Exclusive to the West of Twin Peaks Observer
December 2008 - December 2010
Newer Jack Kaye Columns 2011 - Present
On Treats and Bonuses
Every day I take my dog to one of the nicest dog parks in the city. The people with dogs there are for the most part interesting, intelligent people who love their dogs and treat them well. Whether their dogs are young or old, on leash or off, these kind companions always have a treat ready for them. If the dog comes to his loving companion, that calls for a treat. If he retrieves a ball, as may be his nature, he gets a treat. If the dog lets someone pet him, he gets one. If the dog enjoys being petted, he gets one, too. If he finally stops barking at another dog or a person, he gets one. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a dog get a treat for taking a treat.
Anyone watching the constant flow of special rewards would have to think well of both the dogs and their generous caretakers. Almost any dog trainer (but not Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer) will tell you that there is no better way to train or condition dogs than by giving them treats.
Highly competitive organizations like professional sports teams and large financial corporations give bonuses to their top employees to reward them for doing their very best at work. Young professional athletes are ofttimes given bonuses just for signing a contract to join the club at a very high salary. Stockbrokers can get bonuses larger than their salaries for being even more successful than anticipated. These bonuses are awarded to recognize successful efforts and to keep the best and brightest loyal to the organization. Absent these bonuses, the organizations could lose these super achievers to the competition, since it is only normal for people to want to get the very most for their excellent efforts. And isn’t this what free enterprise capitalism is all about — producing excellence by finding and rewarding the best in the field?
Who could object to treats for obedient dogs and bonuses for high performing professionals?
I love my dog. I feed him, groom him, pick up after him and walk him every day. I take him to his favorite park where he can meet and greet his favorite canine companions. He gets love, food, exercise and a wonderful environment in which to live. Those are his treats. (Scientists have found that by petting a dog, both the giver and receiver increase their levels of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter produced in the brain that lowers stress and heart rate while also creating a bond between the person and the dog. This chemical process also occurs when a mother nurses her baby, creating a bond between them.)
My dog does what I want him to because he cares for me and trusts me, not because he is conditioned to expect to get a good-tasting treat. He knows that what I do is for him and he wants to reciprocate. I don’t need to give him treats to win his love, respect or obedience.
While this may seem like a radical idea, think about human relationships. Do we carry treats around to give our friends and relatives as rewards for being with us or for doing as we would like? Do we give our children some money or food every time they do their homework, go to school or take a bath?
And while many economists will tell you that in order to compete in a business environment you must offer rewards to encourage senior members to do their utmost to succeed for themselves and their organization, I strongly disagree. They will tell you that while they pay their top people very well to do their very best, it is essential to pay them extra if they do even better than their very best. Again, I beg to differ.
How does one do more than his very best?
Would Barry Bonds have been less interested in winning the home run crown if he had not been promised $18 million a year to hit home runs? Would Michael Jordan have played better if he had been offered bonuses to supplement his high salary? Will our stockbroker try harder to pick the best stocks for us if he knows that he will get a bonus? And why would we suppose that the benefits such as pride in one’s work, wanting to help others or being loyal to an organization and its members are not reason enough for a person to do his/her very best? Why do we actually insult our best and brightest by saying that we know that they can do better than they are normally willing to do for the prospect of even greater reward — that greed is their greatest motivator.
Recent studies have found that offering bonuses to people doing creative work did not increase their productivity or creativity.
But even if people do not perform better when offered an extra reward, what’s wrong with giving people more? What’s wrong with giving dogs treats even if we don’t have to? Isn’t it nice to be generous and even nicer to be the beneficiary of generosity? Isn’t this extra reward system at the root of the free market and the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest, which leads to a better strain of the breed? Why else should people and dogs perform better?
My answer to all these questions is that the more we emphasize extrinsic motivation, the more we de-emphasize and dwarf intrinsic motivation. The more we bribe our dogs and employees, the less they are likely to function out of love, respect, compassion, loyalty, identification or even the joy of accomplishment or pride in their own efforts — life’s natural, organic, motivators.
When my dog was young, he ignored treats. When offered them he would spit them out. He had learned somehow to associate getting a treat with then having to do something that he did not enjoy, like being put in a cage at the groomer’s where he had to wait for hours to be released only to be attacked with scissors and nail clippers and then soaked in soapy water. I think that he figured if he declined the bribe, he would also avoid the payment for it.
Now that he is an older dog in his golden years (he actually is golden), he wants treats and they are everywhere. Every day some very nice human dog companion offers him a treat. Sometimes he sees it or smells it and begs the person holding the goodies to spare him one. If he got one, he would want a second and a third, while even having only one treat could very easily upset his delicate digestive system causing him to lose control of his most toxic material. The result could be an accident in the living room made worse by not seeing it before stepping into it — worse yet, to not notice until you have carried it throughout the residence leaving parts of it embedded in every carpet.
Much the same has been happening to people who are eligible for bonuses in their chosen field. I see CEOs, stockbrokers, athletes and entertainers (not that athletes aren’t entertaining) changing their behavior because of these large carrots in front of their faces. They start out in their careers because that is where their talents and interests are. An athlete usually begins his or her quest at an early age with the dream of becoming really good at the sport and someday doing it professionally. When the select few make it to the big time, the pros, they want to be the best that they can be. They want to keep their position on the team and help their friends and teammates succeed as a group.
When large bonuses seduce the athlete into changing his hopes and dreams, the behavior can change dramatically. Look at all the athletes who have been caught cheating in order to improve their already great performance and talent. We see it in baseball, football and know that it is probably rampant in basketball too. The bonus-hungry players are the ones who violate the rules and also disengage themselves from their team and teammates. They are not playing for the team or for the joy of the sport — intrinsic motivators. They are playing for more money and fame — extrinsic ones.
We have seen the effect of bonuses on stockbrokers. We forget that many started out loving what they did and wanting to do their very best to help their clients and their brokerage house. We have seen CEOs betray their employees, customers and stockholders in order to garner greater extrinsic rewards. We have even seen it with entertainers who lose sight of the reason they chose to perform, replacing it with dreams of bigger paydays which would lead to more and bigger homes, and more stuff to put in and around them.
And in the end, just like with my dog having accidents in the living room, these bonus babies drop toxic material all over our world, made worse when we step in it — worse yet when we don’t notice until there are traces of it all over our lives (think Bernie Madoff’s victims, or sports fans who want to believe, or employees laid off so that the CEO can get a bigger bonus. A recent study showed that the CEOs who laid off the most workers got the biggest bonuses in 2009).
In short, giving extra treats to motivate behavior is neither effective nor beneficial to any of the involved parties.
So I say let us end the practice of giving treats and bonuses in order to get our dogs and highly-paid people to perform better. Let us build our society around a culture filled with intrinsic motivation like love, compassion, cooperation, loyalty, integrity, responsibility, accomplishment and lots of kisses (at least for the dogs and the hard-working spouses). I think that if we do, we will find that life is filled with natural, organic treats and bonuses that make us feel the joy of being alive. They come to us when we are not striving for them.
Let joie de vivre and savoir faire join forces to create a dolce vita
for our dogs and people. If we do, perhaps the bonus will be a real treat for all of us.
A Lot Less Temptation
The Buddha said that life was suffering caused by desire which arose from conditioning. The Lord’s Prayer asks the Our Father to “lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.” I am beginning to think that our prayers have been answered and our suffering should soon diminish. Have you gone shopping lately?
I remember when I was young, or at least younger, there were so many wonderful things to buy. If I went by a jewelry store, I would see beautiful watches on display. There were the thin elegant watches by Omega, Patek Phillipe, and International Shaffhausen (IWC). The faces were fine and clean and the bracelets were works of art, sometimes made of pure gold. I saw several that I would have loved to have owned. We also had Longines, Bulova, and Hamilton watches to admire and possibly own.
I remember looking forward to autumn to see the new American cars come out. Each year they were different and better than the previous ones. I always preferred the cars made by General Motors: the friendly Chevy, the sporty Pontiac, the comfortable Olds, the handsome and distinguished Buick and the king of all cars, the Cadillac.
When I went to a department store like Macy’s, Saks, Brooks Brothers or
even as recently as Nordstrom, I would see so many clothes
that I would love to wear. I found myself restraining myselft from buying
hings I didn’t really need just because they were wonderful. But I still
Food was also a great temptation. Living here in San Francisco, I found so many different kinds of great food to savor. While always limiting the variety of foods that I ate (I don’t eat nuts, beans, fish or pork and don’t drink alcohol), I always found many items that I longed for even when I wasn’t particularly hungry.
I have seen all this change over the past 20 years or so.
Rolex started selling big fat watches for use deep under water and people who never even swam started buying them. Suddenly every other watch was big and fat rather than thin and elegant. Then the Swiss watch was replaced by the ones made in Japan. Now I cannot find a single watch that I would be remotely tempted to give even a second look.
American passenger cars have also lost their appeal to me. What ever happened to bodies by Fisher? Where are the adorable Chevys like the ’56, perhaps the best ever? The sporty Pontiacs are long gone, way before the line was put to rest. What happened to the great ’64 Grand Prix or GTO or Bonneville that every young person dreamt about? No more classy Oldsmobiles like the 1960 model or the Toronado or the 98 or the hot 442. The Buick has maintained its place of subdued excellence, but where is the great Riviera that started in the ‘60s? And where is the Cadillac that we knew, loved and looked forward to having when we were older and more established. Remember the ‘56 Sedan de Ville or Fleetwood? Was that the Caddy’s finest hour? Can you recall the 58 Eldorado Brougham or Biaritz? They were hand-made and cost $12,500 back when that was enough for six or seven cars, but they were worth every penny. Lincoln had its Continental that was $10,000 and a work of art. Chrysler had its 300 series and the Imperial. And there was the Corvette, a cute and hot little two seater. The new version of this classic sports car is the size of a station wagon. I think that the 79 Seville was the last Cadillac that I thought was truly great and worthy of its name. Nowadays, the “American car” means a large, boxy SUV or pick-up truck. We don’t seem to remember how to make exciting small sedans like we did in the early 60’s or even the great larger sedans, hardtops, convertibles and coupes of the 50s.
We have gone from 16 American car brands down to what will soon be six when Dodge is the next line to fall after Mercury, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Saturn, Hummer, Volvo and Saab (originally Swedish), Jaguar and Land Rover (originally British), Plymouth and Desoto before all of them. And no one will miss most of them, except, perhaps, their former dealers.
I go to my favorite department stores nowadays and see shirts, pants, jackets and coats that I wouldn’t own even if they were free. And the shorts and bathing suits for men lack both function and beauty. Why are they so long and baggy? They look ridiculous. Why do men buy and wear them? Have they no pride? And everything in the stores is made in China. Who am I helping by buying them?
I could theoretically still be tempted by food. There are still some great restaurants, especially, here in San Francisco. But the sad irony is that now that I can afford to eat at any restaurant and am aware of many good ones, I am no longer motivated because of my medical condition which is like a who’s who of entropy with almost every organ finding itself getting disorganized probably from overuse, resulting in malfunctioning that is exacerbated by certain foods and food groups.
A “compromised” heart makes the intake of food high in cholesterol seem much less appealing. So foods like meat, cheese, cream, butter and especially shell fish (which I don’t eat anyway) have lost their pull on me. Foods high in salt like pizza should also be avoided.
An underachieving pancreas makes the enjoyment of sugar-related foods suddenly bittersweet. And sucrose is not the only sugar. It is in foods ending in “ose” like lactose (read milk), fructose (fruits and corn), and dextrose as well as foods high in carbohydrates like pasta, bread, etc. And just when you thought that you at least had fruits and vegetables to fall back on, the kidneys slow down in sympathy with the other organs. It’s like workers of a different union honoring the picket line of a striking union.
Kidney problems mean a need to reduce the intake of foods high in potassium or phosphorus. This includes most green vegetables, especially avocado, my favorite vegetable/fruit, many fruits like bananas, melons and then all the foods that I don’t eat anyway like nuts, beans, fish, and pork. It turns out there was a reason I never touched clams and oysters besides their disgusting appearance.
This leaves me two meal choices: water or cauliflower. It is hard getting too attached to these options.
So the bad news is that the material world has very little that I am conditioned to desire (and I can no longer go swimming in public refusing to buy absurd looking trunks —someone has to take a stand). The good news is that life is no longer suffering for me because I no longer desire its fruits.
I think that I liked it better the other way.
ANALYZING THE TEA PARTY
The New York Times recently released the results of their survey of 881 tea party members. The survey found that 89% of the members are white, 76% are over 45, 70% had some college, 66% usually vote Republican, 61 % are Protestant, 61% attend church at least a few times a month, 59% are male, and 59% have incomes of more than $50,000 a year.
So tea party supporters earn more than the average American, are older, more religious, much more Republican, much more conservative and much more likely to be non-Hispanic and white. And they are more educated. It makes me wonder what colleges these people attended and whether the education they received was really worth much.
These are the same educated, well-paid people who believe that our President was not born in America, is not a Christian but really a secret Muslim, as well as a socialist, communist and/or Nazi fascist. They want the government out of their Medicare, a federal health insurance program and their Social Security, also a large federal program. They don’t want the Post Office to reduce deliveries to five days a week even though it too is a government program. Nor do they want NASA spending cut back not realizing, perhaps, its connection with the federal government or taxpayer money.
These allegedly more educated and better reimbursed Americans fear that our President is going to use taxes to redistribute the wealth without realizing that everything the government does it does by redistributing wealth. They believe that Reagan was their hero forgetting that he raised taxes five times after reducing them for the rich, and that he gave amnesty to illegal immigrants causing another 12-20 million to sneak into our land with the hope that they too will get amnesty for their illegal entry.
These same people blame our current President for the deficit caused in total by Republicans like Reagan and Bush. It was they who lowered taxes on the rich, reduced regulation of our banking sector, refused to fight oil companies that were stealing from the people, and got us into two unnecessary wars that are costing the taxpayer trillions of dollars.
These tea party supporters attend rallies to hear the likes of Sarah Palin to inspire them. She who wants less government accepted federal government money to build a bridge to nowhere, charged her own state rent for her time spent at her own home, spent more than $150,000 on clothing for her failed campaign and currently asks for as much as she can get from institutions willing to listen to her speak.
These loyalists who make up a small percentage of our total adult population while considering themselves to be proud Americans are actually people about whom most Americans cannot be proud.
If these people are better educated, they are surely not as intelligent as the average American. If they are wealthier, it is not a wealth that make people’s lives better. It is more like greed than wealth.
These same people want the government to stop interfering with their personal relationship with their medical insurance plans. They do not mind having these friendly companies raise their rates periodically by as much as 40%, deny coverage for drugs they do not recognize or procedures that they feel are unnecessary. They want government to stop protecting them from banks and other financial institutions that give their preferred customers the inside sure bets while giving these people, these intelligent, well-off tea party members, the stocks and securities that their insiders are trying to get rid of.
These same “good” people are mad because the current administration bailed out the big banks and two of the country’s largest car companies. They say that this President wants to take over the banks, car companies, and mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. What they are not intelligent enough to grasp is that the bank bailouts were initiated by the former President, a Republican, after the Republican policies relaxed supervision over these large financial corporations. Had the banks not been helped by the government, there would have been a financial meltdown that would have negatively affected the whole world. If the car companies had not been bailed out, hundreds of thousands more jobs would have been lost. This President has no intention of running either the banking or the auto business.
The tea party people should note that most of the banks have repaid their bailouts paying an additional 12% in interest. General Motors, a car company that was almost run into the ground by the poor management of a free enterprise corporation, has paid back it’s loan and is now producing family cars that Americans actually want to buy.
But most ironic is the stated goal of one of this strange movement’s leaders, Rush Limbaugh.
He has said what all of them want to. This patriotic American who proclaims his undying love for America and its people, has admitted that he would rather have all of President Obama’s efforts to help the country fail, causing the country and its citizens tremendous suffering, than have him succeed and save our country. In other words with all his patriotism, he loves his wretched minority party more than he does his country.
This creature, who also promised to move to Costa Rica if the healthcare legislation became law, is still here. If he moves there, he can use their universal healthcare coverage until 2014 when it kicks in here.
Responding To Our Loss
Now that I am reasonably old, many of the people that I know or once knew are also getting on in years and ever closer to their own personal finish line. Every so often I hear that someone I know has died. Sometimes I hear about it by reading the obits in the daily paper, sometimes I hear from mutual friends about the passing, and lately I have heard from friends that they themselves had lost several people close to them in a short period of time.
In less than one year, one friend lost the three great loves of his life: his father, with whom he was very close; his one and only mate, who died in a freak accident; and his beloved dog.
Another friend has lost three of his best friends and his wife in the past six months. He had known some of them for 60 years.
I found out recently that two people who meant the most to me in my youth had died tragically many years ago.
How does one respond to this kind of loss?
There are surely many possible responses to the loss of a loved one. Some people realize that life must go on. They find some way to close the book on the departed and move on to new relationships and challenges.
Some people try to remember the good times and hope that, if there is a hereafter, the person will find peace and joy.
Some people try to make a tribute in memory of their lost friend. Perhaps this helps bring closure as well as the feeling that some good has come from this great loss.
But many people feel one of the most profound human experiences - sadness. Surely, not all sadness is profound or even pleasant. It can be brutal and very painful, making a person feel that there is little reason to go on. Sadness can make us painfully aware of our vulnerability. We are mortal creatures who live, age, suffer, overcome, struggle and then die. We hope to lead long and healthy lives and sometimes are able to forget that it all must come to an end someday. We try to make the most of our time here, and by so doing are able to put off these thoughts of our own mortality.
But when we see our friends and relatives suffering and dying around us, we are reminded of our own fate. We too like all other living things are subject to the laws of nature. We are all matter, all matter is energy, and energy cannot be lost in the universe, so it gets disorganized. Energy gets disorganized in order to change. This is called entropy. It is the cause of everything from illness to the accumulation of dust, messy rooms or errors in judgment to, finally, death. Entropy is nature’s way of saying “everything passes.”
While we see the signs of entropy all around us, we are able to compartmentalize our reaction to it. We are not usually paying close attention to its effects until they become too much to contain. If entropy is slow over a long period of time, we might not even notice it. We grow old slowly and don’t notice the changes until we look at old pictures of ourselves or run into people whom we haven’t seen in a long time.
But when someone we care about dies, our existential condition becomes painfully clear—someday, we will also fall apart and die. It is not only losing our lives that is of concern, but also what comes next. No one (except maybe Sylvia Brown and the Dalai Lama) knows for sure what happens after we die. Those of us who are very religious and say we believe in an afterlife, still have concerns that we might not be successful in our new environment. Those of us whose liberal political views preclude belief in a Supreme Being whom others might find offensive and politically incorrect, scoff at the notion of life after death. But even those of us in this group have some secret concerns that while we are politically correct, we might not be metaphysically correct. What’s an atheist to tell G-d on judgment day, if by some chance there is one?
So no matter what we say we believe, I think that somewhere inside us we realize that we have no idea what awaits us on the other side of life. But we keep this feeling locked up deep inside while we busy ourselves with the ways of the world. But when someone close to us dies, these locked up feelings threaten mutiny, seeking to leak into our mind and heart making our entire being fully aware of its limited warrantee.
The result is a strange feeling in our mind and body. Our face wants to change its shape. Our eyes seem to lose focus showing us a world that an impressionist painter might create. The salt water starts creeping down our face causing make-up to run and others to look away. And our thoughts are drenched in feelings of sorrow.
We feel sadness. Sadness that our beloved is no longer with us and will never be again and that everything that is will someday no longer be. We want everything that is good to last forever with only bad stuff disappearing. We want immortality because somewhere inside us we know that energy or life itself cannot be lost. We are upset when life reminds us again that we must lose our forms and move on into the great unknown. So we are sad, and we are afraid, afraid of the fate that patiently awaits us.
We remember the good times and pray that they will continue a bit longer. We remember our loved ones and what they meant to us. And then we become very sad because we will never see their face, hear their voice, never have new experiences with them. We can no longer hold them, or touch them or laugh with them at something that only we would consider funny.
Buddha said that life was suffering, but Buddha was an optimist. Life can be brutal but only because it is so wonderful.
Or as Shaw said in his “Androcles and the Lion” - “Be steadfast Lavinia. Those of us about to die salute you.”
We must be steadfast in the face of life’s greatest adversity and salute each other while we still can.
And if we miss our dearly departed we have every right to cry, no, to weep.
The Oil Spill Symbolism
What has been described as the greatest man-made disaster to ever hit this country shows no signs of abating after more than two months. The ruptured oil well located one mile below sea level has been leaking as many as 50,000 barrels (or 2.1 million gallons) a day of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico threatening sea life and all those depending on it for a livelihood. While all of its causes are still being investigated, the primary cause is clear—greed mixed with a good measure of arrogance. The greed made oil company decision-makers rush the job to minimize costs and maximize future profits. The arrogance made them believe that they did not need to take the time to do it right. They were blind to any possible environmental damage their corner-cutting could cause.
Where have we heard this before?
The banking, real estate and automobile industries in this country have had their own systemic ruptures recently. In each case the decision makers were greedy as well as arrogant. The combination made them all blind to the problems they were creating. As with the oil spill, the problems in each industry continued unabated for a long time. First there was denial, then there was minimizing the problems, and then there was a problem too big to disguise or disregard. In each case there was the externality, the spill over effect, of these business catastrophes and there are always innocent victims.
The banking disaster, caused in part by the real estate disaster, led to the loss of confidence in the financial system which led to reduced spending which led to reduced production which led to fewer jobs which exacerbated the loss of confidence and the vicious cycle continued like a snowball rolling down a steep incline. The bankers got greedy — they wanted ever-bigger bonuses and took ever-greater risks. They were arrogant because they thought that they could get away with anything, and that if they failed the government would have to bail them out.
The politicians who received generous donations from Wall Street were greedy. They wanted more money to stay in power. They were greedy for power. So they acquiesced to Wall Street’s demands and eliminated restrictions set in place to prevent another great depression. They were arrogant enough to believe that by earning money to betray their constituents they were still worthy of their votes.
The realtors also got greedy. They must have known that some of their clients could not possibly afford the homes they were bidding on with nothing to put down for the purchase. Their arrogance was in their thinking that their bubble could never burst.
The home-buyers who bought the homes that even they knew they could not afford were greedy for the American dream with all its trimmings but had not put the down payment in effort. Their arrogance was in believing that somehow they could get and keep something for nothing or at least for well under actual cost.
The corporate leaders of our car companies were also greedy. They wanted easy profits, and so abandoned the small economical family car that the country needed and instead produced large truck-like SUVs which were inexpensive to build but could be sold for high prices because of their size. Never mind that they were gas-guzzlers and took up too much space. The leaders of “the big three” were arrogant enough to think that the American consumer would buy whatever Detroit gave them. Their blindness led to the bankruptcy of two of our three major automakers and a multi-billion dollar taxpayer bailout.
I believe that the Reagan tax cuts for the rich reducing the top tax bracket from 90% to 39%, unleashing a gush of suddenly rich and the suddenly terribly rich was a similar disaster. The rich built even bigger houses, bought even bigger cars, and developed bigger egos. They were ever greedy for more money and fewer taxes. They became increasingly arrogant and made risky investments that ended up almost destroying our economy.
The result of all this free-flowing greed mixed with arrogance polluted the nation’s economic waters from which our people are nourished.
The same thing happened in competitive sports — amateur and professional. Some athletes and their trainers got greedy for more success, better stats, higher salaries and bigger bonuses. They were arrogant enough to think that they could get away with using steroids to improve their strength and perseverance. As the violations seemed to piggy-back on previous ones and more athletes took performance-enhancing drugs in more sports, more of the results became hard to believe. Whether it was Olympic sprinters, weightlifters or swimmers, long distance cyclists, or professional baseball pitchers and hitters, the sports officials couldn’t stop the abuses. And meanwhile whatever integrity these sports had enjoyed became polluted by the cheating bred from greed and arrogance.
Today our favorite religions seem to be unable to control their own destructive eruptions. The Catholic Church has been unable to stop the eruptions of charges of priestly abuses that are being reported all over the globe. When the truth is finally told, the sexual abuse of children by the clergy will probably be found to have occurred on every continent. After a while we will also learn that this rupture of hypocritical immorality dates back hundreds of years with many of these priests themselves having been innocent victims in their youth. It’s hard to imagine what kind of greed and arrogance motivated these outbursts except perhaps a greed or desperate hunger for physical affection mixed with the arrogance that they could get away with it because they were above Man’s laws. And how could their “superiors” think that they could just cover it up? Who knows how many of these “tolerant” bishops had themselves been molested as children?
Then there is the religion that is so much in the news for its violence in the Middle East. The religious leaders either cannot or will not stop the violence that in the last 10 years has prematurely ended the lives of more than a million of its own people. Thousands of its adherents are blowing themselves up and killing innocent people in the mistaken impression that they will not only escape their lives of suffering but also that they will be somehow rewarded for their greatest of sins. Perhaps the leaders of this religion are also greedy for more power and are arrogant enough to believe that inciting their flock to violence will somehow not get them eternal damnation.
And then there are columnists like this one who is greedy enough to want his country, his world free of all that pollutes it and he is arrogant enough to think that somehow by writing about these problems, he can make them disappear.
Let us hope that the damages of this tragic oil spill in the Gulf are easier to repair than the other effects greed and arrogance are having on our nation and its people.
I no longer consider myself a Democrat or a Republican, a conservative or a liberal. Both parties have moved toward the extremes spewing demagoguery and misinformation from their misguided positions and have turned me away from their false rhetoric and make me yearn for moderation—for heartfelt reason over mindless passion.
I am tired of hearing from the Right as represented by Rush, Sean, Glenn, Sarah, Karl and their tea party groupies. They still say that our President was not born here, is a Muslim, is an elitist, a communist, a socialist and a Nazi. They are mad about increased taxes even though taxes have gone down under Obama. They complain about the bailout for the banks even though it was needed because of and initiated by the previous administration. They also complain about our deficit that also was produced by previous Republican administrations. They accuse the administration of taking over the banks and the car companies even though these industries were almost destroyed by poor management and a corrupt culture and were saved by the government so that they could stay in business and pay huge bonuses to their undeserving staff. They call the new health care reform bill a form of socialism or communism, though its most offensive parts like mandatory coverage, were originally recommended by the Republicans. They say that the free market should be left to correct itself and avoid abuses, even though as we all recently saw, it hasn’t, doesn’t and won’t. Their team claims that high compensations are needed to attract and keep the best talent and encourage the greatest productivity though management studies show the opposite to be true. They say the cure for our economy’s ills is lower taxes forgetting that it certainly did not work under Bush.
I am also tired of hearing from the Left. They tell us that the earth is warming up and that it could mean the end for the planet. The principal spokesperson is the former Vice President of the United States who won a Nobel Prize and an Oscar for his efforts to publicize this man-made disaster in-the-making. But he himself owns two enormous mansions which consume massive amounts of energy. He flies around in a private jet and drives in a very large gas guzzling car. He does not live like a man concerned about the “inconvenient truth.” Why not just say that we are polluting our earth, air, water and minds and that we need to change our behavior and clean up our mess?
The other big liberal movement is for the legalization of 12-20 million document-free immigrants. Regardless of the fact that 15 million Americans are out of work, another nine million are underemployed and almost 36 million Americans live in poverty, 13 million of them children; ignoring the fact that our schools are overcrowded and underachieving; and without regard to our country’s financial crisis, the Left wants us to add 20 million people to our country’s growing underclass. The Left feels that there should be no borders keeping people from enjoying a better life by exploiting and being exploited by a different, richer country than their own forgetting perhaps that there are billions of people wanting to leave their lives of abject poverty. We can’t even help our own poor.
I’m tired of hearing that American imperialism is the cause of every country’s failure. We allegedly ruined all the countries in Latin America, all of sub-Sahara Africa, Haiti and Iran just as Israel has allegedly disrupted the once charmingly peaceful Middle-East. The Left seems to feel that not only are individuals never responsible for their own actions, but neither are other countries and their cultures. Only top dogs like America can bear any responsibility for their own actions and those of everyone around them. And I don’t want to hear the mantra of cultural relativism that every country and culture has equally egregious problems. I don’t buy it, I won’t even rent it.
And now that the Left has a very moderate President, the extremists complain that he has not done enough, quickly enough. They are mad that he has not made gay marriage the law of the land even though he always said that he opposed gay marriage as does the majority of the general population. They complain that his health care reform bill, the most progressive legislation since Medicare, did not go far enough disregarding the fact that the Congress barely passed this more modest version.
I am pleading here for a return to reason, a quest for moderation, the golden mean and, for heaven sake, some integrity.
To the Right I say get over the fact that Barack Obama is our President. He is a lot better than the one we had before him and he is really trying his best to cure a badly injured country. He is a native-born American, he is a capitalist and he is probably neither Muslim nor Christian. He is not anti-Semitic. He did not take over the car companies or banks, he saved them. His $787 billion stimulus bill probably prevented a national depression. The health care bill he sponsored is a type of socialism but so is having the government subsidize farmers or giving tax breaks to oil companies and so is Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, and welfare. In America, we do not live as though survival is only for the fittest. Surely, the richest country in the world can ensure basic survival services to all of its citizens including medical coverage, a good education, sufficient nutrition, a clean environment and decent housing, even if it is called socialistic.
I also challenge the principal motivational theory of the Right that the more you get paid the better your work product. It is simply not true. Bonuses are not and should not be the basis for productivity. Wall Street traders, star athletes, CEOs, opinionators and actors can do just as good work for a lot less pay.
To the Left I say stop calling anyone who disagrees with you a racist or a moron. A country has a right and obligation to protect its borders. America allows more legal immigrants to enter the country each year than all the other countries on earth do combined. Enough is enough. Please let us make sure that our own people have jobs and needed services before inviting others to share the economic pie.
And please do not make political extremism your godless religion.
We have record deficits and our people are inadequately educated and live unhealthy lifestyles. The rich are much too rich and the poor are too poor. Perhaps our tax code should be adjusted. In addition to raising the marginal tax rate for income in excess of $250,000 to 40%, perhaps additional brackets should be re-created to 50%, 70% and, finally, 90% for incomes in excess of $1 million, $5 million and $10 million, respectively.
I predict that this would not only raise needed revenue, it would also discourage companies from paying out such huge sums and would thus change our mind set to one that appreciates the more intrinsic rewards like pride in your work, loyalty, doing for others, using your talents and helping your country’s less fortunate.
And while considering reducing our budget deficit, serious thought should be given to significantly downsizing military spending by closing many of the 1,000 bases we have all over the world from South Korea to Germany to Turkey to Iraq and Afghanistan employing more than 2.5 million people abroad. Our country’s policy regarding foreign aid should also be scrutinized. Why are we, who are ourselves deep in debt and borrowing from other countries, giving money to other countries, some of whom don’t even like us?
Farm subsidies should also be reviewed. Must large agribusinesses be bribed into doing what is in their best interest and that of our country? And can American companies be encouraged to give jobs to Americans rather than outsourcing them?
And why do our large oil companies pay taxes to other countries but not to ours?
Maybe marijuana with all of its medical and spiritual benefits should be legalized nationwide freeing up law enforcement, downsizing prison populations, decriminalizing consumers and distributors, and drying up the illegal and dangerous trafficking by drug cartels while raising taxes as well as consciousness.
And finally as government is involved in providing goods and services to the public, it should do so with the highest level of efficiency, effectiveness, and integrity. All government employees should work a full day, every day regardless of their job security.
Doesn’t this sound a lot more reasonable than what we’re hearing from both ends of our political spectrum? Can’t we exercise a moderate amount of moderation?
Or is that asking too much?
Are We All Created Equal?
In 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote what has become one of the most quoted American principles, that in this country we believe that “all men are created equal with certain unalienable rights that among these are of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
What did it really mean?
When it was written it surely referred only to white men since women were not free to vote and people brought to our shores as slaves were certainly given only a very limited freedom with which to pursue happiness. Until the middle of the 19th century, slaves were still considered to be property. And surely American Indians were not considered equal nor were Chinese Coolies who were brought in to work on the rail system.
Well, now even though there is still discrimination based on race, gender or national origin, most Americans would say that they believe that all Americans and perhaps even all people are equally human and should receive equal opportunity to excel (as long as it does not interfere with their own ambitions and those of their loved ones).
But are we all created equal?
Do we all have equal parents, equal genes, equal intelligence, equal attractiveness, equal health, equal education, equal experiences, equal financial security, equal integrity, equal talent, equal perseverance or equal faith? Are all doctors, or athletes, or lawyers, or teachers, or parents equal? Are all of our sub-cultures equal at least relatively? Do we all have equal opportunity to succeed in whatever we attempt? Do we all enjoy life to the same degree or even close to the same degree?
Is the illegitimate child of a junkie living in the projects really equal in any of these respects to the child of a loving, well educated and well-to-do family that can send their child to the best schools and share the most enriching environments? Do children raised around the worst possible role models really have an equal chance at the future?
And when the children born of advantage manage to succeed, is that success and all that goes with it really theirs alone? Should they feel free to look down at those who were much less fortunate for not turning their lives around? Should the financially well-compensated resent having to give significant percentages of their generous incomes to help those who have not fared as well? Should they cite survival of the fittest as their battle cry against sharing the wealth?
I think that these questions are relevant because we are now forced to consider raising taxes very significantly on the rich in order to help those who have inadequate education, health insurance, housing, nutrition and/or opportunity. We must do it not only because it is the decent thing to do but because even if we do not really believe that each American citizen has an equal right to succeed, we each believe deep down that we are just as human as the next person.
We all have thoughts and feelings, we all have bodies that are mortal and vulnerable. We all need food, water and air to live, we all must sleep and eliminate our waste products and we all bleed when cut. We all feel pleasure and pain. We all want to survive and to live in relative comfort and security. We all want to love and be loved in return. We are all trying to maintain or improve our self-esteem - our reputation with ourselves.
I think that this is the cause of most crime. The inherent feeling in the criminal that he is somehow equal to those he preys upon even though their lives seem otherwise. The car thief may be thinking that he deserves that nice car just as much as its rightful owner does. The businessman who cheats his clients may believe deep down that they don’t really deserve to have their money as much as he does. The suicide bomber, so common now in the Middle East, may figure that if he can’t be equal in this lifetime, maybe he can get a leg up on the hereafter.
Not that this is any excuse for improper behavior, but it is an explanation.
Is it then our society’s responsibility to level the playing field so that people in our country can have some real hope for success in this land of presumed equality?
To this end, should those fortunate enough to be able to earn and control tremendous amounts of money be obliged to share more of their wealth with the less fortunate to make up for disadvantages in health care coverage, education, housing and nutrition access? Would this discourage hard work, creativity and risk-taking among the advantaged while only making the unfortunates more dependent and less likely to succeed on their own in the future? Should we let nature work its evolutionary magic on the future of our people? Or should we institute a caste system allowing a certain segment of our society to remain above the rest and another that will forever be at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid?
We could then say that we are all equal but that some are more so than others as they did in Animal Farm.
I think that I have an answer for these questions.
Today, in America, its 300 million citizens, be they male or female, young or old, black, white, yellow, brown or red, rich or poor should be able to pursue life, liberty and happiness to their maximum potential and no American should be homeless, hungry, ignorant or without medical attention when needed. Every American is at least equally deserving of these basic rights.
While each individual is responsible for his or her actions, it falls on society to seek concurrence about what the society should be like and what each member is expected to do toward that end. While parents must teach their children, the parents must have a guide, a lesson plan. That plan should come from the consensus and it should be taught in our schools and reinforced in the workplace and offices of government.
Without taking a nationwide poll, it is possible to come up with certain values that members of our society can agree on. We can agree that while business has the right to make a profit, it does not have a right to become greedy or gluttonous. The profit a business makes must be a result of completely honest business practices. Companies and individuals should be held accountable for maintaining high standards of integrity.
While we all can agree that some people deserve greater compensation for their work than others, the degree of difference must be within reason. One person’s work product may be worth ten or twenty times that of another, it should not be thousands of times greater as it is now for movie stars, super athletes, financiers, CEO’s and opinionators (like Glenn, Sean, Rush, Bill O. and Savage).
Could we realize that while we each are different, excelling in some areas but not in others, we each are here for a reason and we are necessary parts of an infinite whole? Just as the nose is better at smelling, the foot is better for walking and our eyes are better for seeing. Each part of the human body is different but necessary for the functioning of the entire body. Every part deserves to get blood and oxygen even though some parts seem to be bigger consumers than others.
In our human drama, it seems that even the people with the least to offer have an important role to play. If we were equal physically, there would be no cause for compassion. If we were all equally gifted, there would be no cause for kindness. If we all acted equally there would be no cause for tolerance.
Let us strive to ensure that all Americans receive at least the basic ingredients for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Surely we are all equal to that much human dignity.
Addressing Our Regrets
I recently spoke with an old friend who shared some of his latest regrets, making several assumptions about his past behavior that led him to believe that he had erred in very important ways. His thoughts about missed opportunities and poor decisions were haunting him. I tried to dispel the feelings and the thoughts behind them.
It made me think more about regret which is so linked to self-doubt. As we spoke, I remembered some of my past possible regrets that I never really indulged.
I probably should have not left military school before graduating, not that I was given any choice. My father was tired of paying all that money since I was 12. I ended up graduating a year early at a coed boarding school in the Arizona desert where I had the time of my life. Instead of going on to Harvard after graduating from military school, as was planned, I went on to a state university near the high school from which I graduated. Perhaps I should have left the desert.
Should I regret what I did?
Years later, after a long on and off relationship, I decided not to marry the woman who was then the love of my life. She lived in a different world. It would never have worked. She got married, had two sons, became an alcoholic and committed suicide when she was in her 40’s. Perhaps, if I had married her, it would have worked out somehow and she would still be with us.
Should I regret what I didn’t do?
So what’s the point of regret? I think that part of it is taking responsibility for our actions and making amends for past mistakes, if possible. Regret should make us take a second look at the processes we use to make decisions. But they should not make us doubt ourselves.
Regret can motivate us to be more careful or thoughtful in the future and in that sense regret can be helpful. But I have come to believe that carrying regret past its usefulness can be very destructive. If we are thinking about the past and feeling bad about it and ourselves, then we are not able to give our full attention to the present. Our inattention will lead us to do more things that we regret which will further erode our self confidence into self doubt making us less likely to succeed in the future.
I have come up with a few remedies for this malady.
First, we can realize that we are doing the best that we can at every moment. This is not to say that we could not do better in the future or that we already haven’t in the past. It is just that we bring everything with us at each moment including past experiences and future expectations. We bring attitudes, knowledge, talents, understanding, biases and blind spots to every new situation.
So even if a past action or decision appears to have been totally wrong based on what we know now, that is not how it appeared at the time to the person we were at that moment.
And at the same time we can remember that everything happens for a reason and that sometimes it is hard to know what was really lucky and what was unfortunate. I have come to believe that everything is evolving and so every situation leads us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
If I had stayed at military school, I would never had the first few great romances that I had in the desert. I would never have experienced the beauty of Tucson. If I had gone to Harvard, I would not have had the life that I currently enjoy. If I had married that great love, I would not have had the two daughters that my wife and I have shared as well as my simple lifestyle.
If on the other hand I had done something terrible, I should have regret. I should admit my fault, apologize where appropriate and do what I can to make amends. If it was bad enough, it could serve as a daily reminder to not repeat the transgression and maybe will even serve as a reason to do more for others to make up for the “sin.”
I think that if I were one of the monsters from the previous President’s administration, guilty of almost destroying this country, I would feel deep regret every moment of each day to the point that I could hardly eat or sleep. I would regret deceiving 300 million countrymen about the need to invade Iraq. I would regret the loss of thousands of our sons and daughters in this combat and the loss of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died prematurely because of this invasion. I would regret the trillions of taxpayer dollars that will have been wasted on this conflict. I would pray every day that I could be forgiven for the terrible things I did while entrusted to lead and protect the American people.
But the irony is that these folks probably feel no guilt for what they did and failed to do. They will learn soon a deeper form of regret also known as “very bad karma.”
But if I had been the only victim of my transgression, I should forgive myself my trespasses, promise to learn my lesson and move on.
That’s what I’m hoping my friend can do but I regret to say that I doubt that he will. He probably won’t even read this column.
Oh great, now I’m doing it.
Where is Our Fourth Estate?
Over the last few years, the country has lost some of its best journalists, most notably Tim Russert and Peter Jennings and Walter Chronkite, one of the greatest of all. Their successors lamented their passing, promising to try to carry on their proud tradition.
But have they?
With a few exceptions, the members of the mainstream mass media have failed to live up to that legacy. In large part, the newspaper and television coverage of events is either shamelessly excessive or terribly shallow and incomplete.
When it comes to covering the big stories like severe hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, or earthquakes, the media reports from the scenes, ad
nauseum. The death figures change by the hour from being ridiculously small to being record-breaking. Every detail of the disaster is reviewed and repeated, incessantly. We are forced to see the worst of the tragedy until it saturates our consciousness. We are invited to look at as many ruined buildings and shattered lives as possible.
When 9/11 came into our lives we were shown footage of the crash not just dozens of times but hundreds or even thousands of times, as though picking at a wound.
Then here was the tsunami in Indonesia, the flooding in New Orleans, the terrible storms in the Midwest, the landing on the Hudson, and now the earthquake in Haiti. The media could not seem to spend enough time on these events. The anchors were obliged to leave the warmth of their studios to venture into these crises. Reporters informing us of killer weather must actually be in that weather to report on it even if they are falling down or can hardly see.
During these disasters, no other news occurs or, at least, is reported. There is no war overseas, no crime in the streets, no child lost or abandoned. There is just the one main story that is designed to reveal just how loving and compassionate we all are.
But then, for all other news on regular news days, the journalists can’t seem to get or share all the information necessary to tell the story.
Here are some cases in point.
The governor of New York at the time was accused of having an expensive night with a prostitute. Every day we heard about him and the prostitute and how much she charged to fly to give him service. What they did not report immediately or even weeks later was that this john was a regular customer for many years dating back to the days that he was the state’s attorney general. At that time he vigorously prosecuted the major houses of prostitution except for the one he frequented.
When reporting on economic news, the media neglects to connect all the dots. For the past few years, the country’s recession has caused a high unemployment rate. The current administration is trying to help by pumping money into the economy, causing a large budget deficit. It has been one year now and the unemployment stands at just under 10%, twice as much as it should be. When this is discussed, it is rarely, if ever, mentioned that when the last great recession occurred during the Reagan administration, Reagan tried for five years to reduce the unemployment rate he inherited from his predecessor. He lowered taxes for the rich and thereby incurred record deficits.
It took FDR nine years to end the depression after creating record deficits and finally needed World War II to get us back to “normal.”
Our President has been forced into a record budget deficit because of the disaster left him by the former administration. The deficit is now $12 trillion with Obama’s first year shortfall of more than $1 trillion. The right wing media is howling that we are at $12 trillion because of Obama. No one has mentioned that the $11 trillion deficit that Obama did not cause came to us from Reagan and Bush, the Right’s heroes. The deficit actually decreased under Clinton, the Right’s villain.
The country suffers from serious immigration problems. Poor, unskilled, uneducated masses are coming into our country illegally. It is estimated that there are now 12-20 million document-free immigrants in this country, breaking laws and taking jobs away from Americans who really need the work. No one mentions that this problem got bad when Reagan gave those in the country illegally at that time amnesty and did not secure our borders. This gave tens of millions of poor Latin Americans hope that if they could get here illegally, get good paying work without having to pay income or payroll taxes, they too would eventually be handed keys to the Promised Land as did their countrymen before them.
During the Presidential campaign, the minority-party candidate made two strange, but unchallenged, statements. To this date I have not heard one media person point out the absurdity of the comments.
The first was a reaction to the opponent’s promise to eliminate tax cuts for the rich that were put in place by his predecessor on a temporary basis. The reclaimed taxes would be used the help fund needed services. The candidate from Arizona accused his Democratic rival of being in favor of using taxes for the redistribution of wealth. Not one person so far has reminded the senator that government exists to provide needed services by redistributing wealth. All taxation dating back to the Dark Ages has been collected for the redistribution of wealth, be it from the farmers to the rich nobles or from the taxpayer for the services needed by the population whether for defense or urban planning and development or welfare for the poor. I have not heard one media person ever point this out.
The second was regarding not deporting the many document-free immigrants currently in our country. The compassionate conservative minority-party candidate responded by saying that these are G-d’s children and therefore cannot be deported. No one reminded the senior senator from Arizona that by that logic all living creatures are G-d’s children. How can we ever go to war? Aren’t the enemy soldiers G-d’s children? How can we slaughter animals? Are they not also G-d’s children?
We have been in Iraq for almost eight years now. We have almost complete control of the country and all of its records. And yet the media has been unwilling and/or unable to ascertain and report how many people have died as a result of our invasion. The media has never to my knowledge even reported that they weren’t reporting it. So while we hear, as we should, exactly how many of our troops have died in Iraq, we don’t hear that at least 50 to 150 times that many Iraqis have been killed during this period. The media just can’t figure out how to find this information out or even that it is important. Would you want to know that, let’s say, from 200,000 to 600,000, mainly civilian Iraqis, have been killed?
There are notable exceptions to the rule of poor reporting. The PBS News Hour (the Lehrer Report) goes into the major news in depth trying to cover every angle. The BBC World News is also excellent and much more thorough than its American network counterparts.
What these good news shows prove is that good journalism is still possible. We don’t want fluff. We don’t want to see and hear the same big news story until we are numb but we insist on hearing the whole story with the necessary facts and figures on the rest of the news. We want to be treated like intelligent, well-educated adults. How can we learn and grow to make intelligent decisions if we cannot get news that actually teaches us about our world and its inhabitants?
If we want a strong fourth estate, we have to demand it.
What is Real Wealth?
I recently saw a Chris Rock comedy special during which he explained the difference between being rich and being wealthy. He said that a rich person can lose everything while the wealthy will always be rich as will all their descendants. He said that while Oprah, worth a few billion, was rich, Bill Gates, at $50 billion, was wealthy.
I think that most of us would say that anyone worth more than $50 million is wealthy, but that is in a materialistic sense. What is true wealth?
If wealth is that which provides for freedom and happiness, why are so many financially wealthy people slaves to their lifestyles which include making sure that their vast fortunes make money and don’t lose their value? Unlike modestly rich people, the wealthy cannot put all their assets in a savings account or even CDs. They have to diversify their massive portfolios hedging their bets by also investing in possible, or probable, failures. If the stocks do well, the bonds might lose their value. If real estate is up, gold might be down. If there is an inflation, foreign currencies might be the answer.
Financial wealth not only affords the finer things in life without fear of poverty, it also attracts people to its possessors. People are attracted by the luxury, beauty and power of the wealthy. They want to be invited to the mansion for the galas and sip champagne on the lovely veranda. They know that the wealthy can afford to be generous to their friends and providers. But this same magnet attracts those who are interested only in the outer trappings. Their feelings and loyalties are more to the money and what it provides than to the person with the wealth.
The wealthy sense this. They know that many of the kind words and uncontrolled laughter are more affect than effect. At some point many must realize that their relationships are not necessarily heartfelt. They begin to distrust people and feel alienated from them.
J.Paul Getty, who was the richest man in the world at the time, was asked if he was happy. He responded by asking how anyone worth billions could be. We read so many stories of wealthy families split apart over money and power. Howard Hughes, one of the richest men of his day, became so obsessed that he was unable to function.
The seriously rich seem always to be very busy and terribly involved in the ups and downs of their estates. They have to manage the people hired to invest their wealth. Then there are the real assets like homes, businesses and luxury transportation vehicles. They must not only be purchased, they must also be maintained. The economically advantaged must also manage the people who maintain them.
Now many of the wealthiest are giving much of their money away in order, perhaps, to lighten their loads as well as to help the beneficiaries of their generosity.
So what do I think is wealth, real wealth?
Real wealth is having what you want and wanting what you have. And “having” need not mean owning or controlling. And wanting does not have to be more for its own sake. So, a 15,000 square foot mansion worth $20 million is not necessarily better than a 2,000 square foot home with a nice view for a family of four. Why do they need a grand ballroom or six bedrooms and seven baths? Why should they have to be responsible for its maintenance? The same with second, third and fourth homes. Who needs the aggravation even if the extra real estate appreciates in value?
Real wealth is loving your environment. Living here in San Francisco, it is hard to go far without being overwhelmed by the city’s natural beauty. We have eye-caressing views, voluptuous hills, a sparkling blue sky, and mild weather almost every day. Having all this is to me the best kind of wealth because we are not individually responsible for its maintenance. We don’t pay insurance for the beautiful hills and we don’t pay rent for the crystal blue sky or for the bright shining sun that caresses our skin. We can enjoy the beautiful natural and cultural surroundings every day without having to worry that each jewel is being properly maintained at our expense.
Real wealth is enjoying good health. I have come to realize through experience how many things can go wrong with the human body, marvelous as it may be. As though an answer to a prayer for greater compassion and patience, I have had the strange fate of experiencing almost every medical malady at one time or another. I have usually recovered quickly allowing my body to experience the next physical breakdown with undivided attention. When I feel fine, which somehow is most of the time, I feel blessed with a wealth money can’t buy. I know because I’ve spent so much of mine trying.
Real wealth is having time to smell the roses of life without worrying about being late. I have come to the conclusion that the key to a happy, successful life is the ability to treat every person and activity as an end in itself as well as a means to an end. In order to maintain this balanced approach, I think that it is essential to have time. Many who pursue financial wealth as though it were the Messiah seem to never have enough time and therefore treat people and their “work” only as means to more important ends like wealth, social status and self-image. Then they wonder why they can never make enough money or gain enough recognition.
Real wealth is being able to love and be loved in return. It is finding people among family and friends who are much more ends in themselves than means to our ends. And failing that, or in addition to it, loving and being loved by an ever-faithful dog.
And, most of all, real wealth is feeling truly blessed for just being alive. For life itself is the greatest treasure of all.
Loving Your Neighbor
Jesus has been quoted as saying that above all “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It is not as simple a sentence as it may appear to be.
To begin with, in those days “thy neighbor” meant a person like us. People were segregated, so neighbors were more like family. Also, at that time, the prevailing view was “adenoi echad” or “G-d is one.” If everything is one, it is conceivable that you love others like yourself, because they are. But if Jesus meant that we should love everyone as ourselves, why say just “thy neighbor.” Perhaps, he meant the person near you at any given time as opposed to someone a thousand miles away.
But the biggest problem with this quote is that we cannot tell ourselves to love someone. Just as Bonnie Raitt said in her great song, “I can’t make you love me if you don’t” and “you can’t make your heart feel something it won’t.” We know this is true by watching the mating shows that are currently the rage on T.V. where a single person of one gender gets to choose one person from among a dozen members of the other sex. By the end of several weeks they try to fall in love to win money and fame. The loving relationship usually ends days after the winning prize checks are cashed. Not even people on T.V. can make themselves love someone else. So if we take the quote as gospel, the result will probably be that we will act as though we love people and deny all indications to the contrary. In short we will be hypocrites in order to be “good” people.
So what did Jesus mean? Remember, he did not speak English, since it didn’t exist yet (otherwise he surely would have). So we don’t know the exact translation of what someone said that he said (recall he also predated T.V., radio, tape recorders, and newspapers, not to mention the internet).
I think what he meant was treating people not solely as means to an end - the butcher cuts meat for you, the cabbie drives you in his cab, the house painter paints your house - but also as ends in themselves. The butcher is also a person with thoughts and feelings, needs and memories, so we should be considerate toward him because he is a unique person as we are. I think that that is why we say “Please” and “Thank you” when needing something from someone. It is our way of showing that we don’t take the person or the act for granted.
In a broader sense, it could be applied to being considerate of others in general even if we don’t know them personally or get anything from them. An example would be not double parking. It’s amazing how many seemingly nice people with humanistic views regarding national and international priorities double park. By so doing they are saying that they are not concerned about the needs of others. So what if others wait while their lane is blocked? Besides exhibiting laziness, lack of creativity or patience, double parking must be a clear violation of Jesus‘ plea that we love our neighbors.
If we really treated all people as ends in themselves, we wouldn’t talk on cell phones while buying our groceries, while driving, parking or crossing busy streets or while eating dinner with friends.
Treating providers and acquaintances as ends in themselves in addition to using them as means to an end, will still be more extrinsic than intrinsic. The merchant to whom we are friendly and considerate, still is more concerned with our purchases than our warm hellos. It should be the opposite with friends and family.
With friends and family we should care about them for who they are more than for what they do for us. We should be able to love them as we love ourselves, but do we?
If our friend or family member has a problem, do we feel it is also ours? Or do we feel put upon to hear about the negative side of their lives? If our friend succeeds, do we feel it is as though the success were ours? He got a promotion and now makes more than me. Am I happy or envious?
If our loved one has a new home or a new mate or a new pet, are we eager to see them knowing that the person, place or thing will bring joy to our loved one or does it lower our all-important self-esteem by making us feel on the losing side of a comparison?
If we are separated from our beloved friends or relatives, do we miss them? I don’t mean do we miss all they do for us. I mean do we miss enjoying their very being?
With the rash of social networks like Facebook and MySpace, people want to have literally hundreds of “friends” on their page. The more the merrier. We have not enough time in our busy lives for two or three close relationships, but plenty to share with a large group of bosom buddies.
Many years ago comedian Soupy Sales had a children’s show that seemed to take place at his little clubhouse. In addition to his daily conversations with Black Fang and White Tooth, and with Pooky the Lion who gave the audience a big kiss and told them to spread it around, each day there would be a knock on his front door. He would open the door but not enough for us to see his caller. The person would ask for help. Soupy always asked what the problem was. The answer was similar every day. “You got to help me. My wife thinks that she is a ....(refrigerator, car, washing machine, etc. depending on the day).” Soupy’s response was always the same, said with true concern. He would ask, “Why not take her to a psychiatrist?” The answer was always in the same vein. “Where am I going to put my food?” or “How am I going to get to work?” or “How will I clean my clothes?” depending on the delusion. The man cared more about what his wife gave him than how she felt. She was more of a means than an end to him.
Sometimes, it seems, friends and relatives can be like Soupy’s daily visitor.
How many friends do you have, really?
Weather You Can Believe In
The first thing I check in the daily paper each morning is the weather page. I like to see what the weather was in San Francisco and what it will be. I then look at the surrounding area temperatures. After that I check state, national, and international weather conditions. It makes me feel like I’m traveling around the world each morning. I am a numbers man so I like seeing the increases and decreases, the record highs and lows. And temperatures seem so absolute, so objective, but are they?
Not only do the predictions for the day’s weather usually end up being wrong, I have come to realize that even the reports of the previous day’s actual weather are also suspect. After watching the evening news and weather on a few channels and then seeing the temps in the paper the next day, I find that there can be three or four different temperatures for the same place on the same day. And ofttimes none of the numbers agree with the temperatures that my car’s weather monitor reports.
In addition to the problems with inconsistency there is another of variation within a location. San Francisco weather can be cold and foggy by the ocean while being warm and sunny in the Mission. The high temperature can range up to 20 degrees in the two locations on the same day, so reporting only one temperature for the city must be wrong.
And then there is the fact that the very same temperature reading is not necessary the same temperature to the body. It can be 60 and sunny or it can be 60 and foggy or windy. To the mercury, it is the same. To the body, it is very different. In the East Coast and Mid-West, they give the temperature and then the chill factor.
The same temperature also varies with the degree of humidity. A day of 80 degrees can be unbearable in a humid New York City, while being very warm in San Francisco, and not bad at all in arid Tucson or Las Vegas.
I believe that we must change the way we measure and therefore report weather. In places like San Francisco with micro climates, the weather should be reported in a range. Instead of saying that it was a high of 68 degrees yesterday, the report should show the range of highs from the coldest part of the city and the warmest. These reports should factor in the effects of humidity, wind and fog on the effective temperature. This should also be done for all other areas as well. Tucson would look cooler and New York would seem warmer, at least in the summer, while the Mid West would look a lot colder in winter. And San Francisco would almost always appear a lot cooler than the raw numbers now indicate.
I would love to see the evening news have a segment on national or even international weather. Weather reports have become not only inaccurate but also provincial, concerned only with the surrounding area as though the rest of the world doesn’t really matter. (It’s like going to a restaurant where the food is so bad you don’t mind the poor service.) While it was 70 degrees yesterday in San Francisco what was it like in Paris or Tucson or Venice or the Virgin Islands or Ventura? (The Chronicle has stopped telling us about Ventura and has never mentioned Venice or the Virgin Islands. Maybe they don’t like places that begin with the letter V. They only mention Vienna and Vancouver, probably because they feel that they have to.)
I would also enjoy seeing all the weather reports coordinated so they do not differ so. The T.V. news and the daily papers should all get their numbers from the same place and that place should be accurate. So if the evening news reports that San Francisco was from 62 at the coast to 74 in Noe Valley, the other stations and the Chronicle should report the same numbers, otherwise none has any meaning.
And they should stop saying that there is a certain percentage chance of rain. It’s like saying that something might happen or it might not. That’s always true, except when it isn’t.
But perhaps most importantly, the weather experts should try to do more to actually fix it. Why is there no fog from Sneath Lane south or north of Corte Madera? Can their fog resistant characteristics be used to stop fog in San Francisco? And don’t say that you like the fog, I beg you. It is cold, wet and grey. It is nature’s equivalent of sadness and depression, just as sunshine and warmth equal love and as the wind and cold are bitterness and indifference. But as I promise all those who claim that they would miss the fog, the weather experts could get rid of fog and then maybe give it back just to those who want it.
With all these changes made in the prediction and description of weather by the media and improvements in our actual weather conditions made by our trusty meteorologists, we could finally have weather that we can believe in.
To What Are We Entitled?
A few years ago, people filled the streets to demand amnesty for those who entered the country illegally, used false documents to obtain employment, drove cars without benefit of license or insurance and in many cases failed to pay income taxes. Thousands of illegal immigrants (document-free imports) and their supporters waved the flags of their mother countries proclaiming that while they will always love and be loyal to their homeland (as long as they and their children don’t have to live there), they are entitled to all the benefits of American citizenship. Yes, they got ahead in the line of countrymen waiting to be granted legal entrance to the promised land, but they are here now, they have worked hard for low wages. Some have even managed to start families here with American-born children.
Are they really entitled to all the rights any American citizen enjoys?
And when they then apply for work and if their children apply to colleges, should they also be entitled to affirmative action to level the playing field?
And then what about two medical professionals—a doctor and a nurse in different locations who were found to have been practicing without benefit of a medical license or formal education in their field? The doctor offered medical services to low-income patients who paid him only what they could afford. He was not a great doctor, but he helped many people. The nurse was accorded special honors by a non-existent nurses association. Should both be entitled to continue their careers even though they had been working without the necessary documentation? Sure they violated the laws governing entry into medical practice, but they have been doing the job and we need medical professionals.
Last year people were protesting the results of a ballot measure declaring marriage to be limited to the union of one man and one woman. The protesters were irate and outraged that it was possible in a democracy for the majority to vote on issues that affect the population. Marriage is a human right (read entitlement) that is for anyone who loves anyone else (as long there are only two involved, both are human, they are not otherwise related to each other, are not married, and are over a certain age) they say.
Are all lovers really entitled to all the rights and responsibilities of marriage?
The banking business was at the brink of collapse because of immense greed and poor judgment. Large banks and the insurance company that covered some of their losses needed tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to stay in business. Upon receipt of taxpayer bailout money these same bankers and brokers awarded thousands of employees huge bonuses. One bank is preparing to pay one individual $100 million in bonus while still owing the taxpayers billions. These hard-working employees had lost some of the value of their previous stock bonuses because they themselves had destroyed the value of their company. But still they worked hard and might be tempted to forsake their company and go to the competition if they are not given the bonuses to which they feel entitled. Loyal employees they are not.
Are they entitled to bonuses regardless of their work product and because of their lack of loyalty and abundance of greed?
The small radical fringe of the minority party continues to make absurd allegations about the President. Radio and T.V. personalities like Rush, Bill O., Glenn, Sean, Michael and Lou, whose wealth depends upon encouraging this fringe group, keep insisting that our President is not a native-born American contrary to all evidence. They allege that he has an agenda to turn the country into a socialist or perhaps even a communist state. They imply that there are some dark secrets in the President’s college transcript and accuse him and his alma maters of a conspiracy to hide his report cards. They continually slander and libel the President. Is that why we have the first amendment guaranteeing and therefore entitling freedom of the press?
Are they entitled to say whatever they want in the name of journalism?
Are American businesses entitled to do whatever they can to improve the bottom line including hiring document-free imports at low wages and benefits or outsourcing work done here to less-expensive workers in India and China regardless how that affects our workers or our nation’s economy?
Are people with cell phones entitled to use them anywhere they can get a signal?
They pay their exorbitant cell phone bill every month, so can they talk while on a checkout line, while waiting at a green light, while driving through a red light or stop sign, while driving five miles per hour in a 35 mph zone, while strolling their baby as they hold and drink the ubiquitous cup of coffee, while out on a date or while in a parking space before leaving it?
Are nice people with all the right political views entitled to double park when making ATM transactions, dropping the little ones off at childcare, buying flowers or just chatting with friends or acquaintances?
Are we all entitled to own our own homes, even if we can’t afford the payments?
Are we entitled to do or buy whatever we can afford to regardless of whether we need it and no matter how it affects the environment?
Are children of the very rich and famous entitled to getting advantages when applying to private high schools or elite colleges?
Are the children of the poor and unsuccessful entitled to getting advantages when applying to private high schools and elite colleges?
Are we all entitled to do as many things at the same time as we are willing to attempt believing that quantity trumps quality?
Are parents entitled to have as many children as they want knowing that they are entitled to help if they cannot manage their expanded family obligations?
Are athletes entitled to do whatever they can to improve their stats and thereby increase their earnings?
And am I entitled to ask?
Punctuation Marks in the Grammar of Life
A long running cosmological theory is that the Creator spoke the physical world using the Hebrew alphabet. The old Testament does begin with the Lord saying “Let there be light” in Hebrew. The proponents of this idea also believe that each moment still depends on His speech to exist. This cosmology introduces the idea of life being linked to language. The basic structure of language is grammar. The primary component of grammar is the sentence consisting of a subject, object and verb as in “I love you” or “I eat food” or “I lost my gloves.”
If you look at grammar and religion, the similarity comes
more into focus. The essence of Christianity is the Holy Trinity:
The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Eastern religions
believe that life’s duality is an illusion (maya) and that
all is one. Judaism is also based on this premise: “Adenoi
echad” - G-d is one.
So Christianity believes in the subject, object and verb.
The Father, the Creator, is the subject and his creation -
his son - is the object and the Holy Ghost is the verb, the
act or process of creating.
Some of the Eastern religions believe that while there appears
to be a subject and object, an I and Thou, there is just the
one. Zen, however, suggests that while there is only one there
are also two, hence the Koan “If a tree falls in the forest
and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” or “What is the
sound of one hand clapping?” There is the subject who has
consciousness and the object that cannot be said to exist
without an awareness of its presence. A clap cannot occur
without both hands - a subject and an object.
So when asked “Which came first the chicken or the egg?” the
answer is “consciousness.”
We insert our own punctuation marks in the grammar of our
If we work Monday through Friday, then the weekend provides
our period (.) after the end of our Friday work-day sentence.
If we work days, evenings supply us with commas and occasional
semi-colons to get us through the week.
If we are students, our semester breaks are like new paragraphs,
our year-end final exams mark the end of one chapter and the
predictable beginning of the next.
Then there are vacations, holidays, illness, and daily lunch
hours to break up our living sentences. We also have our other
meal times, rest periods and favorite T.V. shows to further
divide up our daily labors (the way parentheses and “quotation
marks” do in sentences).
If nights and weekends are commas, semi colons and periods,
holidays might be highlighting, italics or underlining. So
when we celebrate a birthday, we are highlighting the importance
that person is to us. We appreciate the person every day,
but on this one day a year we want to emphasize that inclination.
Legal holidays are the macro version of birthdays.
While we are, or should be, grateful for our lives every day,
this feeling is put in italics on the fourth Thursday in November.
While we love one another as the reflections of ourselves
at almost every moment of our waking hours, we feel it especially
underlined on the 25th of December. The same goes for our
daily patriotism on July 4, May 31st, June 14th and best of
all on the 11th day of the 11th month; our daily renewal on
the first day of the first month of the year ( Jewish Chinese
Americans can celebrate the new year three times a year);
our unquestionable respect and adoration for our parents on
the days set aside to honor them and our perpetual respect
for our founding fathers on President’s Day and Columbus Day
(now known as something else to some) and on Martin Luther
King Day, commemorating the founding father of civil rights..
For those of us born on a holiday, that day is highlighted,
italicized and underlined.
When we retire we find that we have and need fewer punctuation
marks in our daily lives. What are evenings, week-ends and
holidays off when you have nothing to be off from? (Though
we still have mealtimes, our T.V shows [for those of us who
admittedly watch it], daily walks, bathing and eliminating
waste products to break up our daily sentences.)
Our retirement should give us much more time to insert commas,
semi colons, exclamation points, question marks and periods
whenever we want to and to highlight, italicize and underline
all of our celebrated feelings every day and then, at every
moment of every day, so that each single sentence that we
experience will be pregnant with our constant awareness and
Am I Old Yet?
My mother would be in her 100th year now had she not died five years ago. In her last years she lived in a wonderful nursing home here in San Francisco. I visited her every week. She no longer remembered that she had ever had a son and thought that I was her favorite cousin who was her childhood friend. The man for whom she mistook me was a good 40 years older than me but had resembled me slightly in that he was also bald. What she could never understand is why I looked so old, especially compared to her. She thought that I looked old because I was in my late 50s then and probably looked at least 40, and she was sure that she was still in her 30s.
Nothing could make her believe that she had ever had a son and nothing would make her believe that she was not in her 30s. I could understand her forgetting someone whose birth was painfully unintended. But how could she forget that she was old? Every moment reminded her that she was old, feeble and unable to take care of herself, and yet she was so sure.
Now I know.
I am in my seventh decade and my body knows it all too well. Almost every part of it has been tested beyond the recommended limits and the result has been continuous malfunction and pain. These are constant reminders of my condition and age and yet I don’t believe it.
I repeatedly think of myself as a young man in his mid-30s.
When I see people of that age, I think that they are like me. I still look at an attractive young woman as though she were still available to me only to again be made to feel invisible as the object of my admiration looks past me to smile and wave at an approaching contemporary. I am no longer of interest to her no matter how great mine is for her.
Surely, I am still young. I see so much as though for the first time. My mind is still full of new ideas and dreams of utopian futures. I love not only the classic songs of Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and Joan Baez but also the recent ones by Cold Play, Death Cab for Cutie, and Sarah McLachlan. I still have passion for nature, cars, dogs, Persian carpets, beauty and philosophy the way I did when I was in my 30s. I can still fit the tuxedo I wore at my sister’s first wedding when I was 17, but have no occasion to wear it.
And when I see “elders” – those in their late 40s and beyond – I credit them for doing as well as they are in their advanced years. Part of me thinks that the “elders” also see me as their junior. Some of these presumed elders look to me to be at least 150 years old even though I know that people don’t last that long. I confess that at times I have been tempted to go up to such advanced seniors and ask them just how terribly old they were or whether they were actually the oldest people on earth.
I wonder how many people have been tempted to approach me in that way? How many wonder whether I am traveling on my last legs? And how many elders look to me as their senior?
I can still walk long distances but can no longer run. I can still sing my favorite songs, but I can no longer dance to them. I always listen carefully, but can’t always hear. I look with eyes wide open, but am not always able to see clearly. I find steep hills and staircases menacing and can no longer suffer cold wind and fog that seem to pierce me like arrows through cotton candy.
Am I still too young to imagine myself old or have I gotten so old that I can’t remember that I am no longer young?
Am I really old yet?
Readers with thoughts, feelings or suggestions to offer regarding this column can e-mail JWTXKAYE@g-mail.com.
Is the Market Really Free?
Much has been said about the wisdom of the free market system. It is said to be based on supply and demand with prices increasing as demand outpaces supply or decreasing when the opposite occurs. Salaries are also said to be based on this system with higher salaries reflecting a greater value of the respective services rendered. But is this what really happens?
What we have seen in the past 25 years appears to be a perversion of our free market system. When demand exceeds the supply of labor, companies now look to other countries to fulfill their labor needs either outsourcing the work to less-expensive foreign workers or by importing the workers through work visas and by hiring obviously undocumented workers. Our most progressive senators, like the senior Senator from California, have tried to convince us that our countrymen refuse to do certain jobs that therefore must be done by foreign workers. One, the senior Senator from Massachusetts, even scoffed at the idea that anyone would pay a chicken picker $18 an hour.
Why not? That equals $36,000 a year (there are 2080 hours to a regular
work year of 52 40-hour weeks). Would that really be too much
to pay if that’s what it took to get the job done? The same
is true of farm workers. If Americans are not willing to do the job for
$6 an hour, maybe it should pay more even if that means lower profits
or higher prices. We pay our police officers almost $100,000 a year because
we believe that is what it takes to get someone to do the job. What if
we paid doctors, architects, engineers, lawyers and U.S. Senators $10
an hour? Would they work for that amount and if not would we say that
they are unwilling to do their jobs so we must import under-educated foreigners
to do them?
On the other side, we are told that some people must be paid bonuses, whether their company succeeds or fails in order to retain good workers. Why do some careers deserve bonuses that other professions don’t? Bankers, stock brokers, star athletes, entertainers and senior business executives need bonuses but others like nurses, social workers, teachers, clergy, government workers, police officers, firemen, soldiers, and garbage collectors can be relied upon to do their best for predetermined salaries. How did the free market system decide?
While some workers make $20,000 a year, others make twice that much a week! How is one person worth 100, 1000 or 10,000 times as much as another? Last year a hedge fund manager made almost two billion dollars equaling the combined total of what 100,000 people earned at $20,000 a year. One person’s efforts equaled that of 100,000 people?
Doctors are our most educated professionals. After four years of college, they attend four more of medical school followed by years of internship and residency. It is one of the most difficult and important careers. Doctors make on average less than$300,000 a year.
The President of the United States makes $400,000 a year but also gets free room and board, free transportation and a great pension. All told the package is worth about a million dollars a year for what is considered the hardest job in the world and one that takes many times more than 2,000 hours per year.
In contrast, a high school graduate who is a great athlete can be drafted by a professional basketball, football or baseball team, and make as much as $28 million a year to work in as many as 150 games (or as few as 14) for less than half the year. Note how many of the highest paid athletes have been found guilty of using illegal steroids to justify their high earnings—like Mark, Barry, Jason, Alex, Manny, Sammy, Jose, Roger, etc.
Meanwhile a movie star can earn $30 million for a role in one movie that takes less than six months to film.
A senior business executive with an agreeable board can get $100 million to leave after failing the company (remember Bank of America?) or $20 million to stay on to continue with the now failing company as happened recently at banks, insurance companies and brokerage houses. Note how many real estate, and stock scandals were caused by people trying to receive undeserved higher bonuses for their work product.
But a person whose fate it is to pluck chickens, pick cotton, or harvest fruits and vegetables should not deserve $36,000 to work hard eight hours a day for 250 days a year?
Is the free market system really free or fair?
Reflections on Lost Memories
My computer crashed last month. I was advised that the hard drive had failed and would need to be replaced. That meant that all my memory would be lost. Every e-mail I had sent or received, all the music I had stored on I Tunes, all my pictures of family and friends, and all my written work including all my past columns, my novel, which in the process of being reprinted, and my book on metaphysics, which was backed up on another system, thank G-d. I took the great loss well and I started thinking about memory and its loss. My novel concerned one person who was destined to be forever forgotten and another who lost his memory of himself. The loss of memory was a punishment for the first character and a blessing for the other. What is our memory to us?
When I first studied psychology in the early 60s, I was taught about a concept called “the halo effect.” The theory was that first impressions color the way a person is forever regarded and remembered. If a person had been considered bright and honorable at first meeting, everything he did from then on would seem somewhat bright and honorable. The next year I had a chance to test the theory. I was the French teacher’s favorite and best student. I was bright and hard working and got A’s on my first tests. But by the end of the semester, I had missed some tests and done badly on others. My teacher viewed me as a poor student who just didn’t have what it took. She remembered the last few weeks of school rather than the first impression, which had seemed justified for most of the semester. I realized it was the most recent experience that colored our memory of people and events and not the first.
Take the weather. If it is warm and sunny in San Francisco for a week, people say that it has been that way forever. When the weather changes and it is cold, foggy and/or wet for a few days, people say that this weather seems like it will never end.
Or take relationships. Two people have a great relationship for a period of time. Then something happens to make them split a part. If it was a bad ending, there is a good chance that it will make the memories of the good times less so. It was the last experiences that revealed the true nature of each person and the relationship.
Or take retail. Do you remember what Abercrombie and Fitch used to be? It was a totally different store that specialized in high end sports equipment. In the 1950s I was big into ping pong and would buy my special paddles at Abercrombie’s. It was not a store for young people wanting to be sexy. But who remembers that? Do you remember what Banana Republic sold and why they chose their name? They sold surplus uniform items from banana republics.
And then there is our lack of memory about taxes. The highest marginal tax rate is threatening to go from 35% to 39.6%. People are screaming “unfair exorbitant tax increase on the rich.” The 35% top rate was part of the former administration’s temporary tax cut for those in the highest tax bracket. “It means that when adding state, local and payroll taxes, the wealthiest among us will be paying almost half their earnings in tax. What will it do to productivity when people see so much of their earnings taken from them?” the well-to-do ask. We forget that it is a marginal tax rate which means it is applied to only the highest part of the person’s net income. (So for a person making $500,000, with $100,000 in deductions and a net of $400,000 would pay an extra 4.6% on the $42,000 over $358,000, the beginning of the top bracket, or $1932 more in taxes. This is less than four tenths of one percent (.38%) of their income We also forget that this is what the top earners paid from the 1980’s to just a few years ago. But we also forget something else. While America was its most productive, from 1946 to about 1980, the highest marginal tax rate in America was 90%.
I remember growing up in an upper-middle class family where my father earned about $40,000 a year in the 1950’s. He paid at a 50% marginal tax rate so whenever he lamented the cost of something, like my boarding school, he would double the amount because he figured, incorrectly, that all of his earnings were taxed at the 50% rate and therefore everything actually cost twice as much net income dollars.
But a bad memory is also a plus. We forget some of our past prejudices as our culture evolves taking us along with it. The latest presidential primaries and election were cases in point. One major party picked an African-American over the wife of its most successful past president and then the majority chose him over a good old boy, who was the son and grandson of full admirals. It showed that many of us have forgotten our past racism enough to give an excellent candidate a chance to make a difference.
Our bad memory helps when we must forgive someone’s past transgressions and find it harder and harder to remember exactly what they had been or why they mattered so much. It helps us forget some of the pain that life provides us so generously. Mothers have forgotten how painful their pregnancy was so that they can look forward to having more children. We forget the pain of open heart surgery so that we can face it again when it’s needed five, ten, or 15 years later. It surprised me when my reaction to being told I needed open heart surgery again made warm salt water cover my cheeks. My body still remembered the trauma even though my mind had forgotten.
But, perhaps, what we should never forget is how lucky we are to be alive and that no matter how hard life seems to us, it could always be a lot worse. And we should not forget those who love us and those who have helped us. And we should try to remember that no matter what we did, it was the best we could do at the time and that there is plenty of room for improvement in the future. And that if this applies to us, then it should also apply to everyone else as per Kant’s categorical imperative.
And, if you don’t agree with any of this, then you can just forget about it.
More Jack Kaye is available at www.westsideobserver.com/columns/kaye.htm
How To Reduce Cancer and Heart Related Deaths, Save the Tobacco Industry, Raise Tax Revenue, Destroy the Drug Cartels and Make People Happier
I have a simple plan that will do all of the
above as well as free up law enforcement and shrink prison
populations, reduce the incidence of Alzheimer’s, cut America’s
dependence on alcohol as well as its incidence of the resultant
liver and kidney problems.
Let us do what Walter Cronkite, Rick
Steves, Congressman/Dr. Ron Paul, state legislator Tom Ammiano
and tens of millions Americans tell us we should do.
The way it is now, our economy depends
on the viability of our tobacco industry. The industry includes
huge farms, farm workers and factories producing large quantities
of cigarettes for sale in our country and abroad. Like housing,
weapons production and cars, cigarettes help run our economy.
Cigarettes, unfortunately, cause cancer, emphysema, premature
aging, and aggravate a number of other health-related problems
like heart disease and stroke. We can’t keep producing health
hazards and yet we can’t close down an entire industry. How
can they continue to operate and make profit while producing
something much less harmful? For many it may actually be therapeutic.
Legalize marijuana and have the tobacco
industry convert to the marijuana industry. The companies would
be licensed under strict guidelines ensuring the highest quality
product in as pure a form as possible. This product would yield
profits for the companies and employment for the workers as
well as taxes for the government, potentially far exceeding
revenues from tobacco taxes which are eaten up by resultant
health care costs and lawsuits.
Without the production of cigarettes,
people currently addicted would have to finally quit. Many
currently suffering the pains of illnesses, will get some relief
from marijuana smoking. People using alcohol to transcend their
circumstances only to be more depressed by them, can turn to
marijuana which has very few health risks associated with moderate
Marijuana will help young and old. The
older citizens will not only get relief from their pains, but
they will have a different dimension to dwell in when they
are not busy with daily activities. They will enjoy the intrinsic
joys of life and not miss some of the practical limitations
of their advanced years. Elders who have been smoking this
precious herb will have much less of a chance of developing
Alzheimer’s, according to recent findings.
Law enforcement officers on the federal,
state and local levels now spending their time finding marijuana
farms and arresting users, sales representatives and consumers
would be freed up to pursue serious criminals. Prison populations
would be reduced if marijuana-related arrests ended. Alcohol-related
crimes might also decrease with more people choosing marijuana
as their new drug of choice.
With marijuana legal, drug dealers here
and south of the border would go bankrupt. Without riches from
illegal marijuana sales, the drug cartels will have no power
to control their communities and tempt others into lives of
If you think that the abundance of reasons
for legalizing marijuana cited above is all-inclusive, I would
urge you to think again. There is a much more important reason
than all of the above combined – it will change our culture
for the better.
As I have already mentioned in previous
columns, we Americans have gotten too busy. We are constantly
rushing, talking on our cell phones, playing phone tag with
friends who are as busy as we are and are unable to connect.
We have been fooled into believing that more is better and
that there can never be enough. There is a saying “you can’t
be too rich or too thin.” Of course you can and you can be
too busy too.
We need to stop and appreciate the paradise
that surrounds us. We don’t have to constantly be trying to
prove ourselves. According to informed sources, marijuana is
the greatest teacher of living life in the moment and enjoying
what you are doing, no matter whether it’s called “work” or
With marijuana you don’t need a big Hummer
or pickup truck to feel like a man. With marijuana you don’t
need four-inch spike heels and a pushup bra to prove that you
are a woman. With marijuana you realize that you are consciousness
and are interconnected with everything and everyone else. You’ve
got a friend inside and outside you.
Or, at least, so I’ve been told.
What Motivates Us to Excel?
There is much concern now about recovering from this country’s most severe recession in recent memory. The main cause of our economic breakdown was the burst in the real estate bubble created by over speculation and fueled by bad loans made to unqualified applicants. These bad loans were made when regulation of this industry was relaxed and greed and dishonesty were allowed to expand exponentially.
The greed of speculators, bankers, brokers, hedge fund managers and corporate CEOs has become the focus of our collective wrath. “Why do these people make so much money while doing so poor a job?” we ask. “Why do they get bonuses even when their company does badly?” we demand to know. The answer we hear is that if they are not well compensated, they might get jobs elsewhere.
We respond to that with a “So what?”
The new administration wants to reign in these high salaries and bonuses and to tax the rich at higher rates so that the less fortunate among us can be helped. The rich respond that this will limit their motivation to create and develop their industries that produce jobs for our people.
What does it take to motivate someone to do his or her very best?
This question has been addressed in slightly different forms by religions, philosophical theories, management seminars, and psychological as well as sociological hypotheses with various results.
The answers to the question range from God’s will to free will, from hard wired personality traits to environmental conditioning, from steps in the hierarchy of needs leading to self-realization to the fulfillment of our enlightened selfish interest.
While I see merit in all the theories, I have come to believe that the primary motivator is the maintenance and improvement of our self esteem. Self esteem has been defined “as our reputation with ourselves.”
Depending on individual characteristics from genetics or conditioning, we do what we believe will positively affect our self-image. For some it is seeking wealth and material things for others it is popularity, with people supplying reinforcement to our activities and being. For some it is the act of helping others and for some it is the feeling that they are creating something that is good.
In other words, some people are most moved by extrinsic motivation like money, prestige, popularity or social acceptance, others are driven by intrinsic motives like love, compassion, creativity, responsibility, loyalty, justice or being of service.
Our current system places more emphasis on the extrinsic rewards of work. CEO’s, great athletes, stock brokers, and movie stars demand great extrinsic rewards to ensure maximum performance, whereas soldiers, artists, teachers, mothers, social workers, journalists, ministers of faith and philosophers can be relied upon to do their best for intrinsic rewards.
The question not being asked is “Why can’t those CEOs, athletes, movie stars and brokers do their best for reasonable salaries and the joy of doing the best that they can for their organization and the people affected by it?” Why can’t a company CEO feel proud and obliged to work hard to help the employees and investors as well as the public it serves? Why wouldn’t a baseball player love the game, his team and his fans enough to do his best for them without asking for as much as $28 million a year to play 150 games?
Why does a movie star require 50 times as much per movie as the President of the United States makes in a year at the hardest job in the world? Why do some businessmen need to be paid 2000 times as much as the company’s line workers make?
Perhaps in this new era, by increasing taxes for some and establishing earnings ceilings for others, American workers will be able to find a balance in their reason for excelling. Maybe we could all learn to do what we do as means to ends also as ends in themselves.
Just as we make wonderful meals or go out to restaurants for them because we want to also enjoy doing something that we must do to survive: nourish our bodies with food. If we could do what we must do and also fully enjoy it, we would require less extrinsic reinforcement. When we drive to a work destination in order to earn a living, we can also take in the beautiful scenery along the way.
And if we cannot do a job or an activity also as an end in itself, maybe we shouldn’t do it, because no amount of money will ever really be enough to make up for it.
If we could do everything as both a means and an end in itself, enjoying the full range of intrinsic rewards as well as getting what we need, we would find ourselves needing less and enjoying life more and being in the here and now with all of its benefits. We would then do our best and get the most from our efforts.
When Bad News Leads To Good News
We have had so much bad news lately that it is hard to remember that most positive change comes from unfortunate situations.
Recently we have had a spike in oil prices. They went from under $50 a barrel to almost $150. Gas at the pump went from being less than $2 per gallon to well past $4.50. This sharp increase fueled by speculators caused shock waves in our economy. People who had bought gas guzzlers were feeling the most pain. Their valuable pleasure crafts sank in resale value and new models of behemoths were not selling, hurting our automobile manufacturers who ignored the need for economical family sedans in favor of more profitable pickup trucks including those dressed up as SUVs.
The speculators who believed that oil would go over $150 a barrel bought options not caring about hurting the economy for everyone else, have lost their newfound fortunes and then some now that oil is below $50 a barrel again. Now finally we may have gotten the message: conserving is better than wasting; thinking only about ourselves is not as good as seeing the whole picture.
The American automobile industry which has ignored our need for conservation and opted for easy profit is now begging for help promising to reform its ways with CEOs offering to take $1 a year salary instead of their previous eight figure annual compensations.
Something similar happened to the finance sector of our economy. The greed, arrogance and resultant blindness of bankers, hedge fund managers and mortgage brokers caused the crash of our mortgage markets as well as of the banking institutions that were laying side bets on their shaky loans. Here too the CEOs went begging for help promising to reform and to cut back their outrageous salaries and ill-deserved golden parachutes.
Something similar happened in the political arena. One party that has dominated this country for eight years ruled with dishonesty, arrogance and the resultant blindness. Their ill-conceived war has cost us trillions of dollars, caused the premature violent death of more than 100,000 people and a loss of good will around the world. The party was soundly defeated not only in the presidential election but also in the legislature. The party is in shambles and if it is to have a future, it must dramatically change its positions and attitudes on many issues affecting its constituents.
Something similar is also happening to the very rich.
They have depended on rising stock and real estate prices for their wealth and its growth. Those who also got outrageous salaries and bonuses feared that the new administration would deprive them of their unearned wealth. Now, many of them have much less of it to worry about. The days of multi million dollar salaries and bonuses or easy, insider profits may be coming to an end. And good riddance.
Then what will be left of our American dream? The dream of becoming rich beyond all imagination may be fading. The feeling that we are better than others and have a right to squander our wealth with large homes, expensive cars and frequent trips to exciting destinations is being challenged. As is the attitude that we can tell other countries and their people how to live, threatening to invade them to set them right.
What will be in their place? Could it be that we will once again be more self-reliant, using American workers to provide American goods and services without out sourcing to foreign workers or insourcing with illegal, imported ones? Maybe we can produce beautiful and efficient cars, stylish clothing, healthy food, and work toward a cleaner more decent environment. Maybe the incredible distance between the haves and the have nots can be dramatically reduced. Maybe we will stop importing, producing, selling and/or buying cheap lousy merchandise as well as the overpriced status-oriented needless markups that so many of us have aspired to. Maybe we will stop building huge mansions and stop being slum landlords of run-down places for the less fortunate.
If, in fact, our country can be moved toward the middle ground away from ambitious greed and toward practical progress for a better life for everyone, then all our current suffering will be a blessing in disguise, a wake-up call for meaningful change.
In Praise of the English Language
Having studied many languages, I find that English is the most up-to-date of the bunch and has eliminated many of the shortcomings with which other languages still struggle.
English evolved from its Germanic roots when the Normans invaded and conquered England in 1066. The Normans brought the French that was then in use to the British Isle. (The Normans, though from France, were originally from Norway, hence the name.)
English adopted many of the words that have since changed in French. Many modern French words that begin with an “é” and are followed by a consonant used to be different and more like our English. I don’t think even the French realize this. Here are some examples. Substitute the beginning “é” with an “s” and see what happens: étage, étranger, étudie, école, écailler, écarlate. échalote, écope, épouse, équerre, état, étole, étrangler and étuve. They become stage, stranger, studie (study), scole (school), scaler, scarlet, schalote (shallot), scope (scoop), spouse, squerre (square), stai (stay), state, stole, strangle and stuve (stove) - Voila, English!
The French also did the same to its letter “s” in the middle of words if the “s” is followed by a consonant. They replaced the “s” with an upside “v” over the preceding letter. So the Latin fenestra become fenêtre, bastard became bâtard, nostre became nôtre, etc. But unlike English, French never got rid of the ancient practice of giving genders to objects and then to their modifiers. So French and the other Romance languages require the user to know which inanimate object has which gender. Is a table feminine because a chair which is masculine slides in between its legs? An object with two different names to describe it can have one that is masculine and one that is feminine. Different Romance languages may assign a different gender to the same object. A car can be feminine in one and masculine in the other.
I have tried to trace the origin of this strange practice and believe I have found it. It is the same source as the alphabet. Did you say Greek? Yes, Greek had genders for objects and had an Alpha Beta, but that’s not it. And since it predated Latin, it is not Latin which caught the habit from Greek. It was Hebrew. And Hebrew had the first Alef Beit, which became the Greek Alpa Beta.
English has all the verb tenses that Latin has like present, past, pluperfect, future, conditional subjunctive, and imperative, but it does not require us to conjugate each verb depending upon whether it is in the first, second or third person singular or plural. We also do not use two different “you”s depending on with whom we’re speaking. Some Asian languages cannot differentiate between the present, past and future using their verbs. So one would have to say “I go to work, yesterday” or “I go to work tomorrow” instead of “I went” and “I will go.” And they didn’t have alphabets meaning that each word has a symbol that must be memorized. Can you imagine a Chinese keyboard for typing?
And since English is a Germanic language mixed with a Romance or Latin based language, we have two words for the same thing. Examples are donate (L) and give (G); labor (L) and work (G); and demonstrate (L) and show (G).
I believe that this is why English, but not French or Chinese, is and will be the international language. French used to be known as the international language but has lost out, I believe, because of its insistence on giving each noun and its adjectival modifier a gender, which unlike Italian or Spanish, is not discernible by hearing it. At least the Italians and the Spanish ended each masculine noun with an “o” and each feminine noun with an “a” to let speakers know which arbitrary gender the word is supposed to be.
So aren’t you happy that you know English? Don’t you wish everyone did?
When Does A Person Become an Adult?
When I grew up in New York in the 40s and 50s, there were many different definitions of the age and nature of adulthood. We were adult enough to drive at 16, to drink at 18, to join the Army without our parents’ consent at 17, and to marry in the South at 14. If we were Jewish, we were considered adult at 13. But no matter what our affiliation, most things required the age of 21 for adult responsibilities. We had to be 21 to vote, buy cigarettes, sign a contract, or do a real estate transaction.
Today, many people consider anyone over 17 years of age to be adult, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails. Except, in order to buy and use alcohol, buy a lottery ticket, or sign a real estate contract, you have to be over 21.
The problem is that now anything these teenage “adults” do (they used to be called “minors”) or decide is between them and the organization or person involved. For anyone else, the information, be it medical, academic, or financial, is confidential. Isn’t this good? Aren’t we all scared to death that someone will get some vital information about us against our will?
What if your 19 year-old daughter is away at school and is hospitalized? You are her parents, love her, and pay all her bills. But you have no right to know what happened to her. Maybe she has a learning challenge, is shy, or naïve. It doesn’t matter, she’s an adult.
Your son is a freshman at college. He is doing badly in school and is having serious adjustment problems in the dorm where his assigned roommate has a major psychological condition such as obsessive compulsive disorder. You call the school to plead for intervention. The response is that your son is an adult and should be able to deal with it.
You find out the day before that your 20 year-old daughter has contracted for an elective, and seemingly unnecessary surgery. She signed papers promising to pay an exorbitant amount with no option for a refundable cancellation. The daughter acted on a whim and is now caught on the hook. The doctor did not counsel the patient or contact the parents. The 20 year-old is an adult and therefore can make her own decisions about her own body.
While, nowadays 16 year-olds can still get a driver’s license, the age at which they are considered adult enough to drive at night and other passengers keeps getting increased because there are so many auto accidents among this “young” adult group.
At the same time, medical science believes that for most people, the frontal lobe of the brain, which controls adult thinking, like strategic planning, prioritizing, seeing short and long term effects of possible actions and decision making, is not fully developed until the age 25. The physiological adulthood starts at 25.
I suggest we make 25 years and older the age of legal adulthood. That would mean that in order to drink alcohol, place a bet, cast a vote, sign a real estate contract, buy a gun, or have personal medical or academic information kept confidential from the family, a person must be at least 25, which is the new 18 just as 62 is the new 50.
I think that this idea not only makes biological sense, but makes social and economic sense, too. Under this new system, high schools and colleges could no longer hide their accountability behind the backs of adults too young to know better. Doctors and hospitals would be accountable to the authorized adult who is already responsible for paying the bill. Teenagers would no longer be expected to study the 20 or 30 ballot arguments in order to vote intelligently. And think of all the alcohol-related deaths caused by premature and immature intoxication, that could be avoided by extending the minimum age by four years? Maybe some of these young people will never even start drinking. Imagine that, sober adults!
But what about the argument that if a person is old enough to join the Army and kill or be killed in the country’s defense, he or she should be old enough to drink and smoke cigarettes and do all the other things adults can do? (Or the older case that if a person is old enough to make a child - 13 or so - he or she is old enough to be an adult?)
The answer is late them wait until they are 25.
But then the question arises: What if not enough people over 25 were willing to fight and die as young men did in Viet Nam and Iraq?
The answer is then maybe we won’t go to war as often, but at least we won’t have to hear how many teens have lost their lives or limbs before having had the chance to enjoy a little more life
If heaven can wait, why can’t adulthood?
Is San Francisco an American city?
Recently, we had a house guest from the South. He was a young college graduate who had attended on a full academic scholarship. He was a nice kid.
As the first few days of his eight-week visit unfolded, I realized that there were many things that we do here that people where he’s from don’t. The number and variety of these differences grew as the days progressed. Here is a sample of our differences.
I knew that he came from a state with an abundance of water and very low utility rates. I told him that in San Francisco water and resultant sewage costs are very high and that we try not to waste it. The same is true about gas and electric charges. We also showed him how we always use our own bags when grocery shopping to save on paper and plastic bag creation.
He said he understood.
He limited his time away from his running kitchen faucet (while he went into another room) to under twominutes, kept his showers to only 25 minutes, and tried to keep the refrigerator door open for less than 10 minutes at a time.
I told him about recycling our glass, paper, aluminum and plastic. He told me that they have it in his town but it costs extra so most people don’t bother. He didn’t either. We noticed that he even threw his paper grocery bags away in the garbage.
It was then that I began to wonder if it was them or us who were different.
San Francisco was the first American city to ban smoking in restaurants, then bars, then parks. San Francisco was the first to create domestic partnerships for unmarried couples leading finally to gay marriages, which were just recently upheld by the state supreme court.
San Francisco was also at the forefront of the decriminalization of marijuana movement, first with medical marijuana, then with allowing dozens of retail outlets to sell it, then with making it official policy to not arrest for possession of the weed, and soon will be the first to celebrate its inevitable legalization.
Jesse Jackson not only carried South Carolina, when he ran for the Democratic nomination for President, he also carried San Francisco which has only a 5% African American population.
And when Bush-Cheney made clear their intentions to invade Iraq, San Francisco was first to turn out en masse to object to an attack which would go on to cost a hundred thousand lives (including the Iraqi dead) and trillions of dollars (including the future disability costs for wounded soldiers and the predictable aid to millions of Iraqi refugees who will move to America when we withdraw our troops).
Now, San Francisco is offering medical coverage to all of its residents, paid sick leave for all those who work in the city, and a living wage that is 50% higher than America’s minimum wage.
The City even had planned to issue resident i.d. cards to undocumented (read ‘imported, paperless’) residents.In San Francisco members of the police and sheriff’s department do not cooperate with federal agents (as in American government) in their efforts to identify and deport illegal immigrants (read ‘paperless imports’) who commit crimes in the City.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has repeatedly let the United States Navy know that its ships were not welcome near our shores because of its policy toward gay members and because of its intrinsically belligerent nature. And the San Francisco school board is trying to eliminate ROTC from its campuses for the same reasons.
So what do you think? Is San Francisco an American city or will America someday become a San Francisco country?
Can a Victim Be Responsible?
A woman lets her two year old go off in a water park with the child’s four year old sibling to watch him. The two year old child drowns. The water park is sued because this mother has lost her child on their grounds. What’s a mother to do when a park lets two year olds die?
A large energy company is cheating the residents of the nation’s most populous state. The employees and stockholders know what the company is up to but stay on to reap the financial rewards. When the dishonesty of the company becomes overwhelmingly obvious, the company goes bust. The employees lose their jobs, pension benefits and 401 Ks. The stockholders lose all their stock’s value. What are employees and stockholders to do when their company is caught cheating? Why must they suffer the consequences?
People sign up for mortgages they know they cannot afford. Lenders give loans to people they know do not qualify for them. They all think that they will somehow get away with it if the market can rapidly increase toward infinity. The bubble bursts. The borrowers cannot pay and cannot sell their property to pay off their debt. The lenders see their loans go unpaid and the collaterals’ value shrink by the day. And then the market collapses. The new homeowners lose their property and are thrown out into the streets forced to return to wherever they had recently moved up from. The lenders see their jobs and companies threatened. Why must they suffer just because their plan failed?
Two states want to buck their party’s schedule for primaries so that theirs will be first or at least sooner and more influential. The states’ representatives are told that if they hold their primaries early, the votes won’t count. All the candidates agreed not to campaign in those states.
In one state, all but one of the candidates took their names off the ballot. The people in the two states knowing the promise that their votes won’t count and knowing that they would be meaningless anyway because no one campaigned in their states, voted anyway.
They were then reminded that their votes would not be counted. They were angry. Why won’t their votes count? It wasn’t their fault their states broke the rules, they didn’t break them. The only candidate who profited from this improper vote had agreed that their vote should not count until the results were in and they were so good. Why shouldn’t this candidate count the votes even though they were improper?
Many of us bought large pickup trucks and SUVs. Some of us did so to keep our family safe in case of a collision not so concerned about the safety of those outside our vehicles. Some of us bought them because we liked having extra space inside not thinking that there will be that much less space outside. Some of us bought them to sit high while driving so we could see over the other cars not realizing that we might be blocking the view of others. We knew that our trucks were gas guzzlers but figured that we could always afford it. We knew that small car owners looked at us with derision but we just figured that they were jealous. Now our trucks are unaffordable to run and are almost impossible to sell. We are now stuck with our gluttonous behemoths. Why must we suffer just because we like things big and now gas prices are too high?
We didn’t set the price OPEC charges for oil.
When do knowing victims of improper actions realize that they themselves may have been the villains in their own tragedy? When do those who at first benefited from the violations of moral conduct accept responsibility for the eventual outcome?
When do we learn the meaning of cause and effect, action and responsibility otherwise known as karma?
When is More of a Good Thing Not Better?
I admit that I am not a great believer in the predictive ability of economics, but I do appreciate some of its descriptive concepts and models. My favorite three are externalities, indifference curves and the law of diminishing marginal returns.
Externalities are the hidden costs and benefits of activities. For example, pesticides kill harmful insects and protect the crops but also pollute the earth, air and water in the process. There is a cost for this activity that is not paid by the user or the producer. Public education, if it is good, has positive externalities like making the population more skilled and productive and less likely to commit crime. The role of good government is to actor in the externalities of each activity and ensure that costs are paid by the responsible parties and benefits are acknowledged when allocating more resources.
Indifferent curves are often tied to pricing or cost. If a seller increases the price of a product, the immediate result will be higher profit per item and therefore more money. But as the price increases, there comes a point when fewer items are sold for the higher price and so while the profit per item increases, the volume decreases until no one wants one at a very high price, so they are indifferent as to whether they have it or not.
Finally, I like the law of diminishing marginal returns which is designed to predict or at least describe the point at which something precious loses its luster because too much is available. I tested this theory with filet mignon. Surely, there can never be too much filet mignon. But after my eighth meal of it in a three-week period, I could no longer bear the thought of it. We now see this happening with gasoline usage. When the price gets to a certain point, say $4.50 a gallon, people will seek alternatives such as public transportation or carpooling or getting rid of the pickup or SUV.
I think all this can be applied to the notion that more is better, the more the merrier. Like the idea that you can never be too thin or too rich or never have enough friends or should never turn off your cell phone.
When you see even a few anorexic models and actresses, it is hard to come away thinking one can never be too thin. When you read about the excesses of athletes, actors, and businessmen, it makes you wonder if this wealth could not be put to better uses like reducing poverty, improving education or cleaning our environment and whether the excessively rich are really better for the experience. When you talk to a friend who must squeeze you in between two other friends who are also vying for attention, you realize with so many friends there is never enough time for any of them.
And when I see people constantly on their cell phones literally hooked the way smokers used to be, I wonder if there is not something like too much cell phoning. Do people really have to talk on their cells while driving their cars, eating their lunches at a restaurant, purchasing something at a store, walking across a busy intersection or nursing their baby? Have cell phones become our new Sirens drawing us in against our free will? Or are they like communications from the Almighty that should never be ignored?
It seems like the answer our former president gave for his many infidelities in the White House - “Because I could” - could apply to our many daily excesses. We do them because we can afford to. But I wonder when do we realize that enough is enough and that more than that is not necessarily better but could be worse?
When do we recognize the externalities in our excessive behavior and develop an indifference to these gluttonous activities be they eating or drinking too much, to listening to talk radio too much, to buying too much, owning too much, controlling too much and therefore worrying too much?
How long will it take us to see the diminishing marginal returns of increased activities?
When do we say “enough really is enough?”
Just Between You and Me
I am not an English professor or a famous grammarian, but I was an excellent student of sixth grade English which included diagramming sentences. I learned about prepositions, nouns, adjectives and adverbs as well as subjects, objects and appropriate verb forms. I also studied Latin grammar in high school giving me a greater appreciation of the grammatical elements of our own language.
And while I know how busy we all are and that sometimes we lack the time to think about our use of English grammar, I cannot overlook some of the grossest forms of language abuse without writing something.
The most common error and one some think shows erudition, but doesn’t, is the phrase “just between you and I.” It is supposed to be “between you and me,” because the word “me” is the object of the preposition. The word “I” is used only as a subject of a sentence or as a predicate pronoun as in “It is I.”
Many people say “if I was you” or “I wish I was you.” Since both phrases are conditional, they must be phrased in the conditional subjunctive “if I were you” or “I wish I were you.”
Since the verb must agree with the subject, it is important to know which words are singular and which are plural. The word “criteria” is plural and so takes a plural verb like “are” or “were.” The singular version is “criterion.” (The same is true about the word “phenomenon.”) The word “alumni” is masculine plural. The singular is “alumnus.” The feminine versions are “alumna,” singular and “alumnae,” plural.
I also learned in the sixth grade that adjectives define or describe nouns. The words “male” and “female” are adjectives that describe nouns as in “a male suspect” or “a female impersonator.” Police officers are male or female as are models or firefighters. Therefore it is incorrect to say “man police officer” or “man executive.” It is also incorrect to say “woman firefighter” or “woman senator.” Saying that he is a “man doctor” would mean that the doctor specializes in treating men and could actually be a woman.
This confusion began years ago because some group decided that “female” was too male oriented. But actually, the word comes from the Latin femella, the diminutive form of femina, meaning woman, while “woman” has a male reference in it. The word “male” comes from old French male and masle and the Latin masculus.
Then there is the little-known rule that even journalists get wrong. The words “who” or “which” always relate to the noun that directly precedes them (even if the noun is in a prepositional phrase). A great New York Times journalist just wrote a column about a woman who took a lover. But she wrote “The woman married to the Duke who was seeing a commoner” meaning that the Duke was seeing the commoner.
I apologize for bringing all these common errors to your attention, but do so only to end the repetition of these abuses of our language. I never claimed to be an expert on the use of commas, they were covered in 7th grade English, so see if you can find some errors in this column. It would serve me right, wouldn’t it?
Look for John (Jack) Kaye’s new novel, “Reflections of a Freelance Monk” available at the Book Shop West Portal , Green Apple Books on Clement and Books, Inc. in Laurel Village.
SERIOUS CRIMES GOING UNENFORCED IN SAN FRANCISCO
All right, perhaps calling them serious crimes may be overstating the violations. Admittedly, there are much more heinous offenses that occur much less frequently. Crimes like murder, rape, kidnapping, aggravated assault and armed robbery are worse. So is the dealing of dangerous drugs like crack cocaine and heroin. These crimes physically injure innocent human beings and make daily life a little less pleasurable.
But what of a crime committed daily by hundreds of otherwise nice, law-abiding citizens. Many, especially in San Francisco, have taken all the right positions on the difficult issues of the day: war, immigration, poverty, taxes, medical coverage, nutrition and education. They understand that we live in a world village and that all of our actions affect others. And yet they repeatedly violate the law, inconveniencing a lot of innocent people. Why do they do it?
The crime they commit reflects almost every bad human characteristic: selfishness, inconsideration, laziness, lack of creativity. impatience and arrogance. It represents an absolute flouting of the law and is committed in plain sight, underlining its impunity.
The crime is rarely enforced in San Francisco. SFPD officers will actually drive around the crime scene going into the opposing lane of traffic to get away from it. Controllers, charged with the primary enforcement responsibility, are reluctant to engage the offenders.
The crime is double parking. Nice people do it for a few minutes while they do their errands. There is the ATM, the cleaners, the bakery, the little one’s nursery school, that overpriced cup of coffee, we just can’t live without. Some of us feel that we are too busy or important to take the time to find parking. We know that there is a greater chance of getting a ticket for an expired meter than for double parking, so we double park.
When the function of parking control was taken away from the SFPD and given to a separate department, police lost interest in it. Since there are no perks and no promotional possibilities for police, many tend to ignore parking problems like double parking. Parking controllers, who are not armed, feel intimidated to enforce these violations without police backup.
The controllers fear that some of these double parkers are not the nice people we think them to be but rather may be sociopaths who don’t give a damn about parking regulations and are willing to physically demonstrate their displeasure.
In the meantime, the City’s streets are getting congested with obstacle courses of double parked cars on both sides of the street. Our byways will soon resemble the arteries of a person with advanced heart disease with veins that are clogged with plaque.
Some of the best examples of outright and constant double parking can be found on Union Street; on 9th Avenue between Lincoln and Irving; on Irving between 9th and 7th; on Clement Street and on Chestnut in the Marina. On any given moment of any given day before the stores close, there will be at least one double-parked car in each of these busy locations. If you go to Sacramento Street near Laurel Village, you may get to see cars double parked in both directions to allow its inhabitants to chat.
Of course, it should be noted, that we are all so busy nowadays that parking just becomes too time consuming. We have our endless cell phone calls, our unquestionable need for coffee, our many business transactions aimed at making the most for doing the least. We have our jobs and careers to which we are so dedicated for our daily bread, which we must share selflessly with whatever family we’ve been able to amass. We have our routines and we are always behind schedule.
And then when we want to do the right thing and wait for a parking space about to be vacated, we sit idling while the person in the parked car enjoys the enviable position for as long as humanly possible. While we wait patiently and proudly, we watch the parked drivers check their appearance, apply needed enhancements, check their voicemail, return phone calls to people desperately awaiting their reply, while our engine is running and the people behind us are getting impatient.
So what are we to do?
Maybe, we could eliminate some of the many things we feel we absolutely have to do. Maybe we could leave early so that we are not rushed when looking for a space. We could try to remind ourselves that there are actually other people out there. We are not alone. We should consider their needs as well as our own, even though ours are so much more interesting.
The mayor and the well-reimbursed directors of the city’s parking enforcement agency could decide that they are going to crack down on this socially unacceptable behavior. The mayor could have the SFPD motorcycle officers provide backup for Parking Controllers in the congested areas.
The city would gain needed revenue that could be used to pay for more Parking Controllers, the city streets would be less congested and driving time and fuel use would decrease. And all of us would find ourselves more motivated to behave like the caring, enlightened people we know we really are.
Look for John (Jack) Kaye’s new novel, “Reflections of a Freelance Monk” available at the West Portal Bookstore, Green Apple Books on Clement and Books, Inc. in Laurel Village.
CAN GLOBALIZATION GO TOO FAR?
It’s a small world, isn’t it? We are sometimes reminded how our lives are filled with products that are created in several different parts of the world. A car may have parts from Japan, Germany, America, Korea and/or Mexico in it. A restaurant court at a shopping center may have foods from many different countries and cultures.
We know that variety is the spice of life and that many countries are especially good at producing certain items. We have coffee from Latin America, tea from England, spaghetti from Italy, wine from France, and luxury cars from Germany. No problem.
But now there is a new slant on globalization. American companies and public agencies are now using lower-paid workers in India and the Philippines to do their everyday customer service work for Americans. When you call AOL or United Airlines, or sometimes even your hospital’s accounting office, you are talking to someone in India or the Philippines more likely than from an American town.
The reason is obviously financial. The companies feel that if they cannot get customers to communicate solely with computers, which have no unions or mandatory lunch breaks, the next best thing would be to use less expensive workers. But are they really less expensive?
It is true that a person in Bombay would be thrilled to receive a fraction of what his American counterpart requires to do the same job. Surely, these foreign workers don’t belong to labor unions and probably would not dream of asking for free health insurance and a generous pension when their work is no longer needed. So what is wrong with it? Isn’t that the key to capitalism - being competitive by always looking at the bottom line and trying to increase profits and decrease costs? What’s wrong with saving money?
History reminds us that you pay the price sooner or later. The same is true now of current savings from the work of imported immigrants and third-world workers for American companies. What are the costs? Perhaps the most obvious and least mentioned cost is economic. When U.S. dollars go to American workers, a part of their earnings goes to taxes and social security contributions. The rest is spent in America or put into savings, which is then loaned to purchase goods and services. The money is used again and again. This is not true when foreign workers are spending (or sending) their earnings in their native land. Illegal immigrants from Mexico allegedly send home almost $30 billion a year. That is money that is no longer circulating in America and has now become part of our country’s growing foreign debt.
But that is only one part of the cost of foreign labor. Different countries have different cultures, different values, beliefs, experiences, and world views.
This cultural divide struck me recently when I tried in vain to redeem my airline miles. The company I called has been satirized in Capital One commercials for its policy of “always say no,” when customers attempt to redeem their miles for travel. I was on the line for one and a half hours with what sounded to be a very old lady in Bombay. As I lamented my concern about getting my daughter home to San Francisco from Paris in August, I had a realization: This woman lives in Bombay. Every day she goes to work she sees so much greater suffering than I could possibly experience about my daughter’s return trip.
When I got no satisfaction from this “just say no” reservation redemption advisor after 90 minutes, I asked to speak with her boss. Her boss exhibited no sympathy or compassion for my daughter’s situation nor my wasted time spent with her subordinate.
Then I realized again, what is waiting 90 minutes on the phone while in a comfortable home in San Francisco to a person who sees beggars, some blind, some disfigured; poor children scrambling for bread crumbs; and traffic delays caused by sacred cows blocking the road in the middle of an unbearably hot day?
I would much prefer talking with someone who can truly empathize with my situation which may seem trivial to someone living under very different circumstances. I believe it is time for our government to legislate costs for companies hiring foreign labor. The costs in the form of taxes, penalties or fees would make using American workers seem like the much better idea that it really is.
Look for John (Jack) Kaye’s new novel, “Reflections of a Freelance Monk” available at the West Portal Bookstore, Green Apple Books on Clement and Books, Inc. in Laurel Village.
AFFIRMATIVE ACTION FOR THE RICH AND FAMOUS
by Jack Kaye
There has been much debate about the fairness and effectiveness of giving favorable treatment to people who have suffered from past discrimination. Some believe that giving disadvantaged people extra credit in school, employment and promotional considerations is the least we can do to “level the playing field.” Some believe that it weakens the disadvantaged group by making it easier for its members and not forcing them to give more than 100 percent.
In California, as in other states, the use of affirmative action criteria or preference in education and employment decisions is illegal. But there is still affirmative action. It is not for the poor underprivileged. It is not for those who are the first in their families to go to college. The affirmative action prevalent in the nation’s best private colleges and universities affects as many as half of the schools’ enrollment.
The Ivy League schools like Yale and Harvard are famous for admitting the children of rich or famous people and of alumni who have made generous donations to the school. Stanford, the school that was started in order to provide Californians with an excellent affordable education, accepts out of state and, even, international children of famous and prominent people, while California students with perfect grades and test scores are turned away because they have no connections.
The average grade point average of elite, private college graduates is an amazing 3.5, meaning the average student in these prestigious schools, gets only an equal number of ‘A’s’ and ‘B’s.’ This is not the case at the nations top public universities. So not only do the privileged get into the best schools, they get great grades to boot.
Our two most recent presidential races show how serious this problem has been. George Bush, Joe Lieberman, Howard Dean, and John Kerry all went to Yale as did Presidents George W. H. Bush and Bill Clinton before them. One can only wonder how some of them would have gotten in back then had it not been for their parents. I believe that Bill Clinton got into Yale law school on his own merit, but John McCain’s father and grandfather were naval four-star admirals and he graduated in the bottom five percent of his Annapolis class.
When you listen to our most recent Yalie president who also went to one of the best prep schools in the country and got an MBA at Harvard, you wonder what happened. How could that much education be lost on a single person? He, like his father, seems to have no concept of grammar or diction. But even beyond the severe verbal limitations, our president seems to also never to have learned logic, critical thinking or ethics.
With the most glaring example of the perils of this good-old-boy system of higher education sitting in the Oval Office, even these prestigious schools themselves should take stock and realize enough is enough. No more affirmative action for the children of important parents.
If this society wants to build an aristocracy that is truly well-educated and wise, our institutions of higher learning should accept students based on their own accomplishments, not those of their ancestors. That way people of all kinds will know that they must do their very best to succeed and, that if they do, they will be judged and rewarded accordingly.
Isn’t that what a democracy is all about: equal opportunity to excel?
Look for John (Jack) Kaye’s new novel, “Reflections of a Freelance Monk” available at the West Portal Bookstore, Green Apple Books on Clement and Books, Inc. in Laurel Village.
THIS IS CONFIDENTIAL - DON’T TELL ANYONE
by Jack Kaye
Have you noticed how secret squirrel everything has become? Or is that too confidential to tell you? Your doctor cannot leave a message on your phone because someone else may hear it and it could result in a loss of privacy and a whopping lawsuit. The medical center I go to for medical tests and advice will not release my own test results taken from my own body for my own sake to me personally or in the mail until and unless I sign a consent form allowing them to reveal confidential information about myself to myself.
If your 19 year-old daughter is hospitalized as mine was in her first year of college in the emergency room, the hospital cannot tell you and if you ask, they will not discuss her condition in that it may violate her privacy. They will send you the bill and ask for a fortune without telling you what it was for.
If you want to contact your Internet provider to take advantage of a rate reduction with no downside, you must provide mountains of proof that it is indeed you who is asking to save money.
If you want to deposit money into your own checking account, be it cash or check, you could be asked for photo i.d. to prove that you are really the account holder putting money into your own account rather than someone else’s. Apparently, this is a widespread problem - unknown people putting huge amounts of money into other people’s bank accounts for no apparent reason. Right!
And good luck if you are trying to find out whether your bank is planning to pay minimum or full amounts on automatic payments, sometimes crucial information. It is so confidential that they themselves cannot find out much less tell you even though it is all done for your sake.
If you want to inform your cell phone service that you want to let your service expire at the end of the two-year contract period, you will have to go through hoops to prove that it is really you making the request. As though strangers may know about your contract and its expiration date and have decided that you should stop without telling you. Even if you authorize another person to do everything on your behalf, the cell phone company requires that you are the one person in the world who can make the request even if you are in a coma or dead.
And when you finally convince the cell phone company or the health insurance company or the bank that you are the one and only, they say they will honor your request, but will never send acknowledgment. In order to verify that you succeeded in ending or changing what you wanted, you have to go through that whole process again.
Trying asking your 18 year-old’s school how your child is doing. The reply will always be - s/he is 18 or older and therefore an adult. All information concerning the student is confidential, even if the student is headed for ruin. But the school embraces this 13-year policy of considering 18 year-olds adults. They don’t have to deal with parents who are paying a fortune for the child’s education, and can be left to deal with a young, inexperienced, 18 year-old rather than a 40 year-old Ph.D. or high-powered lawyer.
How do we deal with this? First I think there should be egregious penalties for willfully exploiting any of our main communication and information systems. Second there should be reasonable safeguards as well as easy ways for authorized people to exercise their will and to then quickly receive written acknowledgment of any and all significant changes to their account.
I’d ask you to share this column with friends and relatives, but I am afraid this column is confidential, you probably should not have read it in the first place.
WHY DO HIGHLY PAID PEOPLE NEED INCENTIVES?
By Jack Kaye
The media reported that the CEO of Yahoo, a company that has been doing badly in recent years, got $71 million last year for his failed efforts. The amount was only part salary. The majority of the compensation was in stock options and bonuses. Why does a person whose salary is in the seven figures need additional incentives to perform at his maximum?
This idea of incentives for CEOs, athletes, and movie stars who get a generous salary for the work they do and then extra to make them do a little more is fairly recent. It surely began as an idea at one of our country’s prestigious business schools. The theory is probably that by giving the principals a major stake in the successful outcome of the enterprise, they will be more motivated because they can easily see how success will provide them additional rewards.
I can just imagine a professor at Harvard Business School teaching the students how to maximize productivity a la Ayn Rand.
My question is why do these well-paid individuals need more motivation than the people actually doing the day-to-day work that reaps the profits? Why isn’t it enough motivation to have this important position, be it CEO, COO, CAO, center fielder, or movie star, and be dedicated to doing the best job possible?
I object to this practice of incremental incentives on several levels. I believe this practice overemphasizes the extrinsic rewards of work over its intrinsic ones. I also think that it encourages greed and all the problems associated with it. It drives some to lie and cheat as we saw so many indicted executives do in the past few years. Usually the goal of the deception was to increase stock prices until the company leaders had a chance to sell their shares at the highest price. It leads others to lay off workers, cut benefits, and cut corners.
I think that it also causes a greater separation between the haves and have nots. While, in the past, the top salary could have been five or ten times higher than the lowest at a company, today it can be 1000 times.
Imagine a worker making $20,000 a year ($10 per hour) and the CEO getting $20 million. Is the CEO really worth one thousand times as much as the lowliest worker? Should his yearly income be 100,000% of his lowest earner?
The irony is that most of the jobs that award bonuses and other incentives are the ones people aspire to for the pleasure of the position.
What high school baseball star doesn’t dream of making the majors? To be able to play with the greats in front of millions of fans who cheer when his name is announced, would be paradise for them. But when they make it, they also need a signing bonus and performance incentives, or else, no deal.
A struggling actor dreams of someday being a star. Fans will want her autograph, handsome men will love her, she will get to play roles that may someday become classics and may lift people’s spirits, even change their lives. What a thrill it would be! But the contract should include a percentage of the box office profits and a generous royalty package for her to even consider the role!?
This is not to say that people doing what they enjoy should not be paid for their services. But there is a point when the focus becomes more on getting paid than on one’s service. I think it makes everything a little less satisfying for everyone connected with this extra-incentive system.
The CEO at Yahoo who got the $71 million paycheck for the year, has been fired. Hopefully, that paycheck will also suffice as his golden parachute. Many of the other overcompensated chief executives have had to return the money or pay it to lawyers helping them try to keep it.
If stockholders and consumers cannot stop this insidious practice then, perhaps, the government should. It could tax income above a certain level, at an extremely high marginal tax rate. The excess tax money received could be redirected to those who really need it for better education, health care, housing and nutritional services.