Archive for July, 2011

POGO REDUX

Last Monday, President Obama made a televised appeal to Americans in regard to the ongoing conflict about how to reduce the nation’s debt. Speaker of the House John Boehner offered the Republican rejoinder. OMG!

In asking Americans to urge their Congressional representatives to support a balanced approach to deficit and debt reduction—spending cuts along with revenue increases—Mr. Obama deplored “Washington” doing business as usual. In stating that Republicans had a plan to reduce the deficit without tax increases, one he would bring before the House for a vote—although the Democratic majority in the Senate would never go along—Mr. Boehner deplored “Washington” doing business as usual.

I’m perplexed. Just who or what is this Washington that both these leaders came out against? Mr. Obama, former U.S. Senator, is President of the United States. It’s hard to be any more Washington than that. Mr. Boehner has been a member of the House since 1990. He’s served as House Majority Leader, Minority Leader and then, since this past January, as Speaker. But apparently, he’s not part of the evil Washington so many Americans stand against.

So who then is Washington? Maybe it’s the people who never were Washington—the first-term Republicans backed by the Tea Party who put “no tax increase ever” dogma ahead of common sense. Once, Washington politicians understood the art of the deal. You give. You get. The rest of us do this all the time. But that’s not the Tea Party way.

Of course, Democrats can shoulder some blame, too. The federal debt is huge and growing. Not every tax dollar spent on entitlement programs is spent wisely. And support for the President, the Democrats’ party leader, has hardly been rousing. Get a grip, people.

Last Saturday, I led services at Congregation Sherith Israel. My d’var Torah or word about Torah—the portion was Matot (Tribes)—focused on the tribes of Reuben and Gad, which didn’t want to settle in the land of Canaan. They preferred to stay east of the Jordan River where they could pasture their cattle. Moses was not happy. But the matter was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction—including God’s.

The Reubenites and Gadites volunteered to serve as chalutzim—shock troops—at the head of the Israelite army when it crossed the Jordan to conquer Canaan. They chose to live adjacent to Canaan rather than in it but willingly assumed more than their share of risk to see that the other tribes’ inhabited the land God promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and to their descendants. There’s a lesson here.  Compromise can be okay. We are all connected and can—indeed, must—share our common burdens to promote general wellbeing.

Whoever Washington really is, they don’t get it. Ideology reins. Americans suffer. Selfish interests trump the common good. I fear for this nation. Why? In the immortal words of the late Walt Kelly’s cartoon character Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and they are us.”

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LOCKOUT

We keep hearing about how bad the economy is, but I find that difficult to believe. The Dow Jones and S&P 500 are close to new highs in the post-Great Recession cycle. President Obama and congressional leaders may even reach a deal—no matter how shortsighted—on controlling the deficit. And the NFL lockout may end this weekend keeping the flow of revenues to the league, owners and players… well, flowing.

In truth, I don’t get how a weak economy can keep producing such strong financial numbers in professional sports. Not because I don’t like sports. I’ve been a fan for sixty years or so. Jackie Robinson? Mickey Mantle? Bob Cousy? Bill Russell? Wilt Chamberlain? Jim Brown? Y.A. Tittle? I saw them all. But I lost interest in college sports long ago when coaches became multi-million-dollar university hires and Nike started dictating basketball match-ups. And professionals, while not hypocrites—they’re in it for the money—don’t please me very much, either.

Call me a codger, but I remember when people went to a ballgame to see the game and not attend an event. Fans spent their time in their seats not cruising the food stands and souvenir shops.

And the noise levels today! Once, you could talk to your buddy between innings or during a timeout about something a player had just done or an impending shift in strategy. Now, music and frenzied public address announcers in basketball and hockey arenas create a decibel level that makes discussing the game impossible. And the lights! Try watching a basketball game in Phoenix’ US Airways Center. I have. It’s horrible. The glare of digital advertisements circling the upper level makes seeing the court a challenge. And pick your sport, the drunks abound. No way would I go to an Oakland Raiders game.

Yet when the NFL goes back to work, fans will flock to the stadiums. The NBA is closed and could lose a good part or all of the upcoming season, but fans will come running once a new collective bargaining agreement is reached and the games begin. Major League Baseball continues. Here in San Francisco, the Giants sell out every game at a beautiful park—and put their hands deep into fans’ pockets. Very deep.

I went online last week to check seats for a Giants-Dodgers game. I’ve never sat in a left field Club seat and was intrigued. The price? $78. That’s a lot of money in a down economy. But as they say in infomercials, that’s not all. Buy that seat online, and the Giants tack on a $14 service fee. $14 for what? My printing out a ticket on my computer using my paper and my ink? Why not just sell a $92 ticket and be done with it? And let’s not even talk the price of parking, beer and food I’d reject at a restaurant.

So tell me our economy’s hurting. But don’t expect me to believe it when fans so willingly support billionaire owners and millionaire players who fight tooth-and-nail over revenues fans provide. Not with ticket prices so high. The Giants will draw three million-plus paying fans this season, none of whom will make a cent from another World Series victory. But ask them to dig deeper in this era of supposedly high unemployment to support another free agent, and they will. Something here is just a little bit off.

I’m leading Shabbat services at Congregation Sherith Israel tomorrow morning. More about that next week.

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COMMON SENSE

As I write, I contemplate not receiving my Social Security next month. President Obama and congressional leaders will likely go down to the wire to solve the nation’s debt problem. At that, they may not reach an accord—or any meaningful one. Some thoughts:

• Republicans anguish about “entitlements.” What a misleading word! Others aren’t entitled to put their hands in my pocket. But what is my responsibility to help those in need? The Jewish concept of tzedakah refers not to charity but to justice. “Tzedek, tzedek, tir’dof—justice, justice you shall purse”—commands Deuteronomy 16:18. The Rabbis taught that the community must provide for members in need as a matter of justice. Thus Jewish communal leaders had the power to tax their members not only to support synagogues, hospitals and cemeteries but also students and the poor. Republicans refuse to acknowledge government’s obligation to maintain the public good with tax revenues. Democrats wear their own blinders. Maimonides wrote that the highest form of tzedakah is helping someone start a business and become self-supporting. Promoting business really does create jobs. Interesting reading: Michael Walzer’s article, “On Humanitarianism,” July/August 2011 Foreign Affairs.

• The AARP is running TV commercials urging that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid be taken off the table during discussions. I gave up my AARP membership long ago precisely because the organization refuses to concede the existence of middle ground—means testing.

• Nancy Pelsoi (D-California) also opposes talking about entitlements. Why? Perhaps Ms. Pelosi believes she cannot regain the Speaker’s post without pandering to the far left of the Democratic party—which is her normal position. News flash: I voted for myself rather than Mrs. Pelosi in the 2008 election.

• Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) would never win my vote. Am I the only one put off by his smugness? He comes off as George Will without the intellect. And what about McConnell’s statement that Mr. Obama should cave to the Republicans because the 2010 election swept Republicans into power in the House? After the 2008 presidential election, McConnell announced that his primary goal was to oppose Obama and see him defeated in 2012. Hadn’t we just had an election?

• Finally, a July 13 Gallup poll revealed that eighty percent of Americans believe that increased revenue should be part of the deficit solution. Yet a Republican member of the House—forgive me for not remembering his name—declared on PBS’ NewsHour this week that he would oppose any increase in revenue, including closing tax loopholes! Niall Ferguson has it right in this week’s Newsweek regarding all those folks indignant over taxes. “In a rational world, electorates would recognize the need both to reduce entitlements and to increase revenue. But indignation isn’t rational.”

As to my Social Security payment, I’ll live quite well without it, thank you. Senior is not a synonym for impoverished. A ten or fifteen percent cut? A boost in Medicare premiums? Won’t hurt at all. There are many Americans with substantial retirement incomes who can easily survive such a reduction so that others in need can keep a roof over their heads and all that goes with it. Common sense? Sure. But all too commonly ignored.

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WILLFUL BLINDNESS

There’s an old saying: “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” This week’s Torah portion, Balak, offers a timeless example.

The Midianite prophet Balaam is on speaking terms with God. The Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 20:1) advises, “You find that all the distinctions conferred upon Israel were conferred upon the nations. In like manner He raised up Moses for Israel and Balaam for the idolaters.” But Balaam’s position as a prophet raises many questions.

While GOD’S OTHERS deals with Balaam at length, let’s look at one incident that borders on fable. The Israelites encamp on the steppes of Moab ready to conquer Canaan (Moab is to be left alone). Balak, king of Moab and leader of the Midianite confederation, nonetheless fears Israel. He tells the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field” (Num. 22:4).

Balak sends a group of elders to Balaam asking him to come and curse Israel. Balaam tells them to stay overnight; he will summon God (prophets generally don’t do this) and find out what God wants. God’s instruction is simple. Don’t go. Israel is to be blessed, not cursed. The elders return to Balak empty-handed. That should end the story, but it doesn’t.

Balak sends a more august group to Balaam, who tells them that even for a house full of silver and gold, he could not go with them unless God says he can. This may represent a not so subtle way of negotiating a large fee. Ephron the Hittite makes a similar statement to Abraham when the patriarch seeks to purchase a piece of land and a cave in which to bury Sarah (Gen. 23:15). And so Balaam requests that these emissaries, too, spend the night so he can seek God’s instruction.

What part of “no” does Balaam not get? But here we face an intriguing puzzle. God now tells Balaam okay, go. Balaam saddles his old, faithful ass and begins his journey. But now God is incensed—perhaps because Balaam kept seeking His permission to go to Balak. Here, the old adage of being careful for what you wish comes into play.

A malach (messenger; angel from the Greek) bearing a sword blocks Balaam’s way. Balaam can’t see the messenger, but his ass can. The ass swerves this way and that, mashing Balaam’s foot into a wall in the process. Furious, Balaam threatens the ass. God permits the ass to speak and explain the situation. Then God opens Balaam’s eyes so that the man who can “see” everything can see the messenger who wants to kill him. Balaam concedes his error and offers to turn back, but the messenger tells him to go to Balak. God has plans for Balaam and indeed, Balaam blesses Israel four times in front of the perplexed Balak, who also cannot take “no” for an answer.

The satiric picture of the great Midianite prophet too blind to see what his ass can not only makes us laugh but also gets us thinking. So many people remain blind to the obvious for reasons of greed, faith or ideology. May our eyes—and theirs—always remain open.

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ON THE BACKS OF SENIORS

I was in the canned soup aisle at the supermarket the other day. A white-haired couple was studying prices. The man, with a friendly face and a paunch a loose shirt couldn’t conceal—I’ll call him Jack—smiled. “If you look, you can find some real good buys.” His wife, with rosy cheeks and a pleasant smile suggesting a woman who loved baking cookies for her grandchildren—I’ll call her Mary—held up a handful of coupons. “And of course,” she said, “you want to check the newspaper and the fliers out front for these.”

“Have to,” Jack explained. “We’re on a fixed income.” Mary took a can from the shelf then put it back. “They claim there’s no inflation,” she said, “but we can’t seem to afford the groceries we were buying just a few years ago.” Jack shook his head. “And gas. Wow!”

I acknowledged that Americans aren’t too thrilled with four-dollar gas. And food prices often carry sticker shock. But at least Jack and Mary could depend on their monthly Social Security. “Don’t bet on it,” said Mary. “They want to take our Social Security away.” I asked who they were and why they wanted to do it.

“Them,” Jack answered. “The socialists who ran up all that government debt and want to balance the budget on the backs of seniors. They talk about the deficit and how they have to cut Social Security or it’ll run out.” Mary clucked her tongue. “So to keep it from running out, they want to take it away. And Medicare, too. Now how’s that supposed to work?”

“Actually, a republican proposed radically changing Medicare,” I responded. “More responsible people want to look at Social Security and Medicare, but I’m under the impression that cuts would come from folks who are well off. Say with big investment and pension incomes like a hundred thousand dollars or more. Their Social Security might be reduced by ten or fifteen percent. They might pay more for Medicare coverage, too. But obviously they’d still be in great shape.”

Mary found chicken noodle soup on special and put half-a-dozen cans in her cart. “Well,” she said. “Jack and I aren’t in that league. Not even close. But don’t think for a minute they won’t come after our benefits, too.” Jack nodded in agreement. “Seen that AARP ad on TV? Where they tell you about all the money being spent on those crazy programs like studying when caterpillars sleep or building a museum all about sewing needles? Cut that stuff.”

“But,” I replied, “reasonable changes wouldn’t affect your benefits. We have to at least talk about Social Security and Medicare if we’re going to make any sense of reducing the debt. That and defense are where the real money are. And that AARP ad? I saw it, and it doesn’t address the real issues at all. It’s just scare tactics to prevent any discussion.”

Mary shook her head. “Well, we’re scared. We want to cut the debt as much as anyone, but all’s I can say is, just keep the government out of Social Security and Medicare, and we’ll be all right.” Jack touched his index finger lightly to my chest. “And don’t you worry about the younger generation,” he advised. “They play the lottery just like we do, and you can bet on this. Someone’s always gonna win.”

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