thomas Jefferson. As with many of our nation’s problems, our founding principles contain the answers:

I place economy among the first and most important virtues, and public debt as the greatest of dangers to be feared. To preserve our independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. If we run into such debts, we must be taxed in our meat and drink, in our necessities and in our comforts, in our labor and in our amusements. If we can prevent the government from wasting the labor of the people, under the pretense of caring for them, they will be happy.

I hope a tax will be preferred [to a loan which threatens to saddle us with a perpetual debt], because it will awaken the attention of the people and make reformation and economy the principle of the next election. The frequent recurrence of this chastening operation can alone restrain the propensity of governments to enlarge expense beyond income.”
 (Notice he said that taxes are preferable to debt because citizens are more likely to take notice and do something about spending!)

“The principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale.”

Some research worth reading:

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Waiting for Education Reform

My wife and I saw the very good documentary “Waiting for Superman” recently and agreed the film has a lot to say. She has worked in our local school district for nearly a decade as both a teacher and counselor, so I can appreciate her take on the different issues the film presented. And while the film is not perfect, and focuses primarily on inner city school challenges, one thing is certain: The filmmakers focus on the common ground Americans have behind education reform.

To start with, there are the obvious shared educational goals that we have that are no-brainers, such as improving literacy, raising academic standards, and improving the performance of our students. But this all starts with teachers and schools, and the need to have a better functioning system. That’s where there seems to be hundreds of different ideas. Still, I think most of us can agree on some key elements of education reform, such as:

1. We want the best teachers in our schools, and we want the ability to reward and encourage these great teachers.
2. We want high performing schools – not just one in our community, but all of them.
3. We believe control over schools should be done at the local level (at the district and state level) because that way we can better address specific community challenges.
4. We want school districts to have the ability to fairly evaluate our teachers and schools, and do what it takes to improve the performance of both.
5. We want the ability to get rid of poor, underperforming teachers.

The question, of course, is HOW to accomplish these objectives – but the dialog needs to start from the understanding that we really all want the same thing. From here the discussion needs to look at different approaches, and there are many. The “Waiting for Superman” website alone shows how many different paths are being taken in the name of their motto “Together We Can Fix Education.” But what is admirable about the dialog on their site is that it is not angry or accusatory – just insistent on taking action. Most of the action steps are credible individual suggestions we can take.

We need to let go of the rhetoric and focus on building bridges. As an example, let’s look at just one issue exposed in the documentary, the problem of getting rid of bad teachers. We all want to get rid of bad apples – I don’t know ONE teacher who wouldn’t agree the system needs to allow districts to dismiss lousy teachers – but I also don’t know one teacher who wouldn’t say that their union plays an important role in making sure their rights are protected. It’s a popular framing mechanism to “love the teachers” but “attack the unions,” as if those bad and nasty unions are in some way an outside third party. They’re an easy target, because it is the union contract agreements that have made it nearly impossible to get rid of poor instructors.

But here’s the thing: The teachers ARE the unions! They vote for their elected leadership, and like everything else in our democracy, their voted representatives act on their behalf in contract negotiations. So even though the vast majority of teachers would agree in “rewarding the good and getting rid of the bad,” they are NOT demanding this collectively at the bargaining table.

So when it comes to teacher evaluation, this is where we need to start. Obviously there must be pretty sensitive issues at stake when teachers talk about changing tenure and the ability to jettison unwanted faculty — no teacher wants to be part of a witch hunt if the school boards were given Absolute Power. They’ll want to know their protections; they’ll want to see how evaluations will play in both high and low performing schools; they’ll want to know that “testing” isn’t the magic answer to everything; etc. As the “Superman” website suggests, if this an important issue to you, then take it upon yourself to know your school board and find out what is being done on a local level about making sure we have great teachers. Like anything else in a democracy, if we want change, we have to be willing to roll up our sleeves and get involved.

This is not the space to play out the education discussion, but I do know that good ideas and solid proposals can be heard and calmly evaluated by those willing to find solutions. And we need to make darn sure that those we put into school boards AND union boards are the type of individuals who WILL listen and evaluate good proposals.

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Finding our Common Ground – More than Just a Nice Idea

First off, I want to sincerely thank my friend and Purple Ground blog host Jamie Rudolph for inviting me to join her page for periodic posts.  I so completely support her motivations for these discussions. Political discussion has become rigid and beyond partisan — no one is happy with a political system that is paralyzed by anger, fear and inflexible ideology.  Our country is built on the idea that a healthy discourse is crucial to a free democracy.

That’s why finding common ground in political discourse is so important. Jamie and I stand on opposite sides of the political divide.  We have significant philosophical differences on some issues, but we share the conviction that the best decisions for America will come from people willing to listen and understand each other‘s perspectives.  Working toward building consensus, agreement and compromise is how our founding fathers always intended these United States of America to be governed.

So right off the bat, here’s some common ground we can all agree on: Regardless of ideology, we all want our elected officials to govern the United States of America on our behalf.  The voice of the people through elected representation.

But to do this requires active interpersonal communication. Our electeds must do what the rest of us do every day: Figure out how to get along and live/work together! Most of us do a pretty good job of treating one another with courtesy and respect, and basically try to be good humans. You learn pretty quickly in life that it’s best to try and get along with one another.  In the world of our lawmakers, we hope that those we elect have this idea down as well.

So when dealing with contentious issues, it’s a good idea to take time to first appreciate what you can agree on. Take some time before jumping into debate to first acknowledge that you and your rival might have some core objectives in common. Why? Because it reminds you that we’re all in this together – it’s not “us” and “them.”

Look at sports. In those moments before the game when we’re singing the National Anthem, one of the reasons it feels so good is because we’re acknowledging our common ground.  No matter who we’re rooting for, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder as proud Americans, appreciating the thrill and beauty of the sport, the spectacle of entertainment, and the communal feeling of thousands of fans sharing an experience. A few minutes later, we will be carried away with the competition, cursing at the obnoxious fan in the next row, but during the Anthem, we are all in it together.

So if we expect our politicians to find room for intelligent discourse, we can start by showing them we can do it ourselves.  We can lower the intensity of the rhetoric a bit, take an edge off the angry partisanship, and even try to find the joy in what we have in common, what we share.  In the coming months, I look forward to discovering our Purple Ground.

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Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You: Giving in America

Those of us who think that government has grown too large and overstepped the role it was given in our Constitution believe that many things that the government does today were intended to be the role of private citizens, charities, communities, families and neighborhoods. If we want to reduce the size and power of the federal government, then we have to help make those services redundant.

Most people do not object to a “safety net” role for the government. Although I would argue that we should localize that safety net as much as possible because those closest to the need can best address that need. Part of the reason that our “safety net” is turning into a “nanny state” is because large, centralized bureaucracies are by their nature too far removed to discern the difference between those who can’t help themselves and those who won’t help themselves. (See my blog on “Alice”, the true story of a family that applied to rent an apartment that we own).

Most Americans understand that our social safety net has become bloated, inefficient and sometimes encourages dependence on government programs over self-sufficiency. Still, we all want help for those that need a hand.

ABC News did a story on who gives in America. The results may surprise you.

Some statistics on Charitable giving in the U.S. and worldwide:

From ABC News story on Who Gives in America:

  • Conservatives give about 30% more than Liberals (although they make slightly less money on average)
  • The poor and the rich give more (as a percentage of their income) than the middle class
  • Religious people give more to charity than the non-religious (beyond just giving to their church)

From the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project

  • Americans give more to charity, per capita and as a percentage of gross domestic product, than the citizens of other nations
  • However, the U.S. comes in 3rd in Volunteerism behind Sweden and the Netherlands
  • Among developed nations, those with higher taxes and bigger social safety nets tend to have lower rates of giving. In charitable giving as a percentage of GDP, nations with cradle-to-grave welfare systems rank far down the who gives in the Johns Hopkins list; Sweden 18th, France 21st, Germany 32nd.
  • Those who give to charity and/or volunteer report being happier than those who do not give or volunteer

If we believe that individuals helping others is the best way to assist those in need, for both the giver and the receiver, we must take an individual role in fulfilling that responsibility. There are so many ways to give. The best ways are the ones that connect us to the person that we are helping. Although I donate to causes that I believe in, the most rewarding experiences I have had are the times that I gave face to face to a neighbor, or on a mission trip to Mexico. Seeing the impact of our time or money is a feeling that cannot be duplicated by writing a check to a charity. Nor can that connection be created by paying taxes that go to social programs.

The reality is that most of us are very busy. So charity plays an important role in enabling giving. I am not suggesting that we stop giving to charity. Indeed, we should do more charitable giving.  When we don’t have time or ability to take our used clothing to the homeless, a charity will come pick it up at our doorstep. We can’t all buy mosquito nets and fly them to a village in Africa to prevent Malaria, but we can donate to the charities that do that.

However, to understand the impact that giving has on ourselves and others, we all need to find ways to get that personal connection from our giving. Donating to the ASPCA via mail will not affect your heart the in the same way as taking an abused dog for a walk at your local animal shelter. That dog cannot lick your face in joy and gratitude though the mail.

If we look for opportunities around us to give directly to a neighbor or friend in need, the impact of that experience makes us more inclined to give in other ways. I challenge you (and myself) to proactively search out those opportunities. You will find that when you hand a poor child a new toy or help an out-of-work acquaintance work on their resume, you will get as much or more from the experience than the person that you are helping. That is the magic of giving: it usually begets more giving. Also, the joy that you get from giving is not dependent on your ability to give. The person that can donate a million dollars to build the new wing of hospital for children with cancer does not get 10,000 times the benefit of the person that who can only save their pocket change for a year to give $100 to their neighbor that quit her job to care for her cancer-stricken child.

More than any election, policy or government program, personal giving can restore this country because it changes the giver.

From one of my favorite movies (based on a true story), The Blind Side:

Friend: I think what you are doing is so great, to open up your home to him. Honey you are changing that boy’s life.
Leigh Anne Tuohy: No, he is changing my life.
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