Thursday, January 21, 2010

Finding a Real "Center"

The glee of Republicans and the scrambling of Democrats for cover after the Senate election in Massachusetts are predictable reactions but bad portents for the future. Scott Brown ran a good campaign and Martha Coackley was in the cross-hairs of an angry, independent electorate.

Our problems are so daunting that both parties need to wake up and stop their posturing. Serious public servants need to convene and start looking for ways to systemically change how the politicians operate. Even as a conservative I found Willie Brown's brazen comments on political pork rather refreshing. He bluntly affirmed that all bills have "deals" in them, whether sponsored by the Democrats or Republicans.

How do we curb spending, stimulate the economy and deliver compassionate and competent education and health care?

How do we bolster national security and help Haiti without being an occupying power?

We need to strengthen personal responsibility and national pride by looking deeply at the root issues of egregious behavior and avoid the creation a national civilian police force?

How do we find a real, dynamic center that is not just a mushy middle?

A friend of mine and exemplary spiritual leader once told me, "Under-promise and over-deliver." We need to radically alter our expectations of government and ourselves. We need to reaffirm some of our Founders' principles while anticipating the global changes that make continual transformation a necessity.

We need less from the federal government and more from City Hall. We need less government ownership and better government oversight. We can provide education and health care effectively and fairly if we universalize ethics and standards and decentralize delivery. We need less money going to Washington. Our local and state governments must supply services more efficiently.

We need to bring as many of our troops home as quickly as we can - not only from Afghanistan and Iraq, but from the EU as well. We need to deliver powerful, well-targeted military blows against terrorist dens without being a permanent presence among hostile cultures. Terrorists are not criminals and deserve to be tried as enemy combatants.

So many major issues are interconnected. If we can regulate immigration fairly and make sure that the criminal unproductive folks are screened, we save billions every year - dollars that can be redirected for compassionate services. I am not speaking of real refugees, but the thousands who are here illegally. Without a blanket amnesty, all must be given the opportunity to be normalized as residents-on-the-way-to-citizenship or temporary workers. Democrats need to stop panting after votes and Republican businesses need to hire legal Americans for their labor forces. By the way, recent polls indicate that many legal citizens would gladly have the jobs occupied by illegals - assuming proper standards and wages, of course.

Health care is a frustrating issue. One minute we hear the tragedies of good folks falling - not through the cracks - but into the abyss of debt and insolvency due to necessary medical care. The next minute we hear about prisoners getting sex-change operations and folks in socialized lands waiting months or years for care. Current proposals are "magic thinking" with great claims of lower costs, better service, fewer denials, etc. The problem is that the money has to come from somewhere and that somewhere is from the productive populace. Republicans have yet to offer a viable alternative - just talking about the free market is not good enough.

Education is best delivered locally, with counties, states and the federal government ensuring excellent standards but not exercising too much direct control. Charter schools everywhere are bringing better results at lower costs. The current superintendent in Washington, D.C. is ruffling feathers as she promotes efficiency and excellence and - gasp - actually fires poor administrators and teachers. She is walking through warehouses full of uncatalogued and undistributed materials. She is confronted by union forces unwilling to hold their members accountable to minimal standards.

All of our public creativity and innovation is in vain unless We the People recover our personal responsibility for ourselves and our neighbors. Jane and John deserve parents who stay together and pay attention to them. Parents deserve school teachers who respect their moral guidelines instead of usurping them. Citizens need public servants to serve and not reign as petty bureaucratic tyrants.

The best policies will fail without a moral and spiritual renewal. The Boomer legacy is a pathological synergy of narcissism and victimhood. These must be displaced with an ethic of personal and social responsibility that will unite ecological care and economic development. Let's go from "amusing ourselves to death" (Neal Postman) to amazing the world with love, service and creativity. Will we choose faith over fear and responsibility over resentment? Will we abandon the cliches and create common ground?

Our children's children await our answer.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Haiti Speaks to All of Us

The cries of Haitians are heard around the world and generous private and public aid is making its difficult way to the people.

Apart from the foolish diatribes of Hugo Chavez and some stupid words from the religious and secular Right, all people of conscience, regardless of faith or politics, are moved by the plight of the nation.

Haiti speaks to all of us. She is the poorest nation in the hemisphere and neither the totalitarian regimes of the Duvaliers nor the populism of Aristide nor the present government have been able to to change the factors that make Haiti's plight perennial and not just occasional.

Haiti speaks to all of us. Haiti demonstrates the long-term consequences of the trifecta of structural poverty, governmental oppression and ignorance that yield bitter fruit for the people.

Haiti speaks to all of us. The twin legacies of colonialism and militarism haunt the land. The lack of any sustained history of economic opportunity and political freedom cripple her future.

Haiti speaks to all of us. What can be done, once people are fed and rebuilding begins? Massive educational efforts must unite with real empowering economic opportunities if Haiti is to have a future different from her past. Freedom of conscience, press and religion must become pillars of the future.

Right now Haiti needs emergency help of all kinds, from water to medical care to counselors. The earthquake is a natural disaster and a national tragedy. Helping people rebuild includes helping them see a future that is different. That future includes freedom - freedom from anything that keeps justice and opportunity away. The future does not need one more dictator or neocolonial control by the USA. The future must not include the failed experiments of Cuba and Venezuela.

Haitians need the tools - both ideas and material goods - to build a unique Haitian future. But she cannot do this alone. Perhaps for a moment, the world can unite and care for the plight of millions left bereft. Perhaps for a moment ideology can give way to compassion. Perhaps for a moment some fresh water can revive the bodies and spirits of the beautiful people of Haiti.

Haiti speaks to all of us. Will we hear the cries and help? Will we hear the cries and learn?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Two Mistakes, Two Opportunities

As we look at the year ahead, The political rhetoric will heat up as we move toward the November midterm elections. Democrats will continue to blame the previous administration and try to force their way forward in Congress. Republicans will proclaim themselves the alternative to big, inefficient government and call on the voters to oust the "Beltway insiders" in Washington, D.C.

The script is so predictable and it solves nothing. If the economy is improving, The Democrats may keep their majority, though it will be reduced. If there are serious economic or foreign crises, the Republicans may roar back into some power, just like 1994. Neither of these scenarios bode well for the American people.

There are two mistakes all politicians are making. These mistakes also present two opportunities for leaders to rise above the partisanship that everyone decries but no one can seem to avoid.

Mistake Number One: Politicians forget that the money they spend is not "theirs" or "the government's". It comes from real people producing products and services and paying taxes. Democrats want to deliver resources to the poor and working class. That is noble, but endless deficit spending and inflationary policies will dry up those resources and bankrupt the future. Republicans talk a good game about balancing the budget, but no Republican administration in the last 40 years has succeeded in curbing spending and increasing efficiency.

Opportunity Number One: 2010 leaders need to speak about private-public partnerships, local, regional and state solutions to many challenges instead of one more program form Washington D.C. Health care is a moral obligation - let's deliver it creatively and personally instead of through a massive set of regulations that our lawmakers have not read. I would be more sanguine about current bills if the Senators themselves will live under their regulations!

Mistake Number Two: Conservatives complain about the incipient socialism of the current administration. I share the same concerns; however, protesting bad policy is not the same as proposing workable solutions to real problems. Conservatives forget that there are millions who need work and in the meantime need help. We can reduce our military expenditures and invest at home without sacrificing our security. A few less troops in EU countries will not inflame Muslim militants. We must rebuild public infrastructure and fund education more intelligently. We need to graduate women and men from college without debt instead of artificially propping up over-bloated administrations with loan money.

Opportunity Number Two: 2010 leaders need to communicate the outcomes, strategies and costs of what they propose. We can solve our problems with the money we have and we can start reversing the deficits and arrest the control of hostile forces over our economy. This means NO earmarks, NO unnecessary pork from Washington, D.C. to the local district. This also means no fat for the military contractors and fewer grants for marginal research. It means that some artists will have to fund their own work and that more money stay in local and state coffers.

Life is not a zero-sum game with one pizza for seven billion people to share. We have the ingenuity and resources to create prosperous and sustainable conditions for all, if we will unleash creativity instead of giving in to fear. We need to help people create wealth instead of taxing it to death. Conversely, we need to accept our ethical obligation to help the poor and improve our public life. We need statesmanship and strategic vision, not governmental ownership.

The opportunities are present. I hope we find the courage to chart a different course.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Top Ten for 2010

Today's snow has hushed the land outside my window, creating just the right moment to reflect on the year ahead.

Every blog, column, magazine and newspaper has just finished with their ten best/worst of 2009 and their trendy predictions for everything form the economy to fashion for 2010.

2010 will be an interesting year, with elections looming, global crises ever-present and most folks hoping that their families will be well and that they can take some positive steps forward.

I am eschewing predictions, prognostications and resolutions in favor of "The Top Ten Ways to be Content Regardless of Economies, Egos and Elections."

Democrat, Green, Libertarian or Republican, Emerging or Liturgical Church Member, Believer or Skeptic, if you believe that the pieces of our lives need to cohere and that Love is still possible, take a look:

1. Enjoy God. Whatever your tradition, make sure it is more than ceremonial or cursory. Take your faith seriously. Learn more. Ask more questions. Pray with faith and expect God to answer. If you are a skeptic, ask yourself whether your agnosticism or atheism is born of rational reflection or emotional reaction and start a dialogue with a person of intelligent faith. If you are a believer in God, start conversing with someone outside your world-view and allow your mind to be tested. Everyone benefits when serious conversations ensue without personal rancor or ad hominem attacks.

2. Enjoy Life and Spend Less. Let's teach our politicians that we can live well within our means. Let's teach those mindless Infomercial schemers that the keys to weight-loss remain good diet and moderate exercise, without the frozen meals, miracle machines or magic pills.

3. Enjoy Your Marriage and Family. If you are married, "Love the One You're With" as the song goes and stop comparing her or him to anyone else online, on TV or in the office. If we all had eight hours a day to workout and an unlimited budget, our bodies might look like the latest star - or not!. If you love your kids, love your spouse. If improvements are needed, start with yourself and see the impact of a selfless life.

4. Enjoy Unplugging. Once a week, take a Sabbath from all media and experience life without the cacophony of input that our Internet Age foists upon us. Yes, we need to stay informed, but we also need to reflect instead of react and that is not possible if our blood pressure rises every 30 minutes with the latest data blast. There is a big difference between information and insight. By the way, my students are still prohibited from using wikipedia as a source for research. There are better places to go for accurate information and analysis.

5. Enjoy Community. Worship with others. Volunteer to help kids and families, feed the poor or rescue abused animals. Have fun with others who share a passion for the outdoors or your sports of choice. Make 2010 even better by actually talking to these folks and getting to know them beyond their nicknames or usefulness.

6. Enjoy Work. Not all our labor is "fun." But we can enjoy work more if we bring daily gratitude and curiosity to the factory, office or store. Gratitude fosters humility and also makes us less vulnerable to petty insults and politics. Curiosity helps us find better ways of doing things, perhaps even investing new devices, services or systems that enrich everyone, from shareholders to end users.

7. Enjoy the World. Walk in the park more. Get off the computer and on a horse. Breath the scents of a botanical garden and feast your eyes on the masterpieces of the local museum and your child's classroom.

8. Enjoy Adding Value. Wake up each day with an aim to help someone move forward in their life. With such a disposition, your simple acts of kindness make you the answer to the prayers of others!

9. Enjoy Politics. Yes it is possible, IF we stay informed, stay honest with ourselves and hold all officials to the same standard, not just our "enemies." Get involved locally, helping a real person bring real good to a real region.

10. Enjoy Being You. Take some time for self-assessment. Let's make sure we are developing our strengths instead of complaining about our weaknesses. I will never be an operatic tenor; however, I can improve my writing. My future NBA career ended when I was still 5'6" tall and 135 pound as a sophomore in high school. But I can enjoy the gym and still beat most folks at ping pong!

Please notice that all of these points begin with "Enjoy." Our joy is the by-product of our choices to place first things first and live passionate and principled lives. Our feelings of happiness will vary with daily events. I am not suggesting a life that denies pain, loss and suffering - just the opposite. If we experience the wellspring of deep inner joy that comes from faith, hope and love aligned well, we will be able to have compassion and empathy for the hurting as well as the humility to ask for help when we need it most.

Let's enjoy 2010!