The Silver Lining In Any Disaster

Vera, if you ever get down on the human race (and, goodness knows, there’s ample reason to do so), just watch what we humans do when the rug is pulled out from under complete strangers by a natural disaster, terrorist attack or other such calamity.

In general, we respond with a sincere, overwhelming outpouring of compassion and assistance.

People volunteer. They give money. They donate blood. They pray. They help rebuild, sometimes even traveling vast distances.

Watching humanity’s reaction restores one’s hope. It refills depleted souls.

It feels good.

Very good.

Tipping: Backing Up Your Beliefs with Money

If you think that there should be a minimum wage, then you should pay–people who think there should be minimum wages should voluntarily pay everybody around them the difference between whatever they are getting and that minimum wage. And, when you go to McDonald’s, you should leave a $3 tip or $4 tip to the person. If that’s really what they want to do, they should do it themselves. – Nassim Taleb

I agree. In part. I disagree with Taleb concerning minimum wages. But I agree that we should spend consistent with our professed beliefs. Walk the talk, if you will.

I think we underpay many people for their work and contributions. Taleb would argue that the market decides. He’s right of course. But should we settle for market determinations? I don’t think so.

Market forces aren’t perfect. We alter those forces in many ways that benefit people of education, power and privilege (those born into rich families). We erect barriers to protect certain professions and people. We skew public policies and tax codes to favor one group over another, and to favor capital over labor. In short, the market isn’t allowed to do its will; rather, we alter market forces to favor the select few. So I don’t have the same confidence in markets that Taleb does. Consequently, I support a minimum wage. But it doesn’t end there.

Do the math. You can’t live on a minimum wage job. Yet political support for increases to the minimum wage simply doesn’t exist at the national level. So it’s up to people who think it’s wrong to pay people so little. It’s up to us to do some economic justice.

It’s not always easy to effect justice, but in many cases, it’s actually quite easy. We can tip.

Restaurants are an obvious example. Lodging establishments are another. The people who deliver my paper in the middle of the night are another.

We recently moved. Moving presents quite a few opportunities. The manual laborers who load and unload the vans. The people who hang the blinds. The men who constructed the retaining wall. Etc. Etc.

I lost count, but I spent several thousand dollars in gratuities over the past several months in connection with our move. I was glad I could.

I was a decent tipper at restaurants my entire life, but in recent years have turned it up a notch. Gratuities now range from 20 to 100%, depending on the size of the bill and level of service.

So what’s the point of all this, Vera. The point isn’t my tipping practice. Rather, the point is the same one Taleb made: we always have the option of backing up our professed beliefs with our actions. And the most telling action typically involves the way we spend our money.

Our spending has a way of separating the real from the fake words and beliefs. It’s not a bad thing to endeavor to be as real as possible.

The Confederacy Is Dying

Lately, we’ve been hearing and reading a lot about the Confederacy, white supremacists and Civil War heroes. Growing up, the Civil War didn’t have a prominent place in our lives. Sure, we visited the Gettysburg Battlefield and learned about the war in school. But it was an historical artifact of sorts — something that occurred but had long past.

And then I moved to Virginia. It was there I experienced first hand that the war wasn’t over — at least not in certain people’s minds. It also was there I frequently heard it referred to as the “War of Northern Aggression.” And saw the flag of the Confederacy fly from porches and pickup trucks. It was there that some people called me a Yankee, with the disdain the term implies in the Deep South.

More recently, just over the mountain from where we lived in Virginia, white supremacists marched and engaged in violence to promote their cause. Some people interpret this as a sign the principles underlying the Confederacy are alive and well.

I disagree. I think it’s a sign of the Confederacy’s dying gasp.

Racism will live on, of course. But the Confederacy was about so much more. It was about preserving an economic and social system rooted in slavery. That clock isn’t about to be turned back.

That’s not to say there isn’t involuntary servitude today. There is. And even among the free, true freedom isn’t as pervasive as commonly thought.

It also isn’t to say there is equal opportunity for all. There isn’t. But it’s getting better.

It is to say that what we’re witnessing now — with the white marches and election of Donald Trump — is the last gasp of a dying power structure. The days of racists, white men are coming to an end.

The country is changing. It’s getting less white. And it’s getting less male — not in general; rather, in the halls of power.

Moreover, the distance between the War (whatever name you want to ascribe to it) and the present is increasing with each and every passing day. There is no one alive who lived then, and no one alive whose parent fought in the War. Our national memory is fading.

Economic mobility has hastened the fade. Yankees now live throughout the South, and Rebs are dispersed throughout the North. The terms themselves now seem absurd to the vast majority of Americans (I always thought they were).

Some people hate to see our country change. They fight to keep women at home and out of our board rooms, legislatures and executive officers. They go out of their way to avoid people of color. They bestow privilege on the old white families that shower their institutions with money (i.e., their character is for sale).

But most people don’t. Most people have come to believe it’s wrong to judge and treat people based on their sex or the color of their skin.

We don’t always live up to our beliefs, but with time our beliefs strengthen and help narrow the gap between rhetoric and action. With time, we’re learning how to be better people.

The War has been over for more than a century and a half. Now, we’re witnessing the end of the Confederacy and the blossoming of the principle of freedom and justice for all.

The War is over indeed. But the fight continues.

Misguided Loyalties

James Liang, an engineer for Volkswagen, was sentenced to prison yesterday (for more than three years). And was fined $200,000. His offense: helping VW defraud the U.S. and violate the Clean Air Act by evading emissions requirements with diesel-powered vehicles by rigging software to cheat.

His attorney, Daniel Nixon, said Mr. Liang is a “good and decent person.” He added, “[Mr. Liang] blindly executed a crime because of a misguided loyalty to his employer.”

I don’t doubt it. Not for a minute. I’ve seen it often.

I’ve even visited fellow employees in prison for their misdeeds (price fixing). And worked hard to keep others out. But that’s merely the tip of the iceberg. Usually, transgressors don’t get caught.

The common denominator in most cases is what Mr. Nixon observed: misguided loyalty.

I’ve always been amazed by what people are willing to do from a sense of loyalty to their employers. Of course, it’s not always based in loyalty. Sometimes, it’s out of fear: fear of losing one’s job, fear of being passed over for a promotion, fear of being ostracized.

Most of the people I’ve observed transgress in a serious way are what I’d call
“good and decent people.” They were just willing to do things for their employers that they’d probably not have been willing to do for themselves.

I’ve never made excuses for people who cross the line. Each of us makes decisions about how to live our lives. What risks to take. What injury to inflict on others. If you make bad decisions, don’t expect others to make excuses for you.

Mr. Liang decided to conspire with others to help his employer in deceitful ways that hurt others. And the environment. It was a choice. He was one of the unlucky ones. He got caught.

To whom and what do you owe your loyalty, Vera? These are questions you’ll face in life.

Take these questions seriously. They’re not unimportant. Indeed, our answers define us. They may even affect where and how we spend our future (e.g., in prison and in shame).

I’ve had the privilege of working with some people who owed their loyalty to virtue, honesty and respect for others instead of a man-made creation we call a corporation or instead of money. One that comes to mind is a former colleague who now lives in Alabama. He took such questions seriously. He is a “good and decent person.”

But he’s so much more than that.

The Price of Stagnancy

Your great-grandparents shopped at Sears when we were young, Vera. It was the department store. Appliances, tools, outdoor gear, sporting goods, shoes, clothing, etc. — you name it, America shopped there. A hundred years ago, you could even buy a house there (do-it-yourself kit). But, today, it’s near death. Today, it announced another massive decline in sales and more store closings. The outcome is clear: the chain will be gone. Soon.

I’ve seen it play out in other industries, just not retail. All kinds of industrial companies. Law firms. Accounting firms. Hospitals. Colleges. The graveyard of business, industry and nonprofits is full of enterprises that didn’t make it.

Sometimes, technology claimed them. There isn’t anything the buggy makers could have done to stave off obsolescence (although the buggy makers could have pursued a different line of work before it was too late). Much of the time, though, there was something that could have been done. It simply wasn’t.

Inertia is a powerful force. People don’t like change. But if enterprises don’t change, they put themselves at risk. The same goes for people, especially in the 21st century when technology and globalization are daily transforming the workplace and markets.

Snuggling in is comfortable for many people, even when the risk to themselves is — or should be — obvious. Sometimes, I’m not sure whether they don’t see it, or see it and don’t care — don’t care because the thought of changing is too unsettling.

In any case, in this world of ours, Vera, there is always someone after your business and most likely after your job. Each day you’ve got to earn the right to keep it.

The price of stagnancy is economic death. Just ask all the people who used to work and shop at Sears. If you can find them.

The Sound of Silence

Quite the testimonial that there appears to be a higher degree of moral outrage among corporate CEOs than religious “leaders.”

This is just one of many statements I’ve read the past week about what many see as the transition of moral leadership in America away from religion to corporate leaders.

I’m not so sure I buy it — the second part, that is. I certainly buy the first part: the churches are largely silent. But I question whether it’s moral leadership that’s coming from corporate America. Rather, I suspect it’s calculated HR strategy by and large.

There are exceptions, of course — instances where a few corporate leaders are primary voices of morality. But they’re the rare exception.

The churches, on the other hand, are either relatively silent, at least beyond their hallowed walls or, worse yet, voices that stand in opposition to justice. Indeed, the evangelical wing of the Christian Protestant tradition doesn’t even pretend. It’s been nearly entirely co-opted by secular ideology and has become more Right than Gospel.

They don’t concede that of course. But it’s obvious, at least to anyone with a modicum of objectivity left in their bones.

As for the remainder of the religious traditions in America, prophetic voices of justice and compassion are undoubtedly still raised here and there in local congregations and, to some extent, in local communities. But the voices are either too few or too timid to join together in a way that resounds through larger communities or on regional or national stages.

But perhaps things aren’t all that different from what they’ve always been. I recall in the ’60s that most religious folk were status quo kind of people. The ones who stood with Martin Luther King, Jr. were relatively few in number. In that era, the kids and relatively few allies of Dr. King were the dominant voices of morality.

It’s been over 1,700 years now since Emperor Constantine supposedly converted to Christianity and the faith became a legitimate part of the power structure. One could argue that’s when the Christian faith embraced power and privilege over morality and sacrifice. If you ever visit the Vatican, you will understand what I mean.

There have been exceptions along the way of course. Quite notable ones. But exceptions nonetheless.

I’m not sure the situation is all that different among the Jews in our country today. Indeed, some notable people of the Jewish tradition occupy positions of power within our national government. Apparently, the faith doesn’t impede their work or trouble them enough to break their silence.

Muslims understandably are loath to speak out in our society. Our government bans many from even traveling here, and our leader constantly fuels fear and hatred that intimidates. That’s not an excuse; it’s just the way it is.

One thing has been clear for me for a very long time: given the choice of following Caesar or some other patriarch who relies on instruments of war and death, or a poor, seemingly weak teacher/preacher or tradition that inhibits the acquisition of wealth and power, the kind of person our president would  call a “loser,” the vast majority of people choose the former, even if they pretend not to. And who can blame them?

That doesn’t mean the voice of morality is silent, of course. Indeed, courageous compassion and moral people — both religious and secular — can be found in any era. Yet sometimes their voices are few in number and hard to hear.

I speak not out of a sense of condemnation for I am no better than anyone else. And I fall well short of the example of many.

The point isn’t that people are bad or complicit (although perhaps some are). Rather, the point is this thing we call morality, justice and compassion is no easy thing at all.

Risking everything — indeed, risking anything — for the sake of a stranger requires compassion and courage beyond the capacity of most of us.

At certain points in history, someone rises from our midst to provide moral leadership — a person with extraordinary abilities and courage. But most of the time, there is no such person. Most of the time, we’re left to our own devices.

It’s folly to think that moral leadership will hail from the halls of corporate America. The dominant culture of business in America surrounds money. Some founders and leaders of business have broader concerns of course. Some promote equality and justice. To an extent. But these causes will never supersede their primary mission in any large-scale way. Their shareholders would replace them first.

Which leaves us with churches and congregations and people of faith traditions. And with individuals. It leaves us pretty much in the same position we’ve always been in.

It’s not a cause for despair or reason for elation in my opinion. It’s just the way it is.

Being an agent of justice in a world that pursues power and wealth — in a world that is governed more by the laws of the jungle than the laws of justice — is not an easy thing to be, Vera. In fact, it’s so hard and can be so costly that I wouldn’t push it on anyone. In any case, I suppose it’s not something that can be pushed on anyone. For it to be true and effective, it must come from within. It must come from a heart that is different from the norm.

People will argue whether there is an external force or power that produces such hearts, or whether they’re merely a product of happenstance. You can decide for yourself when the time is right.

In the meantime, I must focus on myself and my own actions and be less concerned with the words and actions of others. For my entire life I have tried to heed the voices of both accumulation and morality. It has almost torn me apart at times.

You notice I didn’t suggest the choice was between morality and immorality. That would suggest the wrong thing as we have defined immorality more narrowly and salaciously in our culture.

I also think concepts of morality are a bit misleading. In my way of thinking, it’s more an issue of compassion.

Compassion is much easier to exhibit in private or in small groups of like-minded people. On a grander scale, in the public forum, it’s a much different matter, for there it confronts other forces, ones that are weaponized and punitive.

Sometimes, the sound of silence can be deafening.

The Truth About Monuments

I’m not a fan of monuments, of any kind. And I think much of the debate about monuments today threatens to distract people from the larger, more important issues, and play into the hands of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, racists and the president.

But I am a fan of knowledge. And I loath propaganda, especially the kind that is designed to spread division and hatred. Hence, I’m sharing this much needed brief history lesson from a Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse, which he shared on his Facebook page late last night:

I wish more folks understood how many of the monuments now being debated are not really from the post-Civil War period as a way to remember war dead. Rather, contrary to popular understanding, many of these statues were explicitly erected as Segregation Monuments in the twentieth century, during Jim Crow, as a way of shouting – against the American Idea – that public spaces were to be whites-only spaces. Tragically, many of these monuments were erected exactly when lynchings of black Americans were being celebrated in those communities – and the timing overlap here was not accidental. (It’s also worth noting that Gen. Robert E. Lee had opposed erecting Confederate Memorials because he worried, wisely, that they would become scabs of bitterness to be endlessly picked at.)

People are entitled to their own opinions and beliefs. But no one is entitled to their own facts.

The World Changed 97 Years Ago

On this date (August 18) in 1920, a mere 97 years ago and 144 long years following the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

It’s hard to believe, Vera, that if you had been born 100 years ago, you would have entered a world in which, because of your sex, you would have been officially inferior. It’s hard to believe because we have come such a long way that it’s hard to imagine how anyone could consider another person to be inferior because of their sex. Or race. Or religion. Or ethnicity.

It’s official that you’re equal, but, as most of us adults realize, women and people of color and people of certain faiths and ethnicities still aren’t equal in the eyes of many.

The world changed dramatically 97 years ago. It’s still changing.

The world is very lucky to have you.

 

Freedom of Expression Isn’t Absolute But Some Is Essential

I’ve always been amazed by the number of people who think they’re totally free to do and say whatever they want, without repercussion. Permit me to be blunt on this point, Vera: don’t be an idiot when it comes to your understanding of freedom.

There are constraints on the freedom that all of us enjoy. Sometimes, those constraints are rooted in laws or regulations. Often, they’re rooted in social norms.

This issue came to the fore again as some of the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville last weekend are finding out they’re now unemployed. Their employers don’t want such people on the payroll.

It’s possible, although I have no way of knowing, that some of the counter-protestors have lost their jobs, too.

This comes on the heels of an employee of Google being fired for expressing views that were out of step with the company’s policies and values.

Public protests aren’t the only thing that can get you canned, of course. Employers and clients can refuse to hire you, or decide to fire you, pretty much for any reason or no reason at all. They can’t do it for illegal reasons — for instance, because of your race, sex or age — but, of course, that happens all the time. Doing something unlawful and being held accountable for it are different things entirely. Many employers unlawfully discriminate with impunity on a regular basis.

Expressing yourself through your appearance can have repercussions, too. Visible tattoos are a show stopper for many employers. Hair, dress, drug use, language, names and hygiene are biggies as well.

Employers routinely check Facebook and other social media sites for postings or photos they might consider offensive or objectionable. Colleges check, too. I’m amazed by the stuff some people post and then by their surprise when doors fail to open.

I suppose it would be nice to be able to say or do anything you wanted to say or do without repercussion, but that’s a fantasy of course. For better or for worse, that’s not how the real world works.

Some people decide to stay well clear of saying or doing anything that could elicit an adverse reaction. Others don’t seem to care and pretty much say and do what they want. They usually pay the price. Others take a more nuanced approach, venturing as much individuality as they deem safe. Sometimes they miscalculate.

Sometimes fear keeps people in place. You see that with corporate CEOs today. Some of them go along with our president because they fear his wrath. His immediate and harsh reaction to the three CEOs who resigned from his Manufacturing Council the past couple of days is illustrative. If only he reacted to Nazis as quickly and harshly.

If you’ve read my earlier posts, Vera, you know that I place a lot of value on financial independence. One of the reasons is the freedom it brings. Simply put, you don’t have to be as concerned with what other people think, and you don’t have to worry about kissing up to some boss, client or committee. You can choose to work only with people you respect and trust.

Without financial freedom, most of us have to be ever mindful of who butters our bread. We have to be careful not to bite the hand that feeds us. Alright, enough with the clichés! You get the point.

I can’t decide what approach might be best for you. I wouldn’t even try. But I would caution you to be careful not to allow yourself to get into a position where someone effectively owns you — that is, in a position where your values must be subservient to those of some company, congregation, board, boss or trustee.

Whether you exercise it or not, there’s a certain sense of freedom in being able to walk out the door (as I did once, albeit not abruptly or rudely). There’s a certain freedom that comes from not having to work for assholes.

Indeed, there’s a certain freedom — and joy — in being able to do the right thing, consequences be damned.

In certain times and places, doing the right thing can get you killed. We’re lucky: that’s not likely here, although it can and does happen sometimes.

Usually, however, it’s not a matter of losing your life. Rather, it’s a matter of losing your self-respect and soul. Or feeling trapped.

It’s fantasy to think our freedom is or need be unconstrained. Absolutes are not what the world is about.

However, it’s just as fanciful to think we’re free if we have become subservient with respect to the most important things in life. We may delude ourselves and think we’re free. But we’re not.