Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Famliarity Breeds Contempt

I have been debating whether to change cell phone carriers for a couple of months now. My current phone intermittently drops its signal, leaving me to interpret the things people are trying to tell me while losing about one word in eight. It's finally reaching a level of annoyance that I am no longer willing to tolerate (besides, I think it's time I got a smart phone). My current carrier however has other ideas on the situation. They won't discuss upgrading my POS (piece of shit) flip phone until the end of summer, unless of course I want to spend $500 for the purchase of a new phone. 

Interestingly enough, it seems that many of the other carriers out there will be all too glad to give me a new smart phone if I sign a new two-year agreement with them. Of course I will have to pay a $150 fee to cancel my existing contract, but the potential net effect of this transaction is a savings of $350. While the math is simple, the philosophy causing me to use it is counter-intuitive to me. 

It seems that some of these companies are far more interested in getting your business than keeping it over the long-term. In fact I was shocked to find out from a former employee of my present carrier that the reason I was sensing that employees of this company were less than enthusiastic about retaining my business was that they could care less about it. Getting customers was something that they are measured on and get credit for, retaining or losing existing customers was not. 

Now I worked for a company about a year ago on a sales program that was very much in the same vein. It's not that they didn't give a damn about customers who had signed up with them, but interest did seem to drop off rather quickly in the weeks following sign-up. They were OK with the idea that the shiny in this relationship with their new partner would wear off quickly, as long as it lasted long enough for the sales team to take credit for the sale. (My tenure in this position did not last long, as I found such thinking incompatible with keeping a clear conscience.) 

Even in the relationships between men and women, I have found that it's much harder to maintain a relationship than it was to begin one. And while I'm sure that all of us go into any new relationship with the best of intentions, familiarity soon begins to work its evil designs on this bond as well. 

Now having twice been divorced, I have some experience at this in my own life. I cared a great deal for each of the women I wed, and I carry a fair amount of guilt for both my actions and the lack thereof contributing to the ultimate demise of these relationships. While I would hesitate to say that contempt actually entered the picture (or so I like to believe in order to protect a rather fragile ego), I think it would be fair to say that in the end, "Absence made the heart grow fonder; and the longer I was absent, the fonder they became of it". 

The one that most seems to irk me the most lately however is that with our elected officials. (Yeah, big surprise, I know). Don't we often see much the same thing from politicians at every level? It certainly appears to me at any rate, that a number of them only seem to care whether we agree with what they are doing or want to do, in the days leading up to an election. Once safely in office, they become far too familiar with their jobs, and soon seem to lose interest in the will of mere voters. 

They tell us that instead, they are 'voting their conscience'. Of course the fact that their conscience seems to be in direct opposition to the will of said voters; and identical with the views of lobbyists and major contributors to their campaign is strictly a coincidence I'm sure. 

It does in fact seem that in many cases in our life, familiarity does breed contempt. Perhaps with the time I spend writing about politics these days, my own views are simply another example of the truth of this notion. There is after all, little doubt that the more familiar I become with politics and politicians, the more I hold them in contempt.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Spring Cleaning

Spring is upon us (not that you could tell by the weekend's weather), bringing snows that melt and rivers that overflow, income tax forms that must be filled out and filed, and of course that most dreaded of warm weather calamities ... spring cleaning. This task is particularly difficult for me this year as the cleaning required is more in the nature of a mental one. No, its not that I have a dirty mind (well OK, maybe), but simply because there is far too much clutter rattling around in the otherwise empty storage area that I call a head for me to wander around it the way I like to. This is not a condition that I am fond of, as it seems to cause endless bouts of stumbling in the dark up there. I have therefore decided that it's time to clear some of it out. So in no order of importance and with no conscious agenda that I am aware of, I place these thoughts on the table before setting them aside for proper recycling or disposal:

  • Republicans in State governments are seen to be attacking unions, and unions are returning the compliment by attacking Republicans in those state governments. The battle is one over the compensation packages of unionized state workers, and the claim is that it's being fought to balance state budgets. I find it curious that the party claiming fiscal responsibility and chipping away at compensation of those working under legally negotiated contracts are doing so without once touching their own lavish compensation packages.
  • While we're talking about the benefits that certain government workers get, can we please define how many vacation days that the president gets? I mean come on! Most jobs give you 2-3 weeks in your first year of employment, but this President seems lately hardly to be working more than that in his first years in office. Don't get me wrong here, most of us are normally far better off when politicians are taking time off from their normal foolishness and misdeeds; but if they're only going to work half of the year, maybe we could start paying them only for the time they work.
  • Many of the same legislators who had a lot to say when this country took military action in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan are curiously silent as we ramp up our efforts in Libya. Not only are they silent on its justification, but few if any are talking about the cost of Tomahawk cruise missiles and jet fuel. Is this inconsistent ideology, political expediency, or simple hypocrisy?
  • I have officially had it with the NCAA basketball tournament! Apparently in spite of this being the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, geography is not a subject being taught in the association. While I understand that one of the goals is to balance the brackets and even the chances for all schools in the tournament, but east coast teams playing in west coast brackets and vice versa seems ridiculous. And playing the Southwestern finals Richmond, VA is wrong on so many different levels that I have trouble talking about it. Could we please pretend that the compass matters and that geography is not subject entirely to the whims of television ratings (or simply drop the geographic element from the tournament entirely)?
  • Can we please stop pretending that red light cameras are about safety and not about revenue? If the politicians actually believe this and are not just hiding behind political expediency, let them donate the money earned by such devices to charity to prove it. If the cameras are about the revenue however and not the driver safety that they attempt to defend these nefarious photographic accusers with, let those cities using them stop pretending otherwise.
  • Does anybody else remember that the government took great pains to break up the monopoly on providing phone service in this country? Of course now that we've all moved on to cell phones, the fact that more and more of the land line phone companies have merged again doesn't mean much; but the fact that cell phone companies are doing the same might be an issue. Sprint bought Nextel, AT&T just bought T-Mobile, and now it looks like Verizon will buy Sprint. I thought the concept was to inspire competition. How does that happen when companies are just buying them?
  • Chad Ocho Cinco is trying out for the professional soccer team in Kansas City. (A team called Sporting KC, catchy huh?) It's not like I needed another excuse not to watch professional soccer (which I find about as exciting as watching the grass on the field of play growing); but if I did, having to watch this pompous ass would have provided it.
  • How many different ways can you spell a Libyan dictator's last name? In the last few days I've see Gaddafi, Qaddafi, Gadhafi, Khaddafi, and Qadhafi. I mean Jeez, can we all just pick one spelling and agree on it? How about we just go with whatever Muammar (for which there are also apparently multiple spellings) usually goes with, or what he uses when he signs his next ultimatum or execution order?
  • Speaking of names ... the end of an era is approaching and it makes me rather sad. First Carty Finkbeiner lost his job as mayor of Toledo, and now Mark Funkhouser is about to lose his job as mayor of Kansas City. The current mayor didn't make the cut in the primary and will be replaced in May by mayor-elect Sly James. While having a mayor named Sly certainly has some potential for comment, it's just not going to be the same without the raised eyebrows every time someone from out-of-town hears the mayor's name. l guess I'll just have to move to another city that has a mayor with a goofy last name. (Hey, I wonder if Muammar is looking for new gig?)

Wow, this spring cleaning thing feels kind of good! There's definitely a bit more room in here now, and the straight line path between my ears once again holds little in the way of resistance to the nonsense attempting to penetrate (and immediately thereafter, escape).

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The 'Players' Association

The NFL season may apparently not be the only one in jeopardy. With the National Football League Player's Association having de-certified itself in order to take its negotiations with team owners to court, the prospect of a 2011 football season grows ever dimmer. 

Adding insult to injury however, are stories that continue to emerge about the National Basketball Player's Association being in a similar situation. College prospects in the midst of the NCAA tournament are also considering staying in school rather than taking a chance of a basketball lockout next season. According to a story in the Kansas City Star, the NBPA issued a handbook to its members earlier this month entitled "Hope for the best, Prepare for the worst". It seems as though the collective bargaining agreement for this professional sport is set to expire on June 30th, and the potential for a labor action puts its season in serious jeopardy for next year as well. 

Now I'm not a big professional sports fan, though I do like watching a sporting event or two in person and on television. The reason that this topic intrigues me however is because of the recent discussion of unions in this country, and the apparently unique nature of professional sport unions. In no other type of negotiations between labor and management that I am aware of do a group of employees negotiate some part of their compensation as a group, but their salaries as individuals. Players in each sport in fact negotiate signing bonuses, length of contract, salary, and performance bonuses on an individual basis (often of course, with the help of an agent). While there may be league limits in some cases, the game of compensation is played one-on-one. Personally, I would like to understand the mentality of this type of bargaining, when the only collective to be seen is the team of people used to negotiate the package for the athlete (and take their 15%).

Imagine if you will, if Teamsters working on their next contract with UPS or FedEx were to have the union negotiate health benefits and retirement packages as a group, but leave the issue of individual salaries up to the members. I'm not sure that you can, for indeed the concept of employees being paid on such a basis (a system perhaps based on merit rather than seniority) is an anathema to the rest of the unionized world. Strikes in other industries are quite often based on a standard of pay, regardless of merit, for each individual worker. 

In light of the furor over changes in Wisconsin law over the concept that government workers might be compensated based on merit rather than simple union membership or seniority, I began to wonder what all of the fuss was about. The state of Wisconsin is simply seeking to reward its workers in the same way as team owners do these professional athletes. Of course these workers will gain no privileges of 'franchise status' or 'free agency', but they might be able to earn signing or performance bonus for a job well done. Who could possibly be against rewards to those best serving the public interest? 

Another question relating to professional athletes occurred to me, in that these pros are apparently required to join the union in order to work at their chosen profession even if they work in "right to work states". I know that the team owners are provided some legal protection from federal anti-trust laws through long-standing (and probably questionable) legislative fiat, but I was not aware that the player's unions in sports were likewise granted protection from state labor laws. I believe in the historic principle of collective bargaining, though not as a universal concept. 

I believe that were it not for unions mines would probably still be unsafe, work hours in factories would probably be too long, and employee compensation would probably be too little. I likewise believe that like the days of the blacksmith, such days are probably more a part of our past than our future. I further believe that forced enrollment in a union in order to work at a chosen profession is an infringement of personal freedom and not a right. Every state should be a "right to work state", and employees should be free to choose whether joining such a organization is in their own best interest. 

The concept of government unions is even more complex, since the normal balance of cost and profit cannot hold sway, and because the government almost always holds a monopoly on the services that it provides. As such, the concept of collective bargaining rights for this type of employee is perhaps long overdue for a careful re-examination. 

The world is a much smaller place than it once was, and employers can easily relocate facilities to friendlier labor oases anywhere in the world if they choose to. The potential for connecting products and services from such hospitable environments to the markets that require them has never been greater. Discovering how to balance the fair compensation of employees that produce things, at a price that the greatest number can afford, may prove to be the most difficult negotiation of all in the days ahead. Rather than chain ourselves to ideas of the past, we need to remain open to alternatives for the future. As for professional athletes, they appear to have the best of all possible worlds ... at least for now. Generous group benefit packages that are guaranteed, and individual salaries that are the envy of most of the rest of us make even their potentially short careers lucrative indeed. 

One can argue that they are receiving too little, just the right amount, or far too much for the work that they do. Almost no one however, will argue that with the way they get to negotiate their compensation, they are players indeed!

Monday, March 21, 2011

TFP Column: The Right of Intervention

Discussion has turned a lot lately to the concept of Rights in this country. There are the inalienable Rights that are set forth in the Declaration of Independence, those outlined in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution, and a lot of other ones that people like to tack on from time to time. They include a good job, a livable wage, health care, and a bunch of other stuff that we are increasingly being told that we are guaranteed because of living in this country (or simply living).

The one that I haven't hear a lot of discussion about is the right to impose a form of government upon another sovereign people. And while I know our government likes to pick the winners and losers in business, picking the winners and losers in internal conflicts going on in other nations might be just a bit out of bounds. All of this led to this week's effort in the Toledo Free Press, "The Right of Intervention". Agree or disagree with the premise, I hope that it at least makes you think about the path we have once more started down.

As this column is going up on the website early this week, there will be lot's to see and read in both the Star edition and the regular TFP, Toledo's largest Sunday circulation newspaper.

Friday, March 18, 2011

TFP Column: Gawker's Block

Though I don't spend time behind the wheel lately, the memories of being locked in gridlock conditions across the country still leave a bittersweet. Far more frustrating than the nonsense of simply having too many people on the road at the same time however, is finding that your lack of vehicular progress comes not from bad weather or road repair, but from the prurient interest of your fellow drivers in the misfortunes of others on the roadway who have become involved in an accident.

It was with this in mind, that I found myself once more wondering about the mainstream media and the viewers who seem mesmerized by the depiction of destruction and carnage from the non-stop coverage of the earthquake and tsunami that recently struck Japan.
I found myself both angered and sickened by the incessant parade of images of this tragedy in the name of 'good television' and the apparently infinite capacity for so many to rapturously gaze upon the destruction.

I wondered if, like the gawkers on the highway, some would lose sight of the other obligations that require continued focus (Congress is after all, in session). A sense of almost tragic outrage over this potential insight led me to pen this week's effort for the web page of the Toledo Free Press, "Gawker's Block". Putting this on paper for me was the release of something equivalent to road rage, and I hope a signpost for some to keep your eyes on the road ahead, lest another accident involving those much closer to home be caused.

Fortunately for all of you, there will be other efforts in this week's TFP far more positive and uplifting. I hope that you will all take the time to read this week's edition of Toledo's largest Sunday circulation newspaper, the Toledo Free Press.

Reverential Treatment

There seems to be a number of us out there who think a great deal of the Founding Fathers of this country. They are the ones after all, who managed to come up with the documents that led to the form and formation of the government that we live under. They are the ones who laid their lives on the line to bring this country into being. There is little doubt that these men (and some women) in fact deserve our respect and admiration for these accomplishments.

We must be careful however. Like many an enthusiastic admirer of something or someone, especially someone from the past, its easy over time to become more than simple fans (a term derived from fanatic). It's easy when dealing with perspective of history, to fail to look at the sometimes inconvenient truths about these men with feet of clay. They had their flaws just like the rest of us. Let's face it, Sam Adams was in fact a smuggler, John Adams (a distant relation) was a pompous ass with delusions of his own grandeur, and Benjamin Franklin, when not writing under the pseudonym of a lady (Silence Dogood), seemed rather fond of pursuing them. Even Thomas Jefferson, whose writings on freedom as part of the Virginia legislature and during the national discussions on the subject all but defined the argument for this country, owned slaves until the day he died. 

We similarly believe that recent Congresses created the franchise on rancorous debate, backroom deals, and kickbacks. Does anyone here remember Valley Forge and the state of General Washington's army during that terrible winter of 1777-1778? Do you really believe that these soldiers were ill-housed, ill-equipped, and ill-fed because a Continental Congress filled with Founding Fathers was doing its job properly? A simple reading of history would show anyone interested that the Continental Congress was equally adept as this one at graft, bribery, and serving its own interests rather than the national one. Congress in fact found itself running regularly in front of campaigns of the British army during the Revolutionary War in order to insure warm housing and good food for themselves, while starving men in the field walked from battle to battle in the winter without uniforms, proper rations, or even the benefit of shoes. 

We now live under a Constitution that we think rather highly of, but these same men only came together to write such a document because of their original failure with the Articles of Confederation. Even the Constitution required modification immediately upon ratification, with the first ten amendments forming a guarantee of freedom that the originally written document failed to provide as the Bill of Rights.  

Not all of the ideas of our Founders would be held in equally high esteem either if examined closely today. Alexander Hamilton desired that the President and Senators be selected to serve for life. In fact, if he had his way, we would have created a class of landed nobility as part of this country's founding. 

Even the father of our country George Washington carries some tarnish on his reputation. Having just fought as the leader of the army of the Continental Congress against the rights of citizens to oppose unjust taxation, called out troops to put down citizen demonstrations against a tax on whiskey that many found selectively imposed on western citizens and a similar example of abuse. In fact, the "Whiskey Rebellion" might be seen not only as inconsistency in our first president, but as an example of Congress taking a debt that it couldn't pay and attempting to tax its way out of the red ink created. 

It might also seem strange to some that having put down this rebellion, George Washington himself became a large distillers of whiskey, operating five stills and producing 11,000 gallons of liquor in 1799. Some might find it further strange (and perhaps an example of political advantage) that the whiskey tax was repealed in 1800 under then president and fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson. 

In other words, the Founding Fathers may have been no better and no worse (as men go) than our current crop of elected hooligans. While their efforts at seeking freedom in the 1700's deserve our respect and their foresight in creating a government where the Constitution is concern deserves our admiration, in their persons they probably merit little or nothing in the way of reverential treatment.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Happy St Patrick's Day 2011

It's time once again for this humble scribbler born of Irish origins to wish all of you that most glorious of annual salutations:

La'Fheile Pa'draig Sona Duit

Now for those unfamiliar with the ancient Hibernian tongue, I have not accused you of singing a failed Irish duet or challenged you to a contest which involves dragging two of your male progeny around. I have in fact simply wished you a Happy St. Patrick's Day in Gaelic. (The phrase is pronounced "La ale-lah pwad-rig son a ditch") 

St Patrick is of course, the patron saint of 'The Island of Saints and Scholars', more commonly known as Ireland (pronounced 'areland). The Island of Eire in its native tongue is also known as the Emerald Isle, since its regular and abundant rains produce a countryside dominated by the same lovely shade as its crystalline namesake. More fortuitously on this day perhaps, it's a land well known for the invention by Irish monks of the nectar of the gods more commonly known as Whiskey (probably as a defense against the rigors of their chosen lifestyle); and for the production of the finest product of the brewer's art ... Guinness.

(It's a little known fact that it was God Himself who created whiskey, doing so to keep the Irish from conquering the world. ... So far, it's succeeded.)

Since this is ostensibly a day held in celebration of St Patrick, it would seem downright rude not to recount the history of the man, at least in brief

Patrick is quite curious as patron saints go, even Irish ones. Of course this might have something to do with the fact that he wasn't even Irish, but English. He actually came to Ireland for the first time as a captured slave (which is the manner in which the Irish are said to be most fond of entertaining their British neighbors). He escaped his captivity after some six years however and returned to his home in Britain, eventually becoming a deacon, and later still a bishop. He returned to Ireland as a Catholic missionary, working mostly in the north and the west of the island. Very little is actually known of the places where he labored, though legends abound of the places where he purportedly stopped and the miracles he performed while carrying out his chosen vocation. 

This missionary work ultimately proved a successful one, and the country remains largely a Catholic one to this day. And while the model of the Catholic Church that he worked for did not come about while he was alive or even as a result of his labors, he was nevertheless named the Patron Saint of Ireland by the eighth century. 

Now Irish tradition holds that St Patrick used the Shamrock to teach the heathen peoples of the island the Catholic mystery of the Holy Trinity, which may explain its popularity as a symbol today. This tale may be more an example of the Irish flair for the 'telling of a good tale" than of actual doctrinal education however, as the accounts of the use of this three-leafed white clover only began to appear in popular myth centuries after his death. 

The noted Irish knack for exaggeration and overstatement might likewise be held responsible for the accounts of St Patrick chasing the snakes from Ireland's shores, since there have never actually been snakes in Ireland. (In defense of such myths, it should noted that the Irish seldom let the truth get in the way of a good story.)

Regardless of the legendary nature of his time on earth (excused as perhaps no more than a bit of Blarney), or the fact that he was never formally canonized by the Catholic Church, we nevertheless celebrate his feast day every year on March 17th, the date believed to be that of his death. (Wow, even typing that much about St Patrick creates a powerful thirst in a man, and would no doubt constitute sufficient reason to stop off at the pub for a pint or two. This affinity undoubtedly accounts in large part for the relationship between the man and the behavior.) 

As I have pointed out on previous occasions here, March 17th is also the birthday of one of my grandchildren, Margaret Ruth Tipatina Demaria. "Maggie Moo Kropotnik", will be turning five on this particular day of family celebration if memory still serves me correctly. Rumor has it that they will once again be holding parades in New York City (near where she lives) and in Chicago (where my own roots are) in celebration of this blessed event. 

Strange as it may seem, you will not find me making a pub crawl in my local community on this 'feast day'. For while personal considerations indeed make it a day worthy of all manner of celebration, I find it almost dangerous to participate in the amateur rites now held in honor of the occasion (especially after a rather legendary experience of my own one year in Savannah, GA). In the spirit of the myth and the man however, I am persuaded at least to offer an Irish toast to all of you on this day of days for the Demaria clan, for the Higgins clan, and for that paragon of Irish virtue (no doubt likewise exaggerated) ... St Patrick. It's a sentiment that should speak to all those considering themselves true Irishmen, and even those only so blessed this one day a year:

May the road rise up to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face
And the rain fall soft upon your fields
And until we meet again
May God hold you in the palm of His hand
And may you live in peace and freedom

All of this may be a bit too complicated for those of you already drinking green Anheuser-Busch or Miller products in what is undoubtedly a heartfelt but terribly misguided form of Celtic revelry, as it will surely be for those of you who will graduate to Car Bombs during the lunch hour. (A Car Bomb is a shot of Irish whiskey dropped into a pint of Guinness, with the name coming from the affect that drinking such a concoction in one long swallow has on the consumer's brain matter.) 

So for you 'happy few, you band of brothers', let me offer instead this far more simple effort:

May you be in heaven for two hours before the devil knows you're dead!


(Note: I considered translating this entire blog posting into Gaelic, on a recent back-handed suggestion from a friend. I ultimately decided against it however, as I feel I already place too great a burden on readers attempting to understand what I write.)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Irish Directions

It seems that too much of life is becoming increasingly difficult to navigate. While there are GPS systems in cars and even cell phones to get us from point A to B (with the shortest distance between the two points being anything but a straight line), there is no technology yet developed to help guide us through the more complicated geography of the daily issues of life. In fact, as I contemplate this concept in the shadow of St Patrick's Day, it seems that more often than not we are instead handed "Irish directions". 

Now for those of you who have never been blessed with a visit to the Emerald Isle, the only way to explain this concept is through example: 

Tourist: "Can you tell me how to get to town?" 

Local Answer: "Well do you see that road over there? Pay it no mind, it will do you no good. Now that other road there. Ah ... and many's the day I've walked it ..." 

Tourist: "To the town?" 

Local: "Not at all. No, it was off to fishin' I was, when the salmon were in season..." 

And so it goes. It's a grand story and lovely to listen to, but it does nothing to solve the problem you're facing. So it seems to me as I watch debates in Congress over cutting $6 billion or $60 billion from a $3.5 trillion budget and a $1.5 trillion deficit as an effective solution. Anyone who's completed their "goes into's" knows that such trivial number theory is little more than distraction. (Can you say "NPR funding"?)

Yet instead of answering the question of what we're going to do about this country's crushing national debt we're talking about whether either of these insignificant numbers is a budget cut that's draconian in nature. 

When I've gotten over the confusion I feel with such mindless diversion, I am confronted instead with arguments over whether public sector unions should be continue to be allowed to live in symbiotic (if not parasitic) relationship with the politicians in charge of deciding how they are compensated. 

Just as my blood pressure subsides with the inability of political leaders to deal with the broad strokes of the issue however, I find them instead endlessly debating whether these same public sector workers should get pensions instead of 401k's like the rest of us; or contribute as much to their retirements and health care as their private sector counterparts. But we seem to be ignoring these vital questions while focusing instead on what 'rights' a public sector union has, as if they were carved into the Bill of Rights. 

Now Congress is holding hearings on whether the acts of terrorism perpetrated against this country are committed by those believing in the principles of jihad as preached in the Islamic religion. And while there is little argument that there is a radical Islamic agenda behind these attacks, the danger of these jihadists and salient question involved are ignored in favor of a conversation instead about a religious prejudice that might be perpetrated by an equally small percentage of the rest of the population. 

But OK. Perhaps the complexity of the road map where domestic issues are concerned is just too convoluted when dealt with by what are apparently simple political minds. Perhaps instead we should turn to the greater issues of the world. Surely these must be more clear-cut to deal with. 

Certainly a government that has been complaining that it should not have gotten involved in the internal affairs of Middle Eastern nations in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan can see that meddling in those of Libya might not be a good plan. It seems self-apparent that attempting to again attempt to aid people who think we've interfered far too often in their internal issues and hate us for every attempt we've made is a bad idea. Instead of settling this issue however, we're arguing over whether we should impose a no-fly zone, park a fleet off the coast, or wait for that bastion of decisiveness, the United Nations, to tell us what to do. (After all, their track record at crisis resolution is .... well, never mind that.) 

OK, then maybe we can just decide as a nation whether both sides of the political debate are going to hash over any and all of these topics in a civil manner. Don't get me wrong, if all concerned decide instead to drag out the blackjacks and brass knuckles to settle matters in the streets around each legislative forum, that's OK with me (and might make great Reality TV); but it would be nice if both sides were playing by the same rules. 

Instead we see one side of the debate accusing the other of violence and vitriol for stating their opinions and that accusing side attacking their opponents physically when things don't go their way. But rather than take on even the simple concept of maintaining a level playing field, the discussion focuses on why the side being physically attacked has to be so mean. 

You know come to think of it, I take it all back. I believe that after due consideration and shining a little light on these areas, I prefer the real "Irish Directions". They may not get you where you're going, but they're usually a lot more entertaining. (FYI: The mid-week post of the coming week will be on Thursday instead of Wednesday, so as to coincide with the Holiday - my granddaughter Maggie's birthday.)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Trying To Stay Inside The Lines

As well as being a source of entertainment for me, I firmly believe that writing is the exercise of a form of artistry. Oh don't get me wrong, I don't consider myself an artist, or even a half-decent cartoonist (no insult intended to cartoonists). What I mean is that like those who are truly capable with either pencils or brushes, I try as best I can to communicate by painting pictures (in my case word pictures). I then labor to frame these likenesses carefully with facts, shade them with considered judgment and opinion, and color them with sarcasm, metaphor, and hyperbole. (Hell, sometimes I even manage to stay inside the lines.) 

Like many art forms, there are truly gifted professionals out there whose literary efforts can make one's own seem so poor as to leave them almost impossible to hang on the refrigerator, let alone display in public. For me, it's reading the prose of virtuosos like George Will and Charles Krauthammer that make me almost ashamed that I decide to sit down in front of a keyboard each week. Their ability, while almost terrifying in nature, makes me wish that I had the time, the training, and the ability to depict the world around me as they are capable of doing. In fact, I often find myself avoiding efforts on subjects that they have covered in sheer embarrassment over what my own poor examples will look like by comparison. 

I am equally humbled when I hear someone like Dennis Miller go off on a verbal rant and use rapid-fire comparative imagery so far above my head that it gives me a nosebleed, and I have to Google search it before reaching even the most rudimentary level of understanding. Such a combination of intelligence, wit, and humor is indeed rare and I am thankful that I have been exposed to it. There are also those whose efforts draw slightly less attention on the national stage, but who are likewise worthy of praise. I could name a half dozen at least whose efforts I read with relish every week (and who if they somehow find themselves reading this, will probably know who they are), but won't risk their names and reputations by associating my own opinions and faint praises with their extensive creative attainments. 

Of course there are likewise all too many of us amateurs out here who labor in relative obscurity by reason of either a lack of ability, lack of desire, or lack of opportunity. We too have something to contribute, if only as a caution to others or caricature of real talent. But we need not write ourselves off too quickly or completely, as we sometimes discover that 'even a blind squirrel finds an acorn now and again'. Every once in a while, even we are surprised with an idea not yet brought to light or a writing effort worthy of more than passing consideration. 

The humility unwillingly forced on some of us by the talent demonstrated by our betters provides more than humiliation however, it affords us inspiration as well. Anyone who loves a challenge cannot help but be enamored of having the bar placed so high in order to force us to improve our own meager talents. Those who love the idea of competition (and are too old, broken down, and overweight to continue to further attempts at athletics) find this exactly the type of contest that we are still capable of entering. It's easy enough to recognize the simple fact that in the end, not all of us can be a DaVinci (I for one can't do the codes) or Van Gogh (I need both ears so I can listen to my Ipod)

Some of us may simply have to settle for painting 'Dogs Playing Poker' or 'Elvis on Velvet'. It may never be displayed in a museum, but it might at least make it to some starving artist show at the local Holiday Inn, and from there come to be appreciated on the wall in someone's living room. I cannot promise that I will always manage to stay within the lines of good writing, good sense, or even good taste; I do affirm however, that each will at the very least be my best effort.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Two Minds On Public Sector Unions

Like many taxpayers across the country, I've watched demonstrations in state capitols in Wisconsin and Ohio with interest and with fear. The interest is two-fold. First, because these public demonstrations bring out all of the best and worst in people; and as one who considers himself a student of the human condition, this is a wonderful condensed study guide. Second and more importantly, because these appear to be the battlegrounds where the financial future of states across the country will be fought. 

The fear is likewise two-fold. I fear that politicians have simply decided that this issue is the 'distraction de jour', and are simply using it to keep us from looking more closely at what government is doing elsewhere. I likewise fear that as government often does, the furor over the subject at hand will cause the pendulum to swing too far in the opposite direction in some form of demented retribution. This could easily produce compensation packages that leave us a workforce competency level ill-equipped to adequately serve citizens. 

If it seems that I am caught up on 'two's' where this subject is concerned, it might be because I am of two minds on the subject. The first part of my thought is pretty straightforward. A contract is a contract, and a government (like any other employer) does not have the right to abrogate a legitimately negotiated legal agreement, regardless of whether it has discovered that there is political gain to be had, or that it simply doesn't like the one in place. Like other employers, they are not allowed a "mulligan" (legislative or otherwise) when they discover that they made a bad deal. 

There is a both a legal and ethical principle involved here, and attempting operate in this manner is a betrayal of public trust that should be of great concern to all of us. For those of us who cried foul when the feds overruled bankruptcy law when deciding how to treat legitimate bond holders in what should have been done with the assets of GM; consistency demands that we can think no differently. If however, the government or any other employer wants to change the way that they do business in the days going forward and re-negotiate such an agreement with workers on that basis, they certainly have the right to do so. 

The other part of my thinking concerns Unions in general and public sector unions in particular. I am no fan of organized labor, but recognize that they have a legal right to exist and to attempt to negotiate compensation on behalf of their members. Unlike some, I do not believe that this "right" to organize is guaranteed under the right of free assembly in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution however. Oh they can get together any time that they want, they can also exert political influence as an organized entity, but there is nothing in the Constitution that says that their employer must negotiate with them. That employers can be forced to negotiate with such groups is law however, and one that has been created at state levels. 

In fact across the country, there are 'closed states' and 'open states'. In closed states, it's perfectly legal to force a person to join a union in order to get certain types of jobs (something that seems inconsistent for those now crying for freedom). In open or "right to work" states, you are free to take any job you choose without joining a union. These open states do not preclude you from joining such organizations, but do not force you to do so in order to gain employment. 

Because they are state laws, state legislatures have the right to change them. As long as they do so following the rules governing the creation and passage of laws in such states, their efforts are within the rights granted to states under the Constitution. I also think that due consideration should be given to the fundamental difference between union negotiations in the private and public sector. In the private sector, unions negotiate with management over sharing the surplus capital of the company. If the union workers at some point begin to get more of a share than the employer can reasonably afford, that employer probably goes bankrupt, and the jobs are lost. 

In the public sector however, there's not supposed to be a much of surplus to divvy up in the first place (if there was, it would mean we were being taxed too much). When the employee share of revenue in government grows beyond the capacity of the employer to pay for in this case however, they merely generate more capital by raising taxes to cover what might be their purposefully politically inadequate negotiating skills. 

There is also something particularly odoriferous about the concept of a public sector employees union financially supporting the careers of those in management negotiating their contracts. It doesn't take much in the way of critical thinking to see that it is a conflict of interest for these politicians to make decisions on the pay of those contributing to their campaigns. With all of my concern over how things will work out after legislation in Wisconsin and Ohio is finally passed (as it seems it will), I find that I am still of two minds on where this can and should go in the long term. 

While not in favor of having unions in the public sector, I might view this more favorably if the playing field were leveled. I might be willing to concede the right of a public sector union to organize and to negotiate their compensation (and this includes those considered 'safety workers' like police and firefighters), if they in turn would relinquish the requirement that members of their professions have to join a union to achieve employment. I would likewise expect a concession to that level playing field that their employers no long have an obligation to take on the union's responsibility to collect its members' dues.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Curious Compact

I recently finished reading a rather interesting book by Thomas E Woods, Jr entitled, "Nullification - How To Resist Federal Tyranny In The 21st Century". I recommend it to your reading list as a interesting take on the contractual relationship between States and federal government, the history of this country in its early days as a nation, and of the thoughts and interpretations of those who wrote and encouraged ratification of the Constitution on the potential for over-reaching by the federal government. 

Whether you agree or disagree with the author's point of view, one thing becomes difficult not to accept in the reading; that there is a consistent body of work supporting the idea that those early statesmen felt that the Constitution was a compact between Independent and Sovereign States, entered into for the purpose of creating an entity that could do for them as a group what each could not do for itself (like provide for the common defense). As a compact, it was required that each of the governments of those thirteen States consent to the document in order to form that original union (which they eventually did)

Now some might claim the argument that States are thereby subservient to the Constitution and the federal government by virtue of this ratification process and that the concept of nullification Mr Woods talks about has no place. Strangely in fact, this has been done throughout this nation's short history. When some States passed resolutions decrying federal abuse that they felt was a particularly onerous, others condemned those efforts. 

An example occurred during the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799 against the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798 passed by Congress. They were followed not many years afterward by similar cries from New England States when Congress passed a national embargo on ships going to foreign ports in 1807. All of these States, with the exception of Kentucky, had ratified the original federal compact; and could therefore been said to have potentially violated it by their legislative action. 

Interestingly however, the New England States that said that Virginia and Kentucky exceeded their authority as State governments with their resolutions at the end of one century; used not only identical reasoning, but the very documents that they had previously decried in their own arguments later on.  Apparently even then, the interests of States were both short-sighted and separate, and one region of the country was prone to demonize another for taking a stand that it did not agree with (or at least, not at the time).

Just to step back and set things in order (historically speaking), Delaware was first State to ratify the Constitution on December 7th 1787, but was followed quickly enough by Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the same month. Georgia and Connecticut followed in January of the following year, and Massachusetts in February. Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, and New York all ratified this document in 1788 as well; but North Carolina lagged a year behind, and Rhode Island was the last of the original to sign on, not doing so until 1790.

Then it appears, things may have gotten a bit stickier ... Take Ohio for example, my state of residence for many years. Ohio was admitted to the Union on February 19, 1803, when President Thomas Jefferson signed an act of Congress approving its borders and Constitution. It seems that the practice of Congress declaring a state didn't in fact come for another nine years, and was initiated with Louisiana's entry to the Union. 

Interestingly enough however, the oversight of not being admitted as a State by Congress led to a rather belated petition by the legislature in Ohio in 1953 for such Congressional legislation that retroactively saw Ohio admitted on its original 1803 date. (Which may prove to be a bit of a problem of itself, since according to the Constitution, Congress is not allowed to make a retroactive law, more commonly defined as 'ex post facto'.) This may not have been the only oversight however. Curiosity and a subsequent search of the Ohio statehood process uncovered what might seem to be a teeny, tiny little discrepancy. I can find no evidence that the Ohio legislature ratified the aforementioned federal compact. Additionally, apparently nowhere does the State of Ohio in its constitution ratify the federal version agreed to by those first thirteen States, nor acknowledge this document in any fashion. 

Now it's possible that I simply missed it, or that something as important as the procedure binding each future state to the Union is covered somewhere else in federal law; but if it is, I could find nothing in writing that says so. Perhaps however, this was merely an oversight on the part of those attempting to craft a document to guide the governance of almost 45,000 square miles of the former Northwest Territory; but if it is, such an omission does seem rather glaring.

One cannot help but wonder in light of the opinions expressed in Mr Wood's book, what obligation a state that did not go through such a ratification process, nor in any way certify the federal compact in its State Constitution or otherwise, has to complying with it. One cannot further help but wonder at the implications should such a State decide that a law or laws passed by the national legislature were a violation of such a compact, and chose to ignore them.

I claim no special expertise or scholarly qualification in the field of history, though I have been a student of it for many years. Neither do I claim expertise in the field of Constitutional law beyond where years of reading has taken me. One cannot help but speculate however, at the implications of such revelations these days in light of the apparently long-held principle of 'nullification', the recent return to popularity of the Tenth Amendment, and the defiant stands of States around the country to years of federal authority expansion and to recently passed federal legislation of dubious Constitutional compliance. 

Of the thirty-seven States that have entered the Union since the original ratification process (my math processes are slightly better than the sitting President's during his campaign), how many have likewise had no ratification process and made no mention of agreeing to the national compact in their defining government blueprint? How could such a failure be viewed by State governments wishing to take a principled stand when they felt that the federal government had exceeded its authority under this agreement? What view would or could the Courts take on the concept of "implied consent" of States that had entered the Union without agreeing to the document (either by state legislative ratification or in their constitutions) that defined the relationship of those States to each other and to the federal government? 

If in fact the States were sovereign, what notice would they take of the judicial branch of the federal government ruling for or against them. It is a curious compact indeed that appears to bind these united STATES together ...