Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Socialism and me

Many years ago I was approached as I entered a 7-11 store by a man who asked me for $5 so he could buy a sandwich. I was briefly conflicted as to whether or not to give it to him. After all, he could be genuinely hungry; or he could want money for booze, drugs, or any number of other things that I wasn't willing to provide. Almost parallel with that thought, however, I seized upon what I thought was the perfect solution. "Come into the 7-11 with me," I said, "and I'll buy you whatever you want to eat."

We entered the store and he followed me to the refrigerator section, where I began to look through the prepared sandwiches. If you've ever - even briefly - considered buying a sandwich at a 7-11, you know you'd have to be pretty darned hungry to pony up several dollars for anything they sell that's between two slices of bread. As I continued my search, the man spoke up: "Lady," he said, "these don't look so good and they ain't very big. For five dollars, I can go right next door to Subway and get a big sandwich that will fill me up. Plus, it will have stuff I like in it."

As I looked at him and realized the truth of what he said, I had one of those little arguments I have with myself sometimes. I had the five dollars; no problem there. If I gave it to him, maybe he would go next door and get a Subway, or maybe he'd buy a bottle of wine, cigarettes, beer, or even go down the street for his next fix. When the light bulb went on, I realized that if I chose to give him the money, then I was relinquishing control over how he spent it. So how far did my responsibility go? Should I trust him to use it as he said he would, or should I close my wallet, make my own purchases, and tell him he could either take my offer or not? Was maintaining control - and hanging on to a few dollars - more important to me than this man's dignity? I handed him the money, bought what I had come in for, and left. As I drove away, I saw him standing at the counter in Subway.

It's probably been twenty years since this happened, yet I recall it periodically, and find in it a lesson for myself.

Socialism derives from the word "social." "Social" is defined as pertaining to, devoted to, or characterized by friendly companionship or relations; seeking or enjoying the companionship of others; friendly; living or disposed to live in companionship with others or in a community, rather than in isolation; of or pertaining to human society.

There's a lot of conversation today about fears that the US will evolve into a socialist form of government. The truth is, we're already partly socialist, and most people are happy to have it that way. What if you had to call - and pay - when you needed a police officer, a fireman, to utilize the services of a judge, or hire a jury? What if you had to pave your own road or personally care for the parks in your city?

We have, in this nation, a system of Social Security - everyone pays into it, everyone who lives long enough can collect from it. Currently, as you know, We, the People, own automakers and banks - although we're all hopeful that it won't be for too long!

Living in a society carries with it a responsibility to that society. Those who don't play nicely are usually punished - thieves, rapists, arsonists, murderers - and that punishment is frequently referred to as "paying a debt to society."

We pay taxes, Federal and State, for a myriad of services: a standing Army (Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard as well - not to mention our over-utilized National Guard!), a federal highway system, a functioning national transportation system, our precious national parks and forests, the safety of our food and our medication. Is it always perfect? No. Few systems are. But for the most part, the government does a good job and makes our lives easier without respect for income, race, status in life, gender, age, or sexual orientation.

In the Declaration of Independence, we find the words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." I think it's important to note the word among in that sentence. The signers of that Document didn't attempt to define all the unalienable rights that we have as humans, but to list what were to them the most important: Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Throughout the history of this nation we have strived to achieve the lofty ideals of the Declaration. We've failed badly sometimes, but we've also had enormous success in areas.

Today, in the 21st century, we find that too many of our fellow Americans - our friends and neighbors, our family members, citizens of our cities, counties and states - our society - are falling woefully behind in being able to even dream of the American dream, much less actually achieve it. "We've earned our money, let us choose how to spend it," is our cry. We don't want to support more government programs, we will give where we want to give, not where the government wants us to. What a sad commentary on our way of life.

How can we know where the greatest need is? How can we make choices between supporting schools and keeping our highways safe? Between building prisons and providing healthcare for our Veterans? How can we decide who is worthy of our help and who isn't, and how can we monitor the donations we do make?

In the New Testament, we are told, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." We in this great nation have so much; even many of our poor are better off than what is considered middle class in other countries.And yet we are never satisfied; we always want more and we don't consider that we have a responsibility to our fellow members of this society called the United States.

I don't advocate for a socialist form of government whereby we cannot enjoy the fruits of our labors, or where we share equally in all earnings. But I do advocate for socialism in helping those who, for reasons we may or may not agree with, can't help themselves. I truly believe that caring for one another in ways big and small, can only make us better people.

The very last words in the Declaration of Independence are, "we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." These were attested to by men who had much to lose and who yet stated that they would stand by and for each other as members of a common society.

I've started - and discarded - three drafts of this post before finally reaching this point. And I've researched word definitions and historical documents and recalled instances from my own life. But what it all boils down to is simply this:

Caring for our fellow human beings is just the right thing to do.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Capitalism and me

I'm starting this post with the assumption that I'm not the only person who occasionally has self/self dialogues! Occasionally I'll hear or read about something that makes me start thinking about what I believe in and why I believe that way. Except for the voices in my head, I think this is probably healthy and not just a sign of getting older!

Lately, I've been considering capitalism and socialism, and, although I'm still working out the details (one of me is, anyway), I've come to the conclusion that they are not opposites, nor are they mutually exclusive. I believe in capitalism - I believe in ownership of houses, cars, bicycles, microwave ovens, coffee pots (especially coffee pots), and the other trappings with which we surround ourselves. Oh, yeah - and computers. Don't forget computers.

I believe that people should be compensated for their ideas, their creations, their work. I believe that if Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Steve Jobs had the creativity, knowledge, and discipline to develop corporations, they should benefit from that. I also believe that those who work for them should benefit as well, as should anyone who works for anyone else. I'm not talking about equal share, because there certainly wasn't equal risk. But I am talking about livable wages, recognition of contributions to the growth of the company, etc.

I also believe that, with great success comes great responsibility. I am thinking here specifically of Bernie Madoff and Ken Lay, two men who reached great financial heights while defrauding people of their money, most of which will never be returned. But there are also companies who are still in the process of defrauding the American public through their off-shore tax havens. Among them are Boeing, Halliburton, BellSouth, Pfizer, PepsiCo, American Express, and Marriott. (You can find a longer list here.)

These are companies that pay their top executives the Big Bucks, along with performance bonuses, and who also sell to us, the public, while finding ways to avoid paying their share of Federal taxes. They don't mind taking your money, but they sure don't want to give any of it back.

Admittedly, they are doing so legally, due to loopholes in the Federal tax law. And, also admittedly, a number of Presidents and Congresses - both Democratic and Republican - have failed to close the loopholes that allow this to continue. And the signing of NAFTA during the Clinton Administration allowed them further squeeze plays by making it more profitable for businesses to outsource jobs to countries where labor is so much cheaper that shipping parts overseas and finished products back here is still cheaper than paying US labor costs.

This brings me to the issue of labor unions. I have long had a love/hate relationship with labor unions. I recognize that unions often protect lazy workers and reward those who manage to stay out of trouble even if they aren't productive. But I also know that, without labor unions, we'd probably still be running sweatshops and employing children for pennies a day, and have working conditions that most of us can't begin to imagine. If you don't believe me, check out your local migrant workers - their wages, their living and working conditions, their shortage of benefits of any kind, not just health care.

Several years ago I managed a local branch of a national fabrics and crafts store. Only my assistant and I were provided with benefits, and I was forbidden by the home office to allow any of my employees to ever work enough hours to qualify for benefits. That meant several things: they didn't get health care, paid sick days or holidays, or overtime. It also meant that if anyone failed to show up for work (which is more likely to happen when people don't have loyalty to a company that has no loyalty to them), then either I or my assistant had to cover their shift. It didn't matter, you see, if we worked too many hours; as salaried employees, we were required to work a minimum of 45 hours a week, often working 60 or more. And we weren't paid overtime! Neat, huh? What if every industry worked this way? Well, too many of them do.

And, despite all of the yammering about cutting into corporate profits and job creation, the simple facts are these: Corporate income frequently does not translate into jobs in this country; Corporations often do not pay a fair share of taxes; the large numbers of people who are losing jobs are not the ones making hundreds of thousands - or millions - of dollars a year.

Capitalism should not be synonomous with unbridled greed. Rush Limbaugh often says that anyone who works hard can get a better job. He says that he wishes everyone makes as much money as he does. Well, tell me, Rush: Who would be left to shine your shoes, wash your car, serve your drinks or your dinner, or sell you that airline ticket?

So to be realistic, we will always have those among us who, for a variety of reasons, will never rise to even the median income level in this country (currently at about $53,000 per year, per person). I think capitalism is a workable idea, but we need to find a way to narrow the gulf between the haves and have-nots. Otherwise we'll soon find ourselves in a society of economic revolutionaries.

Next: Socialism

Monday, October 12, 2009

How do you measure patriotism?

In recent weeks, two people who are part of my extended family network, and both of whom are politically right of center, have played what I've come to call "the Veteran card." Both of them served in the military in Vietnam, and both also generously gave of themselves to either volunteer or work in a paid position for their respective law enforcement offices.

Each of them, unknown to the other as far as I know, has made the statement that was along the lines of, "I didn't serve my country in the military and in civilian life to see it become a socialist nation." (In both cases, the subject was government-run health care.) Both of them claim to have performed in a way that exceeds the performance of the average American, and since I know so many who have never served in the military or worked for any governmental agency, they may be right. I would, however, deny that their service gives them any special insight or a more "special right" to their opinion than I have.

I know, for example, neither of them ever suffered the death of a family member in the course of government service. The late Ted Kennedy lost three brothers in service to this nation, and he was the Senate's strongest proponent of universal health care.

Former Sen. Max Cleland sacrificed both legs and an arm in Vietnam, and he supports universal health care.

Of course there are Republicans - Sen. John McCain and former Sen. Bob Dole comes to mind - who have also sacrificed in wartime and who don't support universal health care.

My point is that having served one's country does not confer a specialized knowledge about what is good for the country. It may, and should, inform one's opinion; but each person's opinion should be informed by his or her life experiences, and the validity of those diverse opinions are given voice at the polls.

So if you have served our country in war or peace; if you have served in the military or as a civilian; if you have been a volunteer or held a paid position, I respect what you have done, and I appreciate your service.

It doesn't mean I have to agree with your politics.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Politically autobiographical

If you've found your way here from my personal blog, you've probably already figured out that, politically, I am somewhat left of center. It seems that in my later years I have found my way back to the politics of my youth, and I felt that a few (or, perhaps, many) words of explanation were in order.

If one can be raised within a political party, we were. I don't recall much in the way of politics from my very early years, but after my parents were divorced, my mom entered politics with a vengeance. My earliest political memory was campaigning with her for Nick Nuccio to be elected Mayor of Tampa in '56; I was 9 years old. Nuccio was elected, and was a sometime visitor to our house, along with people like the late US Representatives Sam Gibbons and Claude Pepper. In 1960, we campaigned fervently for John Kennedy, and had the memorable pleasure of meeting him on the Monday before he was assassinated.

Mom was Democratic Precinct Committeewoman for more years than I can remember, and held a tea in her home for Rosalynn Carter during Jimmy Carter's first campaign for the Presidency. She was invited to both Carter's and Lyndon Johnson's inaugurations, and was a delegate to the party's mid-term convention in Kansas City in 1974. In short, my life was infused with political activity and activism, to the degree that, when I left home in the late 60s, I was glad to be away from it all, and frequently (and obnoxiously) stated that the only political thing I ever wanted to do again was vote!

Fast forward to marriage and children, and life in a small farming town where I became actively involved in my church. I worked only sporadically, so my social circle was filled with like-minded people. My husband was a volunteer policeman in addition to his full-time paying job, and so my world became more and more circumscribed and influenced by political conservatives. I did vote for Jimmy Carter in 1976, but shortly afterward changed my party affiliation to Republican. After all, they were the "family values" party and I was all for family values!

In 1987 I became very involved in working with AIDS patients, and shortly after that learned that my own son is gay. A change began to happen inside me, and my devotion to God and my family led me to start asking myself some hard questions. I saw intimately what happens when those with few options are denied help in the midst of ostentatious plenty. I saw things and heard stories that made me weep. And I began, slowly, ever so slowly, to question my adherence to a political party that seemd to lack compassion for anyone except the very wealthy.

Allthough I was conflicted, I maintained my official affiliation with the Republican Party. When my mother died in 1992, I had never garnered the courage to tell her of my defection, but that fall I cast my vote for Bill Clinton, largely because of his promise to pave the way for gays to serve in the military.

Upon my divorce in 1994, I moved to Oregon to be near my sister and her family, bringing my youngest son - then 14 - with me. My sister is four years younger than I (really only 3-1/2!) but despite my elder sister arrogance, she has often had insights and words of wisdom that have had tremendous impact on me. As I mounted one of my best arguments against social services - that our mother had managed to raise three kids in the 50s and 60s with no help from our father, and without once having to resort to government aid - Peggy looked at me and said, "Instead of using her as a yardstick by which to measure others, you should admire the fact that she had the knowledge, skills, and perseverance to do that. Not many people do, you know!"

I knew she was right, but pride - my old enemy - still kept me as a registered Republican. I even took a certain pride in being an "open-minded conservative." I am ashamed to admit that I voted for George W. Bush in 2000 for the most frivolous of reasons: Al Gore bored me. And I was willing to give Bush the benefit of the doubt for his first few years in office.

The war in Iraq, however, was an eye-opener - but only after we began to learn of the deceits that launched it. In 2004, I voted for John Kerry and began to see the true nature of what the Republican Party had become when the swift boat affair was initiated. For an entire party to impugn the integrity of a man who had served so nobly was anathema to me. Inertia being what it is, however, I remained a Republican in name only.

Until 2008. When I heard Rush Limbaugh exorting Republicans to switch party affiliations so that they could vote in Democratic primaries and try to undermine the integrity of the party, I was finally, at last, appalled beyond belief. So I switched back to the party of my youth (I''m home, Mom!), and for the first time in my adult life, I not only voted but campaigned and donated money as well. And I'm proud - very proud - that my man won!

The ensuing efforts by those on the Right to not only discredit those who are trying to help our country, but to have no shame in putting forth blatant lies and ridiculous assertions have only strengthened my resolve to work harder for what I believe in.

And so this blog. Separate from my personal blog, and dedicated to promoting truth and progressive political policies. All who read are welcome to respond; there will be no "approval" necessary to have your comments posted. However, they will be diligently vetted for truth and factual information, and anything bearing the label of any known right-wing news organization will be especially scrutinized. If you object, thank FOX News, who has publicly declared itself to be the "opposition." Misinformation, lies, distortions, will all be pointed out and rebutted.

And I in return, I invite you to scrutinize my posts. If I'm wrong, I want to know it. If my sources are biased and can't be independently verified, I want to know that, too. For that reason alone, you will never find me using a publication such as Huffington Post as my only source of information.

Truth alone will bring this country back to - in the words of the original Pledge of Allegiance, " Nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

And I'm determined to do my part!