A monkey with a hand grenade – a fable

The Boy Emperor said loudly, “I rule all that I can see” to his generals who were scurrying behind him to keep pace. “Of course, you do your lordship,” said one very subservient military commander. “It is divinely inspired,” said another who wanted to top the obsequiousness of the other general. “Your father’s lineage goes back to the gods themselves.”

“But, I have a question,” the Boy Emperor asked. “Why is my jungle here so sparse and open, while the one to the south of us is lush and full of bananas and grapes? My fellow monkeys deserve to have an abundance of food and foliage.” Another general, not to be outdone by the first two said, “Sire, your followers do not need luxuries. They appreciate what they have and would be spoiled if they had too much.” Another general added, “Plus our surveys show your followers adore you and wish you could be their leader forever. Our monkeys are happy with what they have. They do not want more.”

“However, I have all of these hand grenades and am more powerful than the leaders of the south forest. I am even more powerful than the monkeys who live across the sea,” said the Boy Emperor. “I want to be feared and respected by everyone! I want the lush forest to the south. How did they get so much by the way?”

“Oh, you don’t want to go down that path, as they let business trade freely with others.The leaders do not have as much control as you do. They are a spoiled lot,” said one of the generals. “We even let them do some work with our monkeys in our forest to show them whose way is better. I think together we make bunches and bunches of bananas together for our monkeys.”

The Boy Emperor said, “Well, I will show them. I don’t want them making bananas for our monkeys. If our way is better, let them suffer. I want to throw my grenades at them and let them see who is boss. They will fear me and respect me. Then, I can have their lush forest for our monkeys.” There was silence.

One of the generals who is not quite so subservient finally spoke up. “Sire, yours is obviously the better way. However, we cannot make war on someone who occasionally helps us get more bananas. They need us to see what greatness looks like. Why don’t we just threaten them and see if they will just hand over more bananas? We also have to be mindful of the monkeys across the sea and the monkeys up the road. The monkeys up the road have been on our side, but they may not like us fighting someone unless we have to. Plus, the ones across the sea have many more monkeys than we do. And, I think they have more hand grenades, too.

The Boy Emperor was obviously put out, but heard the last general. “Well, is it OK if I threaten the one across the sea as well? I will tell them I will hurl my hand grenades at them. We have many of them, too. Maybe they will give us some more bananas to honor my greatness. They did this with my father. Am I not great like he is?” The other generals nodded their head in agreement. The less subservient one grinned a sly grin as he knew he may have helped avert a bad war with the monkeys across the sea. Plus, he did not want the monkeys up the road to be less friendly.

The moral of the story is beware of a monkey with a hand grenade. He may just be a young foolish monkey, but it is a hand grenade. And, he appears to be foolish.


Heart of Gold – A Tribute to Neil Young

“I want to live, I want to give. I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold. It’s these expressions, I never give. That keeps me searching for a heart of gold.” The words from “Heart of Gold” ring true to many. We are searching for a heart of gold; all of us in one way, shape or form. Neil Young, like some of the others I have written about, is our conscious. Like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Jim Croce, Gordon Lightfoot and Harry Chapin, he sang about us. Our trials and tribulations. Like Dylan, he told us what was wrong in the world – he could just play a meaner guitar.

To appreciate fully the greatness of Neil Young, I would encourage you to give some compilation of his songs a listen on a long trip somewhere. I have a CD called “Decade” which is a two disc set, which seem to always have one of the two in my car’s CD player. Yes, I am an Old Fart, I know. One of his conscious testing songs still resonates today – “Southern Man.” Read on and tell me if you agree: “Southern man, better keep your head. Don’t forget what your good book said. Southern change gonna come at last. Now your crosses are burning fast. Southern man.” Please know that I am from the south. Yet, there are cadres of people who have become quite exclusionary, which is giving the south a bad name once again. This is very frustrating to many, but our voices aren’t as newsworthy as the loud and proud neighbors we have.

Another favorite is “Old Man.” It tells the tale of how the old man was once just like the young rebel. “Old man, look at my life, I’m a lot like you were…. Old man, look at my life, twenty-four and there is so much more.” The times were different, but the arguments are similar. Let me live my life. It is mine not yours. This argument has been going for years and will go on tomorrow. Mark Twain once lamented how stupid his father was when he was a teenager and how smart he became once Twain got in his twenties. That was written more than 125 years ago. He could write it 125 years into the future and it would still be true.

One of the best tunes he wrote with a very distinctive title is “Cinnamon Girl.”  He describes her as “A dreamer of pictures, I run in the night. You can see us together, chasing the moonlight. My Cinnamon Girl.” I think he uses Cinnamon as it is spicy and often used with something sweet. At least that is the conclusion I like to believe is true. But, the song is evocative in many ways. Give it a listen and see if you concur.

There so many to choose from – “Helpless” is a favorite. If you get a chance to see The Band’s final concert movie “The Last Waltz”, look for Joni Mitchell singing a haunting back-up to “Helpless” with Young.  “Ohio” is an anthem against President Richard Nixon for allowing the national guard to be called out on college students at Kent State, where an itchy trigger finger caused students to die. This was one of the more avoidable tragedies in our country and was a damn shame.”Down by the River”, “Cowgirl in the Sand”, “The Needle and the Damage Done”, “Like a Hurricane”, “Long May You Run” and “Sugar Mountain” are all terrific. He has so many songs, that I have likely left off someone’s favorite.

Let me close with one he wrote during the time of the first President George Bush, back when our homeless problem was becoming worse, the war on drugs was failing miserably and we tended to speak in platitudes, some of which you may recognize. “Keep on Rockin in the Free World” is an anthem. To me it says, I am still here and this is a great place to be, but quit screwing people over: “We got a thousands points of light, for the homeless man. We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand….Got a man of the people says to ‘keep hope alive.’ Got fuel to burn, got roads to drive…Keep on rockin in the free world…”

One of the reasons I like this song is politicians and leaders like to speak in buzz words or say things that sound great. Yet, talk is cheap. You need to make a move to make a difference. People were dying on the street, yet little was done by leadership. Plus, I like it as he showed he still had the knack. The 1980’s had some good songs, but it was a decade of big hair bands whose lyrics and music were fairly straightforward and similar. This song made a statement by its words, as well as made a statement by its tune. But, the other reason it resonated as one month after its release, the Berlin Wall fell and it became an anthem for “rockin in the free world.”

Neil, you have been our conscience for a long time. We love the important words, the storytelling and the music. We love that you stand up for what you believe. Keep on rocking for a free world and mining for that heart of gold.

A Good Friday to reflect

Tomorrow is Good Friday. I have always felt this day should be honored more than Easter, in that it is the day Jesus, in very human form, gave his life in the most painful of ways for mankind. While Easter is a day of joy and promise, Good Friday is a day of the ultimate sacrifice. Whether you are Christian in belief or not, I would like to use this day to speak to a few messages which seem to have been trampled by others in their zeal.

We have many devout folks among us, who want to use scriptures to promote division and determine levels of piety and virtue. To me, that is unfortunate, because of all people who have walked the earth, Jesus stood for the disenfranchised. If you have been watching “The Bible” mini-series the past few weeks, it clearly reveals that the leadership of the church was not thrilled with Jesus as he questioned their motivations and practices of holding themselves above others. I think this lesson could be repeated today.

I have said many times before, the Golden Rule is the overarching tenet of the Bible. As Jesus said in Matthews 7:12, “Therefore all things whatsoever would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” Or, in Leviticus 19:18, it is said “You shall not take vengeance or bear grudge against your kinfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself.” We have condensed these words into “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” These words are so simple and powerful. They also are found in various forms in Confucius’ teachings, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism. Taoism and other religions. Social scientists have even termed it the “Ethic of Reciprocity.”

There are no caveats in these teachings to exclude groups of people who are felt less deserving or less virtuous in some people’s eyes. It does not say do unto others, except for gays, lesbians, or illegal immigrants. Back in the Jim Crow era, it did not say do unto others except for Negroes, using the nomenclature of the day. Just as in the time of Jim Crow as it is today, these caveats are wrong-headed and hateful. If Jesus were alive today, it is my opinion he would not be very impressed with bigotry from the pulpit. He would not be very impressed with those who burn others’ sacred books, picket funerals of veterans as their country allows gays in the military or who advocate putting gays behind an electrified fence to have them die off.

Jesus also speaks of loving your neighbor as you love yourself. We have a poverty problem around the world, but also in the US. In the US, we have many neighbors who are struggling living paycheck to paycheck. We have neighbors who have lost their homes or who are very close to doing so. We have people whose jobs have been down-sized, right-sized, RIFed, and eliminated. We have people who can only find work in low wage service or sales jobs that perpetuate poverty. Jesus spoke often of taking care of “the least of these” when referring to his people. We have to help our neighbors in crisis, but do it an empowering way. Let’s help them climb the ladder. Let’s not look down on them as “there but by the grace of God go I.” And, if you don’t believe this statement, I encourage you to watch “American Winter” a HBO documentary which shows how easily it can happen to anyone.

I also don’t think he would be too fond of those who are not being good stewards with our earth. There are numerous places in the Bible where God tells us to take care of the earth. One example is from Jeremiah 2:7 – “I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable.” Many of the biblical citings involving the environment are around God’s displeasure that we are not taking care of the earth. I raise this as we are beholden to the use of fossil fuels and we need to stridently move away from their use due to the even-worse than predicted pace of global warming. We need to be ever vigilant with our water supplies, which are growing more scarce with global warming and non life sustaining uses that degrade the environment, such as fracking. And, we need to make sure we cease or limit behaviors that damage the environment.

Finally, I do not think Jesus would be too pleased with our unhealthy zest in the US for weapons of mass destruction that some gun owners want to carry around in their hands or keep in their arsenal. I would imagine Jesus walking up to a vocal gun rights supporter and taking the gun out of his hands and throwing it in the river. Responsible gun ownership should not be confused with empire building and ego gratifying hording of weapons designed to kill many people at one time. Call me crazy, but I cannot find anyway to believe Jesus would support that behavior.

If people want to be Evangelical, that is more than fine, as I do not want to stand in the way of their passion. But, you cannot pick the parts of Evangelicalism that you like, and ignore the bigger picture. The bigger picture is when religion is inclusive, it is a wonderful thing to behold. Yet, when religion chooses to exclude, it can be as bigoted and mean-spirited as any group of people. And, my greatest pet peeve, coming from this very imperfect person and sinner, is bigotry from the pulpit. To me, it is the worst behavior a leader could do, as we look to them to guide us in positive, spiritual way. What would Jesus do (WWJD) is the question often seen on bumper stickers or bracelets. In my mind, Jesus would not be happy with church leaders who discriminate. That is what Jesus would do.

Please join with me in thinking good thoughts tomorrow. We are an imperfect lot, who killed the only perfect person ever to walk the earth. That is the greatest case of bigotry ever. We should remember why and how he died on this day of all days. And, we should honor his death and resurrection, by living each day the best we can be.

A Couple of Mutinies to Contrast

Two of my favorite movies involve mutinies – The Caine Mutiny and Mutiny on the Bounty. Maybe it is the rebel in me, or maybe it is my disdain for leaders whose maltreatment of others causes pain, loss and disillusionment. In my business, I have witnessed first hand how leaders can lift people up and make people work together toward a common goal and success. I have also witnessed the opposite occur, when leaders get in the way of success or, more often than not, success is achieved in spite of not, because of, their leadership.

Yet, both movies tell deeper stories, one that is of equal importance. One that is told from the vantage point of the Naval leaders who have to ascertain what would bring a crew to take such an action. One that says, we cannot have crews taking over ships as that would be chaos, but we cannot have Captains treating crews poorly either. The two stories are different, beginning with The Caine Mutiny (Caine), which was produced from Herman Wouk’s novel of the same name which won a Pulitzer Prize. Mutiny on the Bounty (Bounty) is based on a true story, but does take some creative license with the truth. Caine was set in WWII, while Bounty is set in the late 1780s, which is important.

I would encourage you to watch the 1935 Bounty version which has Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh, which is about as good a name for an evil Captain as you can find. This film has Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian who led the mutiny and Francot Tone, as the protagonist Roger Byam, who struggled with the decision and offered up testimony that changes the future for the British navy. There is a 1962 version which is good, but Laughton plays a masterful Bligh in 1935.

In short, Bligh is a tyrant and flogs men routinely, cuts rations to punish, and treats the crew as chattel. However, he is brilliant seaman. After Christian and Byam led the mutiny, they set the Captain into a small boat with some loyal crew (I think loyal to the position of Captain) off the Pacific Islands. He miraculously navigates them over 1,000 miles to safety in the small craft. The mutineers live with the Tahitians for a time and after many months, a ship is seen on the horizon. At this time Byam and a couple of others want to go back to England and face the music and tell the story, but it is Bligh who is captaining the new ship. He locks them up. Christian and the others sail off to a new island and scuttle the Bounty and burn it.

The three men are tried and convicted of mutiny and sentenced to hang. The leadership sided with the role of the Captain, no matter how awful a leader he was. Yet, when Byam speaks after the sentencing about how harsh treatment Bligh gave them, and if a captain treated his crew with respect and dignity, they would “sweep the seas for England.” Byam’s sentence is commuted and is allowed to serve on a new ship. By then, his story of sweeping the seas is known and the men on ship applaud his coming on board. Bligh, while vindicated legally, offers his hand to one of the members of the court, who refused to shake it. He admires his seamanship, but he does not appreciate Bligh as a person and leader.

Caine is different. Humphrey Bogart plays Captain Queeg who is non-nonsense, but less competent and very paranoid  leader. The Caine is a battered old ship that escorts troops and sweeps for mines. The crew was less than formal when he arrives, so Queeg tries to make them so. Yet, he is easily distracted and unsure of himself. While berating a crew member for his attire, he allows the ship to circle, run over and cut its own tow line. He also endangers a landing craft of marines, when he fleas as gunfire comes from the shore. He loses all respect from the men for this. And, he goes out of his way to make a huge investigation into missing strawberries and won’t let this theft go. It turns Lieutenant Maryk (played by Van Johnson), who was respected by the crew, gave them to the crew for their hard work.

Two other key roles are played by Fred MacMurray, who plays a cynical communications officer named Keefer and Jose Ferrer, who plays the JAG lawyer Greenwald, who defends them. When Queeg became paranoid and defensive, he would noisily turn over some ball bearings in his hand as nervous habit. Keefer is the one who pushes Maryk and an Ensign Willie Keith (played by Robert Francis) into the mutiny. He plays a heavy hand behind the scenes, but when in court, does not accept responsibility, as do the others. The other key difference between Captain Bligh and Queeg, is Queeg asks for help. This was the crisis of conscience moment that Maryk, Keith and Keefer did not jump on. The were resolved to consider mutiny instead rather than help their captain.

Ferrer, as is Bogart, is masterful in this movie. He eventually puts Queeg on the stand and through questioning, Queeg pulls out his ball bearings and waxes on for an eternity. The court sees first hand the paranoia and incompetence of Queeg and acquits the mutineers. Yet, the key moment is at the party celebrating the verdict. A drunken Ferrer shows up and points to Keefer and discusses the crisis of conscience moment. He is drunk because he crucified a witness (Queeg) who he felt did not totally deserve it. He makes sure the audience and others know of his utter disdain for Keefer, who pushed for the mutiny, but would not accept accountability in court. He also tells them, Queeg asked for your help and you ignored him and let him flounder.

To be honest, Ferrer as our conscience points out to the audience what they probably did not realize early on. The mutineers were culpable, as well. Unlike Bligh, Queeg with all of his imperfections asked for help. And, his seconds in command did not offer it. He was not saying Queeg was without fault. But, he was saying Keefer was more so than anyone and then when confronted in court, would not own up to his role.

Both of these movies are worth seeing. To my earlier point, leaders have a role to treat others with dignity and respect, if they want long term success. As I have said in other posts, if as a leader you do not, then you better be damn good at what you do, as people will question whether to go along with you or not. Bligh was damn good, but was a jerk to his subordinates. They needed his seamanship, but did not like the man. On a ship in the Navy, you have to follow orders or the ship will be in disarray and people and the mission could suffer. With the crew in such a confined space, they need to be working toward productive ends, or mischief can occur.

Queeg was paranoid more than anything else, so he focused on perceived slights and petty issues. He lost sight of the bigger picture. So, he did not inspire others to follow. People will follow an inspirational leader. People will follow someone who knows what they are doing. Hopefully, the leaders are both. Yet, there is an increasing body of evidence, that more introverted leaders are very successful, even more so than less competent, extroverted ones. But, in the end, they will follow someone who understands and respects the role of others in his or her success. When Queeg showed he was no longer competent and needed help, the fact he did not treat his men with respect and certainly was not inspirational, sealed his fate. Yet, at least he was smart enough to ask for help, when he knew he was lost. If they had responded, the mutiny need not have occurred.

Bligh, on the other hand, did not solicit or give the impression, he would tolerate any help. He did not treat his men with respect or dignity, so they served him out of fear. And, the court member who refused to shake his hand, summed up what we all felt about Bligh.

If you have seen these movies, what are your impressions and response to the above summaries and contrast? What are your thoughts on the subject of mutiny and the leadership vacuum it abruptly addresses?




Did Parsley Save Rosemary in Time?

I don’t know where I heard or read it, but a mother was telling the story about her young son riding in the backseat of her car asking this question after hearing the famous Simon and Garfunkel song on the radio. “Did he?” asked the boy. “Did what?” she replied. He answered with the obvious question, “Did Parsley save Rosemary in time?”

“Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme”  is a chorus from “Scarborough Fair,” one of my favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs, but if you are not a cook or an older eater, the lyrics can throw you. One of the most fun websites is called www.kissthisguy.com named appropriately after one of the most misunderstood lyrics of all time. For those who don’t know the famous Jimi Hendrix song, the song lyric from “Purple Haze” goes ” ‘scuse me while I kiss the sky.” But, like many, I misunderstood the lyric as it made sense. Someone doing acid decided to kiss this guy.

John Fogerty, of one of the greatest rock bands – Creedence Clearwater Revival – had a field day with misunderstood lyrics. His creative license to sing stretched the lyrics into unusual directions when he performed his songs. The most famous malapropism is “There’s a bathroom on the right.” This lyric is what most people heard, but what he was trying to say is “There’s a bad moon on the rise.” But, his music was so good, we did not care as much that we did not understand what he was saying.

Misunderstood lyrics even hit the Rolling Stones. One of my favorites is from “Beasts of Burden” when Mick was clearly heard to say “I”ll never leave your pizza burning.” Then there is the song “Jumpin Jack Flash.” This song is so hard to understand, when Whoopi Goldberg starred in the movie of the same name, her character had to listen to this Stones’ song for a clue to a password. After listening umpteen times and with more wine in her, her character blurts out “Mick, what in the f–k are you saying?”

Bon Jovi did not escape being misunderstood on occasion. Their anthem of the 1980’s “Livin on a Prayer” had a line that was heard by more than a few – “It doesn’t make a difference if we are naked or not.” This was likely his female audience having dreams about the lead singer, but I digress. My wife would be in the category.

Let me close with my two favorite misunderstood singers – Elton John and Elvis Costello. I think both are terrific performers and songwriters. Elvis Costello is more easily misunderstood as he has some very interesting lyrics on occasion. On some of his songs, I just had to get the CD out and see what the name of the tune was. “Oliver’s Army” is a great song, but I had a no idea what he was singing about at first. Then, there is “Watching the Detectives” as I ranged from watching with the dead girl to who knows what. Now, it is appropriately used by the “History Detectives” show as their theme song. And, if you really want to get confused listen to “New Laced Sleeves.”

Elton John has written some of the best music of all time and partnered with Bernie Taupin who wrote the lyrics to most. Their songs are classic and, if you ever go to an Elton John concert, you will witness several generations of family members singing his songs word for word. His is one of the most amazing concerts I have ever seen. It is good that everyone learned Taupin’s lyrics, as it is very hard to glean them from Sir Elton. You may say that I am all wet, as we all know the lyrics of their songs by now, yet when you heard them for the first time, you definitely had to pull out the album insert. This was before the internet. so we could not easily do a search. I will leave you with a few and let you match them up with the actual lyrics:

“Levon likes to warble like a clown.”

“She’s got electric boobs, a mohawk too…”

“Your cat can’t pee in the penthouse.”

“Hold me closer Tony Danza.”

Check out this website, if you have not already. I am sure you will find several lyrics you have heard differently than those intended by the author. And, the answer to the boy’s question, Parsley did save Rosemary in time. She was about to get run over by a bus on the way to Scarborough Fair and Parsley saved her in the nick of time.

American Winter clearly defines what poverty looks like

There is an excellent documentary on HBO called “American Winter” by Joe Gantz which tracks eight Portland families who are struggling in this economy. Please check it out at www.hbo.com/documentaries/american-winter. This documentary puts a face on poverty and shows what these families are dealing with during the economic crisis. Since I volunteer with an agency that helps homeless families, I can assure you the problems portrayed in Portland are in evidence in North Carolina and elsewhere in the United States. For example, the median family income of the homeless families we help at the agency is $9 per hour. With a living wage in NC of $17.68 for a one adult/ one child family, you can see how people are having a hard time.

These people are living paycheck to paycheck and it takes only one thing to cause them to lose their house. It could be the loss of one job or the cutback on hours worked. Or, it could be a healthcare crisis.  We have people in America who are struggling and even dying because of lack of healthcare. According to The American Journal of Medicine in 2009: 62% of bankruptcies in the US are due to medical costs and 75% of the people whose illnesses caused bankruptcy were not insured or were under insured. This is the key reason we need the Affordable Care Act and for states to permit the expansion of Medicaid to cover them.

Yet, rather than make this about healthcare, I want to focus on why we have people in such crisis. I addressed many of these issues in two companion posts last fall based on Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s book “The Rich and the Rest of Us.” The first post was written on October 20, 2012 and the second on October 29, 2012. We are not talking enough about our poverty problem in the US. The middle class problem is referenced often, but where did they go? Only a few moved up in ranks, where as the significant majority fell into poverty or near poverty.

As organizations have taken efforts to improve their profit margins dating back to the 1980s, we have seen a continuous downsizing and outsourcing of jobs. Since the early 1980s, the disparity between haves and have-nots became even more pronounced with the trickle down economics which has been proven to be unsuccessful, unless you were viewing it from the higher vantage point. As a result, there were multiple pressures on the middle class, which has led to its decline.  It only got worse when the economy went south. While there has been some repatriation of outsourced manufacturing jobs to the US, they have remained overseas for the most part.

So, if the worker did not stay up to speed with new technologies and, even if he did, there are fewer jobs for those without a college education. And, with the economic crisis, we have seen even having a college education is not enough these days. These unemployed did what they must, so where they could, started getting service jobs in retail, restaurant and hospitality industries. These jobs are near or at minimum wage and make you beholden to the number of hours you are permitted to work. Unfortunately, these jobs perpetuate poverty. You cannot afford healthcare and better food options and can barely afford rent. So, if something happens to your hours or job, you may lose your home.

The homeless families I have worked with work their fannies off. There are some I speak with in churches , who believe these families are homeless because they are less moral or virtuous and that is not it at all. Per Smiley and West’s book, poverty is the absence of money. Nothing more, nothing less. A few national stats to chew on:

– 40% of all homeless families in the US are mothers with children, the fastest growing segment;

– 75% of homeless children never graduate which perpetuates an ongoing cycle of homelessness; and

– 90% of homeless children suffer extreme stress; some worse than PTSD that former military face.

I mention these last two items, as even with all I say to the contrary, some people do not want to help the adults, who these obstinate people feel are totally responsible for their plight or are lazy. They see a chronic homeless panhandler on the street and paint all homeless people with that brush. That is a small, small subset of our homeless problem and, while we should help the chronic homeless people, there is a significant majority of homeless people who work hard, but cannot make it. Yet, I try to sell the concept of helping the kids. They did not sign up for being homeless and if we can help them, we can break the cycle of homelessness, the cost of caretaking is less, we gain a taxpaying citizen and we may be untapping a huge potential. The second place Intel Science Award winner in 2012 was a homeless girl, e.g.

We need to help these folks climb a ladder out of the hole they are in. It will be more beneficial to them and our society. And, we must provide educational paths forward, whether it be getting a GED, community or tech college schooling to learn new or improved skills. There have been some amazing things going in community colleges which can provide some paths forward. And, we need to pay people more. We have to improve the minimum wage to get at least to a living wage for an individual. It needs to be more, but if we can make that statement (making the minimum wage = a living wage) it speaks volumes and will help.

One of our dilemmas as a society is we must have a vibrant middle class to flourish. Unfortunately, the American Dream is a myth for many. We have one of the least upwardly mobile countries in the world. So, unless we make changes to our societal investments, we are destined to have only two economic classes of people. If you do not believe me, please check out my blogging friend Amaya’s website at www.thebrabblerabble.wordpress.com and check out the short video on economic disparity in our country. It is atrocious and unforgivable that this can happen in the US.

This is our collective crisis. Please watch “American Winter” or check out the above posts or Amaya’s. While “American Winter” highlights eight families, let me add a couple of more for you. One of our new Board members who works for a large bank was touring the homeless shelter and she came upon a colleague who was employed by the bank who was homeless. This stunned her that someone who worked at reasonable pay could end up homeless. Many live paycheck to paycheck in our country and it only takes a nudge for some to lose their home.

The other person I want to mention was living in a tent with her parents and younger siblings. Her dad was a construction worker and got some handy man jobs, but neither he nor his wife made enough to prevent losing their home. I highlight this teenager, as she would volunteer at a food bank to help others in need. Let me repeat this for emphasis. This homeless girl would volunteer to help people in poverty working at a food bank. We have helped this family get housed and they are climbing the ladder out of poverty. And, this young lady is now in college.

Let me shout this from the rooftops. Please help me become more vocal. We have a poverty problem in the US. We have a homeless problem in the US. We must help our neighbors and by helping them, we will help ourselves and country. Let’s help them climb these ladders. Let’s give them opportunities to succeed. If we don’t then we all will suffer.

Don’t Frack Us Over

My blogging friend Z at www.playamart.wordpress.com suggested we make fracking a new curse word, given what it does to the environment and people.

Don’t Frack Us Over….is a new slogan I would like to submit for your consideration.

Why is fracking a curse word when it provides access to all that natural gas?

  • Fracking takes 4 to 6 million gallons of water per frack. Each well has about ten fracks, so that is 40 to 60 million gallons per well. If you frack an area with 2,000 wells like they did Utah, that is 80 to 120 billion gallons of water.
  • Fracking water is loaded with chemicals to grease the skids and is highly toxic. Yet, the toxic water finds a way to get into the aquifers we drink from.
  • Fracking blasts arsenic, methane and mercury gases and particulates into the air. It cannot be fully contained given the intensity of water pressure.
  • Fracking destroys the infrastructure around an area with the heavy trucks, makeshift roads and degradation of surrounding property values.
  • Fracking water disposal underground has been proven as causing earthquakes in Arkansas, Ohio and England. In England, the fracker was shut down.
  • Fracking makes a huge amount of money for the fracker; a tidy sum for the landowner; and some local workers join many out-of-state workers. But, the problems are left for the community.
  • Fracking is not safe as portrayed by the industry when you read scientific reports and even the industry reports. See “Gasland,” a documentary movie.
  • Fracking received favored son status in the 2005 Energy Policy Act sidestepping the policing by the EPA under the Clean Air Act and Safe Water Drinking Act.  This provision was added by Vice President Dick Cheney, who is a former President of Halliburton, one of the largest frackers in the world. Why would he do this if fracking were safe?

Dr. Sandra Steingraber, a biologist, ecologist, an expert who has testified in front of the UN, European Parliament and US Congress, mother of two, bladder cancer survivor, and author of “Living Downstream” and “Raising Elijah,” is writing a book on fracking. She said in her books and speeches that fracking is one of the worst things we could possibly do to the environment. Steven Solomon who wrote a definitive history on “Water” noted that water is one of our two dearest resources and we need to be very protective of its supply. Fracking uses a huge amount of water, so my question is this where we want to use our water? You may scoff, but the farmers and frackers were fighting over water in Kansas this summer.

Don’t Frack Us Over

I do not want to live in a state that fracks. And, the business side of me says companies will not want to move to a state where fracking is done. The fracking prize is not worth the chase and is dwarfed by the cost of the problems it creates.

Apparently, I am not the only one who feels this way. Please check out www.artistsagainstfracking.com and you can see a video called “Don’t Frack My Mother” with cameos from various artists who are worried sick about the consideration of fracking in New York. As noted in my recent post a few days ago called “Anti-Environmental NIMBYism” fracking in New York is filled with even greater peril due to the proximity of the fracking sites to the aquifers that support the metro-New York area. This is tens of millions of people we are talking about.

But, let’s forget all that and go back to the very first point above. Fracking takes a huge amount of water. Water, we can ill-afford to lose to a process that does more harm than good. Even without global warming, we need to be concerned about our diminishing water supply. With global warming, it is even greater crisis we must deal with.

Don’t Frack Us Over

Who is Paul O’Neill and why should his opinions matter?

I am in the middle of a fascinating book by Charles Duhigg called “The Power of Habit – Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business” and a very useful example appears involving Paul O’Neill. The name rang a bell for another reason, but more on that later. Who is Paul O’Neill? O’Neill was the CEO who turned Alcoa around during his tenure from 1987 – 2000. He joined a company in turmoil, and under his leadership, the value of the company doubled and the annual revenue went from $1.5 Billion in 1987 to $23 Billion. How did he help Alcoa achieve these results?

Ironically, when he made his first speech to investors and stock analysts, they came away unimpressed. He was not a well-known quantity having served as a in the VA Administration, Office of Management and Budget and as a Vice President and President of International Paper. Yet, what he said in that speech gave everyone pause. He said “I want to talk about worker safety.” He went on to discuss how Alcoa had a horrible safety record and his goal was “to go for zero injuries.” Many stock analysts were stunned by this focus as he did not use any of the typical words around synergy or rightsizing, etc. Several told their clients to divest of Alcoa stock after that meeting. One analyst later said “It was the worst piece of advice I gave in my entire career.”

Why the focus? The purpose of the book is to understand the role habits play in everything we do. If you can find a keystone habit and get someone to change it, then other better habits will follow. Companies were no different. O’Neill recognized before he took the job, he needed to help Alcoa change, but the unions did not trust management, communication was poor and processes needed changing. So, he decided to focus on the one thing everyone could agree on – worker safety. By focusing on worker safety, he would help change that habit and watch it spillover.

O’Neill instituted a policy that his managers had to notify him of an accident in the company within 24 hours along with a plan on how we learned from it and how we could avoid it happening again. Many thought it was just window dressing, but two weeks into his tenure, a young man acted rashly to fix a machine and was killed. O’Neill took this to heart and said “I killed this man. All of us in this room killed this man.” Everyone saw this was meaningful and things started to change. But, it was more than safety improving. To receive a report within 24 hours with a plan, a leader needed to know about the accident, what happened and how it could be avoided. Communication up and down the ranks improved, so the safety improvements could be conveyed and understood.

To improve safety, though, you had to improve processes. You had to make things easier to work with and provide the equipment to be safe. Not only did safety improve, but so did productivity. And, with these better communications, ideas from the manufacturing floor started to flow up. Some of the ideas had been bottled up for years, but now people felt empowered to share them. And, before the internet got up and running, they were using an intranet to communicate these ideas which kept them ahead of the competition and let information pass quickly. So, the company took off, because of O’Neill’s purposeful focus on one keystone habit – let’s make our jobs safer.

Where the name sounded familiar is O’Neill became President George W. Bush’s first Secretary of the Treasury in January, 2001. However, with all of his success and track record, he was fired by December 31, 2002. Why? O’Neill was very outspoken in his criticism over the now famous “Bush Tax Cuts” and our going to war with Iraq. As Secretary of the Treasury, he had seen a report that said the US had a looming deficit problem that would require tax increases and spending cuts. That report was suppressed by Bush and we went ahead with the Bush Tax Cuts that unbalanced our surplus budget left by President Bill Clinton aided by his Chief of Staff, Erskine Bowles.

Quoting a footnote in the book, Duhigg notes “However, O’Neill’s politics did not line up with those of the President Bush, and he launched an internal fight opposing Bush’s proposed tax cuts. He was asked to resign at the end of 2002. ‘What I thought was the right thing for economic policy was the opposite of what the White House wanted,’ O’Neill told me. ‘That’s not good for a treasury secretary, so I got fired.'”

I put O’Neill’s quotes in bold for effect. I would add that Warren Buffett, another pretty smart cookie, largely said the same thing at the time. Buffett said “You are giving me a tax cut I do not need.” So, just to state the obvious:

– we had a balanced budget, even a small surplus;

– President Bush wanted to push tax cuts to stimulate the economy;

– his Secretary of Treasury, a pretty competent leader, reads a report that forewarns of deficits down the road and tells the President and Vice President Dick Cheney (by the way, he recommended Cheney to Bush’s father for Secretary of Defense), that tax cuts are not the right answer for the economy and we need increases and spending cuts;

– the President and Vice President (who wielded more power than many VPs) ignores his advice and asks him to resign;

– we now have budget deficits heightened by the Bush Tax Cuts and two unfunded wars; and

– we continue to fight over these Bush Tax Cuts and need to raise revenue as well as cut spending to address the deficit, two ideas the suppressed report and fired Secretary of the Treasury espoused in 2002, eleven years ago.

Hindsight is usually 20/20, but the last bullet is very important. We have leaders who refuse to see that we must increase tax revenue and cut spending. No greater authorities than Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles reached that same conclusion in the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Commission report. O’Neill, a very successful and competent CEO told his bosses, Bush and Cheney, this very thing and got fired. He also told them this before it would happen and before Bush actually threw gasoline in the fire and made it worse. Not to beat a dead horse, but Presidential historians have also noted President Bush as one of the worst presidents we have ever had and contrary to what his brother Jeb said last week, history will not judge him any better looking back from a future date.

So, to recap. Paul O’Neill, Warren Buffett, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, all pretty capable people, said we need tax increases and spending cuts to address our deficits.However, O’Neill said it in official capacity as Secretary of Treasury and got fired. And, now we are living with not only the failure to act, but actions taken by Bush that are perpetuated today. I think O’Neill and these other people’s opinions matter and we should listen to them.


Anti-Environmental NIMBYism

The term NIMBYism may not be universal, so it is key for all readers to understand its context. NIMBY stands for “Not in my back yard.” It is often used in local discussions to countervent where cities or counties may place less than desirable (as interpreted by the critics) projects. The project could range from a mental health facility to a homeless shelter to a landfill. Usually, the argument follows the pattern of “I support that we need this project, I just don’t want it in my backyard.”

My friend Hugh recently published an excellent post called “Miss America Conservatism” at www.hughcurtler.wordpress.com. His thesis is to speak about how people will be more inclined to rally around causes, when they are personally impacted. Senator Rob Portman’s announcing his support for gay marriage because his son is gay is a good example. In my comments, I equated this to making legislators witness the pain of the issues and policies they deal with, so that they may be less inclined to vote for a detrimental action and more inclined to help. I cited two examples which I will repeat here.

The first example relates to the atrocious, unhealthy water that has existed for over forty years at Camp Lejeune, a Marine base in eastern North Carolina. The water had a yellowish color and reeked, but no one would listen to the complaints of the Marines and the families. The children and adults were impacted by drinking, bathing and being exposed to this unhealthy water. After many years of fighting uphill battles with the military and Congressional leadership, they finally got a meeting on the base. What got the leaders attention is when the plaintiffs served the water on the base to drink. They made it the problem of the leaders. Finally, Senators Burr and Hagen (a Republican and Democrat) got the issue addressed. Since it was not in the back yards of their predecessors or leadership, they felt no need to act. Burr and Hagen stepped up for their neighbors.

The second example relates to a letter to the editor I read yesterday. We have some legislators in NC who are hell-bent on fracking for natural gas. If you read non-industry data (or even if you do and actually read the reports), fracking is one of the worst things we could possibly due to the environment and people who live near the fracking site. The water is chemically laden for fracking and it must be kept out of the aquifers. Yet, water finds a way, as it always has, and the fracking water leaks into the drinking water supply. There are many other bad things that occur, but let’s stick with the water for now. The letter to the editor said, if these guys want to frack, let’s bottle the water and have them drink it.

Since the fracking does not occur in their back yard, they do not or would not feel the pain that results from  fracking. So, if you are anti-environment in your policies, it is less a problem to the legislators as they don’t live there. It is “Anti-Environmental NIMBYism.” So, we need to make it an issue for them. The legislators need to know these decisions that wreak havoc on the environment are affecting people, the air they breathe and the water they drink.

Today, an article appeared in the paper regarding unusual groups of people coming together to combat the Keystone Pipeline. The unlikely constituents are ranchers, farmers, and environmental groups who are comprised of Republicans and Democrats. Why? Because the pipeline will run through their back yard. The pipeline will be laid close to very large aquifers that supply the ranchers, farmers and neighbors who live there. The industry says the pipeline will be perfectly safe, yet the same company who wants to build this pipeline has had over fifteen breaches in another pipeline they built in the past couple of years.

Being an Old Fart, when someone says something will never happen, my strong advice is to not believe them. Man-made things are not impervious to deterioration and will break if not maintained. They may break even if they are maintained. The breakdowns at the nuclear reactors in Fukushima Japan are clear evidence of nature finding a way. US companies said that those breaches could not happen here, yet Duke Energy has just shuttered a nuclear plant in Florida that it acquired from Progress Energy as they are having trouble fixing a fault in the reactor. And, Three Mile Island did occur in the United States.

I realize these are only examples, but they show we have to be ever-vigilant in our stewardship of the environment. When leaders make anti-environmental legislative decisions, they need to be made aware that they are affecting neighbors somewhere. The reason I encourage people to watch “Gasland” is it does not try to sensationalize the environmental devastation. It is one guy who lives near fracking sites in Pennsylvania who has gone out to talk to the neighbors in the US impacted by fracking. These people did not have enough clout to say NIMBY. They also were misled by the fracking industry that everything was safe. That was before they had illnesses, the water could be set on fire, their animals lost hair, and birds, fish and wildlife died from the toxic water leaking into the aquifers and arsenic, mercury and methane escaping into the air.

The frackers, like many developers, made their profits and got out. They left the problems for everyone else. They hoped to settle claims on the cheap and prayed that no one would come together to file a class action suit. Since it was NIMBY to the frackers, they did not care about the havoc they wreaked on the environment and people. We need to make them care. We need to let people making the decisions know that they are impacting people’s lives and livelihoods.

Let me close, though, with an even more fearful warning. Water is one of the two dearest resources we have on this planet along with air. Water is becoming more dear and there have been small and big fights over water. The frackers and farmers fought over water in Kansas this summer, e.g. and water debates are occurring in California and Georgia. These fights will get worse as we will have more droughts. Even without global warming, we would have these concerns. With the warming, it is going to accelerate the water concerns. We must be extremely careful where we place plants, pipelines, oil wells, fracking sites, etc.that use anything toxic. We can ill-afford to have leakage into our dear water supply. Fracking takes 4 to 6 million gallons per frack. With ten fracks per well, that is 40 to 60 million gallons of water. In Utah they are building, 2,000 fracking wells. That equates to 80 to 120 billion gallons of water.

Truth be told, the neighborhood being affected by these anti-environmental policies is much larger. If the water supply is compromised, it will be felt by many, even the legislators. If fracking is allowed in New York, it would be very close to the water that supplies metro-New York City. Folks, that should scare the crap out of those residents. And, there are tens of millions of them in that neighborhood. NIMBY will take on a whole new meaning, if we screw up our water.

We Americans sure do complain when we should celebrate

I think if Americans were to hold up a mirror to see the image the rest of the world sees, we would agree that we tend to complain a lot. We are especially good at complaining about things that are not very important. In an earlier post called “The United States of Entertainment” back on January 20, 2013, I mentioned we are one of the least informed, but most entertained countries in the world. I won’t even try to list the number of inane things we argue about, but I do want to highlight some of the things we should celebrate. To be honest, we still have it pretty damn good here.

While our system of government is not perfect, it is one of the best constructed governments in the world. It has stood the test of time of some of the most inane and disingenuous politicians. It has provided structure and invited improvements made over time, such as freeing the slaves, providing voting rights to women and assuring equal civil rights for all to name an important few. Yet, it still exists and we still flourish.

A key facet of our system of government is the peaceful transition of power. This facet cannot be overstated as to permit the baton to be passed to another leader without a coup or military intervention is amazing. I recognize other countries do this, but there are many who do not, so it is something to celebrate. Some countries even pass the baton to a relative. I still have a trouble with this. Being related does not make you better or worse, it just means you are related. What gives Raul Castro the right to succeed his brother, e.g.?

Another is the ability to peacefully assemble and air grievances. I find it ironic, that some of our more strident citizens can come together even with malicious mission statements, to complain about a government that gives them the freedom to do this. The only price the government asks is the peaceful assembly and doing no harm to others. Our country gives people the freedom to be the biggest boneheads in the world. That is truly something to celebrate in Civics and Economics class.

Being able to assemble to air grievances (or for any matter) is key, as we are huge melting pot of diversity. I love this about our country. We can go to many corners of our country and see all kinds of Americans of different races, ethnic origins, country origins and sexual persuasions. It shows up in a fusion of our food, music and arts. And, it shows up in our innovations. I read once that innovation shows up most in the intersections of different circles of people. I have witnessed this first had and believe this is a greatness of America. It is the reason why Steve Jobs wanted his Apple employees to come in to work to create those intersections.

Finally, we live in a country, where it is OK for me to write an email or letter and call my representatives when I disagree with them or to encourage them to vote a certain way. I can do this without repercussion. As long as I am civil and avoid name calling, the message will be read by someone. I have received tailored emails and standard emails, but at least they responded. Yet, I am most appreciative of someone who takes the time to write something, even when they disagree with my position.

If you have read my others post, I am aware we are not perfect and have real issues that we need to deal with (and not who needs to be voted off Survivor or win American Idol). With that said, our country has turned the corner on the economy and is on the road to recovery. The stock market has roared back to better than it was before the crisis even hitting new all-time highs. Jobs are coming back and the numbers have been on a steady climb for almost three years. Housing prices have largely rebounded and homes sales are occurring at a faster pace. There are pockets of slowness, but the signals look good.

Outside of the tempest in the Middle East, which remains so very difficult to figure out for anyone, our standing in the globe has measurably improved per the surveys I have seen (please refer to an earlier post “Outside Looking In – the World View of our Election dated September 1, 2012). When the President came into office, we had a much lower reputation per the survey data. Part of this is due to the significant efforts of a well-known female Secretary of State who was a walking commercial for letting women have the opportunity to succeed. The other part is electing a President who does not look like any of his predecessors. For our country to elect its first African-American President, speaks and spoke volumes to the rest of the world. A more outward policy also helped.

So, let’s work together to figure out our problems. But, let’s relish in the good things that make us Americans. Let’s celebrate the positive news that things are improving. We still can and will complain, but let’s make it more informed complaining rather than about contrived or unimportant issues. Fracking and poverty are issues. What Honey Boo-Boo said is not.