A Birth Control Message – Courtesy of the Boss

With due respect and credit for inspiration to one of my favorite bloggers, Jenni at www.newsforthetimes.wordpress.com, who publishes a Tune Tuesday weekly post on the personal or societal impact of a favorite song or singer, I want to use one of Bruce Springsteen’s songs to embellish a point I have been making the past few months. I think I have cited the Boss on a couple of occasions, but I want to lift some lyrics from one of my favorite songs of his “The River” which is pertinent to my point of readily available birth control and education. This song is about a man remembering nostalgically how he used to go “down to the river” with his girlfriend and how life was much simpler before she got pregnant with his child.

The lyrics I want to quote are as follows:

“Then, I got Mary pregnant and man, that was all she wrote.

And, for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat.

We went down to the courthouse and the judge put it all to rest.

No wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisle.

No flowers, no wedding dress.”

In my post “If Churches Really Want to Make a Difference” a few weeks ago, I suggest that the church should be more involved with legitimate sex education with their young teenagers, including the use of contraception. Kids don’t know enough about this subject and it is the thing they talk most about. The peer pressure is intense. It is more than OK to discuss abstinence, but if you remember your teenage years, that is not going to happen very often. I won’t repeat all of the points made therein, but informed teens should be aware of the need for protected sex as well as ways to say no, if they feel pressured (if a girl) and ways to treat a girl who is saying no (if a boy).

The LA Times reported just this week that data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed the birthrate among American teens between  15 and 19, while decreased since 1991 is still at 34.3 births per 1,000 women. That rate is 5 times the teen birthrate in France and 2 1/2 times the teen birthrate in Canada. It is also higher than the rates in China and Russia. THe CDC reports that 80% of teen pregnancies are unintended meaning after unprotected sex or under protected sex. We have a higher incidence of sexual assault among teens as well.

Using Springsteen’s song, Mary did not need to end up pregnant. With birth control access and better sex education, Mary and the boy could have been more adroit at handling the issue before the heat of the moment caused a fate accompli. The rest of the song talks about how Mary and the boy go through the motions of life after being forced to do the right thing and marry. Their dreams were stifled. Yet, if she could say no, or have protected intercourse, then their lives need not be over.

My main point is so many issues could be better addressed through a better protected and more informed group of teenagers. There is high correlation to poverty and family size, especially if the family starts early. There is a high percentage of single parents in teen mothers, so in more cases than not, Mary’s beau would have left the building. With fewer unwanted pregnancies, then there would be fewer abortions. And, our teens would have a chance to grow up more before they start having babies. Finally, per Dr, Cora Breuner of Seattle Children’s Hospital, babies born to teens tend to fare more poorly than babies delivered to older age group parents.

I also believe the education part is just as vital. If the young girls and boys hear from respected sources about these very important life issues, they will be better positioned to handle them. More and more kids are not seeing churches in the same light as their parents. Some churches are actually driving people away with their evangelicalism. I firmly believe if you provide more venues to talk in an intelligent way with the teens about their problems, they will attend and listen. They don’t need to be preached to on the subject, but abstinence is an acceptable discussion point. I think it is important to note that you do not have to have sex if you are being pressured into doing so.

Per Dr. Breuner as reported by the LA Times, “We really can do better. By providing more education and improving access to contraception and more education about family planning, we can do better.” Note, Breuner helped write the new policy statement as a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Adolescence.

Springsteen, as usual, vividly depicts a real world problem. I think his song could be played during the sex education classes. These kids loved each other (or at least thought they did), gave into passion and after unprotected sex, their dreams were over. This is reality. Why should we not finds ways to educate and help before the “point of reckoning” rather than to let the kids figure it out after it is too late. In today’s time, it can be even worse when a STD enters the equation.

Thanks Bruce for your terrific song. “The River” can permit the dream to continue with protected sex. And, for parents and church leaders who want to throw the bible at me, let me quote a truism that I said in my previous post. Teenagers are going to have sex. If you do not believe me, there is an evangelical university within a three-hour drive of where I live. These young church raised kids “go crazy” when they get away from mom and dad. I actually cleaned that up a little from the quote from someone who attended there. So, we should help them on their journey by giving them the tools and education they need.

Memo to GOP Leadership – Please do your homework to become more relevant

Like many, including our friends at “Doonesbury” I am bemused by the intense soul-searching post-election by the GOP. Reading Governor Bobby Jindal’s comments chastising the former GOP Presidential candidate for his recent idiotic comments is just one example. Over the past many months along with many others, I have been writing about the GOP platform which is built on a weak foundation. My last post on this topic was on September 26 and is entitled “GOP Needs to Finds its Way Out of the Abyss.” Irrespective of the outcome of the Presidential election, my concern is the GOP party has made itself less relevant and driven more reasonable minds out of the party. So, even if the GOP had won the White House, it would not alter this belief. Many GOP members won’t want to hear this, but the huge PAC money actually made this election closer than it should have been. These ads targeted an uninformed public who did not truly pay attention to what their candidate and party stood for.

I was actually avoiding writing yet again on this topic, but the second of two editorials in the paper caused me to turn on the presses once again. Last week, a nationally known minister filled in for Charles Krauthammer’s column while he was on vacation and in essence said the “GOP does not need to change, it just needs to modernize.” I found that to be an interesting view, since it was so far off the mark. The second editorial was a reprint of a LA Times piece by Charlotte Allen under the title “Cure for the ailing GOP: Palin in 2016.” This editorial would be funny, if she was not serious with her assertion. The title seemed more appropriate for a Mad Magazine article or a lampoon piece on “Real Time with Bill Maher.”

These two editorials are precisely what the GOP leadership should not do.  Some of my Democratic friends may disagree with this, but as an Independent voter we need a reasonable GOP voice at the table. What we do not need are the voices that have been getting to the table. If it were not for the Koch money, many of these voices would have been quieted. Fortunately, the far extreme members were de-selected due to some inane remarks during the campaign. Yet, what we need is a reshaping of the platform based on verifiable, unbiased data and platform positions that are sound and reasonable and not empty-headed sound-bytes to get concurrence from a very conservative base.

I do not want to repeat my earlier posts, so I would welcome and encourage you  to poke around on my blog a little. But, if I had to clearly state the headlines from these posts:

– Global warming is man-influenced and our response needs to be thoughtfully mapped out. This is the biggest threat our planet faces and your party denies it on its platform. If you want to be relevant, then stop listening only to people in industries with vested interests in the planning process.

– We cannot resolve our deficit and debt crises without revenue increases and spending cuts. We are one of the least taxed countries in the world. Please listen less to people telling you what you want to hear.  This goes for our Democratic friends as well, yet with the Grover Norquist pledge on no tax increases, the GOP has taken a key lever to solve our problem out of the mix.

– We have poverty and middle class crises in our country. We need to be very mindful of what we cut and where we cut as we cut spending. We need an increase in wages on the bottom end and we need the full implementation of Obamacare with over 46 million uninsured Americans. Lack of healthcare insurance or access only to very limited care is a key driver of personal bankruptcy and poverty. The GOP has never articulated what they would do if they eliminated Obamacare. It is not perfect and needs further tweaking, but it is already making a difference.

– We need regulations to keep the “haves” from taking advantage of the “have-nots.” Doing away with or gutting the EPA would be the dumbest thing we could possibly do. The new Consumer Protection Agency which the GOP hates has already fined several reputable credit card issuers who have many TV commercials for unethical and inappropriate marketing practices. Of the over $500 million in fines on four of these companies, a very high percentage was refunded to the maltreated customers.

– We need the GOP to listen less to the Evangelical voters and more to all voters. Some of the platform features that evolved from placating this crowd were unnerving to many. Especially issues like birth control, which is overwhelmingly supported by Americans and would actually help resolve issues with abortions, unwanted pregnancies, poverty and, some cases, STDs. And, the same-sex marriage train is leaving the station and should. You need to get over some of the extreme bigotry apparent in your party on this subject and treat others like you want to be treated.

– Finally, please stop using Fox News as your stenographer. Fox News needs to be a news entity and not an editorially biased entity. Your constituents will get a truer picture of what is going on in the world and you will have a better sense of how your message is being received. You were surprised by the election results, I was less so.

Let me end with the following comment to the GOP leaders. Even if you do not agree with my assertions above, please do the following simple exercise as your homework assignment. If you sincerely want to change, talk more with the people who left your party and less to those still in it. Ask them why did you leave? I left in 2006 and you can get a sense as to my rationale from the above. We need you to be at the table, but only if you are open and reasonable. If you continue to deny global warming, for example, people will not take you seriously. I know I won’t.

I am thankful

In the quiet before we continue our preparations for the feast and family arrivals this Thanksgiving, I wanted to share a few thoughts to my blogging friends. Please feel free to respond with your own as we have a nice community that comes together on-line from around the planet. I have seen other comments and stories on their blogs, but always welcome the company here. I am thankful for….

– my bride of 27 years. We ying and yang pretty well together on our journey. We are both dealing with her extended “summer moments” as she calls this phase of her life. I end up wearing more sweaters as she freezes us all to stay cool, but she in turn deals with my many issues and imperfections and has for years.

– my healthy family of five; we are far from perfect, but we do the best we can. And, when we fail, we help each other up and encourage us to do better. I tell people who are expecting their first child, you never know how much your parents truly love you until you have a child of your own. My cup runneth over with three.

– my mom. My dad has been gone for six years and is remembered well. She is teacher for life, both to her former students, bible study class and her children. Mom, you are the best.

– my sister who moved back to live with my mom. For adult daughters who can envision living with a parent as an adult, you can appreciate my thanks to my sister and wish for her the patience of Job, wisdom of Solomon and the space for her time.

– my new teammates at work. I left a bigger company with many bureaucracies and listmakers who wanted to tell people who knew what they were doing, how to do their job. I am now with a small company who has people who know what they are doing and we try to do something unique – provide the opportunity to do their job.

– my former colleagues at my old job in my office and around the world. You are the company, not that bureaucratic mess. Good people over come bad structure, but it should not be so hard. I miss the ones who gave a damn about serving our clients and each other.

– my friends and relatives. It will be great to see many of them today. And, although I am not in touch with friends like I should, I remember them well. Plus, my new job allows me to see more work related friends and colleagues. That is very nice.

– and, finally, my new blog friends. I enjoy reading what you think, how you think, what you believe and your life based context for these perspectives. I very much enjoy your reflections on your history and current joys and challenges. Keep on writing and I will keep on reading and offering a comment or two.

Happy Thanksgiving. This holiday is truly what is best about America. The others pale in comparison. I hope people around the world have something similar they can call home.  Best regards to all.

 

 

 

 

Bobby Murcer – not a star, but a hero nonetheless

One of my childhood heroes was a baseball player out of Oklahoma City who had both the fortune and misfortune to follow in the footsteps of Mickey Mantle. Like Mantle, Bobby Murcer was not only from the same state, but he started in centerfield for the New York Yankees where Mantle roamed so long and so well, before his body breakdown sent him to play first base. I rooted for Murcer as I did for Mantle. I wanted for him to succeed like his predecessor both individually and as a teammate. Yet, I continued to root for him throughout his career that led him away from the Yankees and then back again.

You see Bobby Murcer was not the star everyone had hoped him to be. There are few Mickey Mantles and when we witness them we should greatly appreciate them. Murcer was a simply a very good ballplayer and teammate regardless of where he played. At 5’11” and 160 lbs., he was not a physically imposing person. Yet, he was an All Star for five years and won a Gold Glove for excellent fielding in one year. He also drove home over 1,000 runs with his hits and scored just underneath a 1,000 runs with his feet. And, along the way, he hit over 250 home runs. For the non-baseball fans, I don’t want to make this about statistics, though.

You see, in spite of not being a star or idol, Bobby Murcer was one of my heroes.  He died in 2008 at the age of 62, so he is not around to read this. However, I believe there are many like me who just rooted for this guy because of who he was not and who he was. There are very few true stars in life. Most of the successful people are very good at what they do and work hard at. Murcer exemplified this. Yet, he was more than that. He was a good teammate and friend. This came to bear on one of the worst days and greatest nights in Yankee history and it had nothing to do with winning one of their many World Series championships.

It was the day another Yankee was buried after a plan crash that killed him – Thurman Munson. Like Murcer, Munson came up with the Yankees at the same time. Munson had greater success than Murcer on the field, but was very similar in that both were of the same ilk – hard-working good ball players. And, both were heroes for the same reason. On August 6, 1979, Munson was buried in front of his teammates in Canton, OH. Murcer gave a eulogy having just rejoined the Yankees a few months before. That says a lot about their friendship. Murcer quoted Angelo Patri about Munson:

“The life of a soul on earth lasts longer than his departure. He lives in your life and the life of others who knew him.”

The same could be said about Murcer upon his passing. I could end the story there, but the magic of the evening must also be told. The Yankees flew from Canton to New York to play a game on national TV that night against the Baltimore Orioles. Note, this was before the plethora of games on TV, so it was a grander event which included Howard Cosell as one of the announcers who always played a big crowd and event. Billy Martin, the manager was not going to play Murcer, but the latter insisted. Down 4 to 0 late in the game, Murcer played like there was an angel sitting on his shoulder. He first hit a three run homer to close the gap. And, if that were not magical enough, he ended the game with a two run single to win it for the Yankees and Munson’s memory. I am tingling as a type this as it was truly something to behold.

Bobby Murcer was not likely a hero to many, but on that night he was a hero to all who watched. And, he is my hero forever. A toast to all who are good at what they do and work hard to be the very best at it. Thanks for letting me share this. Happy Thanksgiving all.

Toxic Charity

I have made reference on several occasions to a must read book written by Robert (Bob) Lupton called “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt those They Help and How to Reverse it.” I had the good fortune to hear Lupton speak about his experiences and how he came to this view on toxic charity. To those who do not know his story, he felt called to move into the impoverished areas of Atlanta to live near and like the people he was trying to help. From this vantage point, he witnessed and gleaned a far better and more impactful way of helping people in need. His premise based on this first hand anecdotal evidence is well intended volunteers and donors often do more harm than good in their outreach.

In essence, they do for people what the people can do for themselves, both here and abroad. His mantra is we should help people climb a ladder, but do it in a way they can maintain their self-esteem and their efforts can be sustained. He notes that true charity should be reserved for emergency situations like Hurricane Sandy. A few examples may help.

– From the feedback from those being helped and his observations, it is far better to provide a discount store of donated goods which caters to those in need as customers. When clothes are just given away it creates an entitlement society and the relationship can be adversarial which is counterproductive to all parties. He told the story that everyone likes to find a bargain. So, why should we deny that opportunity to those in poverty. This will help people in need with budgeting and the pride in saving up money to purchase a good deal on something they need.

– Rather than giving food away, he has witnessed it is far better to have food cooperatives. They would have each family pay a weekly stipend such as $3 to join a food co-op. These funds would be used to buy discounted food to pool with the donated food. The co-op begins an association with others that usually proves fruitful with recipe sharing, neighborhood dinners, restaurant development, etc. It also allows the deployment of better food for the recipients.

– Rather than have parishioners donate time and energy on projects that are mis-prioritized, mismanaged and misimplemented, use the volunteers for more employment and entrepreneurial activities such as helping people set up a small business, learn a trade, understand a business plan or network to find a job. This will use the skills of the volunteers in a more impactful way. He also notes we should let the community leaders decide on what is most needed (community initiated), actually lead the efforts (community led) and allow time for mutual information sharing (how their faith is important to both giver and recipient).

– Find ways to invest in the community to improve on assets in existence. This Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) is critical to leveraging what is there (such as a school, playground, golf course, clinic, etc.) and works well with the community. Schools for example, are critical not only to the education of the kids, but after school programs for kids and adults, and a place where communities can gather. He noted an example where a developer in Atlanta bought a golf course and improved the neighborhood around it using a 50/50 mixture of market based and affordable housing. The golf course provided jobs and recreation to these mixed income families and gentrified a run down neighborhood.

The charity I am involved with for homeless families follows his empowerment model. We try not to do for the families what they can do for themselves. The families receive rent subsidized housing based on their ability to pay, meaning they must pay a portion of the rent. They must also save money for their eventual exit from the program. We help them buy a car on more favorable terms than 23% interest, yet they have to pay for car, insurance and upkeep. They must work with our social workers to make better decisions, improve their education, attend career development and budget more wisely. We are helping them climb the ladder, but they have to do it. We cannot and will not push them up the ladder.

Lupton speaks of “The Oath for Compassionate Service” which builds off the Hippocratic Oath for Doctors and is as follows:

– Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.

– Limit one way giving to emergency situations.

– Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.

– Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.

– Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said – unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.

– Above all, do no harm.

One of the things I have observed about people in need is their network of people with connections or skills they need is very narrow or non-existent. In fact, homeless families or individuals may have exhausted their only network of friends and family. I often help friends or relatives of friends and family network to find a job or resource. Others would do this for my friends and relatives in need. Yet, who can someone in poverty reach out to except people who are also in poverty? So, church goers who sit in the pews every Sunday have an abundance of knowledge and connections that is better suited to help those in need. Following Lupton’s example, if we can provide more intersections of those in need and those who can connect the dots for them, more success would be witnessed. There would be more ladders out of poverty.

Lupton made a telling observation in his speech. We are a very generous nation of people. We donate billions of money and time to help, but what do we have to show for it? Poverty has increased. The key is to help people find the opportunities, the ladders out of poverty. We can look for ways to help them climb the ladders, but they have to do it to make it sustainable.

Affordable Care Act – the Path Forward

The other day I was chatting with a small business owner about the Affordable Care Act, mostly known as Obamacare. I found her as a representative sample of the many misperceptions about this imperfect, but groundbreaking law. When I made the comment about the number of people who got refunds from insurance companies two months ago based on provisions of the law that insurance companies cannot make too much profit on premiums, she was dumbfounded.

When I made the comment that employers under 50 employees need not worry as much about the law, she again was dumbfounded. For the most part, small employers will have an enhanced ability to offer affordable coverage, but the ones with less than 50 employees are not obligated to do so. Further, for employees who produce less than 250 W-2s per year, they need not worry about reporting the cost of medical premiums on the W-2 for illustrative (not taxation) purposes. It is not unheard for retail or restaurant employers to have many more W-2s than employees due to turnover of staff.

I mention these two examples out of many as Obamacare is very misunderstand based on the active public relations machine unleashed against it. It is not at all a stretch to say many were against it not because they understood it, but were told to be against it as it was a campaign wedge issue. I will leave political comments to my earlier posts and focus below on some of the salient points.

For the most part, it is for the greater good that Obamacare will continue. This is one of the very positive outcomes from the election, as in addition to the features that are already in place – elimination of pre-existing conditions for children, ability to extend coverage for non-college student adults on the parents’ plans until age 26, elimination of lifetime maximum benefits, opening of access to preventive care, closing of the Medicare Rx doughnut hole for seniors, and aforementioned limitation on insurance companies on their acceptable profit margins – there are additional good changes coming down the pike in 2014.

Just yesterday, Mercer released its national healthcare cost trend information, the largest healthcare survey of its kind. In 2012, the healthcare costs were tempered to 4.1%, the smallest increase in 15 years, and down from 6.1% in 2011. One of the reasons cited is due to continued movement to more Consumer Driven Health Plans, but another one is the steps taken to soften the impact due to Obamacare. Yet, other companies have cited the increase of 3 million covered adult children under 26 and emphasis on preventive care, which are also paying dividends. The under age 26 adults are better risks for the most part and will dampen the cost increases for older adults and families in the birthing age period due to the cost of deliveries.

Another interesting comment from the Mercer survey echoes what was said in earlier surveys – only 7% of large employers will drop coverage and 22% of small employers (under 500 employees) would be inclined to do so. In essence, the law requires employers to offer access to affordable and essential coverage to employees who work regularly 30 hours a week or more. For people who are unemployed and who don’t have access to such coverage due to hours worked or the cost of the employer plan is too high, they are obligated to access coverage through an insurance exchange or Medicaid. Yet, the premiums for the exchanges (which is an insurance market bag of choices) will be heavily subsidized based on your income relative to the poverty level. phasing out at 400% of the poverty level (about $45,000 for an individual).  And, for those who are beneath the poverty level, Medicaid is there at no charge.

The reason employers will not drop coverage is they pay a penalty for not offering affordable care to those who work 30 hours a week or more. Offering coverage ends up being more economical for the significant majority of employers. However, the employer will play a heavier hand in describing choices for their employees. For some employees, especially those under 30 hours per week, they may actually be better off with the exchanges and the premium subsidy. And, Medicaid is a huge safety net for those under the poverty level (about $11,000 for an individual). It should be noted, even before Obamacare, some retail employers had a non-inconsequential percentage of employees covered by Medicaid (6% for one large retailer and 18% for another smaller one, e.g.).

On this Medicaid point, the states will be picking up more covered individuals and the Federal government will fund the additional cost and then phase it out slowly over time. Some states may choose not to take this on. Yet, I do not think that will happen for one simple reason – the hospitals will tell them to take the money. One of the least discussed pieces of Obamacare is this one simple fact – hospitals and insurance companies like it. Why? They are more assured of payment upfront and in a budgetable way. From the hospital side, this will reduce exposure to indigent costs which are huge and causing some hospital to have to merge or go out of business. Plus, it moves non-urgent care to the doctors’ and clinic offices and out of the ER. Finally, Obamacare opens up access to affordable preventive care which pays dividends.

Note, Obamacare is far from perfect, yet it helps tremendously with a societal issue. We need to make sure people have access to healthcare. With 46 million uninsured, too many Americans are dying needlessly and going bankrupt due to the absence of care. And, for people who cheered when the comment was made at the GOP primary debates to let someone die without coverage, my comment is very succinct – you are respectfully full of shit. If that person was you or a loved one, you would be doing whatever it takes to get medical care. Words are cheap. Behavior speaks volumes.

Obamacare is the law of the land. Let’s make it work better. It is a good thing it will continue. One final thought for naysayers – a version of Obamacare was Governor Romney’s greatest success as governor of Massachusetts. He cannot hide that fact, although he certainly tried.

 

If Churches Really Want to Make a Difference

People who have read earlier posts of mine have gleaned that one of my passions is doing what I can to help people climb a ladder out of poverty. I have often referenced Bob Lupton’s book on “Toxic Charity” whose premise is we should help people, but avoid doing for them things they can do themselves. True charity should be reserved for emergency situations and beyond that we should look for ways to aid their efforts not replace them.

Recently, I have prepared two posts from the gist of the book “The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto” by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West. This book does a good job of highlighting the big lies about poverty and describes significant changes that we can make to help remedy our poverty problem in America. One of the big lies about poverty is many attribute characteristics that people in poverty are less virtuous and industrious. I found that not to be the case as people in poverty tend to be working hard at one or multiple jobs and their faith is the only thing they have. In fact, 84% of the homeless families an agency I volunteer with helps are employed. Poverty is purely defined as the lack of money.

Churches and synagogues are already doing an abundance of good work and they should be applauded for these efforts. I would only ask as they evaluate the success of what they are doing to ask the question – is what we are doing more for us or the people we are trying to help? Are we helping provide a path forward out of poverty or we providing a benevolent band-aid? What if we did not do this particular service, what would happen? These are all good questions to ask, so that we make sure we are making a difference. Please read these two books or at a minimum take a look at some of the earlier posts from the past few months.

Yet, I am going to shift gears and talk about an idea that to my knowledge is not being talked about enough. There is a high correlation between family size and poverty. The more fragile the family’s starting point will easily push them into poverty as their family size grows. Also, for the bad press Planned Parenthood gets in very religious circles, it does a lot of good things around helping people in poverty with mammograms, sex education and birth control access. I want to focus on these last two points, as here is where I see a role that churches could play that would endear themselves to their audiences, lessen the exposure to poverty and dramatically reduce the exposure to abortions and STDs like AIDs.

I believe churches and synagogues should conduct recurring sex education and family planning classes on their campuses for their teenagers and young adults. I think they should make available birth control information and birth control samples, as well. I also believe they can teach abstinence as much as they want as it is a viable choice. Why do I say this? Two givens. First, people tend to trust their church leaders. Second, teenagers are going to have sex. You cannot stop them just as your parents could not stop you. So, let’s pair the two together and have open conversations facilitated by the church with people who know what they are talking about.

Teenagers have many misconceptions about sex, pregnancy risk, STD risk, respect for women (for men) and how to say no (for women). One of my former colleagues told me about the amazing questions she got from teenagers at her church as she was seen as someone who would shoot straight with her answers. “I heard you cannot get pregnant if you have sex standing up” is a good example of what she was asked. Plus, the teenagers are subject to an intense level of peer pressure by a potential sex partner as well as others. I see the churches and synagogues providing avenues to have great discussions for their younger minds which are still being formulated, are very immature, and exposed to so much. What better place to have important conversations like these?

If done right, by people who have open minds, who know the subject matter and want to truly help, this could be a life changing curriculum. This would also give a greater reason for kids wanting to go to church. From the teenager’s perspective, you are talking about things I need to hear. Therefore, I can make better choices when I am in the midst of an important life event in the throes of passion. If I am going to commit to having sex, I will make sure I use protection or have taken some birth control. If I don’t want to have sex and someone is forcing themselves on me, I will be better prepared to know what to do and say. From a parent’s perspective it will make it easier to have these conversations. As a parent, I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this subject due to its importance.

From a societal standpoint, this would be an avenue to reduce unwanted pregnancies and abortions. It would keep children in school who had to drop out to have a child. It would teach responsibility to young men and women. It would teach these same people how to treat their bodies and each other with respect, but to also look for signals where something may be amiss. It would give young people ammunition to better combat peer pressure. It would have an impact on poverty as families size would be managed, teenagers would be avoiding families at a young age, and we could break a cycle of poverty as kids born into poverty are very likely to stay there. This last issue is key, as breaking a cycle of poverty, homelessness makes a huge difference for a community, not to mention the individuals. Finally, it addresses an overarching concern which is the global problem of population growth. Our earth’s ability to support life is being compromised as we grow. This is its own subject, but the US could lead by example in having a sustainable population.

I am raising this issue for strong consideration by church leaders, male and female. The members of the Catholic Church have tended to ignore the papal advice on birth control and should continue to do so. I see this as a way for churches and synagogues to be more inclusive and in keeping with the life challenges for our young people. I have seen too many decisions and posturing where some churches try to be exclusive and that only ends up driving people away. I truly see this as a win-win for many and will help us actually make a difference in people’s lives. I hope this message is given due consideration by our religious leaders.

Caddy for Life – Lessons of Leadership

One of my favorite sports authors is John Feinstein who has penned several books delving into the psychology of sports teams or individuals. “A Good Walk Spoiled,” Forever’s Team,” and “Season on the Brink” are just three excellent reads of his. Another one is called “Caddy for Life – The Bruce Edwards Story” and focuses on the wonderful relationship between a caddy and his employer. Edwards died from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), but while he lived he was the successful caddy to two of the greatest golfers of all time – Tom Watson and Greg Norman.  I highly recommend this read as it speaks of how the two sides of the golfer/ caddy relationship can define success or failure.

For those of you who follow golf, Greg Norman may have been one of the most talented golfers ever to play the game. Yet, that did not always translate into success on the highest stage, which is the major tournaments. He did win two British Opens, yet he is more known for his “almost” major wins, than anything else. Mind you, he did win a countless tournaments over the years, yet when the pressure was the greatest, sometimes his internal demons would be too insurmountable. I would add Norman has also gone onto much success in wines and apparel parlaying his nickname and brand “The Great White Shark” due to his go for broke style, blond locks and Australian heritage.

Tom Watson also was one of the more talented golfers, yet he did have the success on the most pressure-filled stages winning 5 British Opens, 2 Masters and 1 US Open. In fact, he almost won another British Open late in his 50’s a little over two years ago, which says an awful lot. Many have said he was one of the most prolific and consistent ball strikers, but what made him win was his magic with the putter. Yet, he also had a demon and that is one of alcoholism, which has an impact on your ability to putt. This is important to the story. When he stopped making putts and achieving less success, he encouraged Edwards to go caddy for Norman so he could make more money. Professional caddies get a percentage of the player’s winnings.

Yet, my purpose for raising this issue is more about the leaders rather than the caddy. Edwards was very good at his job and knew how to encourage and club (give the correct yardage and suggest a club) the golfer. Golf is one of the most transparent of sports professions. Your results are obvious to all, so it is very hard to hide from failure or not let others see your success. The fragility of the ego is crucial and Edwards was quite good at the psychology of the caddy role. However, that can only go so far.

Watson was the ultimate golfer to work with. Per Edwards, Watson would ask for his input, talk it over and digest the advice. There are so many variables – where should the ball land, what trajectory should it have, what is the distance, what are the wind conditions, what kind of lie is the ball in and what other obstacles present themselves. Also, how is the golfer hitting the ball that day? Those five inches between the ears are the most vital distance on the course. Yet, Watson said once he had the input from Edwards, it was his decision to hit the shot. So, at that point it was his success or failure. This is of vital importance as will be noted later. He solicited and got the advice he needed, but then he made his decision and lived with the consequences. It should be noted that Watson’s demeanor was even-tempered, which facilitated this thought process.

Norman, for all his talents, was wound a little tighter than Watson. He would do the same things as Watson soliciting and getting input from Edwards. Yet, when a poor shot was hit or he felt Edwards had talked him into a club selection, he would lay some blame on the caddy. When Norman was on there were few better. Yet, he could unravel when things went awry. There are numerous famous stories about how close he came to the greatest of golfing glory. Many of those stories were how snake-bit he was when his opponents chipped in from off the green to beat him. Yet, he put himself in those positions by not sealing the deal earlier. His most famous collapse was when he lost a six shot lead on the final day of the Masters, one of the most painful days of watching golf I have ever witnessed.

Norman is the most human and gracious of people. I think that is one of the reasons people hold him in esteem. Yet, as an employer, he did not routinely demonstrate it is very important to solicit and get input, but once you have that input, it is your decision. It is not ironic, that Watson’s demeanor was more suitable for winning on the most pressure filled stages. Golf at that level has a lot of subtlety and complexity. If we translate this to other business or governmental leadership decisions, it shows that leaders need to get all the input they can from reputable sources. They need to find those Bruce Edwards who will offer their advice.

Why is this important? If people feel they will be blamed for offering advice, human nature tells us what will happen – they will stop giving their opinion. Thinking back on a merger discussion where I was a more junior person in a room with twenty leaders of this one company who was debating on whether to increase their offer price on Round Two of the bidding, the CEO was asking for advice, yet no one would go out on a limb and say we should buy this company and offer what it takes. The CEO was begging for this, but the history showed that people had been fired for mistakes at this company. So, no one staked a position.

One of the more telling things I have ever read about our President was said by Warren Buffett who employs many leaders at the firms he buys. He said President Obama is the best editor of information he has ever seen. He solicits and gleans everyone’s opinion in meetings and then makes the decision. I believe Governor Romney does that in his business dealings and likely did that in his work as governor. Yet, I get the impression he did not get that from his campaign advisors. I think they were offering information based on unsound data and advice on what they perceived the real world thought of the GOP platform. I think he was getting biased input from people within the Republican Bubble (as Bill Maher has coined) and he firmly believed he was going to win and was truly amazed when he did not.

Eventually, Norman and Edwards parted ways. Edwards found his way back to Watson on the Senior Tour where they both had success. I say both as Edwards represents what a leader wants and needs – a competent advisor who has a keen way of analyzing data and offering his opinion. He worked best with an employer who totally respected that talent and gave his advice due credence. Yet, the leader made the call. To illustrate one final point, when people say anyone could have made the final decision to get Osama Bin Laden, the answer is no. Obama gleaned all of the input from his generals and advisors, remembered history and overruled their recommended tactics to get him. He said we need to show the American people we got Bin Laden and he sent two helicopters rather than one.

Great leaders need input. Great leaders need people who feel empowered to give input. Great leaders recognize that they need advisors who know what they are talking about and are armed with information. Great leaders make it easier for this to happen. They make it easier for the Bruce Edwards of the world to offer their input without repercussions. I have witnessed countless times when leaders have not done these things and ended up with poor decisions. They do not need “yes-men” or “yes-women.” They need to find the Bruce Edwards of both genders and ask what they think. We will all be better for it.

Promising Developments and a Reminder of the Importance of Data

Now that the elections are behind us and the political gamesmanship and biased data-based assertions can be quieted, we hopefully can get down to the business of governing. I am very encouraged by the President being returned to the White House as the unbiased data shows our imperfect President has actually done a much better job in managing our economy than others have led you to believe. The economy has been slowly improving over the past many months, with improving housing markets and a return of the stock market since the crisis in the fall of 2008. However, he did a poor job of managing expectations.

Per the study of 18 historical housing led financial crises, presented in December, 2008 by professors Carmen Reinhart (University of Maryland) and Kenneth Rogoff (Harvard University), the average housing turnaround takes six years, so that would take us through the end of 2013, on average. They also note the equity markets recover more quickly and the unemployment numbers improve following that, which they have and are. The reference to a jobless recovery is not unheard of. For more summary, please refer to an earlier post on May 9, 2012 called “Managing Expectations – The Aftermath of the Financial Crisis.”

Yet, we are not out of the woods and we have this self-made fiscal crisis looming at year-end, when all the tax breaks end at one time and the severe spending cuts occur. And, what happens in Europe and China affect us even more. Yesterday’s stock market correction was more due to the travails in Europe that reverberate here. And, truth be told, when China falls from 10% GDP growth to 7% like it has, it impacts us more than other changes. So, we have and are making progress in light of global economic concerns. Falling off this cliff at year-end would be intellectually interesting as it abruptly does on an immediate basis what needs to be done in a concerted but planned basis. The concern is it is predicted to take us back into a recession, so we should not ignore those warnings. We must thoughtfully address these issues and need both sides at the table to avoid the cliff, but use it as the lever to make longer term changes.

I am encouraged that Speaker John Boehner has publicly stated his willingness to work with the President. I am encouraged that the President has reached out to the Congressional leaders. That truly is the most significant mandate that the American people have asked them to do. Act like Governor Chris Christie and President Obama did on the initial Hurricane Sandy response. That is how you are supposed to act. We do not want the leaders to act like Senators McConnell and Reid per my last post on the “60  Minutes” piece. We do not want leaders to avoid compromise. We need thoughtful spending cuts and increases to revenue.

Yet, we need to act with good data in mind. Here are a couple of data points I have repeatedly mentioned from earlier posts from people much smarter than me.

– We have a lot of room to increase revenue from taxes and that has to be considered in some fashion. This was included in the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Plan. Per the well-respected, Paris based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the US is one of the least taxed countries in the world, tracking at 32nd out of 34 countries measured since at least 1965. Our Tax revenue per GDP was 24.1% in 2009 versus the average of the 34 countries of 33.8%. In 2000, the year before the Bush Tax cuts and when we were last in a surplus budget, it was at 29.5% versus the average of 35.3% for these 34 countries. That 5.4% difference in ratio from 2000 to 2009 makes a huge difference on our deficit. For more information, please refer to an earlier post on May 19, 2012, “What Kind of Tea is the Tea Party Drinking?”

– We have to create more jobs and they are increasing. To my GOP friends, the first stimulus did not fail. The election is over. Per Michael Grunwald, Senior Editor of Time magazine, he reported that six non-partisan economists – JP Morgan Chase, Moody’s, Macroeconomics Advisors, IHS Global Insight, Economy.com, and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) – said the stimulus created 2.5 million jobs, improved GDP by 2% and kept us out of a depression. It was classic Keynesian economics. We actually need more of this and need it to build infrastructure. Please note all borrowing is not equal. When you borrow to build an asset such as a bridge, highway or electrical grid, it is much different from borrowing to pay for operations. This is America’s history of public/ private partnerships to invest in our future. For some reason, this debate took a very unproductive tone by people who should know better. History has proven these measures create jobs as the government aid the investment and private industry builds on that investment and hires people. For more on this article, please refer to an earlier post on August 26, 2012, “Another Big Hairy Audacious Lie – Failed Stimulus.”

– We have 46 million Americans in poverty. This is not just a middle class issue, as many have moved into this category. Per a recent Harris Poll, 47% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. Per the book I have written two posts last month about – “The Rich and the Rest of Us – A Poverty Manifesto”  by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, we have to be mindful of the two Americas. And, to bring this issue home, let me repeat a statistic from their book meant for shock effect – 70% of food stamp recipients in America are white. Poverty knows no color and will harm anyone. It should be defined by what it is – poverty is the lack of money. I mention these final set of data points as we cannot gut programs to help those in need. We need to be smart about what and where we cut, but we must make some cuts. We need to help people climb a ladder out of poverty, as that will lead us to recovery for them and our country. We should focus on that mission as we look to spend our money more judiciously.

I go back to the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Plan. The blue print is in there. We do need to make some cuts, but we do need to raise revenue. People do not want the latter, but we have been living off debt for too long. We must pay for what we have spent. For politicians to say otherwise is poor stewardship.  I hope our politicians will be wise stewards and work together to make this happen. And, I hope they will use real data to support those decisions. We need them to.

60 Minutes Piece – Kroft tried to tell them

For those who caught “60 Minutes” last night, you probably are as frustrated as I am with our two senior senators, who are metaphors for what is wrong with Congress. Steve Kroft interviewed Senator Mitch McConnell, the lead Republican senator, and Senator Harry Reid, the lead Democrat senator. Kroft also interviewed several departing senators who are fed up with the strident partisanship. One of those was Olympia Snowe from Maine, who is a moderate Republican senator. She said something very telling. She felt she could add more value as a consultant than as a senator due to the gridlock.

Please note that I am not a big fan of Senator McConnell. I think he is Exhibit A for what is wrong in Washington. But, I would like to add I am not that much more enthralled with Senator Reid. Kroft had the two of them sitting right in front of him as they played their obstinate selves. Kroft pushed hard on them saying you are the leaders and you are the problem. What came next was the typical partisanship answers on why we cannot work together. You could tell Kroft was quite agitated with them, as he tried to remain diplomatic. In essence, these guys are working to keep their jobs not govern.

I am going to use a phrase I have used many times in merger settings. I use this example, as it is very apparent when people are working to keep their job rather than do their job. I have seen very professional behavior from people who know they are about to lose their job as their company was bought. They care about handing over the reins without any problems. I have also seen some of the most childish behavior from supposed professionals to try to way lay their opposite in the merger, so they can get the job.

My advice is very simple in these settings – worry more about doing your job than keeping your job. Senators McConnell and Reid, all other senators and members of the house, we Americans must insist you worry more about doing your job rather than keeping your job. That means find a way to resolve our problems. I can assure you neither party owns the best ideas and needs to collaborate. You can be the solution if you work together and you are to blame for failure to act. Right now you hold the blame.