What does a homeless person look like?

I have written several times before about helping people who are impoverished or homeless. As a volunteer for an agency who helps homeless families, I often surprise people when I tell them that the homeless families we help have jobs, sometimes more than one. People have a mental image of a the chronic homeless man who they may find panhandling. What is ironic, the chronic homeless are only a small percentage of homeless people and, in fact, some panhandlers are not homeless at all and entrepreneurial minded folks. Yet, make no mistake, we should help the chronic homeless because it is the right thing to do, but it is also more cost-effective to provide direct services than to jail them.

But, the people I am writing about today are acute homeless people who have lost their home due to the loss of a job, a medical care emergency, reduced hours at work, the loss of a healthcare, domestic violence, a substance abuse issue, etc. It should be noted on the latter issue, homeless people have no greater propensity toward substance abuse than housed people. The people are living paycheck to paycheck like 47% of Americans. It only took an event like the loss of a job to push them out of their house. I wrote about some of these issues in “American Winter clearly defines what poverty looks like” which can be found with the following link. https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2013/03/23/american-winter-clearly-defines-that-what-poverty-looks-like/.

The homeless families we help look like the folks in the “American Winter” documentary. For example, a homeless family may look like:

a mother with two children who is working as a teacher assistant making $11/ hour and a nowhere to be found father;

– a father and mother with three children, where the dad lost his bank job and is working at a fast food restaurant making $7.25/ hour and the mom is working $9/ hour as a receptionist;

– a mother of three children who is the victim of domestic violence and has gotten a new job as a Sales Associate for a clothing store making $8.50/ hour; and

– a teen mother who has one child out-of-wedlock as she did not have access to birth control and the boy she loved pressured her into intercourse without protection; she is now working a customer service representative job making $10/ hour.

To support these pictures, a few statistics might help.

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

– 75% of homeless children never graduate high school.

– 90% of homeless children suffer extreme stress and worry about the bad things happening to their family.

What can be done? Key factors into homelessness are lack of education, lack of skills training, lack of affordable healthcare, unmanageable family size, no or an exhausted network of friends/ family, too much debt and a low minimum wage. We need to continue and increase funding in our community college programs to enable homeless adults to get GEDs, (for non-Americans this is a high school equivalency degree), develop skills and go to college. We need to identify and keep the homeless kids in schools. If we break the cycle, then the child benefits and the community benefits.

We need to increase the minimum wage as these jobs perpetuate poverty at the level it is. A living wage for one person in my area is $9.67/ hour and living wage for a mother with one child is $17.68/ hour. We need to help people by paying it forward. Connect people in jobs with better job opportunities. We need to continue forward with the Affordable Care Act and the states who have not expanded Medicaid need to do so. In not so doing, you are harming your most fragile citizens. And, we need to make birth control and education (you can get pregnant on the first time, how to say no, you must use a condom, e.g.) more accessible to manage family size before the mother is ready.

We need to help people climb the ladders out of poverty. Don’t do for them what they can do for themselves, unless it is truly an emergency such as they have just been evicted or a husband has beaten his wife and kids for the last time and they need a place to go. Once the emergency subsides, help them climb a ladder. Our program matches housing subsidy dollars based on the ability of the family to pay rent, but they also must work with a social worker and a team of volunteers to gain help with mentoring, budgeting, and making better decisions. They must save funds while in the shelter before moving to their own apartment. They must buy their holiday presents (on a discounted basis) so they can keep their dignity while sharing the holiday experience like we all do. They must attend classes called “Bridges Out of Poverty” so they can make better decisions, ask more questions, and use their dollars more wisely. If they save enough, we also help them with an interest free loan to buy a donated car. A 0% loan versus a 23% loan on a car, makes a huge difference.

Homeless people look like you and me. Their kids look like our kids. They have the same dreams, but don’t have the same opportunities. They don’t have or have exhausted their network to help them get jobs (or their network is in the same boat). And, as a minister in my town once said, “if we help these homeless kids, you have no idea how much intellectual capital resides in them which we can nurture.” Let’s give them a helping hand. We may be helping  someone become a robotics engineer or biologist. If you find that amusing, last year’s Intel Science winner was a homeless girl who conducted an interesting marine biology experiment. Let me close by saying, if you help people in need by helping them help themselves, the psychic income to you is huge. You will feel like you are doing something very important – and, you are.

We cannot outlaw stupidity

I often hear the argument that we should not try to regulate people’s lives so much. They should be free to choose behaviors or actions that a more reasonable person may not make. That is all well and good, but there is one major stumbling block to this thesis – we cannot outlaw stupidity. And, to the extent behaviors or actions are taken that will either cost others to repair or that might impact or be harmful to others, then we need to have some regulations to not only protect people from themselves, but also protect others from the unwise actions of a few.

Seat Belts and Motorcycle Helmets

I have paired these two items together as they are related. I think some may not like the requirement to use seatbelts, but it is more universally understood that this saves lives. Yet, some still don’t wear them.The same could be true for motorcycles helmets, but some states have relaxed this requirement. That is poor stewardship at the state level. Why do I say this? If you are on a motorcycle and crash, you will either die or be so severely injured, that medical costs will be significant. And, you may still die. First, if you are without insurance the cost of your medical care is borne by taxpayers and insured patients through allocated indigent costs. Second, if you have coverage, you are leaving the added cost to your family to take care of you and pay for deductibles, co-insurance, etc. The same holds true for seatbelts. For a good discussion on the topic check out http://diatribesandovations.com/2013/05/12/0512-sun-diatribe/ for her post last week called “Diatribe: Six (Sad) Reasons People Might Not Wear Seatbelts.”

Texting while Driving

Some states have begun to intervene on limiting texting while driving. It is long overdue. A statistic this week said more teenagers are now killed in car accidents while the driver is texting than when the driver is inebriated. Also, more teenagers are injured as a result in the same comparison. Being a parent, seeing the devastated parents share the final important words that had to be texted by their child before he or she died breaks your heart. When your child does something very foolish and lives that is one thing, but when your child does not live as a result, it leaves you so distraught over “what if I had said not to do it one more time?” Teenagers are impulsive and will act foolishly. That cannot be stopped. But, we can make it illegal and maybe, just maybe, that will save a car load of seventeen year olds.

Payday Lending

This is a predatory lending practice that should be outlawed. Payday lending is very close to usury and we know how Jesus felt about usury and money handlers. And, If you like Dante’s Inferno, there is a special level in Hell for these folks. Yet, they persist and our conservative and error prone legislature in NC wants to allow them back into the state. Last December I wrote a post on the vagaries of payday lending which you can go to with this link: https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/pay-day-lending-there-is-a-reason-they-spam-you/. The problem is the average Joe does not know how bad these arrangements are and they can get over their head very quickly. Hence, regulations are needed to prevent them from loaning to people or they need to be severely, and I mean severely restricted and subject to the same limits as banks allowing for an acceptable margin for riskier loans. You should also note, payday lenders have a habit of preying on our military families setting up shop en masse outside of a base taking advantage of one spouse, while the other is overseas.

Gun Ownership

Let me close with a discussion on this topic. Since guns are part of our culture, we are never going to outlaw guns in our country, yet we need tighter controls than we have. This is not a fishing license and when you get outside of a NRA rally, the majority of gun owners and most Americans concur that tighter restrictions are needed. As evidence to my argument and in support of the theme of this post, note the following three stories all of which occurred in the last three weeks.

– Five-year old child kills two-year old sister with rifle made for kids and sold as such.

– Eight-year old child kills five-year old cousin with a 22 Rifle.

– Eighty-eight-year old man kills eighty-year-old female roommate over an argument over his beer drinking on Sunday morning when she returned from church.

Unfortunately, these stories are not a surprise or that unusual in the US. We lead the civilized world in child gun deaths and all gun deaths by far. In fact, 87% of all child gun deaths of the top 23 countries in the world occur in the US. That means 87 out of 100 occur here, with 13 out of 100 occurring in the other 22 countries.

Gun ownership is serious business. We should require background checks on all gun purchases with no exception. And, if someone downloads this plastic gun and uses a 3D printer, then they need to register that purchase or go to jail. I would go further and require training as it is obvious from the above the parents owning these guns are akin to a monkey with a hand grenade. They will live with their tragic mistakes for the rest of their lives, but to be frank, they should be tried with involuntary manslaughter for leaving a loaded gun around. Our society owes it to these kids to protect them from irresponsible parents or parents who made a horrible, but preventable mistake. I would ask a jury to decide their fate between the two.

We need regulations as we cannot outlaw stupidity. Also, many services and product sales are complicated, so we need governance over these sales. That is a key reason we have consumer protection laws as many less than financially astute people may be wooed by promises of more money, better returns, better results, etc. and make a very foolish choice. In truth, many of us make less than informed choices. We trust the commercials, we trust the words of people in suits and ties, we trust more than we should. We need to ask more questions and, if we don’t feel comfortable, we should find someone we trust to ask them for us. In short, we all have varying degrees of stupidity, even the smartest people among us. Since we cannot outlaw stupidity, we certainly need to protect us from ourselves and each other.

Lesson to Leaders – We need you not to cheat

Paraphrasing a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher: It matters less that you lied to me, as it matters more that I can no longer trust you. In any relationship, this quote describes the unfortunate epiphany when one realizes that another party has lied to them. Trust is built over time, day by day, brick by brick. Yet, a lie can bring the whole building down and cause you to re-earn that trust. Today, I want to focus on leadership letting us down by not shooting straight with us. Oftentimes, when a leader lies or cheats, it is to protect his job or gain a huge return.

Many of the companies who failed us under the financial crisis – Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Wachovia, Merrill Lynch, Washington Mutual, AIG and so on, either no longer exist, were bought by someone else or received a huge bailout to make it through. Some of the bigger ones who survived, such as Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and Citigroup, are still dealing with issues they perpetuated or acquired from one of the above companies. At the heart of these problems were companies trying to make huge amounts of money off selling mortgage loans to people who could not afford them, packaging the bad loans in bundles and selling them off as reasonable assets. One of the fallacies of spreading risk by bundling is if all of the risk is crap, it won’t be better when bundled.

Yet, the leaders of these companies failed to be good stewards to the customers, fellow employees and managers, shareholders and regulators. If you read “Crash of the Titans” about Merrill Lynch and Bank of America, you will realize that only a handful of people in Merrill knew what was going on, but the CEO lied to his other direct reports and lied to his shareholders when questioned. As a result, the shareholders and public were misled. If you follow-up on Lehman Brothers, who went under, you will see that the CFO moved $50 million to the onshore books from the offshore books for the regulators’ eyes and then moved it back again. This was reported by “60 Minutes.” Yet, to this day, no one from Lehman has gone to jail.

In each of these cases, you will find cheating and lying at the heart of the story. As I have said in earlier posts, the banking industry used to be one of the more trusted professions, but these liars and cheaters (let’s call them what they are), breached this trust. Some conservative leaders balk at the requirements of Dodd-Frank regulations which introduced accountability and the creation of the Consumer Finance Protection Agency initially run by now Senator Elizabeth Warren. This agency has already fined financial companies over $600 million (as of last summer) and counting for malfeasance and misrepresentation. So, the answer to those who balk is “tough, these foxes brought it on themselves and we have to guard the henhouse.”

Unfortunately, this plays out in spades in political circles. We have legislators who are so beholden to their funders, they are less inclined to tell you what they think, as they must go along with what the funders think. Please refer to my previous post on “The Routine Bigger Conspiracies” for how this misrepresentation can manifest itself on some bigger issues. It goes even further when we look at the job preservation motivation. Legislators worry more about keeping their job than doing their job. This is the very reason nothing has happened on gun control laws. They are failing to do the right thing because of a huge funding source in the NRA.

Recognizing that the GOP congressional leaders seem too zealous on the Benghazi episode, when you set aside the unhealthy motivation of “gotcha politics,” there are legitimate questions that need to be asked and answered. If the President had been less concerned with spin-doctoring from the outset, some of these questions would not exist. The real answer would seem to be “we failed to read the risks correctly and we did not have protection in place and people died.” The same goes for Senator Mitch McConnell who had a report buried in October (as reported by the New York Times) that showed trickle down economics failed to work. As this was key talking point of the GOP Presidential candidate, it seemed to be politically motivated.

I have also noted on several occasions over my disdain over the previous administration’s fabrication of a story of Weapons of Mass Destruction based on faulty data. People would say they did not know, but that is not true as Scooter Libby, who worked for Karl Rove, went to jail for something Rove later said he knew about as well. As you recall, Libby leaked the name of Valerie Plame to the press, who was a CIA operative and whose husband (and former ambassador) reported at the behest of the CIA that there were no nuclear building materials being sent to Iraq by Libya. This report was misused by Bush/ Cheney and when the ambassador complained in the press, Libby leaked Plame’s name to discredit him. In essence, this is one of the smoking guns that showed Bush/ Cheney lied to the American people and many Americans have paid the ultimate price for this deception.

And, it also flows to state and local politics. To give some brief examples, in NC the Speaker of the House knew he did not have enough votes on a bill, so he sent everyone home at midnight only to call everyone back in from a 1 am vote. He knew others would leave, so he alerted his crowd to pass the word to stay and the yea votes now outnumbered the no votes. On a bill to move the potential to frack for natural gas, one of the legislators voted yes incorrectly and rushed forward to say she needed to change her vote. It was not allowed and the bill passed by one vote. Last week, a NC Committee Chair knew he did not have enough votes, so he took a voice vote – all in favor say “aye” all opposed say “no.” He purposefully heard the loudness differently than others, bragged beforehand he would find a way, and said it passed.

We citizens, customers and shareholders need you to do business in the right way. When you cheat, we seem to be the ones who get screwed. As I told one the Committee Chair, I do not care if you disagree with me, but I do care if you cheat. I said I did not know your name last week, but now I do. Please help us hold people accountable. When you hear that someone does not want regulation, I can assure you it the voice is echoing what is told to them by those who are regulated. We need less bureaucracy, but make no mistake, the foxes need regulation. Someone has to hold people accountable, because it is obvious that market and legislative practices will not.

The Routine Bigger Conspiracies

Washington and the media tend to love a good conspiracy. I do not want to let anyone believe this post is ridiculing the need to understand better what transpired at Benghazi, yet the story has become more on the unhealthy aspects of the investigation. I think the Congressional Committee has every right to ask questions, but at the same time I do questions some motivations as we live in a world of “gotcha politics” where someone has to win and someone has to lose. As an Independent voter, I see the opposing parties purposefully disagree, as they dare not agree on something the other side said.

Yet, what we often overlook in the sensationalism involved with these events are the conspiracies that happen everyday. These more routine failures to look at issues and how to solve them allows special interest groups to conspire to leverage the issues for their gain. And, as a result, we average citizens end up losing as we don’t have healthy debate about issues of import or shine spotlights on areas where we should. Let me mention a few as they are so very important:

Global Warming is Hoax – this conspiracy troubles me greatly, as global warming is definitely not a hoax and, as reported today, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is at a very precarious level. The hoax crowd have the full backing of the fossil fuel industry who stands to gain from the perpetuation and advancement of more drilling for oil and natural gas. And, with their significant funding of the Republican Party, Tea Party and ALEC (who feeds langauge to conservative state legislatures), the war on the environment is waged with money and misinformation. The scorecard you should pay attention to is 97% of scientists believe it is happening and man-influenced, but only 26% GOP congress people. That is a startling differential.

Drones Make us Safer – while I am not a fan of drones, I had previously understood their role in warfare. Yet, my blogging friends Hugh and Barney have convinced me that the use of drones is actually not making us safer, but quite the opposite. The use of drones, coupled with night raids in Afghanistan (where our troops crash through the door to get a perceived bad guy, but kill innocent people), and the prison torture and inhumane conditions actually make us less safe. America is not seen as the “shining city on the hill” as much as it once was. In fact, we are more despised in the Middle East than before and our allies question are methods. We have to be better than this.

People in Poverty are lazy and less virtuous – you would think with so many white-collar workers who have been downsized, right sized, RIFed, laid off, furloughed, and fired, this perception would change, but it has not. Poverty is the absence of money – period. We have 48% of Americans living paycheck to paycheck. We have 50 million people in poverty. We have people with college degrees working for minimum wage jobs which perpetuate poverty. This is where the middle class went. Yet, the Democrats do not talk enough about this issue and the GOP is kicking the fragile millions in the groin and stepping on them. I have said this to GOP leaders – poverty knows no political party. It is an equal opportunity offender. So, when you cut unemployment, give tax breaks to the wealthy, increase regressive taxes on the poor, not extend healthcare, not increase the minimum wage, and restrict voter rights you are not helping those who need it. All of these plans are right out of the ALEC playbook.

Guns are not the problem – this one insults my intelligence and should insult every American, including gun owners. It stymies me that people can be led to believe that gun deaths have nothing to do with guns. I know the issue is bigger than just guns – we have a more uncivil society, we have a more depressed society, we have a violent culture which is in our face daily, and we have poverty which leads to crime. But, make no mistake, of course it is the less constrained access to guns and assault weapons that are a key part of the problem. The NRA also heavily influences the GOP as the GOP knows they have to appease this voter base to garner their votes. This permits the GOP to perpetuate an agenda that is not in the best interests of most of its voters. Yet, the problem of kids killing kids will occur every day. When a 5-year-old kills his 2-year-old sister as occurred last month or a child shoots his brother in the bathtub as occurred this month, this is not a surprise in America. The shocked and now mourning parents may be surprised, but I am not. It is like parking your car on the street and then being surprised when someone hits it.

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There are more daily conspiracies I could mention, but I wanted to highlight a few that give me pause. These conspiracies are preventing debate on effectuating needed change. I will save some more conspiracies for next time. Please help shine a spotlight on these issues. Please share your thoughts with others. And, with it being Mother’s Day, we should honor our mothers by dealing with these issues.

I’ve Loved These Days – Tribute to Billy Joel

So before we end and then begin
We’ll drink a toast to how it’s been
A few more hours to be complete
A few more nights on satin sheets
A few more times that I can say
I’ve loved these days

While the choice is so very hard, this is the end to my favorite Billy Joel song – “I’ve Loved These Days.” It is not his most famous, but like many, it is very pure and heartfelt. I have not written a tribute to Billy Joel before, as it is quite difficult to hone down to a list of songs to highlight. One of these days, I will attempt The Beatles, Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen, but for now let my highlight one of the best songwriters of our time, William Martin Joel.

I like this song for the somber remembrance and the quiet echo of we are mortal, so let’s make the best of it. He has so many songs like this which have both meaning and wonderful music to highlight the words. As with other tribute posts, I am going to stay away from the biggest hits, yet I will mention some below. Another melancholy song along these same lines is “Summer, Highland Falls.” Here is a brief taste of lyrics:

How thoughtlessly we dissipate our energies
Perhaps we don’t fulfill each others fantasies
And as we stand upon the ledges of our lives,
With our respective similarities
It’s either sadness of euphoria

This song is a little more unique, as his wordsmithing and tune is catchy, but the words are so powerful. I take away from this song that none of us are perfect, so let’s do the best we can to fulfill each other. The choice is sadness or euphoria.

Another favorite is one of several where he shows his love for New York City. This if from “A New York State of Mind”:

Some folks like to get away,
Take a holiday from the neighborhood.
Hop a flight to Miami Beach or to Hollywood.
But I’m takin’ a Greyhound on the Hudson River line.
I’m in a New York state of mind.

While many of his songs are reflective and focus on our imperfect humanity (“Honesty”, “Captain Jack”, and “The Stranger”, Joel is quite the romantic and nostalgic person. A wonderfully written song, which needs to be listened to carefully is “She’s Always a Woman”. Here is a very small sample, as you cannot take this song out of context:

But, she’ll bring out the best
And the worst you can be
Blame it all on yourself
Cause she’s always a woman to me

The message to me is his lover is her own person. She will think for herself, so it is up to you to understand this and, if you do, then you can have a wonderful, meaningful relationship. If you don’t, then you better get out-of-the-way, as she wants someone who will love her for herself and not who you want her to be.

The romantic comes out in “Just the Way You Are”, “Tell Her About It”, “You’re My Home”, “Uptown Girl” and “She’s Got a Way”. But, the nostalgic songs are great as well. “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”, “Only the Good Die Young” and “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” are excellent samples. One of my favorite nostalgic songs is “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” the song about Brenda and Eddie who were the king and queen of the prom, got married but divorced early and could never go back again. The song starts and ends at our favorite Italian place with a melancholy accordion playing in the background:

A bottle of red, and bottle of white
Whatever kind of mood you’re in tonight
I’ll meet you anytime you want
In our Italian Restaurant

Joel is most known for his first, most memorable hit “Piano Man” although he did make the charts earlier with “The Entertainer” an appropriately named song. Piano Man is sung as limerick and tells the tales of grandeur of all of the folks at the bar. The song concludes:

And the piano sounds like a carnival. And the microphone smells like a beer. And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar. And say “Man what are you doing here?”

Sing us a song you’re the piano man. Sing us a song tonight.  Well we’re all in the mood for a melody. And you’ve got us feeling alright

Thank goodness, Joel was given a much bigger platform to sing than this piano bar. I have left off so many songs, many of my favorites. I did not want to make this post a list, as it easily could have been. If you have not truly discovered Joel click here: http://www.billyjoel.com. If you have and want to wax nostalgic, go for a ride on the Hudson River Line with Billy as well. I will leave you with some lines from “Everybody Has a Dream”:

So let me lie and let me go on sleeping
And I will lose myself in palaces of sand
And all the fantasies that I have been keeping
Will make the empty hours easier to stand
I know that everybody has a dream
Everybody has a dream
And this is my dream, my own
Just to be at home
And to be all alone…with you.

Thanks Billy. Like you “I’ve Loved These Days.”

Innovative Education Idea to Solve Current Problems

The PBS Newshour has been doing a series on innovative education ideas that have been gleaned from around the country. For example, last night they did one on a solar-powered Exploratory Museum on the San Francisco Bay. One that recently caught my eye is a very interesting idea that is being done in a Portland, Maine public middle school.  In Portland, they  are using a concept called Expeditionary Learning where they are asking students to help solve problems in the world. In essence, they marry all curriculum toward this purpose, but more on that later.

This year in science they taught this group of diverse kids with three separate team projects over the course of the year. At first, the kids said there is no way we can do this, but they found a path forward and learned something about themselves along the way. The first project involved developing and programming a robot to gather ping-pong balls. The teams designed, built and then competed with their robots against other teams. So, they learned not only the science, but the engineering aspects, as well. Plus, they collaborated and interacted socially toward a common purpose.

The second was to design a wind mill that could power at least one volt. The kids learned first of the global warming crisis facing our planet and our need to use more renewable energy. But, they also had to design and build a windmill so it would operate and generate electricity.The winning team powered around 6 volts. The final project was to design a life changing improvement after feeding the kids some ideas of what they mean. One of the ideas highlighted was a young girl created a sponge that would generate electricity when used to clean in a circular motion.

But, they did not stop there with only the science expeditionary learning. The married other curricula with the science class curriculum. The Social Studies class had them explore and write a proposal to the Maine Legislature on the most productive places to build windmills. The class had to research the geography and wind dynamics of the state and look at some of the peripheral issues. And, in English they studied the book “The Boy who Harnessed the Wind,” about a boy in Africa who made his own windmill to power his family’s home and farm.

At the end of the year, these kids were excited like never before about science and engineering. As they teamed together, they also became more articulate. My wife caught the last part of the news piece and was amazed to learn the kids talking were 8th graders. She commented that these kids sounded like college students. Since 8th grade is such a hormonally challenging year, this was pretty cool to see these kids work together and mature in more ways than one.

In North Carolina, an eco-energy effort at Appalachian State University is partnering with some philanthropic funding sources placing windmills on college and school properties and partnering with the schools to teach the students about wind energy. The windmills power the school. I believe that marrying innovative education ideas with innovative ideas like eco-energy will have a profound effect on our students, but our future as well. Solar and wind energy get more scalable every day, but if we begin to teach our kids more about these efforts, we will benefit from their ideas for further improvements. I believe this kind of Expeditionary Learning could be applied to other kinds of problems and areas where innovation has started.

With Appalachian State University’s efforts in NC, for example, I believe with the significant push Duke Energy is making in wind and solar energy, coupled with firms like Semprius and Strata Solar, NC has the opportunity to marry these mutual needs and move more aggressively to renewable energy. As NC is the 5th most prolific solar-powered state and has so much wind energy opportunity in the mountains and on the coast, the opportunity is ripe. The kids will learn, the state will benefit and another result is most of those jobs in solar and wind energy are local, so the economy will benefit.

A final point about these novel ideas. They are replicable in other states. Solar and wind energy can be large or small efforts, so they can more readily be up and running well before a fossil fuel power plant. And, in so doing they can make a huge difference.

Seriousness of Purpose for our Legislators

Like many in America, I am troubled by the lack of seriousness of purpose in our legislators, whether they be on the national, state or local level. What do I mean by seriousness of purpose? We have become so polarized in our mainstream political parties, that people with very strident and even extreme views are now elected officials. This would normally be quite entertaining, especially with some extreme members of Governor Bobby Jindal’s self-named “stupid party,” but what is sad is these people are in office offering inane legislation and making decisions on behalf of their extreme views of the greater good. We need for the more reasonable members of each party to quiet down the inanity in their own ranks. We need more seriousness of purpose in the debate of issues of import, not issues heralded by the lunatic fringe.

People wonder what it would be like if the GOP controlled the White House, the House of Representatives and Senate. You would need to look no further than my home state of NC, whose tenure is now being referred to by others as the “Reign of Error.” Esquire Magazine has said NC is trying to become like Mississippi, which was not intended to be compliment, although I like people from that state. And, various scientific magazines are highly critical of the parade against green legislation that has been successful in curbing carbon emissions and pushed NC to be the 4th most prolific solar energy state in the US. On a weekly, sometimes daily basis, there is a bill or law to hurt those in need, make it easier for business to pollute, eliminate some taxes on billionaires (as they need a break), restrict the rights of voters, introduce state-wide religion (that was defeated), peel back requirements promoting alternative energy, ignore climate change, strip away requirements on LEED building, cut down trees for more electronic billboards, not accept a report on predicted sea level rise that agreed with other states and so on.

When inane bills are proposed, if they are not squashed by reasonable leadership, it reflects poorly on their party. It is hard to take people seriously when they are offering legislation that does not help the greater good and is actually the exact opposite of what is needed. It is hard for us citizens to see embarrassing legislation discussed. The leadership needs a seriousness of purpose otherwise they will be viewed as supporting the inane bill. Just today, the Charlotte Observer had an editorial about an inane bill in SC, saying it was nice for them to take the spotlight off NC’s inane legislature.

Two examples that never seem to go away reflect on our President. As a 54 year-old white voter, I am amazed that the leadership of the GOP would not tell the strident people in their party to give it a rest on the issue of the President’s birth certificate and whether he is really a Muslim. This would not happen if Obama had a white father, so of course, there is an element of racism here. I won’t even go into the lunatic fringe that think Obama is the anti-Christ. To John McCain’s credit he did try to quiet one woman who spouted how evil Candidate Obama was – McCain finally said “he is a decent, public servant.” But, his voice was not loud enough to quiet down the naysayers that continue to this day. Unfortunately, some of these folks got elected.

Yet, getting back to our legislators, we have people who are spouting creationism as science, who want to introduce their religion on people even though our forefathers clearly separated church and state with purpose, who are have interesting views on areas of birth control, conception, God’s punishment with natural disasters, and who have some fairly biased opinions on people of different races, ethnicities, and sexual orientation. There is an US Congressmen from Tennessee who promotes “faith and trust” as his campaign slogan and is against abortion. Yet, this elected official has had multiple affairs, sexual encounters with his patients, and his wife and two of his mistresses have had abortions. Unfortunately, he is has competition for the most bizarre elected official.

We have serious issues and we need serious discussion by serious people. We do not need inane politicians that either embody Bobby Jindal’s assertion or actually know better, but have dumbed down their message to appeal to an audience who does not pay attention. There are actually a couple of Ivy League educated legislators who are guilty of this. This could be construed as Machiavellian. By the way, Bobby Jindal is one of them, as his state has a law that requires the teaching of creationism as a science. Jindal has a degree in Biology from Brown University. As Forrest Gump would say “stupid is as stupid does.”

The legislators’ seriousness of purpose is owed to us as citizens. We also need it with our news reporters. They spend too much time on the game of politics (who won or lost on an issue) or gotcha politics where someone must be vilified for a flawed act, rather than the issues of import. The questions they should be asking are the same ones the legislators need to focus on. What are you doing about jobs? What are you doing about eco-energy investment? What are you doing to curb the deficit, increasing some revenue while cutting some spending and investing in our infrastructure? What are doing about real immigration reform and gun control? These issues need sober debate, but above all they need to be debated by politicians with seriousness of purpose.

Help people find jobs by paying it forward

In my non-paying job, I spend time helping those who help people in need. In particular, I focus my efforts on homeless families, 84% of whom have jobs. Yet, the jobs are insufficient to pay their bills and when a crisis occurs, they end up losing their home. People who are in or near poverty are living paycheck to paycheck, so they are in a perilous situation as well. And, they number over 50,000,000 in the US. In fact, a statistic I have used frequently is 48% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. To see more on how fragile these families are, I would encourage you to watch the documentary “American Winter” which I wrote about on March 23, 2013.

One of the similarities I have witnessed about homeless families or people in poverty is their network of people they can get help from is either non-existent, exhausted or in a similar predicament. I mention this as when people who are doing pretty well are in need of something, they have a network of people to whom they can reach out. For example, I often am approached by friends, colleagues or family, about assisting someone they know network about a job or field of study. One of the reasons is I have been in business for a long time, so I have many contacts. Yet, the other reason is they know I will try to help. I tell people often I enjoy helping people network. It is my way of paying it forward.

When we think about how we can help people in poverty or in trouble, helping them network or connect to others is a way to pay it forward. I heard Bob Lupton, the author of “Toxic Charity” speak and he noted the church congregations are filled with people who have contacts or know how to merchandise yourself or a business and they could be of service to those who have no such experience or relationships. As an example, the mother of a homeless family was able to gain better employment in a doctor’s office through contact with a church volunteer who was lending the family a hand.

Toward this purpose, let me mention a few things to think about to help people in need find a job or gain a better job to support their family.

1. Help people network – this is the one of the most beneficial things you could do. Just as you would help the son or daughter of a friend, meet with the person in need. Find out what they are looking to do and what skills they have and help them connect with people and opportunities of which you know. When you look at your sphere of influence, it is larger than you might think at first glance.

2. Help people see a broader range of options – in my networking with folks, this comes up often. People may hone in on an industry or type of employer and may not have a good understanding of the various options that exist. After discussing the things in number #1 above, I might suggest have you ever thought about this kind of industry, profession or employer? I know they have more opportunities than good candidates, so you may want to consider these avenues.

3. Help people understand what skills they need to acquire or hone – this advice is dear as well. We are blessed with a wonderful community college system and other curriculums that can help people improve their skills. In fact, if you know people who volunteer their time to teach, then you can help connect them with others. If you want to work in an office, then you will likely need better Word, Excel and Powerpoint skills, e.g. If installing solar panels is a viable job, then you may want to check out Goodwill Industries as they partner with the community college to teach that.

4. Help people present well – an entire post could be devoted to this topic. But, what I would suggest in the networking sessions is to offer some coaching. Maybe you could help look over their resume, maybe you could help coach them to go online to learn more about the companies who they will be interviewing with, help them ask informed questions, etc. Maybe you could guide them to Linked In or other job search avenues.

As many in the job market have surmised, applying for a job online is a necessity, but will not get you many jobs. What will get you the job is people who can help you connect and will vouch for you. The homeless families we help have a support group and have been vetted more so than a person who has not been helped. Plus, they know what being down and out looks like, so once plugged into the right situation they will have a strong level of commitment to their employer. I say this last part because when I network, my name is important. I am vouching for someone, so I want to make sure the connection will be fruitful for both. If I don’t do this, then that some contact will be less inclined to review any resumes I forward. That is why meeting the person is important.

These are steps we each can take to help those in need. In so doing, we can help people find a job or find a better paying job in a growing career. And, if you watch “American Winter” you will see there are people just like you and me in need, some who never thought they would be in this situation. There, but by the grace of God, go I is very apropos. Let’s help pay it forward.

 

Ric Elias – a moment of clarity plus action

Last night, I was watching a regional show on business in the Carolinas and one of the featured guests was Ric Elias, the CEO of Red Ventures, a huge success story around helping new business market and sell their products using a customer optimization lens. Some of you may have seen him on a TED Talk last year. Please check him out at http://www.ted.com/talks/ric_elias.html. The purpose of this talk was the moment of clarity he reached as the plane he was on in January 2009 was about to crash-land in the Hudson River. You see, Elias was in Seat 1D on US Airways Flight 1549 piloted by Captain Sully Sullenberger, who had just uttered the words “brace for impact.”

His short TED talk is very moving as he came to terms with three things.

1) Live in the now.  As an example, he said I no longer buy expensive wines, as I would rather buy cheaper wines and drink them with my friends today. Don’t put off tomorrow what you should do today.

2) Avoid negative energy.  His main thrust is we spend so much time arguing over things that really do not matter. He said I realized I needed to worry less about being right and worry more about being happy.

3) Focus on what’s important. Building on these same points, he realized seeing his kids grow up was the most important goal in his life. So, he said my most important job is to be the best dad I can be. Nothing else comes close.

I wanted to keep these short, as I encourage you to click on the link and watch the talk which is short even for a TED talk. But, let me add a few points. These were not just words, he acted upon these words. Words are cheap; actions are valuable.

To his last point, I had a health scare on my 44th birthday. I thought I was having a heart attack walking to a restaurant where my family was to meet me. When I got there before them, I asked for an aspirin and then said you may want to call an ambulance. I did not see my wife until later from a hospital bed. I can assure you when I was in a hospital with wires all attached to me, I did not think about work. I thought about my family and seeing my kids get married, become adults and pursue their dreams. I thought of not seeing my wife again. That was my moment of clarity. I acted on my thoughts just as he did with his, but he made an even bigger platform.

First, he stopped working each day at an earlier time and went home to be with his kids. He lived the work-life balance he preached at Red Ventures, which is annually voted as one of the best places to work. He said he remembered balling like a baby at his daughter’s first grade recital. Being there was the most important task on the agenda of a CEO.

Second, he gave back. He is an immigrant to the US and went to college at Boston College.  Plus, he married a business need for innovative talent, with how many children of illegal immigrants are shortchanged and cannot go to college in the US. So, he started Golden Door Scholars (see www.goldendoorscholars.org) with $1 million in funding. The purpose is to provide more avenues to education for the approximately 1.1 million children under age 18 that are children of illegal and legal immigrants. He said many of these kids are the brightest in their classes and yet cannot go to college. They did not do anything wrong. Red Ventures even offers intern programs to these kids.

Third, his company, as noted above, is a forward thinker. Red Ventures hires, develops and nurtures young kids teaching them to become innovative problem solvers. “We fail constantly,” he says, “but we fail fast and hard. And, we learn even faster.”  Elias’ Red Ventures creates a breeding ground for innovative thought. This is what made America great and this is what we need to do to compete in the new world. He notes with the doubling of computing power every 18 months, the next two iterations will be mind-boggling. We need innovators to understand this and help us capitalize on it.

What I like about Elias’ words is what he has done about them. Moments of clarity should not be wasted by inaction. Otherwise, the opportunity to change for the better may have been wasted as well. Give his TED talk a listen. It might give you a moment of clarity without having to sweat a plane crash. And, if you have a moment of clarity, develop a plan and act on it. Dr. Phil likes to say “the difference between a dream and a goal is a timeline.” I think Elias understand this difference.

A Tale of Two VPs

With the recent flurry of activity to reconsider George W. Bush’s presidency with the opening of his library, I felt I would save comment for a future time. Yet, it got me thinking about contrasting the last two Vice Presidents – Dick Cheney and Joe Biden. My main reason in so doing is the stark contrast in style and performance. You see, for all the crap Joe Biden takes from the press waiting to pounce on his misspeaks, I think he has done a highly commendable job as Vice President. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for his predecessor, Dick Cheney. The more I learn about Mr. Cheney, the more Machiavellian he becomes. In fact, the highlighted word is the one word I would use to describe him when pressed.

When Bush was first elected, I was content knowing the Vice President had been around the block and had served as George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense. His candidacy was recommended by Paul O’Neill, the CEO of Alcoa, who was Bush the father’s first choice as Defense secretary. I mention that as it is important later on. But, when I read more on Cheney, the initial comfort I felt was misplaced. His knowing his way around the block meant he knew how to exploit things to his advantage. For example, being the former CEO of one of the largest fracking companies in the world, he did two major things that will make your stomach turn.

First, he sold off the mineral rights and afforded gas lease rights to various national park lands and other public resources to fracking developers. They were given permission to frack on public property and made a huge amount of money. Unfortunately, since fracking is not as safe as portrayed, the various animal and human populations close by have been suffering. But, that was only step one. Second, he had inserted a very brief provision into the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to include a provision in the Act that prohibited the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating the frackers under the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. And, fracking companies did not need to disclose the chemicals they added to the fracking water to make it easier to frack as they reduced friction, killed algae, broke down minerals and depositsIf fracking is so safe, why would you need to add this paragraph?

He did many other things, but let me highlight two. First, Paul O’Neill, the guy who turned around Alcoa and recommended Cheney to Bush the father, became the Secretary of Treasury to Bush the son. Yet, O’Neill felt the Bush tax cuts were not the right path forward for our country and was vociferous about his concerns. Rather than listen to someone with a very good track record, Cheney fired him at the behest of Bush. By the way, O’Neill was right – we did not need those tax cuts and we are paying for them still today. None other than Warren Buffett agreed with O’Neill at the time.

Second, Cheney helped build the Weapons of Mass Destruction argument to go into Iraq. Between him, Karl Rove (another Machiavellian person) and Scooter Libby (who went to jail for giving up a CIA operative to the press – see Valerie Plame), they painted a picture that we Americans, the United Nations and Congress bought hook, line and sinker. The trouble is when you send Americans to die, you better be damn certain this is the right course. As an aside, take your time President Obama on Syria before you sentence young men and women to die like Bush and Cheney did in Iraq.

On the flip side, Biden has been a very positive ambassador for Obama given his role before on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has been able to extend the reach of the Secretary of State and our relations around the globe have improved, so says a Pew Survey before and after Obama took office. On the domestic front, Biden has been a means to reach out to Congress on behalf of the President. The President has been given a huge stiff arm by Congress and he has not been as forceful as needed. But, he has asked Biden to play huge roles in brokering a deal to avoid the first fiscal cliff disaster of 21 months ago and chairing discussions to introduce better gun control legislation among other things.

Biden also played a huge role in moving forward the debate on same-sex marriage. By answering direct questions in an interview about a year ago, he staked a position that the White House came out and supported. He let the cat out of the bag early, but it was the right call and actually helped the President and country by pushing this issue forward. This was more vintage Biden, yet this is one issue where America is and was ahead of the politicians.

The final point I will make is Biden is a people’s Vice President. He is very approachable when he goes out to meet folks and they gravitate to him. His personal loss and his struggles to overcome resonate with people. Cheney is not comfortable in that role and so he chooses not to practice it. The contrast reminds of the difference between Pope Francis and Pope Benedict. Francis sees the major issue of the day as global poverty. He is truly a man of the people. Benedict is more cerebral and less approachable. The same could be said for Cheney.

It is not just me that feels this way. It is GOP folks as well. Why have Bush and Cheney not but included in the last two presidential races from an advocacy or supportive role? The party knows they did not do a good job (note the library cannot change that George), so they distanced themselves. Bush was not physically invited to either of the last two GOP conventions and he only spoke by video as a sitting President in 2008. That may have been the biggest insult – the GOP did not want the sitting President to attend. The press will say that both skipped the events, but this is the biggest event your party does. Why would you not want to have your last president to attend, especially while he is still in office?

Getting back to Biden, he deserves an “atta boy Joe” from all of us. He is far from perfect, but he has served the country well. If Hillary Clinton elects not to run, Biden may be the next Democratic presidential candidate. I would expect she will, but Joe would deserve the shot, if she did not. Unfortunately, Cheney would not be included on anyone’s short list after his stint as VP. He did some good things while in the White House, but for the most part he will be remembered for the above issues.