12.31.2008

Conflict Management

I just got back from a long weekend in New York City. It was a great trip, and we saw lots of wonderful things. I am amazed every time I go there, not only with the size and scope and scale of it all, but also with the history, the complexity and the romance. It is a wonderment.

It was sixty something degrees on Sunday afternoon, and we were riding the Miss Ellis Island ferry back from the Liberty and Ellis Island tours. The sun was going down and the skyline was glowing. I was so proud to be a part of the land of the free, the land of opportunity. And I felt so fortunate and grateful for having the chance to share the experience with my family and friends. The trip to New York was our family Christmas gift.

You know that feeling you get on Christmas night or the last day of vacation when you ask yourself if the occasion lived up to the hype? You get that let-down, guilty feeling because you know you've been blessed but you wish there was something more? Here I was, riding on the top deck of a ferry in perfect December weather, surrounded by friends and family, admiring the glow from Lady Liberty's torch and how it seemed to be reflected in the entire, magnificent skyline of Manhattan, yet I could not shake an angry, anxious feeling. I should have been feeling peace or pride or thankfulness, but instead, I was perturbed.

I think the root of my anxiety was that I could not resolve the conflicting messages I had received throughout the whole weekend.

The city was incredibly crowded. At times it was impossible to move on the sidewalk, and stores like Macy's and M&M World in Times Square must have been over the fire marshal's limit. And yet every news cast and every headline crawl on the overhead signs was predicting economic ruin and even blaming America for the global downturn.

"Save the planet" marketing was evident everywhere. The hotel urged re-using towels to conserve water, and signs in every subway car asked passengers to dispose of trash properly. The horses pulling the carriages in Central Park wore diapers, and Ricoh proudly displayed Times Square's only wind and solar powered billboard. But the streets and subways were covered with litter. The majority of taxis were poorly maintained gas guzzling sedans. Our ferry had to negotiate around an enormous trash barge on the way to Liberty Island. This media mecca has apparently adopted the 'do as I say, not as I do' plan for environmental sensitivity.

The cultural diversity, as always, was amazing. The languages, the street vendor food and the wide variety of religions represented let you know that this was truly a global city. Unfortunately, diversity does not always come with respect. The narthex in St. Patrick's cathedral was littered with Starbuck's cups and food wrappers, and inside the cathedral I saw Hindu visitors using the kneeling pads as foot rests while loudly making dinner plans and some Middle Eastern gentlemen(?) pointing and laughing at the Nativity Scene, why I don't know. On the ferry I heard a French(?) couple patiently explaining to a couple from Indiana why Bush was a war criminal and why Europe was excited that we had finally elected a president more palatable to them. Our Texas accents were remarked upon as well. I suppose, as long as you are not a midwestern Christian American, the cultural diversity is quite comforting.

The local news was typical. There were stories about innocent people being shot, about the perils of being homeless in the winter and about the economic challenges of earning a living in NYC. The shooting stories were often followed by police or politicians preaching gun control, as though that keeps criminals from getting guns. Tied to the homeless story was another one about a proposed constitutional amendment to guarantee affordable housing to every U.S. citizen, promoted by Charles Rangel (D), NY. There was, however, no effort to tie the economic difficulties of living in NYC with the tax rate, corruption or expansive government programs.

The most subtle conflict was more of an impression than a direct observation. Here was marvelous Manhattan, with its incomprehensible density and wealth and infrastructure, and yet even if you didn't know about September 11th, you would probably be able to feel the hole in the skyline. At our hotel, they were opening the trunks of every vehicle and checking under them with mirrors. There were two security screenings before being allowed into the Statue of Liberty, and even with that you could only tour the base. One bicyclist, trying to maneuver through the crowds, yelled at the top of his lungs, "Down! Down! Down! Everybody Down!" and though I didn't see anyone hit the deck, everyone who heard him froze in their tracks.

What perturbs me most, what makes me anxious, is not the pollution or the politics or even the hints of insecurity. It is, instead, the startling, though mostly unmentioned, conflict between who we say we are and what we do. We say liberty, but ridicule the religious and censor alternative opinions. We say opportunity but regulate the playing field and remove the penalties for failure. I wonder, as with Christmases and vacations, if I'm simply expecting too much.

I could lower my expectations, but I don't want to limit Christmas to parties, feasts and gifts, and I don't want to confine my country by removing the struggle necessary for achievement. A 'Merry Christmas', with all its required spirituality, is much more satisfying than a generic 'Happy Holidays', just as liberty and opportunity are much more exhilarating than comfort.

12.23.2008

Intellectual Cowardice


A friend of mine tells me he is agnostic, though I'm fairly certain that with his 'hip' friends he claims atheism. He suspects I would forcibly take him to church for the sake of his eternal soul, but he would be wrong. I'm Presbyterian. He doesn't discriminate between denominations; he thinks we are all trying to abscond with his soul and/or his money.

He never passionately argues his beliefs, but he does like to trot out the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Church of Google and Westboro Baptist Church. And in justifying his non-belief he, of course, leans heavily on the Earth being more than 6,000 years old, that the story of the Flood was stolen from the Sumerians and that what Jesus wouldn't do is invade Iraq. But there is no passion in his arguments because it's not personal; a personal argument would require a thorough self inspection, which is difficult to do.

I've often thought that people who subscribe to this sort of "easy answer intellectualism" were just being lazy. They get news and opinion, in a highly digestible format, from Jon Stewart and David Letterman, and stimulating policy discussion from Bill Maher and Oprah Winfrey. Environmentalists get all the science they'll ever need from Ed Begley, Jr. and Al Gore. Religion? The obvious experts would be Madonna or Tom Cruise, but for the more discriminating there is always Bill Moyers . If Jason Bourne can summarize Sarah Palin's entire faith into a question about dinosaurs, I mean, come on, how much analysis do you really need to do?

The laziness excuse, however, seems a bit simplistic. I see people investing enormous amounts of energy every day into evaluating MP3 players or researching the nutritional content of dry dog food. The mental gymnastics required to economically justify the purchase of a hybrid car, or to convince yourself that George W. Bush is a war criminal, may be based on figments, but they are probably not from mental fatigue. Apathetic people don't put forth the intellectual effort to delude themselves, like we saw in the hopey-change of this year's election, but frightened people do.

Frightened people, like my agnostic/atheist friend, don't do a lot of in-depth self analysis. They are looking for someone to save them, like the scientist or the government, because saving yourself is hard and you might have to make choices you don't like. Hopefully their savior has reasonable answers that won't require too much individual effort. In fact, it's best if the answers only require effort from others, like taxing those bad rich people, or legislatively hamstringing those evil, polluting corporations. Advocates of change are almost always wanting someone else to change, because they, obviously, are already enlightened.

My argument here is that easy solutions are cowardly, because they do not require introspection or sacrifice. You can argue against the existence of the soul with rational tools like the scientific method, but are you willing to make those same arguments when you or a loved one is dying? You can argue that mortgaging the economic future is acceptable because the economy is in crisis now, but how shallow will those arguments sound when your children cannot reach their potential?

If you believe in God, don't take some pastor's word for it, own your faith. If you believe in America, don't adopt some celebrity concept of political correctness, be committed to what is fundamental and important to being an American*. If it's not personal, in either faith or politics, it's not true. The hard part is finding the truth within. Don't be an intellectual coward. Don't be frightened, be desperate. Figure it out for yourself.

* Adlai Stevenson said to the American Legion in 1952 ... "Men who have offered their lives for their country know that patriotism is not fear of something; it is the love of something."

Loving Candy

Yes, that's me on iowahawk's blog.

In my defense, it was 1979 (as evidenced by the Playboy cover) and the legal drinking age was 18. I debated about posting a link to it, but then I said, "I can't dance and it's too wet to plow."*

Of course, the fact that my mother doesn't own a computer factored into my decision, too.

* 1979 Texas panhandle lingo that roughly translates to today's "WTF"

12.19.2008

Old Men


One of my nephews has always had an outgoing, easy-to-talk-to way about him. When he was six or so he chased down the garbage truck and said something to the effect of "Hey fellas! I was supposed to take out the trash this morning but I forgot. You've already gone past our house but I was wondering if you couldn't run back by and pick it up before my Mom finds out I forgot." And danged if they didn't do it for him.

My brother-in-law and I were discussing this nephew's gift the other day after nephew had called and told us that a friend of a friend of his knew of a rifle for sale that we might be interested in. He was out in East Texas, deer and hog hunting. He was planning to stop in and visit with an older couple that lived out near Mineola. He knew them because they were friends with my in-laws, his grandparents. How many twenty-three year old men do that? Just stop in and visit or call up an elderly couple to check on them?

I think he's on to something. As I think back there have been an awful lot of old men that have made an impression on me and provided great examples on how to act like an upright, honest man. Not that all the lessons took, but I do remember them. I know I've written a lot about my Dad here, we all learn a lot from our fathers, but I'm talking about just regular old men, guys my nephew might pick up the phone to check on.

When I was in high school I worked at Pampa Hardware Company on Cuyler Street in downtown Pampa. The Lively family owned it. Travis Lively Sr. had started the business with a man named Thompson a long time ago, like maybe the 1920's, and when I worked there, in the late 1970's, his son, Travis Jr., was running it. Travis Sr. was pretty old by then, and pretty scary ... he looked like the classic mean old man who lived down the street ... until you got to know him.

Travis Sr. taught me a lot of things, like the importance of saving something out of every paycheck. Pampa Hardware was my first "real" job with a paycheck. I was also impressed at how dedicated he was to his church, the First Methodist Church in Pampa. He brought his Bible to work and studied it regularly. He was always extremely considerate of his wife and all the other ladies around the store. His attention to detail was pretty amazing, as well as his consistently high standards. He would pause before answering a question, as if to let you know that he put some effort into it. He was an old man, and didn't move very quickly but he always carried himself like a gentlemen.

Of course there are plenty of old men in the family that were great examples. Shorty Barnett, my wife's grandfather, was an old guy with lots of life and a hard working, simple ethic about him that I always admired. My father-in-law, Darvis, has always been a dependable and happy and caring man. My uncle Ivan, who was always kind-hearted to a bunch of heathen kids and loved to joke and horse around with us, showed me it was okay to act like a kid even when you're old. I remember Mom referring to Dad as "the Old Man" a lot, but I never took it to be derogatory.

When I stop to think about it, I could probably fill up this blog with the bits and pieces I've learned from men who some would consider past their prime. There was Fryson, one of our neighbors growing up, who we could always count on for a piece of 2 x 4 for a project or a 25 cent chore if we wanted to get a soda. There was Othel, who was my supervisor when I worked in the oil patch during college summers, who demonstrated that slow and steady can actually win a race. There was the man who was at the nursing home, visiting his wife, every time I was there to visit my Dad. He was there every time because he was there every day. There was Mr. Howard, who worked in a fast food kitchen with me many Friday and Saturday nights during my college years. He was hard-headed and gruff and energetic and dependable and consistent. There was the farmer who pulled my truck out of a ditch with his tractor while patiently explaining the dangers of soft shoulders, both kinds. There was the old cowboy who told me I shouldn't complain about the smell of manure because "for some of us, it smells like grocery money."

Anyway, I think the nephew is on to something. I think we could all get some benefit from visiting with an old man from time to time. I hope, if you're a young man you've got plenty of old men around to learn from. I hope, if you're a middle aged man that you've got a solid grasp of the legacy you need to build and the standards you need to set. And I hope, if you're an old man, that you know we appreciate you.

Hey, wait a minute! Nephew called me for no good reason, just to check up. Surely he doesn't think I'm an old man already!

12.16.2008

God and Democrats


I'm currently reading two books. I do that sometimes. And sometimes I'm amazed at how a sentence or paragraph in one book will complement or clarify a point in the other one, especially if they are two distinctly different topics. I'm currently reading The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes and The Language of God by Francis Collins. Shlaes is writing about the history of the Great Depression, and Collins is a world renown scientist explaining his belief in God. God and Democrats ... I think it's fair to describe those topics as distinctly different.

Sometimes when I'm reading, I'll pause and re-read a sentence or a paragraph either because I'm distracted or because I didn't understand it or because its just clunky. But sometimes I read it again because I need extra time to fully appreciate it and I try to connect the dots between what the author is saying and what experience has taught me. Here's a couple of snippets from each of the books mentioned above that I read more than once for that reason.

Collins, in discussing why God allows suffering in the world, writes:

For many thoughtful seekers, these rational explanations fall short of providing a justification for the pain of human existence. Why is our life more a vale of tears than a garden of delight? Much has been written about this apparent paradox, and the conclusion is not an easy one: if God is loving and wishes the best for us, then perhaps His plan is not the same as our plan. This is a hard concept, especially if we have been too regularly spoon-fed a version of God's benevolence that implies nothing more on His part than a desire for us to be perpetually happy.

I don't think there is anything especially unique there, it's a pretty standard response to the question. But when I read the following from Shlaes' book it tickled my "go back and re-read" response which helped me make a connection between the two.

Shlaes, in discussing a Roosevelt strategy session from November of 1937, writes:

At the end of November, Jackson accompanied the president on a fishing trip. Hopkins and Ickes - who at times feuded bitterly - were also aboard the Potomac, sharing a cabin. The four prepared political strategy: specifically, an assault on the wealthy. Roosevelt caught a large mackerel early on, but it was Jackson who had the biggest catch of the trip, a barracuda of more than twenty-five pounds. If any of them considered the incongruity of planning a class war on a yacht, they did not mention it.

Initially I think I connected the two passages because of the 'vale of tears' vs. 'garden of delight' phrase. The other book is about the Great Depression, which certainly qualifies as a tearful time, though FDR and friends were out enjoying the delightful garden that God provides. The details of who caught what provided by Shlaes is a nice touch since it shows they weren't all business, they had a varied agenda.

I can imagine the yacht scene with leisurely fishing and serious discussions over cocktails while safely distanced from and undistracted by the realities of the economy. This image is where I made another connection. These elite citizens, carefully planning strategy to reach their own lofty goals, and "His plan is not the same as our plan" have the similar root of arrogance.

In reading about the planned assault on the wealthy, I was trying to understand why they would consider that as a strategy, especially since FDR was in that class. I couldn't understand if it was guilt, political expediency or socialist ideology that made 'attack the rich' seem appropriate. Tearing down the wealthy to raise up the poor seemed like it evolved from the concept of 'a spoon-fed benevolent God' and I wondered, was FDR playing God? Was he trying to replace the commonly promoted benevolent God with government programs?

Then there is the suffering. In God's plan, everyone can expect adversity. In FDR's plan one group, the wealthy, will receive intentionally inflicted hardships. At first glance, FDR's plan seems more thoughtful or sensitive or morally correct ... make a few, who have plenty already, suffer for the benefit of the whole. But the idea of a targeted punishment doesn't fit with creating a world of 'perpetual happiness' and it takes us right back to the question of why God, or in this case the government, would actively promote the oppression of any group.

I don't believe that God uses suffering as punishment. I see it as a by-product of experience and self improvement; it's simply the price you pay for the benefits of living in this world. I'm not sure we can ever know FDR's true intentions for targeting the rich. You could make the case that his reasons were emotional, political, ideological or perhaps ( in some universe other than mine ) rational and practical, but I don't think you can make the case that his reasons were moral.

Some may argue that the reasons were moral, because taking from the rich was not a punishment, but necessary to improve society. Maybe Roosevelt believed that the love of money was the root of all evil and therefore the right thing to do would be to take the money away and inhibit the ability to create more. Maybe that would, eventually, change our social ideas about wealth and its accumulation.


The problem is that morals have no point unless people are free to act. If you are coerced into doing the right thing, power, not morality, is the influencing factor. It follows that if you want to enforce ( or is it inflict? ) your morality on others then you must be powerful. You need to create it, pursue it and collect it. I don't think FDR was trying to improve us by removing the temptations of wealth. I think he was simply in love with power because he needed it to remake the country to his personal specifications.

Perhaps I should summarize the connection I see for clarity's sake.

God allows free will. Democrats don't. They should quit playing God.

12.10.2008

Conservative Bargains

I was listening to the radio last week, specifically Mark Davis on WBAP in Ft. Worth, and he had a short rant about Walmart. Basically his contention was that if you were a Walmart hater ... because they put Mom & Pop's out of business or because they are adamantly anti-union or because they are cheapo employers or because they are highly successful capitalists ... then you have to ask yourself if you are really a conservative. Being a long time Walmart hater I thought I should at least review my position and reasoning on how I got there.

There is no doubt that Walmart is a success. They run a tight ship, they know their market, they know the rules and they are focused. In any competitive arena those traits are admired and contribute to an organization's success. I am sure that K-Mart continually compares themselves to Walmart, trying to emulate or undermine them. Whether it's Walmart, the Yankees, the United States or the most popular kid in class, everyone loves a winner ... but might enjoy seeing them brought down a notch or two as well.

I'm not a Walmart hater because they are successful. It's not their success I dislike, it's the way they achieve it. Simply put, I don't like the way they do business. If they were playing by the rules and simply out performing the competition that would be one thing, but that's not how I see it. I think they are unethical bullies and cheats that hide behind the markets desire for "low prices" to justify their behavior.

There are many, many examples of Walmart's less than ethical behavior with vendors and employees ... just google "Walmart" and "time theft", "vlasic", "huffy" or "tax breaks" ... but my dislike of Walmart began, like for many others, when Walmart effectively killed the downtown, family businesses in Pampa. The market determined that Walmart and "low prices" were apparently more important than whatever service or other intangibles the family owned businesses offered. I didn't like it, but apparently the consumers did so who was I to judge?

I assumed that Walmart negotiated for tax breaks, drove hard bargains with vendors and worked to keep employment costs low so that they could deliver on their "low prices" promise and I was okay with that. And then I spent some time at Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, AR and what I saw let me know that it was more than just good, clean competition that created their success, it was a culture of intimidation.

Security procedures for entering the building were very strict and included metal detectors, software scans of personal computers, confiscation of cell phones with cameras, copying of government issued ID and signing a code of conduct and release of liability. Once in the building visitors must have an employee escort them everywhere, including the restroom. Visitors are not allowed to power on any equipment or use any computer connected to their network. There was a mandatory meeting in an auditorium, basically a pep rally led by management, and if employees could not attend in person they were required to watch the video replay during their lunch break. Employees could not accept anything from a vendor, including a 25 cent Sam's Cola purchased from the break room. If an employee went to eat with a vendor they had to turn in a receipt proving they paid for their own lunch.

All of this could be seen as simply tight controls, necessary to keep costs down, and they probably work. But the interaction with employees let you know they felt intimidated, that they knew they were being watched and that zero tolerance was always in place. You might argue that if employees felt intimidated they could always go elsewhere. Really? In Bentonville, AR?

All of this probably makes little difference to Walmart except that it keeps me from shopping there in all but the most dire circumstances. And though my friends and family know my dislike of the company, I'm not sure it's really worthy of a blog entry, except for one thing ... I think it is possible to dislike Walmart and still be a conservative.

My Dad told me once that the things you dislike in others are a good indication of what you don't like about yourself. I'm thinking that's why Walmart and the labor unions are constantly at each other's throats ... they are both supremely self interested and intimidating bullies.

12.04.2008

Congruent


In high school geometry class Mrs. Casey ( who hated me* ) demanded that we pronounce the word "congruent" as KON-grent instead of kon-GROO-ent. She was adamant about it, to the point where she immediately and loudly corrected anyone who used the GROO ...

Gentlemen, the word is KON-grent, there is no GROO in it. You must pronounce the word correctly to learn it and apply it. How can you master the concept if you can't master the pronunciation!

I suppose it was just a chain yanker for her, or perhaps she thought it actually made a difference in the geometry world. Who knows? But it was her class, that's the way she wanted it and that's the way it was. We all said KON-grent.

I thought about Mrs. Casey and congruency as I was pondering the whole auto industry bailout thing. Oh, excuse me, I meant "bridge loan."

The government and the auto execs cannot solve this problem because it's not a money problem, it's a congruency problem. The auto makers exist in a market, but somehow they think the solution to their problems exists outside of the world in which they live. Why would the government, a monopoly that prints money, literally, and whose "customers" are more like "subjects", know anything about markets? It's crazy, that's like going to the post office for medical treatment ... oh, wait, they want us to do that too, don't they?

In a market there is no such thing as "too big to fail."

It's incongruent and inconsistent. That's the problem with many things that are driving me crazy lately. Terrorists and lunatics use violence, but we must use diplomacy? Some say that science negates the need for religion, yet some of the same people use science to justify worshipping Gaia and they shout down scientists who disagree with them! The private sector people investing in and trading bad mortgages must be prosecuted, but Dodd and Frank and all the other creators of the problem should not be? In two weeks we hear more than we want to know about Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber, but we elect a president who is still a mystery?

I don't understand why our actions are not consistent with American principles. Did someone change them and not tell me? Perhaps we need Mrs. Casey to explain 'America' ...

Gentlemen, this is America, not Europe, not Asia or any other place where 'government' is synonymous with 'nanny.' You should learn what being an American means and be congruent with THAT in all your actions.

Great presidents, and great leaders in general, know who they are, what they stand for and can communicate those principles. And countries aren't great because they have an auto industry, they are great because of their principles. Too many people think this is a money problem, and they are either for or against the bailout, er, bridge loan, based upon economics. It's NOT the economy and it never should have been. It's about principles, or is that the change you wanted?



* Mrs. Casey really did hate me, and I blame Curtis Haynes. It was the first day of class and Mrs. Casey said "I don't assign homework" and Curtis said, "Good, because I don't do homework." ... at which point Mrs. Casey spun around and looked directly at me. She thought I said it. With her red, jowly face shaking she said, "And I don't tolerate smart asses." She tried to get me kicked out of National Honor Society. She accused me of cheating and sent me to the principal because I had the same answer as someone else on a test. My defense was, "It's GEOMETRY. We're SUPPOSED to have the same answer!" On the last day of school I tried to make nice and told her I was sorry we did not get along but that I learned a lot. Her last words to me were "You little bastard. Do not darken my door again." I now say kon-GROO-ent.

12.01.2008

Happy Days ARE Here Again

I'm way behind the curve on this. In fact, TIME was apparently way behind, too ... since they stole the image idea from a blogger. But anyway, what's gotten me up to speed on this is Amity Shlaes' book, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.

I started reading it during the election and had to put it down. It was way too creepy. A master politician with great charisma runs for president and wins, not because he is qualified but because he is different, charismatic and skilled at creating class envy. You get one guess on who the press was in the tank for in 1932.

After Obama won I thought it would be safe to pick it back up. I was wrong. Now it's even creepier.

Once elected FDR surrounded himself with name brand politicians, but put folks with "new" ideas in key advisory roles and he used his position to tinker with the economy, trying to shape it along more collectivist lines. Communism was the way of the future! Of course, at the time, it had not been proven to be a complete failure yet and so this time around we get benevolent socialism as the model. Scary stuff.

But it gets even worse. Under the National Recovery Administration (NRA) pricing and wages were codified. And they prosecuted small businesses, the case Shlaes' detail is Schecter vs. United States, for violating the codes ... not only did they prosecute them, they specifically targeted the Schechter brothers to make an example of them! Very nasty stuff ... and not unimaginable in today's world, either.

So let's be honest here, which is scarier, the big, mean capitalists on Wall St. or government prosecution?

As I read farther it's apparent that FDR didn't really have a plan, other than to get re-elected. He was willing to change positions at any time for political purposes. He wrote the book on creating social divisions and then pandering to the separate groups who could get him elected. He had no qualms about hanging supporters and mentors out to dry. He was attempting a new, bold experiment to make us "better" ... to reform us from evil capitalism.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Happy days ARE here again, unless of course you're the subject of the experiment.