“My name is Oil”

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again:  “I don’t hate oil.  I don’t hate Big Oil and the contribution that industry has made to our economy, and for the jobs that continue to be created.  What I don’t like are dangerous emissions and hazards from the procurement, processing and burning of oil.”

The Santa Barbara oil spill is only the most recent example of that precarious relationship between demand and production.  The company responsible for the latest ruptured-pipeline-spills-oil-along-santa-barbara-coast-1environmental catastrophe is the Plains All American Pipeline.

“Our goal is zero (spills),” said senior director Patrick Hodgins on Friday. “Are we happy with this unfortunate event? Absolutely not.”

But, of course they aren’t happy.  No one intends for a mistake to happen; just like no one driving drunk intended to crash.  But, when you are dealing with variables around a toxic product, it is inevitable that eventually, somewhere, something bad will happen.

Even though the company had passed recent inspections, when you are carrying over 1300 barrels of crude oil an hour, along thousands of miles of pipeline, the corrosion of salt water, somewhere, is going to create a vulnerable weld that has been undetected.  No one intends for that to happen, but this result is as inevitable as 5 beers and the wheel of a car; eventually, the worst happens.

So, what do we do?  I said myself that I recognize the value of oil.

Well, as with drunk driving, we create parameters and punishments to contain the potentially disastrous outcome.  And, we do that with oil rig, pipeline, and refinery inspections. A Carbon Fee would also be a viable way to counter negative outcomes.  But, ultimately, those are only restrictions to minimize bad results.  The problem is, that bad results are irreversible.  The harm, possibly death, the car crash has caused cannot be undone.  The harm the oil spill creates is devastating, as well.

Every event like this becomes “a wake-up call” to curb continued oil development, but essentially, after the dust (or 100,000 gallons of oily sea water) has cleared, we remain in our state of consumption-induced slumber.  The Sierra Club and other environmental organizations immediately urged state and federal politicians to refuse additional oil projects, and they forward solutions by calling upon the nation to usher in a “post-oil era” by embracing renewable energy, but that will only be as effective as the intensity of demands we make as a society.

“When we have a huge solar spill around here, we just call it a nice day,” said Dave Davis, CEO of the Community Environmental Council, with more than a little irony.

Activists have noted that a 1969 spill in Santa Barbara was so catastrophic it ignited the environmental movement and a host of federal and state laws to protect the natural world.  And now we are here again…at that place where our habit enables our addiction; where change can occur, but the counter movement to keep things as they are, roars in defiance to that change.

We must address Clean Energy alternatives now.  We can decrease the oil we use by investing in public transportation, community planning, and with more fuel efficient vehicles.  At the Sierra Club website this has been written with regard to the Santa Barbara disaster:  “We don’t need ever-increasing oil resources, brought to us by increasingly extreme and dangerous oil infrastructure, like oil rigs in the Arctic ocean, exploding bomb trains (which soon may be coming to the Santa Barbara coast if we don’t stop them), or massive tar sands pipelines. What we need is a firm commitment to clean energy solutions.”

To bookend this piece with the admission I made at the beginning; the oil industry will not whither and die as we transition toward a cleaner future.  The jobs, the production and the progress that has been facilitated by oil, will not be lost.  What we must do, however, is aggressively explore, develop and implement better, safer, cleaner energy sources.  Jobs will be created along the way.

The oil industry itself could lead the way developing alternatives to protect our beautiful coastlines and amber waves of grain.  Just like they say they do in those multi-million dollar commercials that always come out after these accidents, promoting their environmental stewardship…Screen-Shot-2015-04-23-at-10.08.44-AM

 

 

“He is not great who is not greatly good.”

I’ve now heard every Republican who has declared their candidacy for the presidency state that we need a president that will “make us proud again to be an American.”

Yet, it wasn’t that long ago when Democrats were rallying to “return America to greater standing in the world” and to find our “moral authority once again.”

I remember because I was one of the louder voices.

Only 8 years before that the battle cry was heard from a Republican running against Gore that we needed to “bring dignity back to the White House.”

Clinton, before that, ran against Bush Sr. and promised to return us to “a time when America was respected more than feared.”

A letter to the editor in the Des Moines Register criticized Obama’s foreign policies and finished with the proclamation, “We need to make America great again!”

Every time I hear that I ask myself, “What ‘great’ period are they referring to?”

I hear “return to greatness” from both sides of the political fence and I wonder, “What is the criteria for greatness?”

Apparently, the letter writer felt good about the way things were before Obama even though the Bush era ended with economic catastrophe, and a foreign policy quagmire.

Maybe, they were referring to Clinton-era American pride.  Clinton did balance the budget and maintained an extended period of prosperity, but, something tells me that wasn’t the writer’s intention.

It wouldn’t be hard to imagine that many Americans wish for a return to the principles of Ronald Reagan and his “Shining city on the hill,” but, that was also when we first became a debtor nation from his fiscal schizophrenia.  Not to mention that the “Trickle Down” revival of neoliberalism created a divide between the Haves and the Have-nots that still tangle the economic debate.

With regard to foreign policy, the Iran/Contra deception comes to mind, and while the fall of the Soviet Union has been handed to his legacy, it was really the result of Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika.

Many Americans think of the great moral purpose of World War II and the recovery from the Great Depression as the greatest time in the history of America. Although to hear the conservative revisionists speak of FDR today, you would think that every failure since, social and economic, was the result of the New Deal.

Lincoln, perhaps the greatest philosophical genius to ever occupy the White House, presided over the greatest socio/political divide in history.

There is no doubt that seeds from separatism still exist to this day as we continue to fight challenges of racism and policies born from ignorance and fear.

So…what is the period of greatness that we all, at one time or another, seem to crave?

Good news!  This isn’t a rhetorical question, I have an answer!

There are two things that happen when we consider our historical greatness.  One is a natural human craving for nostalgia.  Nostalgia is not built upon a remembrance of how things were; rather it comes from what we remember about how we felt at a certain time.  We carry in our narrative the fact that we have survived, and we remember the moments of joy in the cracks and crevices of our struggles; we instinctively long for those feelings again.

Some of my happiest memories are from financially hard times long ago where I found laughs and inspirations in my journey.  I yearn for them even today.

And two, we have a collective historical consciousness about the legacy and promise of America. We are aware of the unique place in world history that our Republic occupies and we have been taught what our forefathers fought for in defiance of tyranny. We are raised on the traditions of patriotism and the stories of struggle and triumph that define our realization of freedom and human rights.

While our history is undeniably peppered with stumbles and falls toward realizing those principles, it is still a timeline of progress toward life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Together, nostalgia and patriotism conspire to give us a sincere sense of what makes this country great and we perennially long to restore her to something that “used to be.”

My challenge for all of us is to ask ourselves, individually:  “What is it that I believe in that makes America great?  Does America follow the call of human rights and the principles of freedom?  What am I doing to continue that journey?”

We make a mistake when we put the responsibility of America’s promise onto the shoulders of politicians before we answer those questions ourselves.  Only collectively, as citizens and politicians, can we define the moral directives that will restore our journey to freedom and guide us toward the realization of peace.

That will make us great. Again.

Run, Gary, Run!

GE DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve been running for office for 9 days now.  What have I learned….?

I’ve learned that everyone knows what you need to do to win.

I’ve learned that county central committees don’t call each other to determine if they overlap.

I’ve learned that being a candidate means that, sadly, you can no longer write a column0020_MG_1399 for the local paper, that you no longer can be the emcee of the annual parade, but that everyone you run into will call you “Congressman” with a smile.

I’ve learned that most people will be gracious, even if they don’t agree with you on a topic.

I’ve learned that everyone is concerned about you and will warn:  “You know that there will be negative ads, don’t you?  Are you prepared for that?”

I’ve learned that people root for people they know and that they really like to know people who are willing to run.

And I’ve learned that running for office, holding down a full time job, having 2 young sons, and continuing to serve the community in the various ways you always have….make it nearly impossible to keep up with your blog, Gary Has Issues.

portraitI will get back in here from time to time, if just to re-post or freshen up an older post (it never ceases to amaze me how issues circle back year after year).  In the meanwhile, here is my candidacy webpage:  www.kroegerforcongress.com

I hope you take a look now and again.

Love,

Gary

The Stick

My father was a child of the Great Depression.  He grew up in a family with 7 children in an abandoned caboose with no electricity or plumbing and only had one pair of overalls and ratty old shoes to wear to school every day.

It was, after all, the Depression, and everyone was poor in the dusty town of Sterling, Colorado, but even among the poor, no one had less than my father.

He was teased for his clothes, his lack of decent shoes and unkempt appearance.

His mother and father did what they could for 7 children and saw that everyone attended school, but in the midst of a depression it is hard to improve your situation once you are destitute.  They couldn’t afford new clothes if they were to put food on the table.

My father told me a story, just before he died 13 years ago, about that childhood.  He told me how jealous he was of the other kids at school who got Tom Mix 6-guns for Christmas or any of a variety of toys that were popular in the 1930’s;  comic books, tinker toys and train sets.  Such things were a far off dream for my father.

And then one day on a lonely walk home he found a stick.

It was a perfect stick; long and straight.  The stick became his rifle, it was a divining rod, even a magic wand.  It became his toy and it captured his imagination.  He took it everywhere; to school, to the supper table, even to bed.

Being the kid with dirty overalls, however, with worn out shoes, living in an broken down caboose, having a stick for a toy didn’t improve his status.  It was something more to be ridiculed by classmates because he didn’t have anything another boy would want.

And so, he told me, he began to “hate that stick.” He hated that it was all that he had.  He hated the poverty that it reminded him of; it was everything that was missing in his life, his family’s life.  It represented the undoing of the promise of America that was called the Great Depression.

“Until, one day,” he said, “when I lost that stick.”

Suddenly, it was gone.  That stick that he hated had nevertheless been all that he had.  Beyond its scorn it contained a boy’s hopes and dreams.  It was an inanimate friend that never let him down and now that wooden, cylindrical object, made magical by it’s perfect form, that he alone could transform into anything, had disappeared.

And he cried and cried…and cried.

My father was not a story teller.  He never put much credence into nice resolutions with moral lessons and his story ended there.  But that was my father.  He knew that his true to life parable had a point and that it was up to me to find out what it was.

I was mesmerized by the vision of my father as a poor boy with nothing, because the man I knew as my father was always strong and success radiated from his unusual intelligence and his unwavering commitment to giving his family a home that was safe and sound.

I saw that stick as vividly as the table that separated us.  I knew instantly what that stick was meant to tell me.

Don’t measure your life by what is missing from it or has yet to be fulfilled.  Instead treasure what is in your hand.  It may be lost someday, and you may discover…that it was the most valuable thing you could ever call your own.

As we argue as a nation over budgets, welfare spending, taxes and health care reform, let us all remember that we live in a free nation that allows for our disagreements and we can emerge better and stronger.

Let us not lose sight of the fact that when we have the opportunity to help ourselves we can also help our neighbors.

Let us remember to treasure the freedom that we hold in our hands.

Thanks, Dad.

 

Backstage at SNL’s 40th

Last weekend I went to the SNL 40th reunion.  I had two Willy Wonka Golden Tickets to the biggest event on earth (that weekend, at least) and I took my 15 year old son, Chris.  To summarize what I will soon detail, it was the time of our lives.snl 40

This wasn’t my first Saturday Night Live reunion.  I went to a 15th anniversary show and a 25th, and they were big deals, to be sure, but nothing like this one.  I’ve never been given any attention on any of them and no sketch featuring me ever gets shown, but I go to see old friends and admittedly I get misty seeing the hallways which were once a crucible for my career dreams, and so I go.

I have a very clear perspective of my SNL career and I harbor no ill feelings toward the experience, in fact, if anything, I am critical of myself for not figuring out how to emerge from a show that is a one-way ticket to stardom.

needlemanBut, I can also forgive my friendly Iowa nature for not being able to navigate those sometimes dangerous waters. The shadow of Eddie Murphy loomed large and there wasn’t enough wattage in the universe to support another star like him, and truth be told, the entire Ebersol era was not a time to nurture a neophyte like me.

I credit Dick Ebersol for identifying the talent of Murphy and also of Joe Piscopo (the hardest working person there) and for keeping the show alive.  Later he hired Billy Crystal and Marty Short to achieve that same end.  And, truth be told again, I was thrilled to be in their company.  Even after a show where I had nothing to do I could say, “I’m being paid to live in New York City and now and again I get to be on tv.”

That, in the scheme of things, doesn’t suck.

And now here I am back at 30 Rock with my teenage son and about to walk down the Red Carpet….

red carpetThe Red Carpet was like nothing I’d ever seen before.  Except for glimpses on Entertainment Tonight, I had no idea what to expect.  I handed a nice young woman our “special” credentials, she whispered my name to a guy with a dry erase board who then proceeded to write “Gary Kroeger” and show it to the row of photographers.

I was given, with my son, a cue to start walking the carpet.  In front of me was Melissa McCarthy and Billy Crystal and so I was surprised when I heard, “Gary!  Over here!  Up here!” and rows of flashes went off.

What happens is that you hit a small mark on the carpet and when that gallery of photographers have their shot, you move about 3 feet to the next marker and repeat the process.  There are about 5 marks to hit before you are finally through the venue.  I felt a little embarrassed actually, but I looked over at my son and saw the coolest 15 year old kid on the planet soaking it in.

Once through, we proceeded to the Pre-Show Party.  If I had to choose one event only on this evening, this would have been it.  As soon as we walked up the stairs, we saw Mike Meyers.  I extended my hand and said, “Hi, Mike, Gary Kroeger” and he beamed and said, “Yes, of course, we met at the last one of these.”

I was flattered to say the least.  I introduced my son, who shook his hand, and as we walked away, Chris, said to me, “Dad!  I just met Shrek!”

“And Austin Powers and Dr. Evil,” I reminded him.

No sooner had we walked into the main bar area when we noticed the Manning brothers, Payton and Eli, standing alone in a corner.  I thought to myself, “This is never going to happen again” and so I pulled my son by his lapel and walked right up to them.

I extended my hand.  “Gary Kroeger and this is my son, Chris.”

Payton Manning gave me a firm shake and said, “I’m Payton Manning and this is my brother, Eli.”

Really?

The humility of their nature was apparent.  Two southern gentlemen who never assume that they are special.  Of course I wanted to ask Payton about next season, but this 20150215_185912-1event is one where everyone feels safe from the scrutiny of media and adoring fans and I wisely chose not to.

No sooner did we say our farewell to the Mannings when Bob Odenkirk appeared.

“Bob, Gary Kroeger” as my hand thrust forward again.  I have a reflex where I always do that in order to avoid an awkward “and….you are….?” moment.

“Gary!  Yes!  How are you?”

I looked at my son, a huge “Breaking Bad” fan, and saw his appreciation of the moment.  Bob was genuinely thrilled when I told him how much I love “Better Call Saul” and we even exchanged emails.  A nicer guy there has never been.

An announcement was made that it was time to head toward Studio 8-H because seating was about to begin.  Chris and I headed toward the elevators when emerging from a small coterie was Eddie Murphy.

Again, the hand thrusts forward.

“Eddie, Gary Kroeger.”

“Kroegs!  How’ve you been!  It’s been like 30 years!”

“Eddie, I’ve been great.  This is my son, Chris.”

“How ya doin’, Chris?  Nice to meet you.”

A few more pleasantries and Chris and I moved toward the elevators.

“Dad!  I just met Donkey!”

“And all of the Klumps,” I reminded him.

We turned to the elevators and Paul Rudd was right on top of us.

“Paul.  You went to college with my ex-wife’s brother.  Matthew Bailey”

“Matty!  Oh my God!”

20150215_233603We swapped stories about my mutually adored ex-brother-in-law and, again, I glanced over at my son to be sure that he was connected to this moment.  His smile said it all.  He had the “It’s Paul Rudd and we’re talking to him” look on his face.

Paul Rudd is one of the most down to earth celebrities you will ever meet.  Chris said to me as we exited toward the elevators, “He is exactly the guy I hoped he would be.”

Once on the studio floor, we stepped out into what was an all too familiar hallway for 3 years of my life, and Jim Belushi seemed to appear from nowhere.

“Kroeger!”

“Hey, Jim!”

Years ago, Jim had approached me in a restaurant in LA and said, “Hey, I’m sorry I was such a dick at SNL.”

20150215_191706-1Well…he was kind of a dick, but I knew that he was being sincere and any resentment I may have felt toward him and his…ever-present ambition….melted away.  Now it was just two old friends looking for the cast pictures in the hallway of our years.  We found one and posed together.

Just before the entrance to Studio 8-H is another hallway to the right where the dressing rooms are located.  I decided that I wanted to see mine.  I had inherited it from Garrett Morris and Chris Farley from me.  The 30 Rock from my era was the same 30 Rock that was built in the 1930s, but now everything was remodeled and very contemporary.  Nevertheless, I knew the space and peeked inside.  I saw the wall where I once threw a chair out of frustration after all my sketches were cut.

I kept that remembrance to myself.

Chris and I turned back to go to the stage and in front of us was Fred Armisen.  Out came the hand, but before I could say, “Fred, Gar-” he cut me off.

“It’s so great for you to be here,” he said.  “That really means a lot.”

I looked at him quizzically.

“You were my cast,” he continued.  “You were the cast I grew up watching, wanting to be part of this.  It means so much to me that you are here.”

Boom.  This moment was indelibly imprinted onto my consciousness.  It had never occurred to me that I was noticed by people that I admire today.

Once inside, we were shown our seats.  To get there we walked by Jack Nicholson. Christopher Walken, Donald Trump, Taylor Swift, Kristen Wiig, Paul Simon.  We were seated next to David Koechner of “Anchorman” fame who gave us a big (Whammy!) hello.

I 20150216_003420whispered into David’s ear that my son was a big fan and David, without missing a beat, launched into a tirade about how he could only get one ticket and now “You are in my wife’s seat!”

He proceeded to try and occupy my son’s space in order to feel more included.  Chris was keen to the bit and grinned ear to ear.

Another one of life’s truly nice people.

The show…was the show.  Most parts were good, some were great.  Some were….why?  3 1/2 hours is a long time even if you’re getting a foot massage and I could have left after “Celebrity Jeopardy” but my son was enjoying every second.  I mean, Tina Fey and Larry David were just in front of him, Matt Lauer was to his right.  Bill Murray was singing the theme from “Jaws” so what’s not to enjoy?

20150215_194510For me, there is one thing that’s a little difficult at these anniversary shows and that’s the fact that I want to be part of it.  I want to be on that stage making this crowd laugh.  There is a tinge of jealousy toward those who earned that privilege, and it is then, and only then, that I wish I’d been more aggressive back in the day.

For the last two minutes of the show, though, every cast member was asked to come to the stage for the goodnights.  I hesitated…and then I ran onto the stage.  I was suddenly with a swarm of the most famous people on earth.  Billy Crystal was the first that I saw and he said, “Kroeger, I hear you’re running for office!”

Wow.  News spreads fast.

Then came Marty Short who said the same thing.

I looked to my right as the familiar goodnight music began and was face to face with Sir Paul McCartney.

I thrust out my hand….

“Sir, I’ve waited 50 years to shake your hand.”

He smiled and replied, “Well, it’s about time then” and he took my hand.

What a great, glib, Beatle-esque thing to say, I thought to myself.  I could tell that he was willing to engage in a conversation, but my edit function kicked in. “What hasn’t he heard?” I thought.

I considered for a second doing my Ed Sullivan impression of their first introduction in 1964 (which I have done since that first introduction in 1964), but the moment passed,  Dana Carvey moved in and the two of them started playing air guitar.

I worked with Ringo on the show in 1985 and I was perfectly satisfied with having met two of four Beatles.  Not bad for a kid from Iowa.

20150215_233420-1At the coat check was Jim Breuer and his wife and they graciously offered that we share their limo to the After-Party at the Plaza Hotel.  My son has now flown First Class to New York, been to the biggest SNL show ever, and is going in a limosine to the Plaza where McCartney, Taylor Swift and Jimmy Fallon will eventually get onstage to sing.

Not bad for a kid from Iowa.

We get inside to the most opulent event I could ever imagine and worked our way into the main room.  There was Joe Piscopo and Don Novello at the bar.

“Kroeger!  I hear you’re running for office!  You should come do my radio show!” said Joe.

Joe was great on SNL and I loved him.  He always included me and here he was, 30 years later, including me again.

But here’s the defining moment of the evening for me.  My son and I are talking to Andy Breckman, one of the great SNL writers, when in walks Sarah Palin.

palinAndy said, “I know Governor Palin, let me introduce you!”

“No!” I said.  “Absolutely not.  What would I say to her?”

“C’mon, I want you to meet her, ” Andy insisted.

“No! I have said and written terribly critical things about her. This is a party and there is no reason for–”

“Governor Palin, this is Gary Kroeger from SNL.  He’s a Democrat who might run for Congress.”

(Thanks a lot, Andy)

“A Democrat, huh?” came the familiar Alaskan/twangy accent. “They’re not all bad.”  She smiled a very warm smile and we shook hands.

“Governor, it is very nice to meet you.”

“And who is this fine looking young man?” she inquired, reaching for my son’s hand.  Chris didn’t need Dad to do his introductions anymore and he returned the greeting.

“I’m Chris Kroeger and I’m here with my Dad.  A real pleasure to meet you.”

Governor Palin introduced us to the people she was with and at no time looked around to see who else might be in the room; she was 100% committed to this conversation.

We talked about our kids.  She asked me about my consideration for Congress and I offered this:  “Governor, we may disagree on several issues, but I’ll bet there are a lot of things we have in common.”

She chimed right in:  “We love our families, don’t we?”

“And we love America and our home states, too” I replied.

“We sure do.  I wish more people could see things that way.”

“Governor, I think we’re all a bit lazy.  I think that government, and the electorate, are afraid of the hard work and like to rely on shortcuts to find answers.  I think we could sit down and talk about what we agree on, what we disagree on, and stay in the room until we solve some issues. I’ll bet we could all try harder to find common ground.”

Governor Palin looked at me and I sensed that she wished she had said that first.  I saw her eyes log the idea into the back of her brain.  She then looked at my son.

“Chris, you’ll do well.  You have a good father.”

We said our goodbyes.

When we decided the evening should end, we worked our way out, running into Timcarrey Kazurinsky and writers from our day, Barry Blaustein, David Sheffield and Pam Norris.  Jim Carrey was just coming in and as he posed with my son for a picture there was a tap on my shoulder.  It was Ellen and Steve Higgins.

steveSteve, of course, is an SNL writer and Jimmy Fallon’s side kick on “The Tonight Show.”

“Gary!  Hi!,” said Ellen, “Isn’t this an amazing Iowa connection out here?”

“Yes, it is.  How great to see you guys.  Steve, I am thrilled at what you’re doing at SNL and the Tonight Show.”

“Yeah, it’s quite a ride.  Hey, I’d love to get together next time we’re in Waterloo”

(Ellen is from Waterloo)

Yeah…being from Iowa is okay.

As my recollection of this adventure comes to an end, the epilogue to this story is actually the prologue.  I had been asked to appear on “Upup With Steve Kornacki” on MSNBC that morning, before any of the SNL festivities.  The story of another SNL alum-turned politician (on the heels of Senator Al Franken) was a pretty decent angle that had been getting some press.  In fact, Senator Franken was on the show the week before.

The interview with Steve was short and sweet and not substantive, but it was fun and I enjoyed it.  My son sat behind me in the studio and apparently he was Tweeting about the experience.

I only saw the Tweet the other day.  It read: “Proud, inspired, awestruck.  These are all words that describe me watching my dad this morning.”

No, son.  It is your father who is so proud of you.  Finally, I became the biggest star of the biggest show, because you were there to see it with me.chris

 

Oh, by the way….www.kroegerforcongress.com

 

 

My Thankful Prayer

Someone said to me, “Gary, I don’t see any evidence of American pride in your positions.  You criticize our great country.”

I was startled.  I honestly feel that my perspective is a tribute to America, even when I am critical of politicians, policies and political parties.  I never take for granted what this country provides, and I consistently give thanks for all that I have.  I’ve been educated, I have a great job, I have healthy sons and I am free to speak my mind in the public square.

To bring some harmony to this dissonant chord I decided to form my political views, realized and hopeful, into thoughts of thankfulness.

I am thankful to live in a country where we are free to protest, to peaceably assemble to empower the voice of the people.  A country where such a right is recognized as essential to securing our freedom from tyranny.

I am eternally grateful to our military men and women who have bravely sacrificed so that we may have that freedom.

I am thankful that I live in a country that has recognized that clean air and clean water are vital to the health of our nation.

I am hopeful that health care reform will continue, and improve, so that more Americans can live healthier lives and reduce the fear of illness and financial ruin.

I am thankful that I live in a country where the rights of citizens are protected by ethical laws regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion; and that these laws are vigorously examined to suppress the tendencies of prejudice and fear.

I am thankful to live in a country that offers support and help to those who have fallen on hard times or who are challenged by obstacles of ill health, physical or mental, or who have been raised in an environment without advantages.

I am thankful to live in a country where education is acknowledged as the engine of prosperity and freedom, and public education is offered to every child.

I am thankful to live in a country where more reasonable voices can subject an imperfect system to better governance and demand accountability from those who have taken advantage of its flaws.

I am fearful, however, that the national debate has turned into demagoguery that could compromise much of what I am thankful for.

I am fearful that many politicians are working to eliminate or marginalize many of those great things that Americans have fought for; things like civil rights for all Americans, environmental protections, equality of opportunity, public education, religious freedom and valuable social programs.

I have two young sons, and on Sunday nights we have a traditional, good old American meal of burgers and sweet corn.  Sometimes I share my thoughts with them.  My 15 year old is, well, 15, and can wear boredom as a badge of honor, but he gets a little memory chip from Dad’s passion for public service, and lately he’s been coming to the table to play his own hand.

My youngest is 10 and little of this resonates, but this won’t be the last time ol’ Dad talks to his sons about how much he cares about America.

And for now, I am thankful just to have them at dinner.

Our Beloved Plutocracy

I love money.  I would like to have more and if I did I could make investments to make even more.  I’d love that.  I like my bank too. They are very nice and I think that if I had more money to put into their bank they would guide me wisely to protect and grow my investments.

What’s more, I’m a Capitalist!  I like the motivation to earn more and to seek the opportunities to do just that.

I also like my job and I like my employers.  I have many wealthy friends and I like them too!

You see, I have no problem with the accumulation of wealth or the lifestyle advantages wealth brings.  Many people see the castle on the hill and that is what inspires them to work; that is the capitalist model that we have embraced.

But “Houston (Oakland, Seattle, New York, Chicago, Des Moines, and Detroit) we have a problem…”

Capitalism is not a perfect system. It started in the Middle Ages as Merchant Capitalism, but was never drawn from a plan as a flawless application of trade or the accumulation of capital in a fair and judicious manner.  In fact, justice was never part of the equation. It grew because it worked in terms of motivating growth and creating productivity.

We are, by nature, driven by an instinct to accumulate, but that also leads to shades of fear and greed. We try (most of us) to suppress that part of us, but it is consistently revealed whenever we steal that extra cookie.

Yet, Capitalism exists today around the world as the principle economic alternative to Communism, and “Globalization” is a realization of the power of capital.  China’s growth, for example, is an extension of Western economics.

So where does all that leave me and my dreams of great wealth?  It leaves me with 90% of America.  Stagnant.

The Congressional Budget Office released data that shows that the top 1% earners in America have more than doubled their share of the country’s wealth over the past three decades. That means that they not only increased their personal holdings, but did so at an exponential rate that increased their stake in the entire country by over 250%. In other words a population of about the size of Iowa controls over half the wealth.

“Good for them,” some might say, “that’s how the system works.”

Is it?

The wealthy in America have been winning the public’s heart for decades, yet to hear the conservative side talk, you’d think they were in need of a yard sale to pay the bills.  During the 50’s, one of our most prosperous periods, the top federal rate was 90%, today it is 36.  Capital Gains under Reagan was as high as 28% and today it is 15%.  Has this led to industrial expansion from the “Job Creators”?  No, not consistently.

After the Bush tax reduction in 2002, jobs were consistently lost over the next 8 years.  All that has happened is that the upper 10% have increased their holdings and the upper 1% have amassed wealth at the greatest rate in history while the rest of us have suffered a deep recession.

Money is power and when we inch toward a plutocracy, our great Republic, even capitalism is at risk.  When a small, focused minority can use their great wealth to influence legislators and buy lobbyists the Republic of the People becomes a charade; money buys media and when the information we receive becomes a bias toward the interests of those who have the most, there is no truth.  Without truth in the marketplace even capitalism becomes a silly puppet in the hands of the elite.

The only thing that can counter the massive force of wealth is the aggregate voice of the People; the communal power of government.

In the words of FDR: “The liberty of a Democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it comes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism – ownership of government by an individual, by a group.”

Many people are seduced by a myth that when the wealthy have more money they will create more jobs, when in reality it is demand that creates jobs.  The bought and paid for message from the wealthy elite has also convinced many people that they will see more money in their own pockets without a progressive tax system.  Neither is true as our piece of the economic pie dwindles in a shell game of shelters and loopholes that are already tipped in favor of the investment class.

A Plutocracy is “rule by wealth”…is that what we want? Could it be that’s what we already have?

Have a Koch and a Smile!

Senate Republicans Speak To Media After Their Weekly Policy LuncheonRepublicans have voted against Obama’s jobs bill…voted against a Consumer Financial Protection Agency to curb the fraudulent practices that contributed to the recession…voted against a bi-partisan budget…voted against ending tax breaks that did nothing but line the pockets of Big Oil…they voted against the “Buffet Rule” that would essentially lower marginal tax rates but also disallow the loopholes that effectively give the wealthy the lowest tax percentage…voted against the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act….and are now looking to 2016 to become a referendum against insuring Americans who couldn’t afford health care…

…and yet they claim to be the patriotic Americans, true to the principles upon which we were founded; a Republic for and by the people.

All of these initiatives intended to improve the economy; to improve the standard of living for the majority of Americans; reduce their risk; reduce the manipulation of stocks; to make taxes more equitable for all of us; improve Veterans benefits; and to give all Americans access to medicine.  However, Republican leadership has convinced its flock that reform is bad for America unless it is to turn policy in favor of the investment class even more.

I’ve heard echoed in the streets, “We have to give the rich incentives, they are the Job Creators.”

It has been clear, however, over the past 35 years that we have been giving the rich incentives.  The upper class have increased their holdings 250% and the top 1% control over 40% of America’s wealth.  And they have the power and the money to influence legislation on every level, and to convince too many voters that they need even more so that they can continue as our benevolent benefactors.

I’ve read and heard comments from people who contend that we don’t want to upset the rich by suggesting that maybe…just maybe…they could afford to pay a little more to pay down the debt…since…well, they benefitted the most from the way things have been…and maybe because some of it was fraudulent (Rigas, Skilling, Lay, Kozlowski, Ebbers, McDermott, Waksal, Madoff, etc.)…and…oh God, I hope I don’t offend anyone…but the average working American has been paying the bill while many have lost their pensions….and…here we go—-couldn’t afford health care….

This is where someone invariably chimes in with, “We need the rich and wealth creation is their incentive- don’t you know anything, Gary??”

Actually, I know very well how the system works.  It’s a Capitalist/Free Market with Mixed Market influence to minimize instability while creating incentives; it sustains with the creation of wealth.  “Job creation,” however, comes from demand from consumers; businesses are created or expanded to meet demands.  No one goes into business to create jobs, in fact, job creation is the last resort as it adds costs.

Nothing sinister about that, it’s just the way it is.

Don’t get me wrong- I love the rich!  Some of my best friends are rich!  Wish I were one of them but reform isn’t a punishment of wealth and success; it is a stop-gap to protect those who feed the machine with their consumption of goods and services, the working class, so that the system can prosper within a Republic.

What many people have forgotten (or never knew) is that our system of governance is the primary function of this Republic, not our system of economics.  Perhaps, the reason so many Americans are more protective of Capitalism than they are the social and cultural advantages of a representative Democracy may be because they believe our survival depends on economic prosperity while the constructs of justice and democratic social order are not actually…necessary.

But this is where our collective noodle gets fried; the quality of American life, what our military men and women have fought and died for, is our social order and constitutional justice- not the free market.

Some of my critics have said that the rich are going to stop investing if we insult them or hold them responsible to pay a more fair share, and like sycophantic serfs we must acknowledge their great contributions to jobs and the economy.

They are afraid that they will take their ball and go home unless we apologize for suggesting that they have been doing pretty well and that it is time to share the burden of this recession.

I’d like to ask a question.  Where are they going to invest?  We’re 25% of the entire worlds net worth.

Are they really going to take their ball, and say, “We don’t want to play with you anymore because you don’t appreciate us!”?

No. I’m pretty sure they are going to stay right here and keep making money. They will continue to belly ache because they know they can convince enough people that they are the “victims” rather than the winners in this market, but no one is going to pass on the endless opportunities in America to increase their wealth.

The budget, the debt, debt celings, fiscal cliffs and sequestration have been excuses to convince a frightened public who experienced a deep recession leading to job loss, loss of income and investments, that we need the Supply-Side (Trickle-Down) economics back at the helm…the policies that emptied our pockets in the first place.

Nothing illustrates this paradoxical policy paradigm better than the Fabulous Koch Brothers, withthe-koch-brothers a combined wealth of over 50 billion dollars, who released a commercial denouncing social services.

They proclaim that a salary of $34,000 a year puts a person among the wealthiest 1% in the world (which is as logical as saying that between me and Bill Gates, we have over 40 billion dollars!).  The Koch’s are saying that we don’t need food stamps and a minimum wage because Americans are already better off than most of the world.

“We’ve got to clear those out,” they said, “or anything that reduces the mobility of labor.”

If they were being genuine they would have added: “Or anything that keeps us from getting richer.”

What is at stake here is more than economic policy differences, but the very foundation of freedom and liberty as championed by our Great Charter.  We cannot allow for policy to be purchased.  We cannot tolerate living in a plutocracy where justice, opportunity and freedom is meted out according to wealth.

The Pursuit of Truthiness

 

  It’s not easy to find the truth.  Even when you do research by looking for unbiased views to form a clearer perspective, the information available, although vast, can be based on conflicting analysis, points of view and political influence.

The other day someone mentioned to me as we talked about the financial situation in America,  “Corporate taxes in America are the highest in the world.”  I was a little puzzled because I had read recently that “Corporate Welfare” (the tax breaks afforded mega-corporations) totaled over 100 billion dollars annually.

I didn’t confront the contradiction on the spot and decided to look into the matter.  But, this is where the challenge began…

I actually enjoy doing research and I am skeptical by nature of talking points and zealots on either side of the political fence; I was raised to look for the contradictions that can exist.  I started Googling various phrases.

What do American corporations pay in taxes? – What do corporations really pay? – What is corporate welfare? – Why do corporations pay 35% in taxes?

Most of what I found played into my preconceived notion that mega-corporations (GE, Exxon, Carnival Cruise Lines) pay a pittance because of loopholes and breaks and nowhere near the percentage of 35% (less, most said, than what you or I pay).

Then I came across an article in an online magazine called Real Clear Markets:http://www.realclearmarkets.com/articles/2008/08/do_corporations_really_pay_no.html and found some interesting information.  The article articulately pointed out some mistakes that many anti-corporate writers make regarding their analysis of corporate taxes.

One mistake is that many critics assume that what a company “makes” is their profit, when of course, it isn’t and it is the net earnings that are taxed.  The author of the article, Steven Malanga, writes, The impression one gets from corporate critics is that many are prospering by exploiting loopholes in the tax code and leaving the rest of us to pick up the tab.  But that criticism is based on the mistaken notion that in robust years, such as 2005, virtually all businesses do well. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

American businesses produced 31 million new jobs in 2005 because 1.5 million firms every quarter were expanding and another 370,000 new businesses were starting up. “On the other hand,” Malanga writes of contraction even in a growing economy, “Firms also eliminated nearly 29 million jobs…and another 325,000 going out of business.”

He concludes with a compelling statement: “Taxes on corporate profits that year increased 34 percent…Growing firms, you see, do pay more in taxes.  Just don’t imagine that every business is growing whenever the American economy is.”

I wasn’t about to rest, however, thinking that I had found the only answer to the Corporate Tax Equation.  I searched on…

Edward Kleinbard, an economics professor from USC (who headed a Congressional joint committee on taxes) writes, “The paradox of the United States tax code — high rates with a bounty of subsidies, shelters and special breaks — has made American multinationals ‘world leaders in tax avoidance.’”

And David Kocieniewski of the NY Times points out that by taking advantage of the myriad of tax breaks and loopholes that other countries do not offer, US corporations pay only slightly more (on average) than other industrial countries, and often far less.  The United States is virtually alone in trying to tax its multinational corporations on their foreign earnings, but it allows companies to avoid those taxes indefinitely by keeping profits overseas. That encourages companies to use accounting maneuvers to shift profits to low-tax countries and to invest profits offshore.  Some business owners complain that our system unfairly rewards shady bookkeeping more than innovation.

Liberal groups I found suggest that by ending the tax breaks, loopholes, subsidies and shelters afforded to corporations, we would create enough revenue to lower the tax rate significantly.  The irony is (much like the Buffett Rule toward our individual progressive tax system) that corporations will be paying the same, but we can all say that we “lowered taxes.”

Companies compete “based not on product quality and services, but on accounting gymnastics,” said Paul Egerman, former chairman and chief executive of eScription, a medical transcription service in Boston.

Finally, Clint Stretch, a former counsel to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation summed it up thusly, “The only way tax reform makes everyone happy is if everyone wins.  And with the federal budget where it is today, that’s not possible.”

So…what have I learned?  Would it be okay if I answered, “Very little”?  Things are, as I suspected, according to which perspective you take.  Either, A) Corporations need to be incentivized because tax breaks and lower rates enhance growth and that creates jobs or B) Corporations are not expanding commensurate to the windfall of shelters, subsidies and breaks that they are getting, therefore, eliminating “corporate welfare” will balance the burden and budget.

Stalemate?  Not exactly.  The person that initiated my inquiry also mentioned the huge national debt and was quick to point out that “Obama is mostly responsible for it.”  I sent him a Congressional Budget Office chart of spending under the last two Presidents outlining the costs (and projected costs through 2017) of new policies initiated (including Iraq and Afghanistan) by Bush and Obama.  President Bush outpaces Obama over 5 trillion to just under 1.5 trillion.

He replied, “Interesting information.  I didn’t look at it that way before.”

I’m not so naïve as to think that he is going to suddenly register as a Democrat, or even change his anti-Obama opinion, but it illustrates how little actual information can determine our opinions and that just a little bit of research, can shed a glimmer of truthiness onto pre-conceived ideas…and maybe influence them…a little.

Now…let’s look at some other statistics.  Is Joe Flacco really worth ten times the annual budget of Zimbabwe?
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Follow me! I know a shortcut!

Shortcuts.  We all take them.  If there is a shorter, faster way to get to our destination why wouldn’t we take it?  We don’t get into a car to maximize the time we spend in cars; we want to minimize our time getting to the destination.

Even when our cars are comfortable and have the latest Bluetooth or sound system technology, everything is designed to make things, like making a call or changing songs, faster and easier in order to make it seem like not being on a journey at all.

We take shortcuts in every aspect of our lives and that speed motivation drives the technology on which we now depend.
Can you believe that we actually spent time dialing when one push of a button saves our lives 10 precious seconds each time?  Why go to the store at all if there’s an option to stay in our most comfortable chair, go online, and have any purchase delivered to the door?  Today.

We are paying a price, however, for our time saving conveniences and that price is measured by our loss of patience.

15 years ago, I was fine with using my modem to connect my personal computer to the World Wide Web; first hearing the static, then the familiar “boing-boing” back to static, and then…”You’ve got mail!” That payoff made the 20 second wait worth every second because in my “mailbox” would be a message from someone else who was equally excited by this modern age communication.

When I navigated online, I had no problem with my little multi-colored wheel that would spin to inform me that my computer was searching the vast, infinite sea of digital information, looking for that little tidbit, sitting out there with my name on it.

I didn’t even require using patience as I gladly went to the kitchen to pour a cup of coffee to prepare for my state of the art machine to procure what I wanted from cyberspace.  Inside of half a minute it was delivered directly to ME!

Today, however, I am displeased at even mundane and routine tasks and that is amplified with every new application of time saving technology.  It is evidenced by the impatient feeling I get when my computer takes more than a millisecond to navigate to another page.  When it freezes for all of 3 seconds I’ve been known to swear.  That impatience can extend to traffic lights, channel surfing, score updates, my kids, and tv dinners.

It isn’t just me, either; its everyone I do business with, hang out with or meet at soccer games.

We are like this with politics too.  We don’t have time for the journey anymore; we want to get to our destination having done the least amount of work to get there.  So we take shortcuts.  It’s a lot easier for a liberal to illustrate a conservative with a brushstroke that says, “All they care about is money.”

It’s a lot easier for a conservative to paint a liberal with “All they want is to spend my money.”  It gets us to our destination faster; it gets us to our ideological finish line where we can bask in how right we are all the time.

Rather than study history, even to go back a mere 20 years, to reveal how our parties and the broad philosophical positions of liberalism and conservatism have together woven policy, too many of us look to the distillation at the end of the process to determine the character of each.

Never mind that not so long ago Republicans embraced many liberal ideas, or that Democrats participated in legislation that today is branded “conservative.”  It takes so much less effort to believe that liberals have always been overreaching (and wrong) and that conservatives have always been fearful (and wrong).

Trouble is…we’re all wrong.  We may never reverse the human instinct to take shortcuts, but we can begin to understand that the destination is only an end, and it is the journey that offers the experience from which we learn.  And it is from knowledge that we not only create more substantial results, but create more meaningful realities, measured by our experience of life and not our accumulation of endings.

Time saving technology can maximize the time we have to do more important things, but that paradigm only works if we are improving our journey.  Is life better today? Are we wiser than we were, say, 40 or 50 years ago?  I don’t know…43 years ago we went to the moon using a slide rule…  …and just today I was notified that a glitch in the phone company computer deleted my last payment and so they won’t come out to do service work their technician was scheduled to do last week but didn’t because his cell phone battery died.

If our political discourse, and thereby, our politicians and government are to improve we must give credence to the journey; we must take the time that is necessary to educate ourselves, to investigate, study, and to research our divergent paths.

Patience in politics is a virtue and not a vice and the more time we spend on our political adventure, the more information we will find…and with knowledge comes wisdom.

“Patience is the companion of wisdom,” wrote St. Augustine.

Or as the Buddha said, “It is better to travel well, than to arrive.”