Thursday, December 9, 2010

Emphasis on Charity Could Relieve Stress from Budget and Tax Debates

(From the December 9, 2010 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

As we approach the end of another year, our governments at local, state and national levels are having serious talks about balancing their budgets. It’s about time, of course. But the current seriousness of the talks has amplified calls to cut government spending and/or increase taxes.

Spending and taxes are two sides of the same coin, of course. The government has no money of its own. Government is “of the people,” and it is the taxes we pay that are the source of any funding the government has. So balancing government budgets always comes down to reductions in spending that has gone beyond the amount of taxes collected, or simply increasing taxes to provide for the increase in spending.

It sounds simple. But when you talk about raising taxes, people complain that they are taxed too much already and that government has grown too much. But proposals to cut government spending produces protests from those who would lose something they currently receive from a government program.

In the middle of this paradox is another conflict that goes beyond just a spending vs. revenue equation to consider values. You will note that government programs to provide health care, social security, food stamps, subsidies and others are called “entitlements,” implying that people who receive funding from the government are entitled or have a right to receive money from the government. But the government gets its money from other people, so some would disagree that one person who lacks something has a “right” to have it provided by others.

That’s why businesses refer to the same programs, such as health insurance, not as a right but as a “benefit.” Years ago, no one had health insurance from their employer. It was provided by some businesses as an incentive to attract and retain good employees. Over time the practice spread to the point that is not seen as an added benefit from an employer but an expected right.

But there is third way that can get us beyond the old spending vs taxes and rights vs responsibility debates. We could put more emphasis on the non-profit sector and the role of charity in society. The government and private sectors of society get the majority of our attention. But in this season of giving, the third sector, the non-profit realm, deserves emphasis and could provide answers to the debates we keep having about the role of government and the appropriate level of business taxes.

In fact, that is a more distinctly and historical American thing to do. When Alexis de Toqueville, a French political thinker and historian, toured the fledgling United States, he noted with admiration the philanthropy and charity of Americans who helped out neighbors in need. That was part of the spirit of America back in the 1800s, when the majority of the country’s residents were relatively recent arrivals from somewhere else who were trying to enjoy the freedom to make it on their own in the new country. In contrast, back in Toqueville’s Europe, people depended on a benevolent monarch or government to assist them. Toqueville himself advocated that charity as opposed to government should help the poor.

Things are more complicated today, and it would not be wise nor kind to cut all government programs that help the needy. But as idealistic compassion meets the realities of finite budgets, the role of charity is sadly lacking from economic discussions. There are numerous reasons to encourage individuals and corporations to make voluntary charitable contributions as opposed to mandatory taxation. Charity—usually encouraged by making charitable contributions tax deductible—has numerous advantages. For one, acts of charity removes some of the burden on the government. Also, charities can be more efficient and accountable than the government when it comes to administering programs. Since donations are voluntary whereas taxes are mandatory, nonprofit organizations have to work harder to ensure continued support. Donors can check up on charities on the Web site to make sure funds are being used well to meet an organization’s stated mission. The government merely expects taxes, and citizens have a slim chance knowing specifically how tax dollars are used in the maze of government structure.

Charities also can get a lot of the politics out of the way of helping people. Politicians have to appropriate funding to various programs and much energy is lost debating how to divide the tax dollars. With nonprofit organizations, individual donors—not politicians--make the decision about where and how their own money can be used to help others. If you want the government to address an issue you are fond of you can write your congressperson or senator and may or may not get a response. With charities you can write a check to the causes you care about most and will get a thank you letter.

At the time I’m writing this column, there are two dominant stories in national politics. One is the report of the President’s Debt Commission with recommendations about how to reduce our ballooning annual deficit and compounded long-term national debt. The other is the 11th hour debate about whether and how to extend the lower tax rates that otherwise will expire and rise to higher levels in January. None of us can be certain how or even if the budget and tax issues will be resolved. But we all can be certain that a donation we make to a nonprofit organization will be appreciated and put to good use. Best of all, we don’t have to wait for government agreement. We can just decide, and give.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

An Open Letter to Political Victors

(From the November 11, 2010 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Many students of history may know that George Washington, the father of our country and one of the first to be elected to American public office, could have run for a third term but chose not to.  It may be lesser known that a significant part of the reason for this was an aversion to the hostility and incivility he faced from the news media and his political opponents.

So perhaps the rancor and vitriol in the recent election season are simply a long-standing part of American culture. But that doesn’t mean we can’t change. In fact, this election—and the two preceding it—were all about change. We have changed back and forth from party to party as if the will of the people were a pendulum.

But there’s a reason for all this change. Voters care less about political party than they do about policy, or more importantly, performance. So one lesson for the victors of Tuesday night, no matter what your party, is that politics is not about sport, or power or who “won.” You were elected. You were hired. We are not your fans. We are your employers. Get to work and do now what’s best for citizens. Don’t jockey and delay and do what’s best for your party or your next election.
I have some other advice for politicians who were elected last Tuesday.

Don’t gloat. Don’t play the game of who controls the senate or house, or this committee or that committee. It’s not about you. It’s about us. You didn’t get votes because people wanted you to win. You got the most votes because more people thought you could do what’s best for the state or country. As someone said on Twitter: “I don’t want my congressman to fight for me, I want him to compromise for me.” Exactly. That’s what most of us want. We’re don’t mean what Harry Reid defined as compromise when he gave Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska an exemption on his state’s Medicaid payments in order to get his vote for health care legislation. That’s not compromise; that’s bribery. Compromise isn’t doing favors for people to coerce a vote on policy. Compromise is giving up something to get something—when drafting policy.

Compromise isn’t perfect. But that’s what politics is. Our founders designed our system to have “factions” in order to prevent the tyranny of the majority. James Madison in particular advocated this in the Federalist Papers (number 10 to be exact). So debate, argue, disagree. But in the end, compromise. Get something done. We want action and solutions, even if they aren’t perfect or exactly what everyone wants. No one wants gridlock. Principled opposition on key aspects of policy is honorable. Refusing to bend at all on policy is childish. You give us gridlock and stalemate, and we’ll send you home. Play nice with the other politicians on the legislative playground. And try to play on the merry-go-round, where you can all work together to gain momentum. Avoid the teeter-totter for a while—we’re tired of seeing the only way for one to go up is to put the other down.

Don’t forget us, even though the election is over. Our interests and passions continue. Don’t look at it as if you have our vote. What you have is responsibility, to listen to and do what’s best for all of us, even those who didn’t vote for you or didn’t vote at all. Yes, that’s complicated because we don’t all agree on all issues. But that’s part of your job. Weigh our input with your own judgment and act accordingly.

Watch the rhetoric. Yes, the news media encourage pithy sound bites that can win back slaps from political colleagues and loyalists in the party. But elections are won by the independent thinkers in the middle. We are unimpressed by dirty digs. Speak with reason and substance. Keep dialogue a safe distance from the red herrings and red meat served to extremists of both parties.

Stay humble. Power corrupts, and you need to beware. Politicians call themselves public servants but too often seem to act as if the capitol is a self-service trough for their own ambitions and political allies. Be stewards of the public’s interest and resources. We are watching the numbers in the government’s and our own budgets more than the number of seats your party holds.

Actually read bills before you vote. That’s the essence of your job. Even if that means not going over your make-up before your stand-up with Fox or CNN, do it. Then, be prepared to explain your vote. Speaking of reading bills, we’d like to as well, thank you. There was this idea of making them available for the public to read before they were voted on by all of you. Because, after all, we’re your bosses and might have some thoughts for you. Don’t cave to pressure that if you just approve a law we’ll all like it later once we see what it’s all about. Many of you promised transparency, even audacity. Instead we got opacity. We’re not stupid. We want to know what’s going on; we demand it.
If all of this causes you some stress, don’t worry. You have great health care. In fact, yours is the best in the country, and one of the few health care plans that didn’t change due to the health care law. I’m paying more for less coverage. That’s why I feel ok giving my burden to you.

Your next review is in 2012. But we may be in touch before then. Respectfully, your constituent, fellow citizen, employer.

Friday, October 15, 2010

On Community Art Competitions

(From the October 14, 2010 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

During the past month, I have been overwhelmed by art. For the second year in a row Grand Rapids hosted ArtPrize, the phenomenal community activity/art competition that has garnered national and international attention. This year Grand Haven’s downtown decided to piggyback on the effort by offering ArtWalk.

My wife and I made valiant efforts to see as much of the art in both cities as we possibly could. With a smaller number in Grand Haven, we saw all of it. In Grand Rapids, we saw as much of the 1,700 or so pieces as we could, even though we did not see some until after public voting was over.

Some might think that Grand Haven hosting ArtWalk was an unoriginal copy of Grand Rapids’ ArtPrize. Well, success often leads to imitation. The ArtPrize planners didn’t mind. ArtWalk was a natural extension of the art fairs the community has had for years on Washington Street and at the marina, and a further expansion of efforts to lure people downtown in the off-season.

Having participated in the two events, I would say both were successful. It was impressive to see such varied works of art and such an interesting range of subject matters, materials, media, treatments, and messages. I was also impressed by the fact that artists have to be broadly educated to perfect their techniques and convey the messages in their art. Knowledge of metallurgy, chemistry, math, physics, history, sociology and various other disciplines were often necessary for the artist to complete their work.

One advantage of both ArtPrize and ArtWalk was the ability on occasion to talk to the artists about their work. This was the inspiring part. If they weren’t present, the written statements about their work were often compelling. Artists create their art for a variety of reasons, and they are not all ‘professional’ (i.e. full-time self-supporting) artists. A woman who works at Perrigo had a humorous personal story next to the stained glass piece she displayed at the Grand Haven Community Center. A fireman from Boise, Idaho was present to talk about his work displayed in an old building in downtown Grand Rapids. Learning about artists was as interesting as seeing their art.

ArtPrize got more attention than ArtWalk, but that also came with some controversy. An art professor at a school in downtown Grand Rapids was quoted in national media snobbishly suspecting the abilities of the masses to actually select the best art in the ArtPrize competition. Perhaps she has a point that there is a level of expertise in judging art. But she expressed that point of view in a less than artful way. None of my degrees are in art, but I’ve been to MOMA in New York, the Louvre in Paris, the Smithsonian in Washington DC, and the de Young in San Francisco. I have a decent sense of good art, and I suspect many others do as well. Also, like an amateur regarding an abstract painting, this professor seemed to have missed the point. ArtPrize (and ArtWalk) is about engaging the community and getting people involved with art. Rather than look down her nose at those she assumed were uneducated in art, she could have seized the occasion as a teachable moment. Another professional artist who curates exhibits at the Meijer Gardens did just that—writing guest columns in the Grand Rapids Press that were informative without being pretentious.

Another insult came from the New York Times writer who reviewed ArtPrize. A mostly positive review of the event, he nevertheless had to point out that it was in an “unlikely” place for such an emphasis on art--Grand Rapids. I wonder what he would have said about Grand Haven? It would only seem unlikely to find good art events in Grand Rapids or Grand Haven to someone who knows little to nothing about West Michigan. In the art world, as surely as you mix blue and yellow to get green, the combination of arrogance and ignorance produces a New Yorker.

If I have any criticisms, they have to be around the voting process. In Grand Rapids they make it easy by just asking people to give a thumbs up or down (or nothing) after reviewing a work of art. But with so much art to see, they need to give more than eight days to participate. Also, the artists at busy spots have a distinct advantage than those on the outskirts. In Grand Haven, it was more possible to see all the art, but I wonder if everyone did before voting. Also, while separating the art into categories was nice, it was hard to select just one from each category.

As for the winners, the art professor in Grand Rapids was made to look silly when a drawing by another art professor was selected as top winner. I have to say I was a bit surprised to see photos of the Grand Haven pier and lighthouse win first and second place in photography as well as overall winner for ArtWalk. The compositions were excellent, but the subject matter seems overdone. I know the pier is the iconic symbol of our community, but isn’t it a bit cliché for a photo subject by now? Maybe not. As an artist told me once, “good” art is what people like.

In the end, there were lots of winners. Artists who didn’t take home money got more exposure for their art. Businesses and organizations who displayed art benefited from more awareness of their location. Participants got to see lots of art and get more familiar with their communities.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Forum on Church Inclusiveness Clarifies Several Points

(From the September 9, 2010 Grand Haven Tribune)

The community forum sponsored by the Tribune last month to discuss changes at C3 Exchange, formerly Christ Community Church, in Spring Lake could be deemed a success. It was very well attended, panelists were open and thoughtful with their responses, the audience was patient and attentive, and even though disagreement remains, there is more understanding and clarity about the beliefs of C3 Exchange as well as traditional churches in the community.

As moderator of the forum, I tried to offer opportunity for all panelists to answer questions and clearly express their point of view. I think they did marvelously, with clarity, good humor and mutual respect. Credit goes to Ian Lawton of C3 Exchange, Rev. Dennis Snyder of Nortonville Gospel Chapel, and David Wisen of Harvest Bible Chapel Spring Lake for their participation in the forum.

As a community member and a columnist, I also want to share what I took away from the event. I list here several thoughts I had as a result of the forum.

  1. C3 Exchange has a right to do what it wants. There is no doubt that some people, including perhaps former members of Christ Community Church, are upset at the new focus and the removal of the cross at C3 Exchange. But not all agree with everything other churches do either, and in our free democracy it is always prudent to respect the constitutional freedom of religion and expression for others so that you can continue to enjoy it for yourself.
  1. C3 Exchange is not a threat. Again, while the change at C3 Exchange might offend the sense of what some people have of what a church should be, they are not forcing their alternative view on anyone. Ian Lawton repeatedly said people are free to choose traditional churches if that is what they want, or become part of C3 Exchange if they agree with the alternative.
  1. C3 Exchange is no more or less inclusive than other churches. People with like-minded beliefs congregate, others don’t. If, as Lawton said, C3 “takes the Bible seriously but not literally,” they exclude people who do take the Bible literally.
  1. Sometimes traditional churches can be exclusive for the wrong reasons. Rather than focusing on the worship of Jesus Christ, some imperfect mortals in my own experience seem to be fixated on petty irrelevant things such as how people dress or other human cultural differences rather than the unity of faith.
  1. The Bible is not “just a book” of theological opinion. It is a compendium of 66 books, with multiple authors, divinely inspired, offering historical accounts. Using it as proof text against itself is not spurious science, as alleged at the forum, but rigorous, convincing and quite common among historians. Validity and reliability are found in the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy as well as the letters in the New Testament that bear witness to events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Numerous external sources corroborate the historical claims of the Bible.
  1. C3 Exchange’s changes are not really new. In fact they are as old as Christianity itself. In the 17th chapter of the Book of Acts, which is an account of the work of the apostles shortly after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension into Heaven, the Apostle Paul goes to Athens where men have statues to every god, including an unknown god. He spoke to Greek leaders in the famed Aereopagus about Jesus; some sneered, others believed. Today the idea that the divine is in everyone is the same as secular humanism. The assertion that no one has a hold on absolute truth is postmodernism. But that’s old too; even Pontius Pilate, as recorded in the 18th chapter of the Gospel of John, asked Jesus “what is truth?” just before his crucifixion. Since the time of Christ many people have believed Jesus was the Son of God and the only way of salvation, and others have not. In our community we see evidence of that ancient debate continuing.
  1. Churches are not inclusive or exclusive, people are. The Christian Gospel is an invitation. It says all are sinners, but also that God loved us all and sent his son Jesus to pay for our sins, all we have to do is believe that to gain eternal life, and then we should live our lives in gratitude for that wonderful gift. It is not about whether there is a cross on a building, but who is in your heart. Only you can accept or reject the invitation.

In the end, it is up to each individual to consider what they believe and the basis of those beliefs. Then each person may include themselves with people who believe likewise, and act according to those beliefs.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Being Too Connected Can Make Us Less Connected

(From the August 12, 2010 Grand Haven Tribune)

I was in line at Butch’s Beach Burritos earlier this week and saw a sign on the cash register: “No Cell Phones.”

I had to ask why. Do they flummox the mechanical workings of the cash register? Add radiation to the burritos?

No, I was told. It’s because people take calls while in line, and then make everyone wait for their conversation to end before they place their order. Or they talk loud and the cashier can’t hear other people who are ordering.

In other words, it was a problem of human nature, not a technical issue. Too many people still haven’t caught on to cell phone etiquette. It also is but one example of the paradox of our modern communication era: everyone is so connected that they lose connection with the people immediately around them. This has been demonstrated, hilariously and sadly, numerous times on the pier, as my wife and I witnessed two people walking hand in hand only to use their free hands to send text messages to other people.

The problem goes beyond just cell phone use though. Our modern technology has made us all so frenetic. Our wireless devices have made us too “wired”, as if on caffeine overdose. At the same time, our ability to be connected to almost everyone almost all the time has resulted in us losing precious contact with the people right next to us. “Social media,” for all its communication advantages to compress time and space, have at the same time made us anti-social in our immediate context. People seem more inclined to get attention than to pay attention. This is affecting safety and driving laws, as well as interpersonal relationships.

Since the telephone—the original one tethered by a wire to the wall—first became ubiquitous, there has been praise and caution with advances in technology. There’s no doubt that new technology adds convenience and efficiency for professional and personal use. I use the technology myself. But there has to be balance.

During the past few months I’ve been doing projects around the house that involve manual labor. My hands have been busy with “old fashioned” tools, the kind that prevent me from checking email, social media sites, updating my status, or texting. It was interesting to me that at first I felt anxiety about being out of touch. But I soon learned that it is extremely liberating to NOT feel a compulsion to send bursts of personal information about myself to legions of “friends” or “followers” every few hours. Nor did I feel the urgency to respond immediately to everyone who contacted me. My pulse relaxed, my spirit lifted, and even the chemistry in my brain seemed to work more fluidly.

Instead of having multiple, quick, computer-mediated messages with people scattered across the globe, I had long, thoughtful, face-to-face conversations with real friends and my wife. These friends became so without requiring me to click on some button on a computer. My wife has a nice voice, and beautiful eyes. Nothing Apple or Facebook comes up with can top that.

So while new media technology helps us conduct business, develop and maintain relationships, and communicate efficiently, it also has its downsides. It can encourage us to value the quantity of our “friends” as opposed to the quality of our relationships. Technology also seems to put a premium on speed and brevity, depriving us of the pleasure of deep and complex thought. More profoundly, for all the advances in connecting to other people, I fear many people are losing contact with themselves. They use technology to advance a desired image of themselves, rather than knowing and acting as their genuine selves.

In the end, the issue comes down to balance. Just because you have access to donuts, it is not wise to eat them all the time. The same goes for technology. I think we’d all be better off if people would follow two simple rules for communicating in our modern high-tech environment:

1. Give preference to the human being next to you vs the device in your pocket or hand. Those devices have voicemail and other features that allow you to respond later if you are busy. For example, don’t respond to your phone if you are walking the pier, talking to someone in your office, or ordering a burrito at Butch’s.

2. Make a distinction about what’s really urgent and important. You don’t have to text, email, tweet or execute any other newborn verb constantly. Instead of acting like Pavlov’s dogs responding to a bell whenever your new message indicator lights up your Blackberry or iPhone, show that you have evolved some human self-restraint.

Who knows, if you’re not staring at a palm-sized screen, you might exchange glances with a stranger next time you’re in line at Butch’s. You could have a conversation, using nothing but your mouth, eyes, and ears. You could even become friends.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Painting House Combines Frustration, Satisfaction

(From the July 8, 2010 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

There’s an old joke about a man who finds an old dusty lamp. When he rubs it a gorgeous genie comes out. She says she will do anything he says, as long as he can request it with only three words. A good joke-teller pauses here to allow listeners’ minds to wander and imaginations to work. But the man doesn’t hesitate in his answer. He says: “paint my house.”

The joke is funny because it’s an unexpected answer. But I have a new understanding for that man. I was supposed to be enjoying summer by now, relaxing at the beach and otherwise not working so hard. But now that I’m well into painting the upstairs and main floor of my house interior, fantasizing about a genie painting my house seems perfectly reasonable.

When we bought the house we hired someone to paint. We were busy clearing out of the old house and handling other details of moving. We thought hiring a painter made sense for that reason. Otherwise we would have painted the house by ourselves. I remember being a little impatient as we waited for the painter to finish rooms so we could move in. Now I have a new appreciation for the time it takes to paint.

On the other hand, the professional we hired had it easy. Our house was empty. All he had to do was paint. We seem to spend the majority of the time moving things out of rooms so we can actually get to the job of painting. Where did all this stuff come from? I don’t remember moving this all into the house a dozen years ago. I won’t mention any names, but there is one occupant of our house who could seriously take this opportunity to clear out a few things. They could be donated to a theatre company, any number of missions, or the Imelda Marcos shoe museum. It’s just a thought.

I’ve had other thoughts as we slowly move through this project. One of them came to me as I stood on a ladder, sweating, thinking it would be a whole lot easier to just cover the walls with posters from NASCAR and Snap-On Tools and go sit on the patio with something cold to drink. I’m not even in to NASCAR or tools. I’m just coming to the point that any way to cover the walls quickly is starting to seem like a superior idea.

Not really of course. Painting is much better. How else could I acquaint myself with the beauty of colors like “delicate lace,” “soft chamois” and “tuscan winds.” Paint manufacturers use names like this so we don’t mind spending more on a bucket of paint. Anyone can offer tan or brown or white. But when the stuff I’m rolling on my walls is called “tuscan winds” I start to develop a loyalty and admiration for the specific brand of paint. Plus, if and when we finish this project, we can tell our guests we did this room in “soft chamois.” They will say “ohhh!” We will feel creative, sophisticated and relieved, like Martha Stewart once she got out of prison.

Of course, those paint colors can be confusing too. The little color samples they let you take home sure look nice, but the actual paint can leave a different impression. This can be a frustrating process. If you are a man getting ready to paint your house with your wife, I can give you a heads up. It starts by spending hours playing with various options and holding samples against the wall. This process is sort of like World Cup soccer, because it involves holding up colored cards and you can plan on “extra time” that seems to never end. Once colors are actually selected, you feel you have made major progress and actually buy paint. But be warned—actually painting does not mean the decision process is done. I thought painting, like baseball, involved no crying. I was wrong. I’ll spare all the details, but to paraphrase the Good Book, sometimes a man has to humble himself and repaint.

As I write this, we are approaching the final two rooms that need to be painted. I am getting eager to be done. It has been hard to see the blue sky and sunshine and be stuck inside listening to weather reports and Home Depot paint department ads while I’m pushing a paint roller. I am hopeful that I’ll finish the project with time to enjoy the beach and my patio. If the weather turns bad just as I finish the project, I’ll just sit inside and stare at my walls.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Only One Main Reason for College: Learning

(From the June 10, 2010 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

While waiting to take home a couple of burritos from the Tip-a-Few, I overheard a woman complaining to a friend that her daughter had to take “useless classes” in college. Why, she asked in exasperation, is a student required to take classes in history if she wants to be a nurse?

I didn’t jump in to the conversation that night, even though I’ve had many good conversations with strangers at the Tip. But perhaps I should have responded. I actually hear that comment a lot about college, that so many classes are unnecessary. Frequently my students at GVSU tell me that they are working to get their general education classes “out of the way” so they can focus on the courses in their major area of study. I always tell students who make this comment that such general education classes are not in the way, but are in fact there on purpose.

But that’s the problem. Most people have lost sight of the purpose of college. In the current economic shift, students and their parents are being told by everyone from the governor on down that a college degree is the key to a good job. That’s not entirely wrong. There is lots of data that shows employment rate and household income goes up proportionate to college education. But such a simple, albeit practical, view that “degree = job” leads to misunderstandings and missed opportunities for students.

The problem is that too many view college as mere job training as opposed to higher education. They see the curriculum as a checklist, rather than an opportunity. I actually have students ask me what electives they “have to” take (electives are courses that students can choose, or “elect,” to take that are not required for their major). These courses could be related to a chosen career path, or they could be something a student takes to satisfy general curiosity (which, by the way, may end up being related to a chosen career path). Too many people approach college as something to get through rather than something to savor.

I tell my students their college experience will be more productive and enjoyable if they approach each class with a “burnin’ yearnin’ for learnin’.” Some laugh at this. Others eventually embrace the idea. The latter are the ones who don’t ask if they “have to” read something. They read things on their own because of natural curiosity. They stay after class to talk about something not because it’s on the test but because it’s interesting. And if you think this is merely idealistic, consider this: the students with a passion for learning are also the ones who make the biggest impression when being considered for internships and jobs.

What I’m really talking about here is an old concept called “liberal education.” That’s not liberal in terms of political ideology, but related to an education in the liberal arts. Liberal can also mean a lot, as in a liberal helping of mashed potatoes. The idea is that students are not just narrowly “trained” in specific skills for a certain job, but they are broadly educated in multiple academic disciplines or subjects. The primary benefit of taking classes that some deem “not relevant” to a career is that it strengthens the mind in the same way that doing multiple exercises or “cross-training” strengthens an athlete’s muscle. Why ride a bike when you are training to run a race? Because you will be a stronger runner.

More importantly, a liberal education gets students to think beyond themselves to consider social responsibility. A good college education should prepare students not just to be a good employee, but to be a good citizen. As Peter Berkowitz of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution said in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, “liberal education supposes that while individual rights are shared equally by all, the responsible exercise of those rights is an achievement that depends on cultivating the mind.” In other words, complaining about taking “unrelated” classes is really a selfish attitude.

It’s also impractical. If I can’t convince students that being broadly educated is important for all the reasons above, I’ll stoop to the pragmatic and self-interested argument. As it turns out, in every occupation that requires a college degree, employers want to hire people who can do more than just perform basic job functions. As the saying goes, even monkeys can be trained. Employers want people who can take initiative, anticipate and adapt to change, innovate, solve problems, create new opportunities and so on. It’s not enough to be able to do a job today; you have to think for tomorrow. That requires a liberally educated mind.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is noted for saying “we make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” To paraphrase, if you see college as just classes to train you for a job, you may end up making a living. But if you approach college as an opportunity to learn, you’ll give yourself a diverse and satisfying life. That’s not a bad standard by which to live.

On the other hand, people who can’t understand the need to take courses that are not immediately connected to a job might want to choose a different anthem as a theme for their life. I’d suggest a lyric from American musician Jackson Browne, who crooned sarcastically: “I’m going to be a happy idiot, and struggle for the legal tender.”

Friday, May 14, 2010

Business Deserves Cheer, not Bashing

(From the May 13, 2010 Grand Haven Tribune)

It seems that bashing business has been in vogue in the past few months. At the national level, people have been angry about tax dollars bailing out large auto companies and financial institutions. Outrage has been expressed about the huge salaries commanded by top executives, well out of proportion to their average worker. Goldman Sachs executives received a congressional tongue lashing for suspected fraud in the way they handled investments. BP is taking a lot of heat for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

While these examples might seem to justify anger, they are only a few specific examples. The general anti-business rhetoric is unfair and alarming. President Obama said in a recent graduation speech that he believes at some point you have made enough money. He seems to articulate an attitude that many have about making money. There is an assumption that successful business people gained their wealth dishonestly. Again, that may be true of some people, but the majority of wealthy business people I know worked very hard and earned whatever they have. It’s not up to other people, not even the president, to say when they’ve worked too hard.

I’ve noticed this business bashing locally as well. An organization I consult with was criticized recently by being called “pro-business.” I’m not sure why that’s a bad thing. Trying to help nurture business and economic growth helps entire communities, not just businesses. Also, never mind that the same organization has done lots of work in the area of environmental sustainability.

On another occasion recently I was in a meeting with other professors. One mentioned that a chemistry professor had left to take a job at a chemical company. An assistant dean said the university just couldn’t compete with the salary. Another professor said the professor could be persuaded to stay if she wanted to be able to look at herself in the mirror in the morning. Really? This attitude that going to work for a business is somehow evil seemed incredibly narrow to me. I wanted to pointed out to the colleague who said it that he had probably already benefited by that chemical company’s products three times that very day.

In fact, ever since Adam Smith wrote “The Wealth of Nations” in 1776, humankind has increasingly benefited by the “division of labor.” Businesses provide the products and services we need. That’s just one benefit of business.

They also provide employment. At a time when most of us have neighbors and friends who have been looking for work for months or years, we should be cheering on businesses so they can hire more employees. Data from the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth shows that in 2009 businesses of various types accounted for more than 77,000 of the 101,200 jobs in Ottawa County. Government, education and health make up the remaining 23, 000 jobs.

Keep in mind that it is the businesses that pay for the government and education jobs through taxation. Employees pay income taxes. But additionally, businesses pay tax on business income. And they pay a lot. Michael Boskin, an economics professor at Stanford and fellow at the Hoover Institution, reported in the Wall Street Journal recently that the U.S. has a 39% corporate income tax rate, including state taxes—the second highest rate of any advanced economy. Add to that the real estate property tax, and personal property tax on manufacturing machines, computers and other items used in the business. Some communities on the east side of the state are going into debt just because an auto plant is no longer using a single piece of heavy equipment.

That tax burden provides considerably more to the coffers of the five units of government in north Ottawa County than households. But even with that, according to Joy Gaasch, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Grand Haven, Spring Lake, Ferrysburg, businesses give even more to the community through philanthropy. Everything from the annual United Way campaign to projects like the Community Center and North Ottawa Dunes benefits mightily from local businesses.

So I don’t understand all the business bashing. Especially when our national government keeps growing, and public educators at recent local meetings complained of declining funding, I would think people would be thanking business. It doesn’t make sense to complain about debt in government and public education and then bash the very source of revenue that sustains them.

If people think being pro-business is bad, I wonder what anti-business would lead to. Central planning in Eastern Europe was a colossal failure. The current example in Greece shows what happens when the number of public employees overwhelms the private sector. As Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of England, said: “the main problem with socialism is that sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.”

While there will always be a few bad apples, by and large the “other people” who start and maintain businesses provide products, services, jobs, and public funding. We should stop bashing them, and cheer them on. We’ll all share in their success.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Simple weekend errands turn into adoption

(From the April 8, 2010 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Last weekend I fell in love at a store in Muskegon. I wasn’t looking for love. But that’s just the way love is. You walk around a corner, your eyes meet, and boom!--love. My wife was next to me when it happened.

We were running some errands on Saturday. They were relatively boring errands. As we were out and about, we stopped in at Pets Mart. We had no reason to be there. We haven’t had pets since our two cats died over a period of two years from 2006 to 2008. Since then, we would occasionally go to Pets Mart just to look at the cats brought in every other Saturday by Cat Tales Rescue, a no-kill shelter and adoption center.

Our visits were part of the grieving process. Just being able to see cats helped a little bit, since we missed our two so much. But we weren’t quite ready to adopt again. It takes a while to get over lost pets. Pet owners know this. Pets become like children. Their antics and habits are every bit a part of your home and life as all your other routines. When they die it takes a long time to realize they are not there—just like with people. You see an object out of the corner of your eye and think it is a cat. You sit down in a favorite chair to read and wonder why there is no cat on your lap. Every time your mind plays these tricks and brings back memories, you grieve a little more.

But you can’t just replace pets. They aren’t mechanical parts. They have personalities that add to the reason you love them. Getting new pets too soon can make you feel more guilty than comforted. It’s like getting married soon after the death of a spouse. It just doesn’t seem right.

So when we went into Pets Mart, it was always just a casual visit. It was a way to be with cats since we didn’t have them at home anymore. In the back of our minds we thought we would one day take in cats again, but we didn’t know when.

Now we know that a year and a half is too long of a time to be without cats.

When we walked in the store last Saturday the first thing I saw was a cage with two orange kittens. I had always wanted an orange cat. Maybe it’s a subliminal effect from those “Morris the Cat” ads. For whatever reason, I just find orange cats compelling.

Also, we had grown used to having two cats in the house. We had one at first, which we adopted from my sister-in-law when her roommates didn’t want a cat around. The second one came along as a stray and just hung out under our porch so we adopted her. It was nice to have two cats. They entertain each other when we’re away, and they entertain us when we’re home. So I always thought when we adopt again we’d get two, preferably siblings so they get along with each other. These two orange cats at Pets Mart were five-and-a-half-month old brothers.

But what really sealed it was when we held them. Judy Austin, the woman who runs Cat Tales, was happy to encourage it. And she told us how loving these two little guys are. They proved it when they started purring even in the strange atmosphere with we two strangers holding them.

We had no chance. We had no choice. We told Judy we’d take them.

Of course, we hadn’t planned on going home with cats as well as all the groceries and other items we picked up on our trip. So we arranged to pick them up Monday. That evening and in the few days since, the bonding process has progressed rapidly. It’s nice to hear meows, purrs, and the pitter-patter of padded paws. They are fun to watch and play with. I can tell they are happy to have a permanent home. We named them Humu and Nuku. That’s a play off the name humuhumunukunukuapua’a—which is the name of the state fish of Hawaii. It’s complicated, but let’s just say that has special meaning for us. Plus, it is kind of funny to name our cats after a fish. I also doubt anyone else around here has cats by that name.

Now is a good time to adopt cats or other pets. Spring is when new litters are born, and often they are separated from their mothers. Also, at all times of year people move or for some other reason can no longer care for their adult cats. I would encourage you to visit a no-kill shelter like Cat Tales, which has 40 cats on site plus volunteer “foster parents” dedicated to finding permanent homes for cats without euthanasia. Take in a cat, or two (or dogs if you prefer), and provide a good home for an animal. You’ll find they will in turn make your home a better place as well.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Thinking of taxes, tea, and coffee

(From the March 11, 2010 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I’m thinking ahead one month and back 217 years. One month from now it will be almost April 15, the deadline day for paying taxes. Meanwhile, roughly 217 years ago, in 1793, a group of disgruntled Americans tossed a bunch of tea into Boston Harbor because of their anger about taxes.

My how history seems to repeat itself. One of the more popular current political stories of the past year has been the “Tea Party,” a group of Americans who are motivated by their anger at the increase in taxes and the size of government. They even had their own convention last month in Tennessee.

Those early Americans were upset about the British East India Company being allowed to import tea to the colonies without paying taxes. The decision to allow this further angered Americans already protesting about “taxation without representation.” So they made their point.

Taxation without representation seems to be an issue today as well. It’s shocking to look at the difference between the gross and net amounts on a pay stub and realize how much is being sent to Lansing and Detroit—and how little seems to come back. Meanwhile, news reports reveal how much of the current activity in Washington D.C. happens behind closed doors. Unions, associations, and corporations with lobbyists have special access to meet with people in the White House and Congress, many of whom had “issues” paying all THEIR taxes, if you recall. When the U.S. Treasury Secretary and a Congressman who heads a tax committee didn’t pay their personal taxes, maybe the Tea Party is on to something.

Now, such organized revolution is not my cup of tea you might say. But as I have grown frustrated with taxes lately, such desperate action does have a certain appeal. For years our politicians have been talking about cutting taxes, simplifying the tax code and making the tax code more fair. But every year it seems that we pay more taxes and it gets harder to do so. When I say harder, I don’t just mean the difficulty in parting with my hard-earned money. It’s the process of actually figuring out what I owe the government.

Lots of folks bring their records and forms to an accountant and let them handle it. But that costs money, and you still need to keep records during the year. Some of you, if you’re like me, try to prepare your tax forms yourself. If you qualify to use the “E-Z” form, it is in fact, easy. But if your income becomes a little greater or more complicated you need to use the long form with various and assorted schedules and additional forms and worksheets. I did mine recently and when I printed out the final paperwork it was more than 30 pages.

Even with tax preparation software the task doesn’t get a lot simpler. TurboTax and other such programs ask you a series of questions to ensure you don’t forget anything. But there are so many questions! And every year there are new tax laws, meaning you have to buy the tax software every year. Why does filing taxes have to be so taxing? If you’re required to do something, the least the government could do is make it easier to comply. I mean, by comparison, the government allows you to get married by answering one simple question, once, and you’re all set. You don’t have to answer a set of difficult questions year after year. (At least not to the government.)

In the past several years the government has pushed “e-filing” your taxes. They promote it as being free and easy. It is neither. It’s not easy because you have to go through the process I already described before you “simply” click and electronically file your taxes. It’s not cheap because you have to go through an accountant or buy tax preparation software in order to file electronically.

Even having completed the process, and even if you get a return, there is no sense of relief. The government takes a sizable chunk of your money. If you track your personal finances using Quicken or some other software, run a pie chart report on your expenses. You’ll probably find that taxes are the single greatest expense category you have, even more than your mortgage or groceries.

And that’s just income. We also pay property tax, and sales tax. There are various “sin” taxes on tobacco and alcohol. There are even estate or “death” taxes.

The irony is that poor people originally pushed for an income tax. They realized that tariffs, the government’s main revenue source, were forcing them to pay more for products. And so an income tax was introduced but was assessed mostly to the wealthy class. According to tax historian John Witte in a PBS documentary, all that changed during World War II. In 1939, at the beginning of the war, only 15 percent of Americans paid any kind of income tax. By the end of the war, 80 percent did. The change was part of a rationale that the US needed the money for the war effort. So patriotism prevailed and more of the masses started paying taxes as well.

Today, with payroll deduction and automatic deposit, most people take taxes for granted. And the increase in taxes—in spite of campaign promises—just keeps growing along with the size and role of government. We’ve moved a long way from what our founding fathers envisioned and described in the Constitution as a federal government with “limited and enumerated powers.”

Maybe what we need is not a Tea Party, but a Coffee Party to wake people up to that fact.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Considering a Fish for Governor

(From the February 11, 2010 Grand Haven Tribune)

“Asian Carp Enters Governors Race.” That headline was in another area newspaper last weekend. At first I laughed at the ambiguity of the headline—a fish running for governor! Hilarious.

Of course, what the headline really meant was that the Asian Carp issue had become a point of debate in the governor’s race, with two candidates having different ideas about dealing with the problem of this invasive fish. Basically, this large fish came into the Mississippi River having been carried in the ballast of international ships. It made its way all the way north to Chicago and is now threatening to enter Lake Michigan from the Chicago River. People are worried the fish will destroy the current species of fish in Lake Michigan and thus destroy the fishing business. The debate centers on whether or not to seal off the Chicago River and channel to the Mississippi River.

But then I got to thinking (this can be dangerous for me). I thought, what if the Asian Carp actually ran for governor? Well, one of them anyway.

When you think about it, our current governor came to Michigan from Canada via California. Our current president came to Washington from Hawaii via Chicago. The Carp would enter Michigan from Asia via the Mississippi River and Chicago. In fact, it hasn’t been in Chicago long, so it’s less likely to be corrupted by Chicago-style politics that some people fear. An idea for a campaign slogan: “Asian Fish? It’s no Blagojevich.”

As for people worried about the Asian Carp damaging the environment and business, well, consider this. Can a fish do more damage than any other politician? Maybe if we send the Asian Carp to Lansing they’ll be too busy to mess with Lake Michigan.

Fish are like politicians after all. They do most of what they do below the surface. They only emerge once in a while to make a brief appearance, have their moment in the sun, and cause a splash. If you get them out of their element they flip and squirm, eventually flapping their gills with eyes wide open and making a funny pouting expression. If you leave them out too long they just, well, they stink. At this point they are covered by the newspapers.

Everyone seems to want reform in government, so maybe putting a fish in charge is the kind of radical change we need. A fish would offer a new view of the scales of justice. They’d knock our current leaders off their perch and give us salmon else to talk about. The presence of a fish in charge could spawn some innovative new ideas from a new perspective. For example, education reform might be possible since fish spend most of their lives in schools. They wouldn’t do anything just for the halibut. We might finally move closer to e-fish-ent government. It might even be possible to end the partisan bickering and everyone would get along swimmingly.

In time, the fish politician concept could really take off. There could even be democrat and republican fish. We would all enter the voting booth and review a ballot of candidates and running mates from either party. It might read something like this: One Fish; Two Fish; Red Fish; Blue Fish.

But, this whole plan will likely fail. Everyone knows politicians watch polls carefully. In the same way, fish are fearful of poles. We’d have a tough time luring the Asian Carp to run for office. And of course, fish can’t run anyway. This idea just has no legs.

So, I guess we’ll have to settle for a human as governor of our state. And as for the rest of us? We’ll be left to carp about politics.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Winning Over Winter, With or Without Wine

(From the January 14, 2009 Grand Haven Tribune)

It gave me a feeling eerily reminiscent of the 1920s. No, I wasn’t alive then. But I have published a paper about that decade and have read a lot about the era. Anyway, I was in downtown Grand Haven last Friday night for the “Wine About Winter” event sponsored by the main street DDA.

I saw a sign on the window of Gallery Uptown that read: “We are sorry. There is no wine.” Then I overheard a man in a trench coat and a fedora explain that the state government and local police had put a stop to the alcohol.

So, our economy has been compared to the Great Depression and now we have to deal with prohibition again?

Not exactly. As this paper explained in a front page article last Saturday, there were certain permits missing and rules misunderstood. So there’s no need to start a speakeasy in Spring Lake, or to start smuggling Michigan Merlot from Al Capone’s alleged hideout near Paw Paw.

Nor, as it turned out, was there any reason to whine about the absence of wine from the “Wine About Winter” event. People took the situation in slushy stride, as they meandered from business to business in downtown Grand Haven to view the work of local artists, shop a little, and enjoy some snacks and non-alcoholic beverages. The mayor himself was proffering “fake wine” at his shoe establishment.

Wine wasn’t really the purpose of the event. It was merely an incentive. The real purpose was to get people out of their homes on a cold, post-holiday, winter night. That happened. Neither the presence of snow nor absence of wine seemed to prevent it.

It was by many measures a successful event. People were bumping into friends, chatting with artists, and generally enjoying themselves. I’m not sure how sales were for the businesses, but the added exposure can’t hurt. I heard more than a few people comment that they hadn’t realized a store was there, or what was in a particular store.

Apart from the return for businesses, I think the event was a success just for being a “victory” over winter. There is this notion that winter in the north is despised, a cruel joke, a burden to endure, a force that keeps us all inside for months. Well, as they say in Pella, baloney!

We northerners are a hearty bunch. Sure, we complain a bit about blizzards, and driving conditions. But most of us also deal with—and even relish—the winter season. In fact, far from keeping us inside, winter provides an incentive to appreciate the outdoors. My wife and I enjoy the unique perspective in winter while running along the Grand River. We have seen Bald Eagles perched in the bare limbs of an oak, or soaring over open water in search of a meal. Cross country skiing provides uniquely exhilarating experience, whether by night on the lighted trails at Pigeon Creek Park, or by day in the wooded dunes and beach vistas at Hoffmaster State Park. Sunny days in winter can be spectacular, with rays of light glistening on new snow or shimmering on ice formations. But even the more common cloudy days have a stark beauty to them.

There are other advantages to winter too. There are no mosquitos. That’s enough right there to appreciate winter, if you ask me. There’s also no lawn care or yard work. Sure, snow blowing and shoveling can be a chore, but at least there’s no mowing or weeding. Also, the snow covers any bald spots or blemishes in the yard. Coffee tastes better when the mercury falls. Cuddling makes more sense. Even if you’re one who doesn’t like winter, at least you’ll have to admit this season makes you appreciate the other ones.

Many of us pine for warmth and envy those in southern climates at this time of year. But many of my acquaintances south of the Mason-Dixon line tell me they miss the snow, wish they could experience four distinct seasons, or wonder what it’s like to snow ski.

So there was no wine at “Wine About Winter.” There was also no whining. Because most of us realize that winter happens, every year about this time. So we deal with it. Some of us even embrace it.

I’m already looking forward to the completion of an ice rink on the first block of Washington Street where the road construction is currently on hold. Even after the road improvements are completed, such an idea could be good for Grand Haven on an annual basis. The city could even combine ice skating with the DDA event. Locals and visitors would come downtown to shop, view art, skate, and just generally enjoy winter. Who knows, with this much time for planning and getting proper permits, it might even be possible to serve wine next to the rink.

In 2011 we could see the first “Ice Wine” event. Or “Drink at the Rink.” Even if not, I’m sure we’ll all endure and enjoy winter just fine.