Old Well: UNC Chapel Hill Campus

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Do the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes?

I was rummaging through the local county paper yesterday, sent to me free as a subscription  enticement, when I came across a guest editorial arguing that the “wealthy deserve to keep more than a hunk of their profits.”  This, of course, goes against the grain for the Obama folks and the occupy movement, who feel that the 1.1 percent, as they put it, isn't paying its fair share in taxes.
The columnist argued that the IRS’ own figures show that the top 10 percent actually paid $721 billion of  the more than $1 trillion the government collected in federal income taxes in 2008.  In short, the rich really do pay taxes, or about two dollars out of every three collected. More than $392 billion of this came from the top 1 percent.  In fact, just 0.2 percent of the population pays 21 percent of the taxes.  As for the rest of us, some 47 percent pay no tax, while collecting many social benefits.

Do the poor pay taxes?

Is there any truth to the writer’s claim?  If you’re talking about federal taxes, the answer is, yes.  But this doesn’t get to the bottom line.  Virtually everybody pays taxes.  For example, there’s the payroll tax of 6.1 percent on the initial $106, 800 of wages (temporally reduced) for Social Security and 1.45 percent on all wages for Medicare. Then there are state and local taxes, e. g., sales, income, property, gasoline, utilities, etc.  Everybody, including the poor, the disabled, and the retired pays taxes.  According to the Tax Foundation, the 2008 earnings average for the bottom 50 percent, was just $15,300.  In short, these wage earners didn’t earn enough to pay federal taxes, though they paid other taxes at the same tax rates.  Broken down proportionally,  the poor pay more per capita than the rich, with the one exception of Vermont.  At this point, I’d urge everybody to read Barbara Ehrenreich’s monumental expose,  Nickel and Dimed: On (not) Getting By in America.

Do the rich pay their fair share?

Initially it would appear they do.  One percent of  the top wage earners paid 38% of  the total income tax in 2008, the last year figures were available (published at the IRS online site).  Left out is the fact that federal tax revenues aren’t solely collected from income taxes.  Payroll taxes for Social Security, Medicare, and even unemployment insurance, are paid by the bottom 90 percent of taxpayers.  This is because the payroll tax for Social Security is restricted to a maximum $106,800, after which there’s no tax.  Bill Gates and Steve Forbes pay the same amount as you and I.  Although they’re subject to paying a means tax on their social security income when they retire, so are you and I.  Don’t even get me started!

Is there a growing tax gap between the top 10 percent and the bottom 90 percent?

Yes!  When Reagan took office in 1980, the marginal tax rate (the tax rate paid on the top earned income)  stood at 70%.  By 1987, he reduced it to 50 percent  Under George Bush, the rate was reduced to 35 percent.  Since 1980, the average income of the bottom 90%, adjusted for inflation, has increased to $303, or 1 percent.  In the meantime, the 1 percent did a considerably better, doubling their income to $1.1 million.

And how goes it for the corporate sector?
According to IRS figures, 2008, corporate profits rose 12 percent since 2000, even though corporate taxes show an 8 percent decline.  This discrepancy is occurring  because of increasing loopholes or transferring of profits to offshore hideaways such as the Cayman Islands.  Currently, corporations have stashed an estimated 2 trillion in cash holdings, unwilling to reinvest in a volatile economy.  I’m not saying this is wrong in itself.  The spending of the average American family is down as well and for the same reasons.  Spending is the key catalyst to market regeneration. 

The point is, many of the banks were bailed out in 2008 to a tune of nearly a trillion.  They seem to have a short memory, and it hasn’t decreased either their zeal to close on beleaguered mortgages or award themselves bonuses in the millions while enjoying unparalleled tax breaks.  At the moment, bonus outlays exceed pre-recession levels, this in a down economy that has produced incalculable suffering for many Americans unable to afford their homes, buy health care, or find meaningful work.  JP Morgan's CEO Jamie Dimon recently took home a $19 million dollar bonus, enough to keep food on the table.  While not all CEOs receive this kind of payout, the vast majority of CEOs continue to enjoy perks with the consent of their shareholders.  Forbes reports that investors at only 36 companies out of 2250 voted against pay increases for their CEOs.  Meanwhile, new data shows that nearly 25% of us now lives in poverty. 

Have the occupiers got it wrong?  Not by a long shot!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Daryl Hannah and the sustainable life

Hollywood has its heroes in real life and not just on the screen. I think of celebrities who’ve used their fame and wealth to help others: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, for example, founders of the Jolie-Pitt Foundation, dedicated to addressing rural poverty, the protection of natural resources, and wildlife conservation. Recently they donated $1 million to Doctors Without Borders.

And then there are those actors, 700 plus, active in promoting human rights, people like George Clooney, Ben Afleck, Matt Damon, Natalie Portman, Susan Sarandon and, of course, Brad and Angelina.

The animals aren’t left out either, with more than 100 actors devoting time and money to supporting PETA; among them, Alec Baldwin, Alicia Silverstone, Gillian Anderson, Keanu Reeves, Casey Affleck, Ricky Gervais, Kim Basinger, Paul McCartney, and Pam Anderson. Ellen Degeneres and Denzel Washington are among those supporting Farm Sanctuary.

Perhaps lesser known is Daryl Hannah, passionately committed to charity endeavor and social activism. I came upon her recently in reading her interview with S. Alison Charbonais, editor of Natural Awakenings. You probably saw her in Blade Runner, Steel Magnolias, or Crimes and Misdemeanors.

When not making a film, speaking, or traveling, she lives in this awesome, totally green house, salvaged from an old barn that was to be torn down for a new post office in her small Rocky Mountain community. She relocated the barn, berming it into a hillside offering maximum solar exposure. An ardent vegan, she keeps a garden for growing veggies on a property fed by a spring. With solar power, passive and active, she lives completely “off the grid.” Now here’s an environmentalist I can respect, modeling what she professes, unlike, say, Al Gore, with his five houses, one of them 12000 square feet, and all of them heavily dependent on public utilities.

In contrast, Hannah believes in simplicity, measuring out each action by its consequence: “The more I learn, the more I try to adapt to and adopt a simpler lifestyle.”

Co-founder of the U. S. Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance to help people distinguish between good and bad biodiesel fuels, she drives a car converted to run on alcohol only.

What I especially like is how she touches all the bases, including the emerging population crisis complicating the challenges of global warming. Exponential population has struck me as the forgotten issue, even among environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and Natural Resources Defense Council, perhaps for political reasons:

I’m very concerned that global population has grown from about 3 billion people when I was born to nearly 7 billion now; we are also witnessing mass extinction of species worldwide; there are more enslaved human beings today than at any other time in human history.
Hannah has been arrested three times, on one occasion spending jail time, for protesting environmental degradation. Her most recent arrest occurred last August during a sit-in outside the White House, protesting the Keystone Project that calls for creating an oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf coast.

Hannah has this really nifty website, modelling simplicity in its very design LoveLife that offers helpful green solutions.

Daryl Hannah is a femme extraordinaire!


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Iraq, Not Obama, Ends U.S. Presence in Iraq

Yesterday, President Obama informed the nation that all U. S. troops in Iraq would be coming home by year’s end and that he had kept his promise to end the Iraq war.

News which normally should have made me glad made me angry instead. The truth is our negotiations to retain a residual force in Iraq failed when its government steadfastly refused to grant remaining troops immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts. Ironically, Iraq democracy, an American created anomaly, forced us out.

Additionally, it was George W. Bush who set the withdrawal deadline for U. S. troop withdrawal by the end of 2011, not Obama, unless the Iraqis were willing to extend their presence. Time

I had been watching Tamara Hall’s newscast on MSNBC and had to listen to her excitingly saying that the President was going into the 2012 election years with several foreign policy triumphs to his credit. Nor was there any correction of the record or the circumstances of the withdrawal on the part of the two guests analysts who also appeared. As is, the mission of the several thousand troops that Obama sought to keep in Iraq will probably be assumed by private contractors, and so it’s a change in name only.

While I’m glad our children are coming home, given the high price they and the Iraqi people have paid, I find the political dissembling of Obama, obviously trying to buoy up his reelection chances in a time of ebbing popularity, hard to forgive or forget. Politicizing the withdrawal as well as distorting its circumstances is just another one of those contradictions to that transparency he promised us nearly three years ago.

In the long term, Americans are unlikely to be very impressed should our economic woes continue into the elections. Of course, the Republicans may default the election by running a goon up against him.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost faith in both parties.

I’d love to know what you think, pro or con.


Friday, October 21, 2011

Business as usual

And so, what else is new? My previous post touched on the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon, the people’s revolt against the wealthy and corporate interests, who don’t pay their fair share in taxes, yet harvest bundles in a listing economy even as millions suffer and others wait for the shoe to drop.

Currently, corporate cash holdings are at an all time high. Did you know, for example, that corporations comprising Standard & Poor’s 500 index have currently stacked up more than $1 trillion in cash and short-term investments?

Now mind you, the figures I gave you don’t even take-in the banks, whom I’ll get to in just a bit.

While our economy hasn’t recovered and there’s the very real possibility of a double-dip recession in your near future, corporations and banks are raking in the bucks. Wall Street jubilantly anticipates per share earnings for stocks in the S&P 500 will reach $100 per share by year’s end; in 2012, slower growth, but $104 per share. True, if the economy dips again--did it ever recover?--we could see these projections tumble. Still, don’t bet against the banks and corps. Like a nimble cat, they tend to land on their feet, come wind or rain.

And so what are the corporations doing with their wealth? Well, they’re doing what you and I would probably do were we in their shoes; namely, shoring up for future contingencies. One thing they’re not doing is hiring workers, given market insecurity. They’re also not desisting from awarding themselves egregious bonuses. Hey, we spent nearly a trillion bailing these guys out. Thanks for the memory!

As for the banks, they’ve proven themselves adept at getting around recent congressional moves to protect consumers by imposing caps on credit cards, overdrafts, and debit card merchant fees. That helps explain the sudden deluge you’re getting in bank mail, announcing new terms for checking accounts, reduced credit card awards, and higher ATM fees. Some banks, like Bank of America, are imposing a monthly charge for deposits or withdrawal using a teller ($8.95 at BOA). Banks like Chase now charge $25 for closing an account within 90 days of opening it. It gets worse at PNC and U. S. Bank, which charge $25 for closing an account within 180 days of opening it.

Want to get your statements in the mail? Think again. BOA again charges $8.95 monthly for the privilege, with other banks now lining up.

You prefer pay-as-you-go, using your debit card. Nice way of keeping your budget tidy and avoiding credit card charges, except that some banks are now charging a $3 fee for the privilege.

The gimmick that galls me above all others, since I was on the recipient list, was learning I’d be charged a monthly fee even if I had a 0 credit card balance. You can be sure I got out of Dodge.

You’d like to buy a home at today’s record interest lows? Fine, if you’ve got the minimal 20% down payment. That eliminates a good many first timers, especially young people.

Want to refinance? Not so fast. What’s your home really worth versus the mortgage presently owed? The banks are going to want to take a close look. And don’t forget the closing costs.

When banks and corporations bleed you and me and refuse to loan or invest in the body politic, they divest in stimulating recovery and should be held accountable.

Watch your step. Corporate and bank IEDs are everywhere.

Hats off to the Occupy movement. I adore you!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Reflections on the Occupy movement

Yesterday marks a month ago that the Occupy Wall Street movement began. Modeled after the protests of what's become known as the Arab spring, it seems to have taken its start from a Twitter post on July13 that slowly gathered interest via other Twitter posts and with numbers, momentum, spreading to other large American cities and, lately, to other parts of the world, particularly Europe. It remains a social media-driven phenomenon. One of its oddities is that it was initially fueled by environmentalists and organic food enthusiasts, among them vegans rather than by the Left. I'm one of those, so from the beginning, I have liked this movement.

As I see it, it's primarily kindled by resentment that the wealthy along with corporations don't pay their fair share of taxes and that the banks continue in their public-be-damned parochialism. As such, the movement claims to represent the 99.1 of us denied a place at the table.

One of its oddities is the lack of defined goals amidst a motley of mindsets ranging from far Left to Libertarians, including Tea Party advocates who share an antipathy towards banks, though not corporations, per se. As a whole, however, the occupiers see government as needing reform rather than dismantling.

This movement reminds me of the protests concurrent with the Vietnam War back in the 60s and early 70s, composed largely of young people. This comes as a surprise, as the present generation has been vastly silent, though not so in Europe and North Africa. But “the times are a changing,” given our economic doldrums, the worst since the Great Depression, with a stagnant 9.1 percent unemployed, a figure much higher among young people and minorities. In supposedly one of the richest nations in the world, growing poverty now engulfs more than 20% of our population. In some of our cities, nearly 40% of Blacks and Hispanic under 24 can’t find jobs. This is social dynamite that could escalate into the race riots we saw in the 60s.

Meanwhile, it’s business as usual on Wall Street. The banks that perpetrated our economic downturn, bursting the bubble their speculative greed had created, were
bailed out with huge cash infusions by the government, beginning with Bush but vastly accelerated under Obama. Our national indebtedness consequently has swelled, threatening to turn America into a Greece, Italy, or Ireland, unable to pay its bills. In an effort to keep the steam engine from derailing, we now see austerity measures, both local and national, exacerbating the job crisis. Meanwhile, there’s the continuing rampage of globalization with its consequence of out-sourced-jobs.

Fighting two questionable wars doesn’t help either, diverting huge sources of capital that are vitally needed to rekindle confidence in the economy, leading to job growth through increased consumer spending. You don't make things better by laying off teachers, police and fire fighters, curtailing libraries, and closing parks.

The banks, of course, haven’t mended their ways. To get around some scrutiny measures recently passed by Congress, the banks have cunningly found ways to circumvent, inventing new income sources through initiating higher interest, fees, and restricted borrowing. Few couples have the 20% down payment required for most mortgage loans, crippling the housing industry which along with car sales, provides key impetus in encouraging a robust economy. The obscenity of huge CEO bonuses continues. Concurrently, they've gotten their paper work together and are now foreclosing on delinquent mortgages at a blitzkrieg pace. In short, it’s business as usual, the public be screwed.

Actually, there’s been this gargantuan transfer of wealth going on for some time, with the middle class its victims. The rich don’t pay their fair share of taxes, yet some 37% of Americans don’t pay any tax whatsoever, buttressed by numerous exemptions. It’s a vast simplicity to put all the blame on the wealthy. In fact, this poses one of the dangers for the Occupy movement: that it simply becomes a self-pitying indulgence in envy, rather than meaningful effort to ameliorate; a dangerous wedge masquerading class warfare.

This, of course, may hint at two other dangers, the offshoot of opportunists:

1. That the movement will become politicized by a political party and/or trade unions. This would dilute the movement’s effectiveness as a voice for the people. If anything, we need a third party, say a Green Party. Appropriately, most interviewed participants are suspicious of both major parties. No party should have us in its hip pocket and commit identity theft to advance its own agenda.

2. That the anarchist and Marxist spectrums will infiltrate and nullify through calculated violence such as we saw in Rome last week as hooded, masked street toughs burned and looted. I still believe in a market economy, with safety nets in place.

I am for this protest, though I wish it had a third party corpus. Romanticism can be a beautiful thing, but it needs boots on the ground. As is, I fear that come winter’s icy wind and falling snow, the movement will lapse into memory.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Idle tears

Recently I came again upon Tennyson’s moving poem, “Tears, Idle Tears,” resonant with the poet’s regret for days and friends reduced to memory; spent days that can never be renewed.

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart of things, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.
I think we’ve all known, even the toughest among us, those days when we really don’t want to laugh, we feel out-of-sorts, and not necessarily because things haven’t gone well. We’re just not fun to be around. How does it happen, this sudden change in mood, like a hovering cloud, casting its shadow? We may even weep.

Tears have a way of bringing-us in touch with the cavernous depths of our deeper selves; as such, they’re often messengers of our need to clarify, to discern the wheat from the chaff, to both forfeit and embrace. Tears give opportunity for a tabula rasa, or clean slate.

As Merle Shain put it, “Unexpected emotions are a good way to figure out what hurts us. Tempers that flare about unimportant things, tears that appear at odd times when we don’t expect them, tell us what we feel even when we aren’t telling ourselves (Hearts That We Broke Long Ago).

Many think it unseemly to weep, especially men who frequently dismiss it as weakness. In a world of poverty, war and disease, I wish we’d weep more. In war, especially, we often lose our capacity to feel, which is to say we forfeit our humanity. At the personal level, we lose our potential to discern our best self.

I have always liked the sensitive ones for their defining gentleness, limitless compassion, abounding insight; their ability to weep for another’s pain or unjust fate.

They are the lucky ones. They are the noble ones.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Life's law of averages

I had just been finishing up Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, inspired by the recent movie by the same name, when I came across his Bill James quote that startled me in its confirmation of my own lifelong observations on the ups and downs of human fortune:

Every form of strength covers one weakness and creates another, and therefore every form of strength is also a form of weakness and every weakness a strength. The balance of strategies always favors the team which is behind. Psychology tends to pull the winners down and push the losers upwards.
I said startled because it triggered this vivid flashback to Dr. Maddox’s wonderful eye-opening college class in American Literature Survey way back in the mid-sixties. We had been reading American philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, classic essays like Nature, The Over Soul, and The American Scholar. Now it was Compensation, which became my abiding favorite. It’s not often you read or hear something years back and remember it keenly.

Emerson, who grieved the loss of his 8-year old son, wrote the essay to assuage his sorrow--the idea that life is volatile and not always under our control. Still, a kind of karma exists, or law of averages governs, as a baseball fan might say. With talent comes weakness. (I think of the Achilles heel syndrome; in baseball, the phenomenon of an extended winning streak, followed paradoxically by a slump; the latter notoriously true of batters as well.) As Emerson put it, "Everything has two sides, a good and an evil. Every advantage has its tax." Emerson’s law of compensation likewise offers solace that good can succeed pain.

I know Emerson’s philosophy can be simplistic, pilfering happiness by denying the reality of nature’s gratuitous wrongs and man’s calculated evil. The law of compensation I would rephrase as the law of balance, and it operates individually and universally in the cosmic roll of the dice. No ethical or religious import applies here. Again, as in baseball, the law of averages governs. We can gauge how long a pitcher will be effective in a game; determine player potential; measure the worth of successful stolen bases vs. times tossed out; the contribution of walks vs. hits, etc.

We employ the law of averages pervasively in economics. We know that market economies are cyclic; in insurance circles, that life expectancy can be measured, governing the issuance and policy cost; that even in the history arena, nations like mountains rise and fall.

This notion of balance has helped me come to terms with much of life’s sheer unfairness, what Rabbi Kushner compassionately tries to address in his popular When Bad Things Happen to Good People

I don’t worry, however. about the ethics of it. I know bad things happen, whether by way of tsunami or bullet; accident or malice. I also know good things happen, too, sometimes quite unexpectedly, call it hitting the lottery, if you will: getting the job, the promotion, the girl; the escape from the near accident.

Not always is luck with us. Sometimes you just get tossed from the game. Hopefully, the good proves more frequent than the bad.

On a trip to India many years ago I got into this fabulous discussion with an older man dressed entirely in white, including the famous Nehru hat. At one point, I used the phrase, “problem of evil” to which he replied, “Problem of evil? What problem of evil? Do we not have day and night? Heat and cold? Summer and winter?

Suddenly I understood. Life has its oppositions, as the biblical writer of Ecclesiastes so eloquently testifies in his summation of life’s polarities. There is a time to be born and a time to die; a time to sow and a time to reap, etc.

Our task is to do what we can, pushing the odds in our favor when we can. Bill James probably didn’t have Emerson or the Ecclesiastes writer in mind, let alone even read them, but it matters little. His words ring with the truth of human experience: “Every form of strength covers one weakness and creates another.”

This law of reciprocal balance offers both admonition and expectancy: that we take nothing for granted and that tomorrow can be better than today.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Let's do away with Columbus Day

I know this past Monday marked the observance of Columbus Day, but traditionally it’s been October 12 in keeping with Columbus' historic landfall in the New World in 1492. Like many of you, I grew up on the Columbus lore, right down to his three ships, the Santa Maria, Nina and Pinta.

I’ve been thinking about the guy a lot in the last 24-hours after watching Thom Hartmann’s TV talk show on Monday. Hartmann, by the way, is America’s foremost talk host for the political left, or the progressives as they increasingly call themselves. Hartmann doesn’t like Columbus one bit. In fact, he calls Columbus a pathological killer guilty of genocide. Is this simply another revisionist history from the Left? What are the facts about this man anyway?

The truth is we may never know, as a lot of embellishment has occurred over the 500 years since his “discovery” of America. While we grew up learning the names of his ships, we now know we got the names wrong on two of them.

Nor was Columbus the first European to discover the Western hemisphere. The viking Leif Ericson voyaged here centuries earlier. There may have been others still earlier such as the Irish voyager, St. Brendhan of Clonfert.

And Columbus didn’t prove the world was round either. Virtually all the intelligentsia of the time held to a spherical view. It wasn't his point anyway. His motive was to line his pockets by offering an alternative trade route. Land routes to China and India via the Middle East were proving hazardous, given Arab marauders.

Anyway, he was considerably off in charting the distance to India. Originally, he had offered his services to Portugal, but they glimpsed an easier route around the horn of Africa, and they were right.

At an earlier point in his life, he lived as a pirate, plundering Moor ships.

We've grown-up, thinking he was Italian. Evidence, however, may point to Corsica. As for his parents, it’s conceivable they were converted Jews.

We don’t even know where Columbus is buried, since his remains have been moved several times.

But what do we know about the man? I wish he could stay on my hero list in this age of debunking, but I’m afraid he’s grown suspect in the light of recent, more astute scholarship, which you can pursue in any good history on Haiti or in books by Madison Smart Bell.

It’s clear from his journal he was a devout Christian Catholic, but this didn’t keep him from looking upon the Indians on Hispaniola as slave fodder. By he way, it was the intervention of a priest arguing the potential for converts that finally won Ferdinand and Isabella's ’s consent for the undertaking. On arriving on Hispaniola, he was met by friendly Taino; on his second visit, however, Columbus and his men took nearly 2000 of them captive. In the words of one of his literate crew, Miguel Cuneo,

when our caravels were to leave for Spain, we gathered one thousand six hundred male and female persons f those Indians, and these we embarked in our caravels on February 17, 1495. For those who remained, we let iet be know (to the Spaniards who manned the island’s fort) in the vicinity that anyone who wanted take some of them could do so, to the amount desired, which was done.
In fairness to Columbus, however, Hartmann is over-the-top in alleging genocide. Yes, the Indians were decimated and disappeared from Hispaniola within 50 years, but due to diseases such as small pox, against which they lacked immunity. (Ironically, in one of fate’s paybacks, they introduced the Europeans to syphilis.)

On the other hand, Columbus and his brothers were ruthless exploiters, plundering the wealth of indigenous peoples for their own gain like so many subsequent colonists the world over. With his brothers, he established a family dynasty and was despised. Several assassination attempts were made, and ultimately he would be sent back to Spain in chains, though later released.

Moreover, Columbus set into motion the subsequent arrival of the cruel conquistadors in the New World.

All of this marks a horrendous chapter in the history of the Americas, and in own nation’s participation in its legacy by way of our Indian wars.

Some argue that Columbus was simply a man of his time and culture. I don’t buy into this easy acceptance of crimes against humanity. Neither do the just in all generations, however few, in their vehement protest against the criminality of a culture.

This is one holiday we should do away with.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Richard Dawkins visits Kentucky

I just learned from the local Lexington Herald that Richard Dawkins, well-known for his outspoken atheism, spoke Wednesday evening at nearby Eastern Kentucky University to a packed audience of several thousand; in fact, there were three overflow rooms. Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University, is a widely published author especially known for two books, The Selfish Gene, and The God Factor.

His visit surprised me, since I’ve never associated Kentucky with progressive thought in the 34-years I’ve lived here. I’m delighted, especially with the large student turnout, giving me hope that just maybe thinking young people are increasingly questioning cultural legacies, want to know the truth, and are finding courage to pursue it. We live in a new era, and many of the verities that guided us no longer fit humanity in a scientific age.

My admiration for Dawkins runs deep and yet I’ve also some reservations. Dawkins might be thought of as one of the New Atheists who’ve arrived upon the scene, openly aggressive in challenging theism, or the notion of a deity behind the material creation, purposive and caring . I think of Christopher Hitchens and Samuel Harris as other spokespersons for this school. It’s like having Thomas Paine with us again.

Dawkins sometimes resembles the doctrinaire religionists he fervently denounces, taking no prisoners, often resorting to derision, if not mockery, of any believer, whether liberal or fundamentalist. His assumption is that supernaturalism is founded on absurdity, not reason, or akin to believing the earth is flat. Our challenge is to confront cultural a priories, insisting on empirical data. No quarrel from me on that score. It’s the way we go about it.

My model for secularism would be Michael Parenti, the astute socio-political observer who has written many thought-provoking books on myriad issues. I would especially recommend God and his Demons, hard-hitting, yet generous toward sincere believers who help their fellows rather than persecuting them, open to science and reason. Parenti wars on the theocratic mind, with its legacy of hatred and violence, not religion per se.

As non-believers it’s incongruous to imitate the mind-set of those with whom we disagree. If we are right, then reasoned argument possesses its own sufficiency.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Postscript: Steve Jobs

I just came upon this Steve Jobs' quote, originally conceived as an Apple ad, perhaps the most memorable ad ever made. I wanted to share it, since it sums up Steve's vision and, of course, his legacy:

Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward. Maybe they have to be crazy. How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that's never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels? We make tools for these kinds of people. While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs: an uncommon hero

Appropriately, the news of Steve Job’s death popped-up on my iPad at bedtime, or about 10:30 PM. Instead of falling asleep, I tapped my news applications for details. Already, tributes were pouring-in from all over the world, perhaps the most eloquent from President Obama.

I became an Apple devotee in 2007 after years of discarded PCs, each generally down to a crawl after about three years, always under virus threat, at times confusing in their set-up and operation. In contrast, I'm typing on the same Macbook Pro laptop bought nearly five years ago, never a hiccup along the way, a little outdated in some of its features, but otherwise fully adequate for my needs. I paid more, but have outpaced that investment with its longevity. It’s like choosing a Lexus over a Corolla. Macs work the way all computers should.

Like many of you, I've branched out to other devices: iPod, iPhone, and last year, my favorite, the iPad. The latter has revolutionized my electronic life, virtually replacing even my laptop, except for productivity needs. Games, music, news, books, you name it, I have it all: ease embedded in quality.

Steve’s life amazes me. I’m talking biography rather than tech savvy. I hadn’t known he’d been put-up for adoption by his biological mother and was ultimately raised by working class parents, or that he had only one semester of college. Jobs had a taste for following the road less travelled, or this pluck most of us lack, the courage to seek the right fit, the fortitude to prevail. I’ve also learned he didn’t suffer fools gladly. He could be difficult, but he always played the hunch and followed his intuition.

Many rank him with Edison and Einstein in the impact of his genius. Actually, he was less inventor, much more innovator. He had a nose for good ideas that could be made better and surrounded himself with those who could materialize his vision. I understand this kind of creativity well. Writers like Vergil and Joyce could translate the extant into the revolutionary. Collectively, the Romans and contemporary Japanese are like this. Perhaps his greatest legacy, like that of all good teachers, was an ability to simplify the difficult. Apple devices exceed not only in their efficiency, but their ease.

I hadn’t known he ventured to India and returned a Buddhist devotee. His desire in life wasn’t to make money, but to live meaningfully. Simplicity characterized not only his products, but his life.

Brave beyond brave, and against all odds, he broke through not only economic and social barriers, but those posed by pancreatic cancer and its nearly always fatal consequence. Each new day he lived with hope.

Despite his outer success, he was in some ways “born under an unlucky star,” as the poet Keats might have put it. After all, 56-years is not a long-life. Paradoxically, he was also one of the luckiest of mortals. Most of us live longer, but not as well. Steve Jobs’s life, on the other hand, is the stuff of legends.

In 2005, Jobs gave the commencement address at Stanford University. In its wisdom and simple eloquence, its somber simplicity and earthly truths, the address affirms an uncommon realism of counting one's days. Available online, it deserves a full-reading. In his honor, here are some of his final words to that youthful audience of just 6-years ago:

My third story is about death. When I was 17 I read a quote that went something like "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "no" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important thing I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life, because almost everything--all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure--these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn't even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctors' code for "prepare to die." It means to try and tell your kids everything you thought you'd have the next ten years to tell them, in just a few months. It means to make sure that everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope, the doctor started crying, because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and, thankfully, I am fine now.

This was the closest I've been to facing death, and I hope it's the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept. No one wants to die, even people who want to go to Heaven don't want to die to get there, and yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It's life's change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. right now, the new is you. But someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it's quite true. Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

My kind of poet: W. S. Merwin

Congratulations to poet W. S. Merwin on his 84th birthday (September 30). Of contemporary poets, I love him most now that Philip Larkin is gone. I was privileged to actually attend a reading by Merwin at the University of Kentucky so long ago that he was relatively young then.

Congratulations, too, on his selection last year to succeed Kay Ryan as our Poet Laureate. What took so long?

I find Merwin compelling for several reasons:

1. I admire his dexterity in translating. Like Merwin, I’ve always been drawn to languages. Merwin, along with writing 15-volumes of verse, excels in translating, with masterful renditions of Greek and Roman classics, Dante’s Purgatorio and Latin American poets such as Pablo Neruda among his many credits.

2. I adore his lyricism. It’s the way I try to write; indeed, am moved to write, the sense of articulating meaning through cadence, the transmitting of inner emotion to outer page, the reaching towards others via pathos. Poetry has its roots in music and good poets, like Merwin, resonate powerfully, coalescing imagery, sound, and rhythm into a human tapestry. Merwin is a poet better heard than read, returning us to the oral genesis of poetry.

3. I cherish his environmental centrism. I know of no other poet so imbued with such fervency for Nature, a concern for its restoration and sense of urgency for the rest of us to mind and mend our ways. Merwin’s own life bears out his witness to simplified living holding communion with landscape. In the early seventies, he and his wife retired to a remote area of northern Maui, building a house fully green and restoring a waste land former pineapple plantation into a verdant sanctuary, cultivating more than 750 species of endangered indigenous flora. Each day, Merwin plants a new palm.

4. I like his affinity with the East. In fact, he originally moved to Hawaii to study Zen. If I were of religious bent, I’d choose Buddhism with its inherent simplicity, gentleness and life-reference as the better way. Merwin, a devout Buddhist, says he shares the Eastern view for its emphasis on “being part of the universe and everything living. You don’t just exploit it and use it and throw it away anymore than you would a member of your family. You’re not separate from the frog in the pond or the cockroach in the kitchen.” To some like me who carries spiders from the house to the outdoors, this is sweet stuff.

Merwin isn’t the easiest to read with his antipathy towards punctuation and hovering mystery, but the yield rewards the effort. I‘ll close this post with an early Merwin poem I’ve especially liked:

“For the anniversary of My Death”

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beams of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what