Thursday, December 30, 2010

Before You Resolve.....

It’s that time of year when everyone is talking (or writing) about making resolutions for the New Year. Year in and year out, the most popular resolutions are related to personal health (lose weight, workout, quit smoking/drinking) or money (save more, spend less, get out debt, find a new job). And year in and year out, most people fail to follow through on their New Year’s resolutions.

Why is that? Are we that undisciplined, that uncommitted to self-improvement? Well that may be part of it, but I think the major reason we fail is that we don’t really know what we want. Before you make your New Year’s resolutions, ask yourself:

“What do I really want and am I truly willing to sacrifice to get it?”

Very few ask this two part question and those of us who do rarely give honest answers. A lot of people “want” to lose weight and say they are willing to diet and exercise. But what they “really want” is to feel good and they want to feel good now. Diet and exercise are not “feel good now” activities, at least not in the beginning. Eating ice cream is a feel good now activity. People say they want to save money and they are willing to cut back on spending. But what they “really want” is to feel good and they want to feel good now. As long as buying stuff makes people feel better than not buying stuff and saving, people will keep on spending.

The truth is that the only resolution you are likely to keep is the one that hurts you more if you don’t keep it. When it comes to New Year’s resolutions…it’s more about the stick and less about the carrot. What do you really want in 2011 and are you willing to sacrifice to get it?

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Reason For The Season

May You Have a Blessed and Merry Christmas

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Merry Koyaanisqatsi

Remember the early 80’s documentary Koyaanisqatsi? It is a superb film. It was the first in the Qatsi trilogy of films; and is followed by Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi . The trilogy depicts different aspects of the relationship between humans, nature, and technology. In the Hopi language the word Koyaanisqatsi means "crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living".

This week I read something that, for me, captured the essence of “Koyaanisqatsi” in our time. Just after reading one more article about certain of our fellow citizens vehemently objecting to the use of Merry Christmas in public displays and greetings, I checked out Rolling Stone Magazine’s Top 50 Hits of 2010. It’s my way of determining just how far I’ve slipped out of the pop culture mainstream. Fortunately I still recognize about half of the artists. Rolling Stone gave me a break this year. I mean the top 10 included Kanye West, Katy Perry, Sade and Mavis Staples. It also helps that Rolling Stone includes pictures of the artists.

So what do objections to Merry Christmas have to do with the Rolling Stone Top 50?
The title of the Number 2 song of the year is “F**K You”. The artist is Cee Lo Green (real name Thomas DeCarlo Calloway). I recognized his picture as the guy who sang “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley a few years back. "Crazy" is a terrific song and this guy has a great voice. You can go on-line and listen to “F**K You”. There’s even a video. I recommend the video version. Rolling Stone noted that “Cee Lo didn’t just say "F**k you" — he said it with humor and serious panache.”

Have you heard or read of any objections to this song? I haven’t. Maybe it’s just me, but isn’t there something wrong when more people are upset over “Merry Christmas” than “F**K You”? I don’t know, perhaps we need to learn how to say Merry Christmas with more humor and some serious “panache”.

Koyaanisqatsi: crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living. Let's start by saying Merry Christmas and say it like we mean it…with some serious panache.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Crime and Punishment

Recently I was called for jury duty. I live in a county with a population of just over 100,000. It is on the outer fringe of the 19 county Dallas-Fort Worth Combined Statistical Area which has a population of over 6.8 million people. On the day I reported, over 200 other potential jury members had been called to sit 3 juries. I ended up in a pool of around 60 people from which 13 (twelve for the jury plus one alternate) would be selected. The trial was for a very serious criminal offense; I’ll leave it at that.

If you’ve ever been called for jury duty on something like this, you know that both the prosecuting and defense attorneys get to ask a lot of questions. We were sitting in a courtroom and each attorney had a seating chart with our names. I was praying not to be selected for the jury. And my prayers were answered.

I did come away from the jury screening session intrigued by the groups’ responses to two questions: Have you ever been the victim of a crime? Do you have any immediate family members who are in prison or who have served time in prison?
Now I admit that some folks, despite swearing to tell the truth, might have fudged on their answers. But for the most part, I think people were being truthful. I would say at least half of the 60 or so people in the group, including me, responded that they had been a crime victim. We also had to say what sort of crime had been committed. While the vast majority of crimes were burglaries and theft, there were a significant number of people who had been the victims of violent crimes. In response to the question regarding family members and prison time, at least a dozen people responded yes.

My first reaction was disbelief that over half the people sitting in that room would have been crime victims and one out of five had family members with a prison record. But when you consider the crime stats it makes sense. While crime rates have been dropping in recent years, the numbers are still high; especially when you consider them over a long window of time. Over the last 30 years annual property crime rates in the U.S. have been in the range of 3000-5000 per 100,000 (and they are even higher in Texas.) Violent crimes have ranged from around 425-750 per year per 100,000 (and again they are higher in Texas). So over a 30 year period anyone might well have become a crime victim. And considering the crime statistics, it also makes sense that in a room of 60 people, at least 20% of them would have a close family member serving time or having served time.

The good news as noted above is that crime rates have been going down in recent years. There are a lot of theories about the reasons for the decline, one being that legalized abortion has reduced the number of unwanted babies who grow up to commit crimes. I’m not buying that one, even if it’s true. Killing unwanted babies so a few of them won’t grow up to steal your SUV? I do believe that stronger law enforcement and the broad application of security technology have certainly been major factors in reducing crime. And there is probably some effect of the baby-boomer population aging beyond their most “productive” crime years. But when it’s all said and done, we still have a serious crime problem in this country.

My gut tells me that it’s about to get much worse. We have more people living on the margins of society. The “have-not” population is growing faster than the “haves”. 40% (yes forty percent) of all babies are now born out of wedlock and the numbers in certain demographics are almost double that rate. The institution of marriage is broken. How many happy families do you know? Which village is raising your child or your neighbor’s child? Think about it. What have we done to ourselves?

Do not hold against us the sins of past generations; may your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need. Psalms 79:8

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Moment of Truth

If you care about this country, I recommend that you take time to read
“The Moment of Truth. Report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.”

It’s worthwhile reading, even though I think it’s highly unlikely that we as a nation will suddenly become fiscally responsible. One line in the report’s preamble says it all: “America cannot be great if we go broke.” (I hear that the Chinese are already printing up the T-shirts.)

So where are we?

 Discretionary spending (excluding war related) has grown 34% in last decade
 Federal debt is now up to 62% of annual GDP
 If we do nothing the debt will be up to 90% of GDP by 2020 and 185% of GDP by 2035
 In 2010 federal spending is 24% of GDP…the highest since WWII and revenues will be only 15% of GDP…a 9% deficit gap in this year alone.

Read the report, there’s plenty to worry about. While I tend to be skeptical about economic projections, directionally I think the report is on point. We are headed toward financial Armageddon if we don’t change our ways. Interestingly, it is noted in the report that Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, has said that the most significant threat to our national security is our debt.

The Moment of Truth report recommends major reductions in spending and an overhaul of our tax policy. But it’s not going to happen. At least not any time soon. Before we can step up to the Moment of Truth, we must deal with the Truth of the Moment. And the Truth of the Moment is that we are not willing to make sacrifices. Certainly our political leaders are not going to sacrifice their careers by putting the lid on the cookie jar. Personally, I don’t want my taxes to go up and I don’t want to give up my tax deductions. Truth is that most of us do not trust “The System” and therefore we are not willing to sacrifice. Deep down inside we believe that our sacrifice will end up being someone else’s subsidy or entitlement.

I really believe that the first step toward turning this mess around is to impose strict term limits on the members of Congress. Pay them well and help them get real jobs when they leave Congress, but take away the option of being a lifetime politician. We should also offer financial incentives to congressional members, incentives that reward fiscal responsibility. Our current system rewards them for taking care of special interests and doing whatever it takes to get re-elected. As long as we reward that behavior, that’s the behavior we will get.

If you’ve read previous blog entries, you know that I tend to be pessimistic. In this case I am extremely pessimistic. “The System” has evolved to the point where it needs a major overhaul. But all of us are getting something out of “The System” and we don’t want an overhaul that takes away more than it gives. Sorry, but the day of reckoning is here. The Moment of Truth has arrived. Time to pick-up the check and pay for our lunch. And, I mean really pay for our lunch. Not with other people’s money and not with more paper. But as long as we have access to other people’s money and we don’t run out of paper and ink, I don’t see us paying for that lunch any time soon.