The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Archive for the ‘America’ Category

IS AMERICA A GREAT COUNTRY, OR WHAT? (JUST ASK WEIGHT WATCHERS)

Some come to rallies or protests with bull horns.  Others show up armed with brass knuckles and soda cans filled with concrete.  America’s detractors.  The vocal “progressives” throughout the country who sing a song of cacophonous discord.  Their vision of America is that of a country filled with hateful people who are racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic and who espouse more phobias than would be needed to fill all five boroughs of New York City’s phone books.

Now it is rather remarkable that these same people are anxious to see America filled with an extensive group of new immigrants from the highways and byways of the world.  The thought occurs to me rather naturally, are these progressives sadists?  Why would they want more people to be subjected to living in the dreadful environment which they describe today’s America to be? And, despite the widespread dissemination of news, are people who believe America to be a cesspool and still want to come here completely insane?  We do not need to import more lunatics to this country.  We already have enough of our own.

For all those who share this view of our country, I have a two word rejoinder.  Weight Watchers.  Let me put that in context.

Back in the ’60’s there were two stocks that traded on the NYSE which were blazing white hot.  The first was Xerox which had developed plain paper copying.  The second was Mead, Johnson  which manufactured a meal replacement product called Metrecal.   Making a Xerox was interchangeable with making a copy.  And having a Metrecal was interchangeable with being on a diet.  But there was one significant difference between Xerox’s achievement and in Mead, Johnson’s.

While Xerox effectively put the smudgy carbon paper industry out of business, Mead, Johnson gave serious impetus to the existence of a brand new industry – the diet industry.

Among the list of the Seven Deadly sins is gluttony.  But gluttony can only exist in an environment where there are the necessities to fulfill it.  In other words, it’s hard to overeat if there’s no food to consume.  The Protestant Reformation in part came into being by criticizing the “cloistered virtue” of Roman Catholic religious orders for depriving their members of the right to exercise free will by removing the temptations that the laity faced and had to deal with on a daily basis.

In America we have no lack of food – and no lack of people who are consciously or otherwise willing to take advantage of that fact.  Inevitably, that has resulted in a fair amount of tummy bulge leading us now to the point where we are “achieving” obesity rates that dwarf those in every other country worldwide.  This is not a new phenomenon – but it seems to be accelerating it’s pace.

We were gaining weight back fifty years ago.  And the marketers of Metrecal (available in four equally repugnant flavors) hit on something big.  Americans were obsessed with their appearance and their weight.  And we were obsessed with our God-given right to get what we want and get it as quickly as possible – including weight loss.  Metrecal was the “miracle product” of the day.  Pop a can open and you too could look like Raquel Welch.  Had its manufacturer been able to make it more palatable to the average person’s taste, it might have been the biggest product ever invented..  At least that’s what stock investors hoped would happen.

While people grew tired of Metrecal, they didn’t get tired of trying to achieve the perfect, svelte body.  Diet books were published by the hundreds – often with diametrically opposed advice on the most effective way to lose weight.  But those books required a lot of effort.  First, you had to read them.  And then you had to implement the advice they contained.  That was a lot of work for many of us – far too much.  But the diet industry came up with a solution, Weight Watchers – another child of the early sixties.

Weight Watchers recognized a principle of weight loss that we still accept today.  A person who consumed more calories than he expended was going to gain weight – the converse resulting in weight loss.  But for us Americans who want instantaneous results, seeing a pound or two drop off after a week of self-imposed dietary discipline was discouraging to many.  So Weight Watchers incorporated support meetings to encourage us on our journey – and to console us when we failed to see progress.  And they charged a weekly fee to participate in their version of a seven step program.

No stranger to weight problems herself, Weight Watchers’ current spokesperson is Oprah Winfrey.  She purchased a ten percent interest in the company in 2015.  The company needed a high profile PR person to represent them since they spawned a number of competitors including Nutrisystem and Jenny Craig  – and a host of diet pills which to some is far easier than having to weigh and measure.  Of course, the latest phase of the diet industry is selling portion controlled meals, available in frozen form, which thanks to the invention of the microwave oven seems to be the way the industry may go in the future.

Weight Watchers has no operations in Burkina Faso or Venezuela or Sri Lanka or Somalia.  The reason is obvious.  The vast majority of people in those countries do not have an issue with being overweight.  Their challenge is to find enough food to sustain themselves.  And if you don’t believe that a nearly endless food supply makes America different and great – just ask Weight Watchers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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INAUGURATION DAY, JANUARY 20, 2017

 

This is my country! Land of my birth!
This is my country! Grandest on earth!
I pledge thee my allegiance, America, the bold,
For this is my country to have and to hold.

What diff’rence if I hail from North or South
Or from the East or West?
My heart is filled with love for all of these.
I only know I swell with pride and deep within my breast
I thrill to see Old Glory paint the breeze.

With hand upon heart I thank the Lord For this my native land,
For all I love is here within her gates.
My soul is rooted deeply in the soil on which I stand,
For these are mine own United States.

This is my country! Land of my choice!
This is my country! Hear my proud voice!
I pledge thee my allegiance, America, the bold,
For this is my country! To have and to hold.

 

STONED

 

 

 

American pothead

Somewhere in California.

 

 

 

two gay men being stoned to death by isis

Somewhere in ISIS controlled Iraq.

THE CHANGE PURSE

It was a Christmas present from my mother to hers.  Perhaps you might not consider it to be a gift of significance, a mere change purse and, for that matter, one that looked like the one that Grandma had in service for a decade, but you would be misinformed.  There was no “accessory” that was more important to Grandma than this little black leather purse with the silver-like top and clasp.  It was at the center of her managing her finances – a matter that she took with the utmost seriousness.

Grocery shopping was an almost daily routine in Grandma’s life.  She reasoned, “Why would I stock up on produce which will only lose its freshness in the refrigerator if I can buy something daily at the produce stands?”  Of course, like most businesses then, the stands were closed on Sunday so Saturdays were particularly busy.  Most people who had the time seemed to share Grandma’s view on buying lettuce, tomatoes and cantaloupes.  It was a part of their daily lives.

When Grandma went to the store she would, of course, take her purse containing her little bit of monetary treasure.  The change purse, sometimes bulging with coins and sometimes quite slim, was always at the bottom of the purse, usually with a few other items placed on top of it, perhaps so that a potential purse snatcher might miss it in case he made a dash and grab.  The outer part of the purse had a zippered compartment in which the few bills that Grandma would take with her were carefully folded, the larger denominations, never more than a twenty, were nestled, secured inside the smaller bills.

When the clerk told her the total of her purchases, Grandma would reach in her purse, unbury the change purse from its hiding place, open the clasp and begin counting out change.  It was always better to try to pay for as much of the purchase with coins before having to resort to using paper.  Those bills were hard to come by.  But I wondered, “Where did all the money that filled that change purse come from in the first place?”  And then one day I found the answer.

On the third of each month, or the fourth if the third fell on a Sunday, a little group of our apartment building’s residents would assemble near the mail boxes in the downstairs hallway.  Our mailman, Mr. Shapiro, right on schedule, would appear promptly at nine thirty to distribute the mail to the forty boxes.  The group, including Grandma had two characteristics in common.  They all had gray (or very little) hair and they all were awaiting the arrival of their monthly social security checks.  Since we lived in one of the “A” apartments, our mail was deposited early on in this process which was a good thing since then Grandma could collect it and return to the chores she had set for himself to accomplish that day.

But how did that one piece of paper turn into all those coins and the green money with the pictures of presidents and other important people?  That was my first lesson in banking and finance.

Grandma bought all the groceries for our family of four and paid for them out of her social security check – a check that was for a little more than one hundred fifty dollars a month.  The Saturday after she received her check, she and I would make our way to Fourth Federal Savings and Loan Association to cash it.  Despite the fact that there was a bank just a few blocks away, she went to Fourth Federal because they paid an extra one quarter percent interest per year (four and one quarter percent) and because they credited all deposits which were made by the tenth of the month as if they had been made on the first.  Ten days of extra interest and a higher rate.  Despite her third grade formal education, Grandma understood the basics of economics and interest.

She had been one of the earlier depositors with Fourth Federal and owned Account number 1093-4.  The four signified that her current passbook was the fourth one they had issued for her account, the other ones having been filled with earlier transactions.  She still had these old books and showed them to me.  The first two had been handwritten but Fourth Federal had moved into the modern age of technology and had since implemented a system where these transactions were printed by a machine at each bank teller’s work station.  What would they think of next?

There were two things I noticed when I looked at these passbooks.  The first was that ever since Grandma made her initial ten dollar deposit, she had never made a withdrawal.  The only entries were additional deposits and interest that had posted to her account.  Month after month and year after year she had continued to add to her account without fail.  This stemmed from her belief that if you didn’t have the money to buy something you did without and her second belief, probably stemming from earlier hard times and doing without a lot of things that she would have liked to have bought her daughters or herself, that this little nest egg was inviolable.

When we got to the S & L, Grandma reached in her purse to pull out her check and endorsed it.  She carefully entered the amount on the line that said “Checks.”  She then pulled out her change purse, unzipped the pocket containing the bills, pulled them out and counted them.  These were “leftovers” from last month.  That month she had saved twenty-two dollars after paying all her expenses.  She subtracted that and the twenty dollars she saved each month and requested her cash back in the amount of one hundred eight dollars.

The teller, a middle aged woman who had been with the S & L since they opened asked how she would like her cash.  Two twenties, four tens, two fives and eighteen singles.  Eight of those singles would be set aside for a two dollar a week donation to be placed in the collection plate at church.

When Grandma received her money, she held it in her hand and we returned to the little desk that had the deposit and withdrawal slips on it.  She pulled the twenty-two dollars from the side pocket of her change purse and sandwiched those bills in with her withdrawal, making sure that all the bills faced in the same direction before zipping them back in the pocket and burying this little hoard in the bottom of her purse.  We then began immediately for home without stopping since this was far too much money for a person to carry on herself at one time.

But before we left the S & L, Mr. Bohanek, the president stopped by to say hello to us.  He was a ruddy faced, sandy haired man with tortoise shell glasses who always enjoyed speaking with his depositors.  He and the loan committee decided to whom their institution would make loans, long before there were such things as credit scores.  Instead, they based their decisions on a person’s character and credibility.  They must have been good judges of those as rarely did they make a loan on which the borrower failed to make repayment.  Perhaps that also was a statement about how people treated their financial responsibilities in those days.

When we returned home, Grandma put her purse on the little desk in our apartment’s foyer.  She removed the change purse, unzipped the side and pulled out all but twenty five dollars from the pocket.  That would be more than enough to buy the groceries for the week.  The rest went into a yellowed business size envelope that she had used for many years to house the remainder until it was needed.  That envelope went back into the secret compartment in the desk.  And then the change purse went back into the bottom of her purse where it would rest until her next shopping trip.  She used this change purse for the next eleven years until her death.

I still have that worn black leather change purse.  It is a relic of a simpler time, a time when people had a different attitude toward life.  It was a time when we appreciated the simple things and were grateful for the gifts we had received in loving friends and families.  It was a time when simple things were more than enough to keep us happy, believing that if we had enough simple things they could grow into great things and the future would be bright.  It was a time when security meant having a little black leather change purse, bulging with coins with a few bills neatly folded in a little zipped up pocket on the side.  It was a very good time to live in America.

BLISSFUL IGNORANCE

Although the truck trip hadn’t been that long, Eloise was glad it was over.  The back of the truck was crowded, and she had to stand next to Bessie who was one of her least favorite companions.   Bessie always bragged about how she was so much better than the rest.

It was hot as they started to move in to the building.  They came to the fence and Bessie naturally pushed to the head of the line since she was more important than the rest.  She sneeringly turned to look at her companions as she walked ahead of them, a slight  swagger in her step.  She was the first to feel the weight of the sledge hammer which ended her consciousness before the knife took her life.

When the wind came from the west as it usually did, the smell of fear and blood and death filled the air in my neighborhood, then travelled to the waters of Lake Michigan where they were dissipated before reaching the borders of Michigan or Indiana.  The Chicago Stockyards were open for business and would remain so for seven years after I moved to the city, finally closing in 1971.

There had been a movement toward relocating slaughterhouses in urban areas and putting them closer to the source of the livestock which were their clientele.  Chicago relinquished it’s title, “The Hog slaughter capital of the world,” with some equanimity.  Improved and reliable transportation made it less important to have the finished product close to the source of consumption.  But this change had its impact on the neighborhood where the slaughterhouses had operated.

 

Drovers Bank which had been chartered in 1883 to serve the cowboys who moved the cattle to their final destination closed seven years after the stockyards in 1978.  The saloons and houses where women of questionable virtue held court near the yards were long gone.  While we still wanted to consume that steak or slab of ribs, we no longer wanted to be close to the process that produced them for us.  We wanted to pretend blissful ignorance – and we still do.

“Out of sight – out of mind.”  I don’t know if this was originally a German proverb but as with the Union Stockyards in Chicago, Hitler employed the same strategy in his location of the death camps.  If photos of the inner workings or the slaughterhouses or the showers in Auschwitz were released to the public, more of us might be vegans and the Second World War might have ended sooner.

 

Today we have what is described by some as “a humanitarian challenge and responsibility” to take care of the children from Central America who are crossing our southern border.  Others describe this as a well-orchestrated, planned invasion.  Perhaps it is some mixture of both.  But if it is the former, then wouldn’t it make sense to sell the idea by photographing the waifs who have made the hazardous journey thus dispelling the arguments of the doubters?  After all, unlike “global warming/climate change” it is not difficult to take a snapshot of the subject matter.

Surprisingly, not only are reporters and even Congressmen not being allowed into the facilities where these newcomers to America are being housed, those who are expected to tend to them are not receiving advanced notice that they are on their way.  Why?  If we are trying to fulfill a presumed responsibility to take care of them, wouldn’t it make sense to allow those who will receive them to make appropriate preparations?

While this administration might not be the most transparent in history, it may prove to be the most prescient.  Perhaps it has looked across the country and found that apathy is one of our citizenry’s greatest attainments.  And within that context it realizes that most of us would prefer to remain in a constant stupor of blissful ignorance.

CRISIS MISMANAGEMENT

If you either owned or worked for a small business you probably have a number of expectations.  For example, the owner of the business expects that his or her clients will pay their invoices in a timely manner so that they in turn can pay their suppliers and their employees.  The employees expect that if they show up for work and accomplish the tasks assigned to them, they are going to walk in on Friday and be handed their check – which they will be able to negotiate at their bank so that they can pay their bills.

Unfortunately, “The best laid plans of mice and men …”.  Sometimes things simply do not go as planned.  The company’s clients might be experiencing a downturn in their business and their cash flow and pay their bills more slowly than usual.  This puts a strain on the small business owner who is depending on those payments so he can make his own payments both to his suppliers and workers.  Without having a contingency plan to counter this, that small business owner might either be late in paying his own bills and employees, or simply write checks which he knows perfectly well will be returned for “Insufficient Funds.”

No one is so prescient as to be able to predict the future accurately one hundred percent of the time.  But no business would survive if it developed a business plan which was incorrect one hundred percent of the time.  The free market has a simple, unyielding way of dealing with this level of incompetency.  The business shutters its doors and its employees have to find new jobs.

Now one can understand how a new business owner might stumble and be unprepared for an unexpected aberration from what he has forecast.  These sort of mistakes are actually good because they cause the thinking entrepreneur to plan against such future situations – if he survives the first lesson.  But if he survives a business-threatening event and fails to learn a lesson, he is likely to find himself in a crisis situation the next time around.

We can only make the same mistake once.  The second time it’s a choice.  One might argue that barring an extraordinary, once in a lifetime external event, say having a two mile wide meteor crash into Earth, the only reason for having to deal with a crisis is failure to having taken the steps to avoid it in the first place.  Thus, virtually all crises are the direct result of either inattention, ineptitude, ignorance or arrogance.

I would argue that government is a business – one that enjoys advantages that no other business has.  In fact it is the biggest business in the country with more than 22 million employees.  Compare that to Walmart, generally categorized as the largest employer in America with a total of 1.4 million workers.  In terms of longevity, government in America has been around for well over two hundred years while Walmart is a relative newcomer with only fifty-two years under its belt.  There is one even more important difference between these two employers.  The government consistently runs a deficit.  Walmart consistently makes money – and then is taxed on its profitability to fund the deficits that government compiles.

Reasonably, one would expect that government with its length of experience would easily implement programs which would actually work.  But counter-intuitively, just the opposite seems to be the case.  Not only is government wasteful, it does not see this as a disincentive to engaging in yet more waste.  The simple reason is that it has an unlimited checkbook, no accountability for the ineptitude of its executives and can (or so it believes) continue to run perpetually at a loss.  It justifies these deficits as being necessary in the “social interest.”

The “social interest” was well defined in the Declaration of Independence – a separation from what until its signing had been the government of the colonies.  “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were considered the basis of the “social interest” as it applied to each person.  Anything constraining, hindering or impairing that was an expression of injustice.

And so the colonists set on a path which resulted in the greatest crisis  that Great Britain had ever experienced and which resulted in a nation and a world that for the first time recognized that it was the individual, only as he or she gave consent to the existence of the state, who was most to be considered in determining what was right or wrong and what was good or evil.

There are many in this country who earnestly believe that the solution to government incompetence is to have more of it.  In many cases their conclusions are reached, not as the result of great thought, but because in the short term they see themselves reaping the benefits of wasteful policy by way of personal economic gain.  And as long as they can vote for and pressure those who represent them into increasing these benefits at whatever ultimate cost, they will continue to empower people whose only interest is in advancing their own political careers while all the time making the specious argument that what they do is in “the public good.”

There comes a tipping point, as there did in Boston Harbor in 1773, when those who are productive, mind their business and want no more than to be left alone from the intrusions of others finally have had that final straw laid on their backs and they will say, “Stop.  Enough is enough.”  And that will be the final crisis which our government will have the opportunity to mismanage.

THE LIGHT BULB AND THE PSYCHIATRIST

“How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?”

“Only one.  But the light bulb really has to want to change.”

We’ve had a long history of joke telling as a people.  That’s probably a good thing.  “The Reader’s Digest” used to have a regular column entitled, “Laughter – The Best Medicine.”  I don’t know if they still carry that.  In fact, I don’t know whether that magazine is still in publication as I haven’t seen a copy for forty years or more.

At one time I thought that jokes originated in our prison system.  After all, our inmates probably needed a break from making license plates.  It always amazed me how a particular subject for jokes suddenly exploded into our repertoire, whether those were elephant jokes, wife and husband jokes or light bulb jokes, to name only a few.

I remember as a kid going to Barnes & Noble, looking at their closeout section and seeing a book entitled, “Jokes For The John.”  The book had a hole punched in the upper left corner and a chain ran through that so the buyer could attach it to his or her toilet paper roller and always have reading material while heeding nature’s call.  While I’ve never quite understood why so many people seem to think that the bathroom is merely an extension of a library reading room, I am clearly in the minority with that view.  Although I could make a case that an appropriate bit of literature to read there would be, “The Princess And The Pea.”

To return to our title, estimates suggest that about ten percent of us Americans are afflicted with some sort of mental health issue.  While that is a minority, it is as significant a minority as those who are estimated to have an LGBT orientation.  Those who are thus challenged can be found in all sectors of our society.  Mental illness knows no racial, ethnic or economic boundaries.  Nor does it have limitations to certain professions.

The recent coverage by the media of the death of a Google executive who was killed with a heroin overdose by a prostitute, described him as, “A happily married man with five children.”  Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t think of “happily married people” as going out to enjoy extracurricular sexual activity with prostitutes or hustlers.  Unhappily married people, perhaps.

If we can agree that mental dysfunction exists across all occupations, including those who bring us the news, it is reasonable to believe that it exists among those who make the news.  Certainly there is ample evidence of that as our headlines regularly feature outrageous behavior exhibited by the rich and famous, sometimes narrating the tales of their self-inflicted deaths.  And if Hollywood celebrities and sports icons can be sucked up into this vortex, it seems only reasonable that a similar percentage of our politicians must similarly suffer.

In trying to understand or explain what I can only describe as President Obama’s aberrant behavior in dealing with his role as Chief Executive, it seems that positing a similar mental health issue is one reasonable explanation – perhaps the far more charitable one than an alternative, purposely trying to undermine the country which he was elected to steer toward a brighter future.

Speaker Boehner is apparently going to proceed with a lawsuit in an effort to hold on to the legislative authority which is specifically delegated to the Congress and which President Obama has successively and successfully attacked.  That suit will probably take years before it is heard and will most likely be moot as Obama will long be out of office before – or if – it is even heard.  But there is an alternative that the House might consider.  That is Article II, Section 6 of the Constitution which describes succession to the presidential office:

“In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office…”.

We expect a certain amount of hyperbole from our politicians.  Some of us realize that overpromising and under-delivering is how they appeal to the electorate and get themselves installed in office.  But the overpromises which candidate and then first term President Obama have unleashed exceed the bounds of reasonableness and move into the territory of the pathological.  Perhaps that is why two thirds of the public believe that he either “Sometimes” or “Regularly” lies, knowing that his statements are pure fabrications.

While I am not a mental health worker, I am able to recognize when a person has a consistent pattern of deception and telling falsehoods.  Those people would be well served to seek professional help for their condition.  But we can cope with those whom we encounter who suffer from this affliction – if by no other means than by avoiding having any interactions with them – at least until they take the steps necessary to try to overcome their condition.  At least that is true in most cases.  But when the afflicted party holds a high office – the highest office in the world – that then is a different matter.

During his election campaigns, our media characterized the president to be a “Bright and shining light.”  But that light has not lived up to its promised output and has grown dim.  It is, perhaps, for the world’s sake, time to change the bulb – irrespective of whether or not it wants to be changed.

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