How things have changed. In 20 short years, we have gone from shopping until we drop to having to work until we drop. It is evident that changes in demographics, the economy and our mutual lack of individual and governmental fiscal discipline are likely to change retirement significantly for all of us. Soon, we will wish Pfizer had invented a pill to prolong productive life rather than active life. Already, roughly one out of six retirement-age people is in the workforce. Some of these older employees are working by choice; however, the vast majority of our working grandparents and parents are likely standing on their feet greeting people or taking fast-food orders against their druthers. A minimum wage job can double the annual income of the average Social Security recipient. It is not professional curiosity or loneliness that drives many retirees to work—it is economic survival. We have known for years that Social Security would one day prove unsustainable due to how it is funded, and inadequate in terms of the retirement it supports. In 1997, the U.S. Government Accountability Office published a report to this effect titled “RETIREMENT INCOME: Implications of Demographic Trends for Social Security and Pension Reform.” This document has proven to be highly accurate. Its most prescient line: “Ensuring that Americans have enough retirement income in the twenty-first century to meet their needs will require that the nation and the Congress make some difficult choices.”The 1997 GAO report also correctly points out that, “Social Security has been an effective agent for ensuring a reliable source of income in retirement and greatly reducing poverty among the elderly.” The importance of Social Security as a ‘reliable source of income’ is bolstered by the untimely failure of the financial market just as the largest group of retirees in our history heads over the Rubicon. Clearly, we do not want the only safety net to be private investment in the stock market. So, how do we fix Social Security? The two largest challenges facing Social Security are the looming increase in retirees and the decrease in the ratio of workers to retirees that this will cause. The number of retirement-age people will double in the next 25 years to just over 78 million, or a quarter of the population. As a result of this demographic shift, the number of workers per beneficiaries will decline in the same period from 4-to-1 to 2.5-to-1. It will not get easier to fund retirements from the earnings of contemporaneous workers—it will get harder. There are three simple answers to the Social Security crisis: add more workers (more payees), raise the retirement age (less retirees), and/or boost wages through productivity (more revenue). The first requires supporting immigration and promoting larger families. The second requires changing our aging populace’s expectations about retirement. The third does not have much to offer. We have done about all we can in terms of productivity. The world is not going to allow us to raise the wages of our workers much. Fixing Social Security comes down to having the political will to be pro-immigration and pro-family and to present a displeasing reality to the greying herd about their elusive retirement date. Unfortunately, Washington seems as short on political will these days as it is on cash. So, we have a stalemate where we need hard decisions. There is one group that I would like to hear be more vocal about raising the retirement age. That is the professionals who have had the opportunity to work in fields that are highly compensated, such as politics, investment banking and higher education. Yet, these sectors seem more focused on early retirement in order to pursue personal endeavors. This is not the time to accentuate abstract personal needs—not when so many are struggling to cover the basics. Let’s face it. Social Security is not going out with a bang; it is sticking around with a groan. That is the noise politicians make when they finally do the right thing. It is also the noise old bones make at work—where they will be staying longer. It is time to be honest with ourselves: Retirement is not a date, but an affordable percentage of life. It is also something society must support.
I read a lot on planes. Even though I usually have work to do on most flights, the mandate at takeoff and landing to turn off “everything with an on-off switch” ensures at least one hour each flight of guilt-free leisure reading. I cherish that time. I always have a magazine or newspaper ready.
If there were a billion originals of the “Mona Lisa,” having one would not be very special, would it? So, how much can a dollar be worth if there are trillions upon trillions of them? OK, money is not the same thing as fine art. Still, the value of a currency does change when there is a lot of it. And, there are a lot of dollars out there. Hedge fund trader John Paulson knew that. Predicting that the U.S. government would keep putting money into the market, he bet against the value of the U.S. dollar. He also bet against subprime mortgages in 2007. On account of his foresight, he has made billions—over $5 billion in 2010 alone. He led the list of the top 25 hedge fund managers who collectively made over $22 billion last year. Paulson’s joy must have been a bit muted since he knows better than anyone that a billion dollars isn’t what it used to be. But, he still has a lot of them. Even if it may soon take a wheelbarrow full of dollars to buy a gallon of milk, he still has truckloads. In fact, he has made enough in two years to allow him to spend roughly $275,000 a day for the next 100 years. He will be able to afford a $3,750 latte, if that day should arrive. It would be easy to get a bit angry (maybe more than a bit) upon hearing that Paulson cleaned up for a second time, especially given the mess we are in. But that would be futile and a bit disingenuous. His bet did not make the economy crash—we did. And by “we,” I mean everybody: Washington, the Fed, real estate developers, home buyers, presidents, bankers, senators and representatives, consumers and credit card enthusiasts—all of us.Rather than get angry or lost in a philosophical debate about whether one man should end up with a windfall equivalent to the life-earnings of 3,200 commercial electricians, I would suggest studying Paulson. His game films are the important ones.Paulson’s actions are not hidden from the market. It is clear that he bought gold in classic hedge trade against the dollar. He understood that the U.S. government could artificially control the interest rate markets—at least for a time. But, no one can control all aspects of the economy. The market always compensates. This time it did so through the quiet, consistent devaluation of the U.S. dollar. And how the dollar has devalued! It has plummeted in value against other currencies, and it has devalued relative to commodities, especially the ones we eat and use for construction. Depending on the measuring stick you use, and how far back you go, the dollar appears to have lost from 30 to 85 percent of its value. The clearest proof that the dollar has lost value is the run up in gold. Clearly, something other than simple inflation is afoot when gold outstrips oil and all other commodity prices. It is not demand that has made things more expensive this time—it is our falling dollar. A side note: if the devaluation of the dollar has been wholly, or even in part, the result of U.S. monetary policy, it can be considered an indirect tax on all those who held dollar-denominated assets, such as U.S. stocks, cash and real estate. This does not change the need for tax reform. However, it should dampen vitriol against the rich and allow us to focus on asking everyone to pay more taxes. Why point out what has happened to the dollar? Why bring up old news about Paulson’s and other hedge traders’ immense profits? Isn’t this just rubbing salt into wounds? Not really. When it comes to the economy, the best view is an objective view. The economy and nature are both uncontrollable. It is time we learn from someone who knew when to batten down the hatches. Even though Paulson has been losing on his latest bet, I would still like to hear from him and his 24 colleagues. I suggest a nationally televised panel, not a congressional inquisition—just a panel of experts discussing the actual economy and what the dollar is really worth.
I should have turned around and gone home when I saw that the tickets cost $10. But, I am addicted to movies, especially on the big screen with fresh popcorn. Besides, most of my trips to the States these days are scheduled so tightly that there is rarely time for a movie. Carpe Diem: I threw down my credit card and bought a ticket to Steven Soderbergh’s newest film, “Contagion.”
I read everything I come across by Jon Krakauer. He is a brilliant investigative journalist, adventure writer and biographer. Krakauer’s genius is the ability to reduce actual mountains to mole hills as he did in “Into Thin Air,” and to raise seemingly insignificant lives to extraordinary importance as he did in “Into The Wild,” his best book. Krakauer’s most recent work is “Three Cups of Deceit.” It is a short, but strong polemic against Greg Mortenson, the co-author and central figure of the bestseller “Three Cups of Tea.” In “Three Cups of Tea,” Mortenson tells of miraculously surviving a failed K2 climb and being kidnapped by the Taliban. The book also covers Mortenson’s Sisyphus-like struggle to build schools in the remote parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Sadly, Krakauer claims that Mortenson fabricated his heroic tales and has exaggerated his success at establishing schools. I remember having two thoughts after reading “Three Cups of Tea.” First, knowing how hard being deeply involved in a mission has been for my own family, I thought, “Wow, what would it be like to be married to this guy?” I have been away from home a lot—missed a lot of birthdays and maybe even one anniversary—but I have never been kidnapped. Second, I thought, “This guy is the missionary’s missionary. His drive is beyond belief.” It never occurred to me that the story should not be believed. However, it is not Mortenson’s possible fraud and misuse of funds that unsettles me the most. If he is guilty of both or either of these, it’s sad, but easily fixed. What haunts me the most after reading Krakauer’s exposé is a more complex issue and a harder one to solve: Why do we need to hear these stories of extraordinary heroism to be motivated to support good causes?The CEO of Coca Cola does not have to climb K2, get lost, and miraculously stew up some Coke out of local herbs and water to quench the thirst of an injured Sherpa in order to get investors. Why do we give so much importance to this type of backstory from those who “manufacture” good in the world? If it is true that Mortensen has fabricated his story, as seems likely, we may be partly to blame. It just may be that stories like Mortenson's are told because society needs to hear them to be motivated to act. This certainly does not excuse Mortenson from the moral or legal responsibility for lying and cheating if he has, but it does explain why he would do it. He told the tale—true or tall—because we wanted to hear it. Just after putting down Krakauer’s book, I heard an NPR report on another too-good-to-be-true world-saving story that also turned out to be just that. This time it was a veteran journalist who started the snowball rolling by telling just the kind of story we love to hear. In 2005, Amy Costello, a well-known journalist covering Africa, gushed about a new water pump, the PlayPump, in a video report for PBS’s FRONTLINE. (PlayPump is a merry-go-round water pump that draws water from a well as children spin on it.) Costello’s video of kids laughing as they whirled around the newly installed merry-go-round pump catapulted PlayPump from an under-funded, one-man crusade into an internationally funded water solution for all Africa. Shortly after the video aired, global cause cheerleader Bill Clinton, along with American Online founder, billionaire Steve Case, and then First Lady Laura Bush presented PlayPump with a $16.4 million check. Hearing complaints about the performance, suitability and sustainability of PlayPump, Costello recently returned to see how the pumps her story had helped launch were functioning. They were not. Costello visited other sites and found more problems. In her follow up report for NPR, she courageously admitted that she had been too quick to support the concept. Without fanfare, PlayPump International—an unforeseen, but celebrated outcome of Costello’s first report—shut down. When seemingly good-intentioned people are enticed to embellish their stories, and very successful business people are duped into investing into untested ideas, and the world’s goodwill ambassador ends up looking more like a circus carney than a former president, it may be time to reconsider the influence emotional appeal and scalability are having on philanthropy. One thing is for sure: we need to accept more mundane stories.
The stink created by this summer’s political debacle over the budget and the national debt has dissipated for the most part. Yet, I still find myself wondering how Washington could have devolved into such a Tower of Babel over something as fundamental as paying the bills. In the past, even the most ideologically opposed politicians have proved willing to cooperate in order to move the country forward in a pinch, e.g. Clinton and Gingrich. What has changed?Could it be the social connection among baby boomers? Traditionally, demographers have divided boomers into three groups defined by the major historical events that occurred during each of the sub-cohorts’ formative years. For example, the oldest group of boomers was marked early on by the assassination of the Kennedys and MLK and later by the Vietnam War. The middle group suffered the disillusionment of the post-Vietnam War fallout and Watergate. The last group, the babies of the baby boomers, were immersed in Reaganomics and spoiled by the luxury of growing up in the accumulation of wealth during the post-World War II industrial explosion. What has changed is that baby boomers are no longer merely separated by quaint historical markers which amount to little more than cultural badges. Sure, vestiges of each group’s unique nuance remain, like Birkenstocks and the proliferation of MBAs. What we learned this summer, however, is that it is economic perspective that divides boomers now. This is important because baby boomers account for 60 percent of our representatives in Washington. Of course, this is not new. Boomers have been the majority age group in Washington for some time. They began to dominate the political scene with the Clinton administration. In fact, the growing number of boomers in elected positions may have been exactly what made it possible for the Clinton administration to pull the two sides of the aisle together to balance the budget during Washington’s last near political meltdown. What is new is that baby boomers no longer share a common vision for America. Worse, boomers don’t even seem to be able to get along at all anymore. The formerly cohesive group, the largest to pass up the line, is clearly breaking apart along generational lines. This is why President Obama, a boomer himself, is having such a rough go of it. Not to point fingers, but it appears that the oldest group of boomers is abandoning ship. The once politically active Woodstock mud dancers have succumbed to the reality that they are closer to the finish than to the start. Naturally, their interest has turned toward end-of-life matters and away from education and job creation. The top echelon of the largest generation ever is no longer preoccupied by concerns over social justice for the masses and world peace. They are not worried about how high the ladder goes or how fast the merry-go-round spins; they just want to retire well when they get off.Therefore, it is no accident that Social Security and Medicare are dominating the political stage. Even the raucous clamor for no more taxes is largely a retirement concern—it is about preservation of earnings and capital. Obviously, the recent financial crisis only increases the apprehension over retirement. Unfortunately, economics turns out to be a much more fractious divider than historical events. Subsequently, the dialogue in Washington has turned ugly as factions emerge. Understandably, the oldest boomers are more concerned about what’s next for them and less concerned about what’s next for the country. But, it is hard to see the group that led the Civil Rights movement be so overtly concerned about their own entitlements. Now that the first boomers have begun to turn 65, we need to be concerned about how the soon-to-be largest generation to cross the Rubicon fares through retirement. But, retirement cannot dominate our political dialogue to the point of our extinction—which is what will happen if we continue to concentrate on the end-of-life matters more than those integral to its healthy beginning. The historical connection of 77 million Americans having been deconstructed, it is time to find a new path forward—one that balances today with tomorrow and our generation with those to follow.
I believe that abortion as a direct, willful action is wrong in every case. That said: this column is not about that incontrovertible moral truth. It is about how society’s attitude toward abortion changes most often in strong, reactionary shifts to events rather than in slow methodical turns. Rarely does public opinion on abortion move slowly or philosophically on its own. The legalization of abortion in 1973 was itself an abrupt departure from prevailing social norms. The court’s decision was a radical endorsement of personal privacy leading to an overtly individualistic interpretation of freedom. Faced with a perverse form of Solomon’s dilemma, the Supreme Court chose to ignore the child altogether. Blind to half of the equation, society quickly embraced the concept of limitless freedom over natural law. In 1973, over 740,000 abortions were reported. Within a decade, the number of reported abortions performed annually doubled to over 1.5 million per year, peaking in 1990 at just over 1.6 million. Since 1973, over 50 million abortions have been performed in the U.S.—there is no doubt that the mainstream culture has accepted abortion as a practice.Coincidentally, the murder rate in New York City also peeked in 1990 with 2,245 homicides, earning the Big Apple the distinction of being the nation’s “Murder Capital.” In response to what was seen as an intolerable loss of life, immediate measures were taken. By the end of the decade, the murder rate had decreased by more than 50 percent to fewer than 1,000 homicides per annum. The annual abortion rate had also declined during the same period—to 1.3 million. The strongest reversal in support for abortion since it was legalized occurred during the very public and ugly debate between President Clinton and Congress over partial-birth abortion. In the midst of the debate, a black-and-white, pen-and-ink drawing illustrating this particularly heinous form of abortion was widely circulated. This simple drawing was composed of five frames. The last frame depicted how scissors are inserted into the back of the half-delivered baby’s skull to kill it. The fifth frame provoked even ardent choice supporters to go against their own camp for the first time. The stark clarity of the drawing caused otherwise pro-choice Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to whom I am not related, to denounce partial-birth abortion as infanticide in a memorable fit of outrage on the Senate floor. Clearly, Moynihan had not changed his mind on choice. He was just reacting to what had been made obvious by the illustration: Partial-birth abortion is undeniably murdering one’s own child. I believe we have been presented with an opportunity for another monumental adjustment in the public attitude toward abortion. This one comes in the form of a chilling article by Ruth Padawer in the August 14 New York Times Magazine article titled “The Two-Minus-One Pregnancy.” Padawer reports an increase in requests by women carrying twins to have one fetus aborted, which is euphemistically referred to by fertility doctors as “pregnancy reduction.” If the very concept of elective “pregnancy reduction” is not itself enough to cause all good men and women to rethink abortion in general, the honest and cold statements made by those requesting the procedure and those who provide it should do the trick. For example, Jenny, a 45-year-old expecting mother who has asked her doctor to abort one of the twins she is carrying is quoted by Padawer as saying, “This is bad, but nowhere as bad as neglecting your child or not giving everything you can to the children you have…”Padawer’s “frame 5” is a description of how the abortionist stops the unwanted child’s heart: “The procedure, which is usually performed around Week 12 of a pregnancy, involves fatal injection of potassium chloride into the fetal chest…Some physicians found reduction unnerving, particularly because the procedure is viewed under ultrasound, making it quite visually explicit…” They may also be unnerved by the fact that executioners use potassium chloride to stop beating hearts as well.I hope millions of people read this article and take it in directly—without intellectual equivocation. Not since the broad publication of the illuminating illustration of the partial-birth procedure have I encountered such a clear incrimination of abortion. Unfortunately, it takes a major jolt to raise awareness. At least this provides some possible redemptive value to the generally disturbing statements gathered by Padawer.
I was not surprised about the general reaction to my announcement that my daughter and I would first head north from West Point, NY to Portland, Maine before heading south to Miami to garage my son's new Mustang. Clearly, it was a crazy idea to drive north to go south. But, being a purist when it comes to experiences, I argued, “How can we call the trip 95: THE DRIVE if we don’t motor through all of the 15 states it connects?” On the other hand, I was surprised to find out that I-95 is not one continuous route like I-90. It’s missing a section in New Jersey just above the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border. In reality, I-95 is like a night crawler that has been cut in two at its clitellum, aka the flat part you’re taught to put the fishing hook through as a kid. However, I-95 is still regarded as the nation’s longest north/south route even if the politics of NIMBY have kept it disconnected for now. In a moment of weak-hearted pragmatism, I did contemplate the idea of driving just the southern section of the route. We could have headed south from West Point to Trenton, New Jersey and saved a lot of driving. However, I quickly returned to my sensibilities and entered Portland, Maine in the Google map. I wanted to make the DRIVE, not a drive. Before you side too quickly with the majority of people who found this idea baffling, keep in mind that either way the drive was going to be a long one. Making it a bit longer by making it a challenge seemed like a great idea. We had to drive the car to Miami anyway; why not make it into a journey? Adding a few hundred miles gave the trip a sublime purpose — it would make the trip something my daughter and I could reminisce about long after the physical toll wore off. To her credit, my daughter didn’t question the sanity of the idea. She was in from the start. She intuitively understood the opportunity to change the task of delivering my son’s car to Florida into the shared experience of beating the beast. She loved the idea of taking on the road famous for its monstrous traffic jams in one swift drive. Unfortunately, not yet licensed, she could not help with the driving. But, she did make it fun! Commonly, we say that the devil is in the details. But, in this case, God’s grace seemed to be there instead. We hit only two traffic jams in the 1,688 mile trip. We passed over the George Washington Bridge unimpeded at 6:30 AM. I actually had to slow down to 40 MPH so that my daughter could take in the skyline. The only really difficult patch was DC — but nothing seems to pass through Washington without problems these days.The trip took a total of 37 hours. We spent 28 hours and 38 minutes actually driving. We averaged 60 MPH inclusive of pit stops, which count in races, and exclusive of sleeping time, which was minimal. To keep awake, we listened to music interspersed with CNBC reports on the market and comic relief from Laugh USA — I am not sure which channel had the greater grasp of reality. I do know that I like Sirius XM radio better than cable TV. I can’t hide the fact that I felt a great sense of relief when we pulled my son’s car safely into the garage. The trip was a crazy idea. I had admitted that to myself the night before when I pulled into Jacksonville, FL at 3 a.m., worse from the road — a lot worse. Haggard from hours of driving, I was reminded of the mixed sentiment that comes after winning a rugby match against a bigger, less skilled team that has beaten you physically, but not numerically. On the other hand, we had done it. We had braved a road that frustrates East coast commuters daily with hours of waiting. Along the way, we had seen dozens of things that make this country great — not the least of which is our amazing highway system. Within minutes of putting the cover on the car, I missed the road and motoring. [Sing that last word in a wispy Sister Christian way and you will, too.]
Given the severity of our immediate economic situation, it may be difficult to look beyond tomorrow, let alone 2012. Even our ever optimistic, the sun-will-come-out-tomorrow President may be contemplating his future in shorter increments. However, there may be one bright, long-term play Mr. Obama can make that will lighten the national mood and swing support back his way: expedite the national electrical grid project.When the economy needs more than just a jolt, the most effective type of government intervention is investing in infrastructure. Large public works projects stimulate the economy by creating broad based employment. Carefully chosen projects can also increase our nation’s competitiveness and productivity for when the world’s economy does swing back into action. Modernizing our nation’s electric grid fits the bill on both accounts. Moving more quickly on updating the grid will not only boost the immediate economy, it will make sure we remain an economic leader in the 21st century by allowing us to become a greener and lower cost industrial manufacturer. It will also decrease our energy footprint while increasing our quality of life by allowing consumers to access the cheapest and cleanest power available in the country at any moment of the day. Since 1960, per capita electrical consumption has tripled. While some of this increase is dubious in value, such as the power consumed to keep electric devices in stand-by mode and kids entertained on game boxes, much of it is a result of a cost-driven “power shift.” Due to the cost efficiency and practicality of electricity, 85% of the increase in power demand since 1980 has been provided through electricity. We are actually an electric dependent nation — even if oil gets more press.The good news is that electricity is largely a domestic product. Less than 2% of US power generation comes from oil. By comparison, 10% comes from renewable resources. Since electrical power generation can draw on a wide variety of domestically available energy sources, anything that allows us to plug in more and pump less is in our national best interest. That fact alone should make us want to improve the grid and drive electric cars. Besides the immediate efficiencies in power transmission that will be gained, modernizing the grid will increase the intra-connectivity of the system. This will allow both commercial and private users to access the cheapest electricity available. Peak use, which is the most costly, generally moves across the nation with the sun. More and smarter connections in the grid will allow excess power generation from regions in “off-peak” mode to be transmitted to regions where demand is peaking, thereby cutting costs. Improving the connections within the grid will also allow for greater use of renewable energy. For example, wind power is generated most efficiently in the rural, unpopulated wind-swept regions of mid-America and just off our coastal shores. Being able to send this green, cheap power to areas most in need of electricity will maximize its economic and environmental impact. The same is true for solar and geothermal power. Peter Huber, a Manhattan Institute fellow and widely published author on energy, provides an excellent explanation of why electricity is the future power play for America in his October 2008 article titled “The Million-Volt Answer to Oil.” It is a dense but rewarding read. He makes a clear argument for upgrading the grid and overlaying a coast to coast backbone grid to our existing system. He believes, “To get over $4 gas, we should let American capital, labor, and know-how get on with what they already do so well, and connect us to the 4-cent electricity.” I do, too.Electricity has already proven to be cost effective and reliable. Because electricity is domestically produced, it is clearly more environmentally and politically manageable than petroleum based power. This makes electricity not only smart, but patriotic. Everyone, no matter on which side of the aisle they sit, should be able to get behind the President on the national grid project — now wouldn’t that kind of bipartisan support be electrifying right now.
The Mayan calendar predicts that 2012 will be the end of the world. Since I am firmly of the ‘hour-and-day-is-not-known’ club, I do not believe it. But, I would like to see 2011 be the end of complaining as a national pastime. As is true with most good ideas, the idea of putting the kibosh on complaining is not an original one. Motivational authors Will Bowen and Jon Gibson are the most recent writers to publish books on the topic. They both provide convincing reasons for eradicating complaining from our lives and the workplace. Since 2006, Bowen’s group has distributed millions of purple bracelets to remind people not to kvetch. Bowen and Gibson’s books are good resources, but that is not what motivates me to call for 2012 to be a year without complaint. The idea was inspired by the corrosive, juvenile debate visited upon us by our Congress and President over the budget. When Washington becomes a playground full of whining children threatening to take their balls home, it is obvious that it’s time to change our national attitude. Like it or not, our elected officials are mirrors of us, the electorate. I have been wracking my brain to think of what may have been the “complaint heard around the world” that changed our national character from “can do” to “why me”. How did we shift from fighters to complainers? What has happened to us as a nation? Did things get too easy? When did being negative become so popular?Really, I cannot reconcile the character of my father, who just turned 83, with the character of our current representatives or my own for that matter. A lot has been written about the integrity of my father’s generation who were formed by the Great Depression and World War II. Maybe much of it is romanticized, but I truly cannot picture my father as a complainer. He is so rarely negative. Somehow the difficult realities of the world around us have shifted from being challenges to be overcome to being the basis for complaining and blaming others. In a roughly a half-century, we have gone from a confident people, inspired to ask what we can do for our nation, to a complaining people, bellyaching about what our nation asks of us or does not do for us. In his video on ending complaining, Bowen suggests that it takes 21 days to change a habit. I am concerned that complaining is so engrained in us that it will take a lot more than three weeks to break this bad habit. That is why I am suggesting we start preparing now for a New Year’s resolution to not complain in 2012. With the admonition “Physician, cure thyself” ringing in my ears, I humbly offer this simple idea on how we can make the hard trek back to being positive. We need to be more overtly appreciative of the good things that we have and keep the bad things in perspective. This idea may sound a bit trite, but I am inspired by my oldest son to believe it will work. Before leaving him at West Point for his plebe summer, knowing that he would have some tough days, I encouraged him to wake up each day with this positive thought: My education is paid for; I will have a job when I graduate and my job will make a difference. As for the really tough moments, I encouraged him to keep in mind that no matter what was expected by his superiors, no one could add an hour to a day or a day to a year. Judging from the upbeat mood of his letters, the advice emphasizing the positive and keeping the negatives in perspective seems to be working—and he is a teenager in boot camp. I am sufficiently convinced by my son’s success to take my own advice. Right after I finish this, I am going to come up with my positive thought for tomorrow. How about you?
During all the hoopla over the switch from Elizabeth Warren to Richard Cordray to head the nearly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, I found myself wondering, “Don’t we already have a consumer protection agency?” While others seemed fixated on who would lead the new government agency, I decided to google “consumer protection.”
Have we become pessimists? Has the economy been bad enough for a long enough time to have damaged our national spirit? Have we become so concerned about the future that we are unable to give even lip service to hope? As a nation, are we depressed?
There was a time when the tag baby boomer inspired awe in both the greatest generation, who worked so hard to make our lives better than theirs, and in the next generation, who until recently idolized us for our hip ways and our love of sports and music. But, that was before it became painfully apparent that my generation’s real addiction is to easy credit and that the Gatsby mansion is not only rented this time — it is in foreclosure. That was also before the national debate erupted over how to cover the looming cost of health care and a prolonged retirement for the largest generation to retire in mass ever. Somehow we expect Uncle Sam to pick up the tab even though we have never allowed our elected officials to properly fund these costs. It is ironic that we grew up hearing the story of the grasshopper and the ant — even read it nostalgically to our own children — but obviously failed to internalize it. Now that boom is synonymous with bust, we, once society’s peacocks, are its albatrosses. No longer the envied, storied boomers, we are the debtor generation — the generation who, having squandered the labored fruits of the optimistic, but pragmatic generation that produced us, are now greedily eying the future earnings of our children. We may be a bit embarrassed by our past excess, but we are far from ready to end it. On July 4th, I could not avoid thinking about how we no longer fight for Liberty; we just take them — especially with loan papers. Our leaders no longer shout inspiring battle cries calling for personal sacrifice for the good of all. Instead, they bicker with one another until the only achievable outcome is that no one loses out — at least not today. The most fanatic and myopic shout is for representation without taxes.If it seems harsh to replace “largest” and “boomer” with debtor, take a look at the Debt Clock at www.usdebtclock.org. We are more than 14.5 trillion dollars in debt as a nation and 16 trillion dollars in debt privately. That amounts to a per capita debt of roughly $100,000 in debt. Just our consumer and credit card debt alone exceeds the government’s annual revenue by 50 percent. We are not just broke; we are broke and in debt. Compounding our indebtedness is our nonexistent savings rate. We must think that we live in the Atacama Desert when it comes to rainy days given our inattentiveness to saving. In 2010, we completed a fourth year of sub-zero net savings. This hasn’t happened since the Great Depression — which is doubly depressing since it suggests we do not learn from history. If it seems unfair to use the word addiction and to blame our generation for the self-obsessed, consumption society we have spawned, consider that Facebook, Groupon and Twitter are companies respectively valued at $100, $30 and $8 billion dollars. These companies basically facilitate self-aggrandizing, social promiscuity, over-consumption and gossip. These are far from the values that our parents, whose collective investments built Ford, GE and Alcoa, instilled in our country.Mr. President, it is time for you to speak louder and more clearly. It is not enough to merely whisper in an election-on-the-horizon muted voice that we must live within our means. You must boldly insist that we live within our earnings since borrowing has become the preferred means for living. Borrowing is not always bad, but borrowing for consumables and never paying it off is. It is time for the nation to adopt a pay-as-we-go policy for Social Security, welfare, Medicaid and national defense. Yes, the federal government may borrow billions to build needed infrastructure, such as a national electric grid, but it should not borrow even a dime for anything that is consumed immediately. Out of pocket expenses need to come out of our pockets. The party is over. It is time to pay the bill so we can leave with honor.
For the record, I support President Obama’s recent decision to accelerate the drawdown of our troops in Afghanistan. I also agree with the decision announced by General Petraeus on July 4th to switch the focus of US military assets from the south of Afghanistan to the Pakistan border. Hopefully, these reductions in the size and scope of the mission, which are as regrettable as they are necessary, will at least lessen the loss of life, military and civilian, and the cost of the Afghan war. On the other hand, I bristle at the bashing that Nation-Building is taking as part of the public justification of the change in our objectives in Afghanistan. After the protection of innocent lives, Nation-Building is the most compelling and moral reason to engage our troops abroad. After all, war does not make peace — stable nations do.Specifically, I was disappointed by the President’s attempt at cleverness by stating, “America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.” His twisting of such an important aspect of our foreign policy for rhetorical effect and populist appeal in the last minutes of his otherwise articulate and clear message to the nation on June 22 undermined the sincerity of the previous 10 minutes of his speech, which had extolled the mutual benefit of helping the Afghan people build a stable, democratic nation — Nation-Building. In a July 4 New York Times op-ed titled “Let’s Not Linger in Afghanistan,” Senators Merkley (D-OR), Paul (R-KY) and Udall (D-NM) also took advantage of the lamentable difficulties in building infrastructure and government in Afghanistan to cast aspersion on Nation-Building. Using the all too familiar “blame the victim” slight-of-hand, the trio complain that our armed forces are “bogged down in…a prolonged effort to create a strong central government, a national police force and an army, and civic institutions in a nation that never had any to begin with.” To punctuate their pessimism, they quip, “Let’s not forget that Afghanistan has been a tribal society for millenniums.” If history matters, shouldn’t we also remember that Italy and Germany were tribal societies of a sort until relatively recently? As U.S. Americans, shouldn’t we be especially mindful that divided nations can rise above civil war? Why the loading on, Senators, if not to put Nation-Building in a bad light? Granted it is clear that current conditions and economic constraints require that Obama curtail for now what these senators politically refer to as a “sprawling” mission,” but do we really want to say to the Afghan people, especially the women and girls our President so proudly mentioned in his speech, that “we’ve accomplished what we set out to accomplish in Afghanistan, and we can no longer afford the lives and money it is taking” to really help you?Thankfully, this is not how our troops are approaching their job on the ground. Our troops, and their senior leadership, understand, unlike the junior senators, that the difficulties in helping the Afghan people build their nation are the very reasons the effort is so necessary and important. For them, Nation-Building is not sprawl or add-on — it is primary. (Google: Petraeus Clear Hold Build). Footage of community meetings held by our officers on the frontline, like those captured in “Restrepo” by war correspondents Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, prove that our troops in the field clearly support and understand the importance of the “build” aspect of their mission. Watching a battle-strained soldier patiently and honestly carryout a face-to-face meeting with local leaders, many of whom are justifiably upset with the collateral damage that goes with fighting insurgencies, is quite a testament to both the importance and potential of Nation-Building.Nation-Building is costly. It is also difficult. Clearly, it is too difficult and costly for now in Afghanistan — which is sad. Still, developing local infrastructure and government — doing the build — is the only real way to ensure that a battle once fought and won will not have to be fought again. This is why soldiers so willingly take to it. It is also why it is always in our interest.
Ninety seconds has a whole new meaning for me now. That is the amount of time we had to say a final goodbye to our son just before he was called out of our arms for in-processing at West Point. The emotionally charged moment was heightened by the fact that we had previously been standing for nearly two hours waiting in a long line — just long enough to have the cranky thought: “Couldn’t this go a bit faster?” I hate that I had that thought now. Everything was impressive about West Point. The cadets and staff were helpful and receptive. At each transition in the multi-step process, we were greeted and politely directed through to the next event. Even the priest who celebrated a mid-day mass for new cadet families was at the door of the church waiting for us — which helped because ongoing renovations made the chapel-sized church a challenge to enter.Catching a glimpse of the unmistakable gold stripe of a dress blue uniform under Monsignor Brian Donahue’s vestments as I knelt to pray for my son before mass, I was comforted by thoughts of the uncomplicated patriotism of the old WWII films which so often feature an Army chaplain with an Irish brogue saying mass on the front line. The good monsignor’s Hibernian surname and charming character communicated that the Army remains an institution rooted in tradition and connected on all levels. At the general information session for parents, Cadet Regimental Commander Angela Smith fielded questions with amazing poise as she stood on the stage of the second largest theater in the United States facing parents whose anxiety had been recently peeked by the abrupt morning goodbye and the cementing reality of the day. Her calm, confident demeanor lightened the heavy air as she discussed hazing, dating and leaves. Rather than react negatively to the building helicopter-parentesque nature of the questions, she displayed the wisdom and compassion of a seasoned leader — impressive for a 21-year-old who, only three years earlier, had stepped out of her own parents’ embrace. By 6:00 PM, we were seated in bleachers on The Plain, West Point’s hallowed parade field, for the penultimate moment of the day: The Oath Ceremony. We watched stunned as our freshly shorn and uniformed sons and daughters, who I bet to a person previously found it hard to walk in the same direction, let alone pace, with their siblings in a mall, marched out in perfect lock step with only six hours of preparation time. It was an awesome sight — a testament to West Point’s overtly disciplined and detailed approach to forming leaders of character. During his remarks at the oath ceremony, Lt. General David Huntoon, Jr., who heads West Point, hit a somber chord when he noted that the men and women of the class of 2015 were especially courageous in his view since they had accepted an appointment to the Academy knowing we are a nation at war. I can assure you that this thought had occurred to every parent and new cadet several times — it was a constant topic of discussion in our house. The authentic sentiment of the general’s comment was not lost on all those gathered. General Huntoon had warned us earlier during the information session that we would find it hard to recognize our sons and daughters at the Oath Ceremony. Indeed, although the 1,250 plus members of the class of 2015 were assembled neatly in eight companies no more than 50 yards away, I did find it hard to spot my son. He had fallen in. He had joined the long gray line. As I squinted in the sun trying to recognize my son among the 150 plus members of Company A, I have to admit that I felt a real sense of loss. With great bravado, I had brought my son to West Point confident that he was a man and I was ready to let him go. Ironically, in the last moments of the day the mass of the new cadets before me looked like children — our children. I was less sure. But, as the mass of youth moved off in perfect unison, I braced myself with the reassurance that nobody gets lost at West Point. On the contrary, it’s where many great men and women are first found.
Returning to the United States with my family for a summer break from Haiti’s improving, but still challenging, post-earthquake conditions, I naively hoped that being back in the United States would provide some welcome relief from the chaos of the past many months. Not so much.
There are several wonderful things about the onset of summer. School ends, pools open, and barbecue grills come out of the garage. Days lengthen and people spend more time outside. Personally, I also appreciate the green light to wear light colored pants after Memorial Day, the social summer solstice. This eliminates having to juggle two wardrobes when I travel between Haiti and the Northeast.
“Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!What profit has man from all the labor which he toils at under the sun?”
In a dramatic burst, Jack Nicholson, as Colonel Jessup in “A Few Good Men,” barks, “You can’t handle the truth.” He follows his statement with gruff, paternalistic argument that amounts to moral relativism of the ends-justify-the-means variety. The movie’s point is that we need to work to eradicate this type of thought from our society and seek to do the highest good without moral compromise.
It is only natural to expect a deep, reflective piece on the mysteries of life in a column titled, “Why, God?” However, I tend to think those topics have been covered extensively by better writers than I. If you are in need of wisdom and consolation on these types of questions, I would suggest St. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Merton, Jacques Maritain, G.K. Chesterton, or, best of all, the source itself, Holy Scripture. On the other hand, I have noted that there is still insufficient exploration of a particular aspect of this question. Specifically, I would like to see more delving into why God created insects. Besides the very effective use as a plague upon the hard-headed, what good are these creatures that irritate us and gross us out?I was prompted to this thought by my son, Timmy. The other night, he appeared in my bedroom at just after midnight stating, “Robert, said to come in here and sleep.” Waking from a stupor and unsure why his older brother would send him to our room given he is fourteen, I asked, “What’s wrong?”He said, “A centipede bit me on the…” The rest was unintelligible as he spontaneously leaped into a mad version of Riverdance, yelling, “Oh, my God, it’s on my boxers.” He was eventually able to get the centipede to the floor whereupon his valiant brother killed it with bug spray from a safe distance — somehow the traditional shoe had failed. Centipedes are relatively flat already. I have to say that I like late night TV and often go to the last show at the movies; however, I now think I like late night impromptu live theater the best. Although I am still new at it, I can assure you comedy is the right genre for that time slot. Before we judge Timmy’s flailing reaction too harshly, it is important to note that the most important difference between a centipede and a millipede is not the number of legs. While it is true that a centipede only has one set of legs per section and a millipede has two, the more vital difference, especially for those in Timmy’s predicament, is that the first set of legs on centipedes are in fact very sharp pinchers bloated with venom. Some bug enthusiasts may choose to share a bed with a millipede — large ones are even kept as pets — but nobody would do so with a centipede. All joking aside, a bite from a centipede is not trivial. Fortunately for Timmy, his culprit had only succeeded at pinching his back, not injecting its noxious venom. Centipedes can deliver a nasty, festering wound if they really get their pinchers into you. Ergo the question: God, why did you create this nasty insect? Insect defenders will undoubtedly point out that a centipede is not actually an insect — but these scientists under appreciate the importance of ugly, nasty and squishy as the real basis for the classification of insects. Regardless, the question still seems valid: Why insects, God? The reason often given for any odd creature’s existence is “the food chain.” Since we are thankfully at the top of this bio-meal pyramid, we are supposed to just accept the fact that it gets ugly at the bottom as “the way it is.” But, I took the initiative to read up on the centipede’s diet. It seems that a lot of its prey is bugs and animals that are also eaten by better looking and less menacing members of the kingdom. So, why didn’t centipedes go the way of the dinosaurs? Could it be that insects, and their too-close-for-nonscientists-to-tell-the-difference cousins, are unavoidable reminders that we do not occupy our first intended home? Could the existence of nasty insects be a subtext in the book of evolution that reminds us that we have fallen from complete grace? I mention this because I don’t remember reading that Adam and Eve were swatting anything as they owned up to the crime that triggered the eviction clause in their rental agreement.If that is it, God, we got the message. Can you make them go away now?