Monday, February 22, 2010

Welcome to the Lean Years

Welcome to the lean years.

"Yes, sir, we’ve just had our 70 fat years in America, thanks to the Greatest Generation and the bounty of freedom and prosperity they built for us. And in these past 70 years, leadership — whether of the country, a university, a company, a state, a charity, or a township — has largely been about giving things away, building things from scratch, lowering taxes or making grants.

But now it feels as if we are entering a new era, “where the great task of government and of leadership is going to be about taking things away from people,” said the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum.

Indeed, to lead now is to trim, to fire or to downsize services, programs or personnel. We’ve gone from the age of government handouts to the age of citizen givebacks, from the age of companions fly free to the age of paying for each bag.

Let’s just hope our lean years will only number seven. That will depend a lot on us and whether we rise to the economic challenges of this moment. Our parents truly were the Greatest Generation. We, alas, in too many ways, have been what the writer Kurt Andersen called “The Grasshopper Generation,” eating through the prosperity that was bequeathed us like hungry locusts. Now we and our kids together need to be “The Regeneration” — the generation that renews, refreshes, re-energizes and rebuilds America for the 21st century."

Thomas Friedman once again informs with this op-ed on the macros of our current economic challenges in America. I believe many of us are just "shell-shocked" at the reality of our country's loss of power, peace and prosperity in such a relative short time.

I believe I quoted this in an earlier blog last year...but I think it comes down to something like "we have met the enemy...and the enemy is "us". Its not like we set out to destroy ourselves purposely...but we had it so good for so long that we just ignored the sometimes too obvious signs of our potential demise.

-We ignored the government raiding of our entitlement funds paid for by our own taxes and social security contributions

-We played along with the game of "take as much as you can from government handouts" without realizing we were only stealing from OURSELVES

-We allowed our elected leaders to "scare us" into compliance with the sudden reversal of personal freedoms, privacy, and even common justice where we used to be innocent until proven guilty...we felt so patriotic complying with the "Patriot Act"

-Instead of counting on our educations, inherent industriousness and work ethic...we counted on syndicates to protect our jobs and livelihoods. We chose tenure over incentive pay. We chose to sue every time we were slighted or in conflict versus "working things out" over time and persistent reasoning.

-We forgot how to compete in industry and manufacturing. Instead we continued piling on employment policies, minimum wage bills, environmental regulations and in some cases "four day work weeks" or automatic double pay for overtime...forcing many companies to "go offshore" where they have a chance to stay competitive and profitable.

-Many of our younger generation have forgotten how to spell or do basic business math in their heads...but boy are they good on computers, cell phones and those video games (which by the way are usually manufactured in China, Korea, Japan or Taiwan).

-Bottom line is we forgot what it means to "save for a rainy day"

I still believe we can recover...but it will be a much longer time in coming than the government or media want to admit in public. Some young people are going to have to "toughen up" in a hurry...and some of the formerly tough are going to have to get back in shape for the fight of their lives and for their livelihood.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Spin on Joseph Stack

It is a sad and alarming day when a supposedly educated, WASPish American gets so desperate and angry that he takes it out on his family by torching their home and goes out in "kamikaze" fashion flying his own plane into the local IRS offices in Austin, TX. I've known some angry Americans in my time, but this guy takes the cake. Then again, it seems like there have been a rising number of people going "ballistic" lately...literally and figuratively.

I can find no justification for his extreme actions even though I have read his "suicide" note online and unfortunately I am not shocked that something like this has happened. There is more and more desperation in America with a government that doesn't act or listen unless it is something in THEIR best interests...and a growing sentiment that it is every person for himself in America and the rest of the world in building or re-building their financial futures. With increasing government obligations and budgets being passed during a time when there are significant reductions in taxable becomes quite evident to most reasonable thinking persons that the numbers aren't adding up for the long term economic health of America. While some sectors are rebounding a bit from the last years of recession, I can't help thinking of an analogy with yesterday's final hockey game of the Olympics where the USA came back from behind to even up the score at the end of regulation, but only to run out of gas in the extra period and get beat in overtime. I think there is great courage being shown by many Americans in fighting the current recession, but I am afraid there will be too little too late to truly count on a full rebound or return to the financial greatness and independence we once knew.

I think there are more "Joseph Stacks" out there though they may not all show themselves in such fashion or boldness. Yet, what bothers me most beyond this man's pathetic fatalistic thinking is the spin government and media have put on this event.

Noted quotes from articles I read in the aftermath from mostly government "mouthpieces" were...

Joseph Stack is part of a multi generational line of tax evaders

We don't define this act as Domestic terrorism...

Lets look at further regulating and controlling private aircraft...

"The poor IRS..." about looking at the symptoms and not the cause of someone's actions. And how about the obvious pandering and spinning with these headlines...

Headline..."IRS worker killed in crash was a loyal family man"

Headline..."Attack on IRS part of long line of tax protesters"

Government agencies and their media cronies have been in overdrive to label this guy a "tax evader" and "government protester" without evidence of taking his whole statement and history to heart. I don't think this guy was part of any significant "movements", yet I also find it interesting they are pooh poohing the idea of calling this a "terrorist" act. If the guy had been part of Islam or of Arab descent, that term would be used and stick regardless of fact. No one, including the government, wants to think in terms of their own "constituents" being driven to terrorist type actions, yet the more the federal government and their agencies continue to get further out of touch with their constituents...the more they will be forcing some of the most fundamentalist believers in constitutional government to take serious actions against them.

It is amazing how fast Mr. Stack's statement was taken down from his will probably become "banned" or labeled "pornographic" by the government. So much for "free speech", even postmortem. What are "they" so afraid of in letting his statement remain for pondering? Can we not learn and potentially make some changes based on this man's obvious disillusion with the "system"? Do they really think his is an isolated case of extreme vehemence? Sure, not everyone is going to be as bold and fatalistic as him in their reactions...but one has to wonder how many thousands...maybe even HUNDREDS of thousands in America...share the ideals and reactions of this misguided and delusional human being.

While I hope we see no more of this extreme "acting out" in such a futile, violent way...I do hope some positives come out of the situation. I do hope the government entities will wake up to the growing discontent in America with the current conditions and lack of leadership. I do hope patriotic protesters who have similar versions of Joseph Stack's mantra will find more productive, progressive ways to display their displeasure and seek real change. Yet, I hope that no one in America misses what to me is the most significant message in this terrible, unhappy story from the man himself...the strong sense of helplessness and futility...

If you’re reading this, you’re no doubt asking yourself, “Why did this have to happen?” The simple truth is that it is complicated and has been coming for a long time...

I know I’m hardly the first one to decide I have had all I can stand. It has always been a myth that people have stopped dying for their freedom in this country, and it isn’t limited to the blacks, and poor immigrants. I know there have been countless before me and there are sure to be as many after. ... I choose to not keep looking over my shoulder at “big brother” while he strips my carcass. I choose not to ignore what is going on all around me, I choose not to pretend that business as usual won’t continue; I have just had enough....Joseph Stack (1956-2010)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Forgiving Tiger

After 4 months of pestering, chasing, chastising, speculating, castigating and yes, joking, about Tiger Wood's much too publicized domestic and personal life...he finally came forward this week for a televised and I might add...quite staged...statement and public apology for his years of sexual depravity. I don't know if his public statement and handling of his situation publicly is correct or not. I suppose time will tell. You have to give him SOME credit for coming out and admitting his personal failures in his lifestyle. Unfortunately I find fault in his need or pressure to have to do this...and I question his sincerity. It is my opinion that his lifestyle and choices were not all too different from probably thousands of famous people in the past century. Books and movies have been developed about the private lives of many "admired" Americans...from John F Kennedy to J Edgar Hoover to sports stars such as Babe Ruth, Irvin "Magic" Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain and others...who reportedly had many fleshly habits that were easy to feed with their celebrity.

I have a few guesses as to why Tiger's history and dilemma has been treated so heavily by society at large. One is that our culture is so empty and longing for heroes and leadership that when we put one up on the pedestal and he drops so far so fast...we are doubly angry and disappointed. We continue to judge people, famous and non, by their image and our own projection of how we WANT them to be. When we find out they are a bit like the Wizard of Oz hiding behind his canopy...we feel lied to and cheated on. Many in our culture including some of the sports writers I have read recently on this issue seem more angry and venomous than the wife he has apparently so seriously damaged (I felt so sorry for her skiing alone in the Alps over the holidays). I perceive we are living in a very judgmental day and age where many forces are attempting to control behavior to an extreme level.

And has anyone thought about who all these women are who KNOWINGLY played with and on Tiger, knowing full well he was married with children and who now feign some sort of disdain or "hurt" by HIS actions? Were these women adults and did it not take two to Tango? As it turns out, I think our biggest disappointment with Tiger is that he would act out his adolescent fantasies with such Floozies and losers. All of these women and witnesses have come out for THEIR two minutes of fame...and I for one believe THEY are the real losers in this story. Tiger paid some of them hush money, but apparently not enough. And we the public put THESE "poor" women on a pedestal or in the same "pity party" as we do wife Elan? Please! I sense most of these "playgirls" were no more than very expensive "hookers" under another name.

For me, seeing Tiger's broadcast speech on CBS was the saddest moment in all this madness. He appeared "wooden" with little emotion left. His speech was totally pre written and not that convincingly for all the time and help he probably had to prepare it. Believe me, this guy will never run or get elected for office...he has no presence or ability for public speaking. It would have been more effective to have someone like Craig Ferguson get up and apologize for him while throwing in a little humor and levity.

I agree with one commentary I read on his speech...that he came off like a "robot". At the end of the day...I believe Tiger is more "robot" than human. He has been programmed from almost the cradle to excel at his sport. He was an only child getting all the attention and programming a child could possibly handle. His growing up in such a controlled environment obviously shows in his controlled behavior...and this armchair psychologist believes that underneath he is a very angry, lonely young man. Angry at not being "normal" or allowed to live "normally". Angry at how everyone from the PGA to the world media is always trying to leverage his accomplishments for THEIR advancement and gains. Angry and lonely to discover that because of your celebrity, everyone is suspect for their motivations of wanting to be your friend. Angry that he has no freedom to publicly do anything without being under the "microscope".

The only thing he has to compensate for that is probably over a billion dollars in holdings, and the bottom line of this stage show is that we LOVE bringing down our "Billionaires" to our level. We feast on finding every pimple or blemish on their skin or in their character. We live vicariously through these people, and in that we project our self loathing and insecurities on THEM when they "fail us". They gain their billions by our buying into their image and greatness...then we try to destroy them when they fail or disappoint us. The media is Ceasar, and we are the Roman mob watching our gladiators in the ring of life. The successful gladiators are well paid...but they pay a heavy price for that wealth.

Fortunately for Tiger, he is still relatively young...and the world has a very short term memory. We will quickly move on to the next victim we can bring down to our size. Meanwhile, Tiger will play out the situation probably for his best interests...and I would expect him to do no less. Survival is a very strong drive in most humans. He will try to package this all up in time to whatever he thinks will make him happy. Maybe he WILL reform and continue being a Billionaire "do gooder". Of course his other option is to escape into his own cocoon of choice and continue in whatever lifestyle he sees fit. To be honest, I wouldn't blame him for taking that path. Even if he ends up splitting up with his wife and giving her half of everything...he will still have more millions than most any other sports figure in history. If he wants to take those millions and burn himself out with floozies and $1000 bottles of champagne...that is quite his choice to make. And if he goes down that path...there will be millions of men who will once again be envious of his choice and opportunity. And from what I have seen of women in the world...he will continue to have millions of them to choose from also.

Its really not my position in life to judge or "forgive" Tiger. Who knows what I would have done in his shoes if I had to walk in them from the beginning. I hope he will spend this time of contemplation considering what he wants and who he really is. Once that is determined, I hope he will be true to HIMSELF and not live the rest of his days trying to live up to everyone else image of who he is. If we the mob will return to our sanity...we will hope that he can get his head back into GOLF as that is what he obviously does best and what most of the world has "Loved him" for. From all he said in his speech, his desire to get back into golf was the greatest emotion I heard in his voice. If that will do it, so be it. Elin will be fine. The kids will be fine. What we DON'T need is another "Elvis".

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Let them eat fish...

OK OK...I is supposed to be "Let them eat CAKE"...but I couldn't help think of this title when reading about the effects of "Lent" on the Panamanian fish market. Demand is driving seafood prices up...primarily because of "religion".

I'm sure by now those of you who follow this blog realize I am a bit "irreverent" with religion. I believe in God...but am a bit "out of sorts" with organized religions. This time of year somewhat crystallizes for me some of the reasons why...

Throughout the world and especially here in Latin America, millions of people celebrate "carnival". Just the word itself tends to suggest the celebration leans towards "carnal" activities...celebrating "fleshly" pursuits if you will (carne=meat, get the picture). According to this interesting site about the history of carnival,
"Hundred and hundreds of years ago, the followers of the Catholic religion in Italy started the tradition of holding a wild costume festival right before the first day of Lent. Because Catholics are not supposed to eat meat during Lent, they called their festival, carnevale — which means “to put away the meat.” As time passed, carnivals in Italy became quite famous; and in fact the practice spread to France, Spain, and all the Catholic countries in Europe. Then as the French, Spanish, and Portuguese began to take control of the Americas and other parts of the world, they brought with them their tradition of celebrating carnival."

Of course, this period historically leads to religious traditions of "Lent" and "Holy Week". Without going into detail of the meaning of those religious titles, let's just summarize that it is now time to "repent" from our evil, "flesh" driven ways and turn suddenly to the spiritual and holy. Most religions do this by denying themselves of their human cravings and "lower nature" and demonstrate humility and sacrifice for their faith driven beliefs. For me it is simply a man-made format and tradition to demonstrate faith and bring everyone into towing the line of acceptable behavior...and not one necessarily built on sound theology or apologetics of faith. For me it is one of those "sheeple" things where large portions of humanity blindly follow the traditions before them and subconsciously do these things to make THEMSELVES feel better in reaction to the "guilt trip" that organized religion has place on them.

I know I know...I am probably way over-generalizing the "high holy days" and stomping on some feelings of people who are dear and close to me. That is not my intent. I am simply trying to share/explain my own views from my own observations in life. I have no agenda, nor hold out any false hopes of changing or convincing anyone to MY way of thinking. I truly respect those believers who truly hold their beliefs in high esteem and live by the words they profess. My problem with religion generally lies in the hypocrisies and false foundations far too many "believers" exhibit in their real lives. Does this crazy cycle of living large and then repudiating our natural instincts as humans really make logical sense? Not to me...anymore.

Yes, my theology can probably be associated with "Humanist Theology". I am not interested in being labeled or boxing myself or my thoughts into any particular philosophy or religion. I think there are good and bad features in most of the world's major religions. In fact, I think the world's three biggest religions are 80-90% the same in essence. I have and continue to develop a personal faith that has developed from my own contemplation of "holy writs", human observation and the sciences that least for me...lead to an awe and respect for the order of the universe and the daily miracles we see just in our human existence. I don't see "Humanism" as necessarily replacing God with Man...I just basically see it as a study of God through the eyes and other senses of Man.

I am quite convinced that "God" is much bigger and different than any of us can ever understand or "get our arms or minds around". Most religions are about bringing God down to OUR size...or our side as it were. We try to personalize him, tuck him into written words, express him in our arts and traditions...but I have never been quite satisfied that the various traditions and boxes I have seen for him in my life are real. Like people of old testament history...we continue to put God into images and traditions we can understand...but I think we fail miserably. Few humans have any imagination...or independent perspective grasp the intelligence behind our universe. I am not saying I HAVE...but I am saying I doubt that ANYONE has.

Does this make life less meaningful? Does it cause me to think that everything is hopeless or useless when trying to find ideals and meaning to live by? Absolutely not! To me, this way of thinking actually opens more doors and sheds more light on the possibilities for myself and the world we live in. It allows me to think bigger and more creatively when it comes to solutions for the human race and global challenges we face. It is actually a bigger leap of faith than just adopting one religion or another as my "identity". In my way of viewing the world and religion, I can identify with EVERY person on earth. I can be "thankful" that I was born in a rich nation of a "privileged" race...but I can take no credit or pride personally in that. Nor can I not ask the disturbing questions around "why" and "who" made certain nations and races to be "preferred"? Who decreed one religion to be more right than another?

Of course, a lot of people claim a religion based on family and cultural tradition...without questioning much of anything. It can be like choosing a certain style of clothing or image. We like it, we feel comfortable in it, it covers us up why change or question? It is much easier to be part of such traditions than to stand alone or dress differently. It is much easier to lay claim to an answer than to admit we do not know for sure.

And isn't it better to raise children in a religious tradition than a secular one? I was raised in a very strict, fundamentalist Christian tradition. That tradition gave me a lot of comfort, a sense of belonging and strong family ties for most of my childhood. Primarily it established a lot of behavioral boundaries during my childhood development. I continue to respect my parent's and grandparent's faiths as they displayed and understood them. But for some reason my life path and mind took me to many other places where I could not blindly accept or live by their traditions. I took my own journey and explored many people and places these past 50+ years...and I have discovered the more I am willing to open up my mind to new discoveries, the more I find out I really don't know.

Somehow I got over the initial sadness and delusion with my religious roots...and have discovered a way to live that to me is much more rewarding and meaningful than taking on the yoke of religion. I'm sure some people reading this might be concerned for my "soul", but my soul could never be happier or freer. I have few fears in life. I don't even fear death. Sure, I don't desire to rush it since I have so much yet to discover and accomplish in this short life. But my point is...and selfishly so...I have more time and focus for MYSELF since I no longer concern myself with fitting into traditions and religions that make little sense to me. Does anyone out there experience this in any similar way? Its not that I need someone else to validate what I am experiencing or feeling...but I am simply curious as to how our minds work and how they affect our emotions and actions. This is the true science of living as far as I'm concerned.

So...the benefit of where I am in life is...I think I will steer away from fish the next month or so...and eat more MEAT. It will be cheaper. I'm sorry if you will be offended that I don't order fish with you...but I love STEAK. And I will live in the spirit of "Carnivale" the rest of my life, actions will be tempered by the best of the human traditions I grew up in. I will always endeavor to treat others as I would be treated and not make any demands on the sovereignty of another soul. I will continue to pursue understanding and loving myself first...because I can only truly love others if I love myself. And finally...I will continue to pursue unlocking the mysteries of the universe with the finite mind God gave me. To me that is what I was put on this planet to do...

Let them eat fish...and bring me a STEAK!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Leadership...or Dictatorship?

Many recent emails and articles I have been receiving are focused on the leadership styles we are seeing in both the USA and Panamanian presidencies of today. Both Presidents are somewhat in "hot-seats" where they try to deliver on the changes they were elected to bring forth. And while both Presidents won by unprecedented margins for recent times, they both are running into high levels of negative reactions to their policies or the current conditions perceived as their responsibility.

In both cases, these Presidents have attempted quick changes to the systems or problems they inherited. In both cases, some of the former supporters have turned on them when realizing the cost of these purported changes in the system. Everyone wants change as long as it doesn't cost THEM something. Unfortunately today's political reality is there are no painless ways to bring about change. Both Presidents inherited broken financial systems and are having to leverage taxes and other methods for bringing in the funds necessary to pursue their political agendas.

Of course, the biggest disconnect I and many others have is that these presidents are only raising more revenue (from their constituents) and not doing much about cutting costs. Governments and those who lead them are the only people on the globe who can print more money as they need it and run up big deficits on the people they rule over without much push back. I think that is starting to change in some sectors of both the USA and Panamanian populations. People are starting to wake up. There is a lot of insecurity in the markets and job sectors. Both the USA and Panama are tied together at the hip when it comes to the dollar currency valuations affecting worldwide trade. With a weak currency it might be easier to SELL the stuff you are making...but it is much more expensive to import the stuff you don't. Both countries import more than they export. Inflation is up considerably in Panama even if the real estate and job markets have not been as devastated as the USA. Wages have not kept up with inflation and that spells ongoing internal strife for the poor masses who are putting pressure on the government.

To sustain their democratic version of "dictatorship", our leaders are taking a few tricks from dictators like Chavez in Venezuela and Castro. They try to champion the causes of the poor masses by raiding the "rich" to give to the "poor". The main problem with that program is most jobs don't come from poor persons...and countries never get richer by taking from the rich and giving to the poor. There is a lot of "sleight of hand" going on. The magician leaders focus your attention on the "evil doers" who are after you and the danger you are in without their protection...while they quietly steal more and more from your income, interest and dividends and retirement/pension funds. They continue to take away your freedoms and personal sovereignty for the sake of the "common good". Patriotism is equated with "sacrifice"...but these leaders never own up to their own roles in perpetuating the emergency they want YOUR support to fix. Social security and other funds are continually raided to cover shortfalls in the general budget or put in the "war coffers". The legalities of how governments "account" for themselves financially are totally different than for the average citizen. Taxation without representation is running rampant in the world. Yet...we continue to vote one after another of these "illusionists" into the various offices of our governments.

While "dictatorship" might seem appealing to those casting stones at democracy and free enterprise...I would challenge anyone to come up with a positive model of this in recent history. Hitler and Mussolini are gone. Castro is on his way out...finally. And the new "Castros" like Chavez, Ortega, Morales and Africa's Robert Mugabe are being more and more isolated and economically weakened on a macro basis by the day.

Some might argue that the world is being dictated to by the multinational corporate complex. After all, it takes money to run most dictatorships. I would suggest that corporate support is the juice that runs American politics and probably most of Europe as well. Many large corporations profit handsomely from arms development and new "defense systems". Are they motivated to pursue peace? Is peace AND prosperity possible for some of them? I would argue many large corporations are dependent on conflict and lets perpetuate some more of that as long as it is not in OUR backyard. Remember, the MEGA-rich can live anywhere on the planet they want to. We "poor" people need a visa to go most anywhere.

China is the worlds largest population and economy now. You are now seeing an interesting blend of free enterprise and dictatorship in that system. Admittedly, it would probably be a mess to turn that system into an immediate democracy (remember the USSR free for all?) since most of their population is so poor and uneducated they wouldn't understand the voting process or how to exercise democracy on their $1 per day income. But even Chinese leaders are recognizing the need for more free enterprise, risk and reward in their system in order to feed the people and their economy.

There can be no doubt that our world needs leadership more right now than probably any time in our history. Unfortunately, no one seems able to stand up and say or do the things that really need to be done. Today's democratic leaders are in a designed popularity contest where they are rewarded for pleasing certain entities...not leading. It certainly would not be popular for a democratically elected leader to:

Reverse all the government promises on social security and other entitlements which are unrealistically offered and valued

Let the currencies float on the international markets to get a real indication of comparative economic strength or go to a world currency system where you give up your manipulative control of currency. (What ever happened to the "gold standard"?)

Balance governmental budgets the way everyone else in business has to...leading to service cutbacks or increasing taxes to balance things out

Demand social service from those who would receive charity and support from the government when unemployed or bankrupt

Reverse the "federalization" trend on everything and make states and local governments pay for more of their own costs

Let charity begin at home instead of the top down federal level

Let all companies, domestic or foreign, compete equally within the local market instead of having separate sets of taxes and rules of engagement between foreign and domestic. Abolish protectionism.

Get rid of all diplomatic privileges of international "diplomats" who flagrantly break laws and get away with actions that local citizens can't

These are just a few of the things I believe a TRUE leader needs to pursue in these times. But instead, most of our world leaders continue to make more promises they can't keep, keep lying about the true condition of our economies and society, and continue to go along with partisan politics as usual instead of pursuing inclusion and unity amongst all their various leaders.

Probably the largest dilemma in governmental leadership is the unrealistically short time one has to initiate and develop change. Many of our world problems took decades to bring on ourselves. In most cases it will take decades to reverse or overcome our trends. Most leaders have 4-5 years to lead...and then everything usually changes with the next guy. Maybe there is something to allowing the "good leaders" longer terms to pursue their programs. I know most Colombians right now are hoping for a third term with their first real leader in decades in the May election. While that president may or may not be totally responsible for all the improvements in Colombia, one might argue that perception is 80% of reality. Leadership is about image AND substance.

The world is hungry for leadership they can trust. Unfortunately, the nature of power and government is totally corrupt. It involves daily compromise and occasional flip flopping to stay in office in most democracies. It is leadership by consensus...or dictatorship...with little in between. Democracy is obviously not a perfect form of government, but as someone has said..."it is the best of all the systems we have at our disposal". Now if we the people could only vote in a true leader (wherever they might be) instead of a dictator to "take care of us". That would be a watershed day...