Sunday, November 25, 2012

My Meager Attempt to Solve the Federal Budget Crisis

As a self described radical moderate, I have to navigate some choppy waters out in the middle of the raging river.  Yes, I know, that means that I am “all wet” much of the time.  ; )  I may tend to lean to the left on social issues that I feel need to be addressed for the poor and justice.  But I lean right in my concern about fiscal issues that need to be managed for the financial solvency of the nation currently, as well as for future generations.

I believe that budgets are moral documents that should reflect the intentions of the people that populate a nation. I realize much of what I propose here is rather utopian, and certainly would be open to much debate and tweaking before it would ever be realistically considered.  And honestly, we’ll be lucky if only a quarter of these concepts were to get consideration. Additionally, I really have no idea if these numbers would actually add-up to what needs to be done to reduce the massive debt and runaway spending. But I think they would all be steps in the right direction. So, here is what I feel--in my radically moderate worldview--needs to be done to work on the fiscal issues confronting this country.

Over the next ten years, the following cuts need to be phased-in:

1)   Reduce all entitlement programs by 25%. Primarily accomplished through cost-cutting of overhead, overcharges, etc.
2)   Reduce military spending by 50% (we currently spend more on military than the rest of the world COMBINED).
3)   Reduce foreign aid to advanced nations by 75%.
4)   No more corporate welfare (like tax cuts to oil companies, mega-farms, etc).
5)   Drastically reduce the overlap and redundancy in government programs. This might pocket at least 5% in savings per year.

Over the same time period, phase-in these tax reforms:

1)   Create and enforce a much simpler tax code based primarily on some basic flat rate (probably around 20%) with very few deductions.
2)   Raise the retirement age to 67.
3)   All businesses pay a 25% fixed tax rate.
4)   All non-profits (including churches) begin paying a 10% tax rate on their income as well as annual property taxes.
5)   All investments get taxed at 20% per year on whatever gains they generate in a given year.
6)   Have a ½ of 1% tax levied on every single trade made on Wall Street.  Whether it is a $200 purchase on several shares of stock, or massive multi-million dollar transaction.
7)   No more out-of country tax shelters unless you have exclusive citizenship elsewhere.
8)   Increase tariffs on products imported from overseas that are also manufactured in this country.
9)   The federal government will be required to have a balanced budget each year--if not, all members of congress will be dismissed with no life-long benefits.
10)  After this is implemented, if there is a certain point where the deficit is reduced and there begins to be a surplus, then put to a public vote the idea of universal healthcare.
11)   Also, if the surplus continues to grow, then there will be once-a-year refund checks sent to everyone based on splitting half of that surplus according the amount that they put into the pie in that previous year. For instance, the people who paid the most in taxes would get the largest refund. The people who paid the least would get the smallest refunds. But this only happens when there is a surplus.
12)  If the deficit grows again, no refunds.

While I’m at it, here are a few other areas that need to be addressed:

Election reform:

1)   There will be massive campaign finance reform where candidates will have a preset maximum cap on what they can spend based on the population of their constituencies. 
2)   Citizens United will be repealed, so no outside money allowed to be spent, either. 
3)   Campaign season for general elections will last 6 weeks.  For primaries it will be 4 weeks for each state/district.
4)   If any candidates are found to exceed these boundaries, they will immediately be removed from the ballot, and all remaining campaign monies in their coffers will be seized.

Lobbying reform:

1)   No more lobbyists.
2)   Only private citizens will be allowed to interact with government employees.
3)   No money will be given to government workers outside of their salary for any reasons whatsoever. If they are found to be doing so, they not only forfeit their jobs and pensions, they also go to prison for five years.

OK, feel free to comment.  Please be kind to me and each other.  I am not posting this to create some sort of political firestorm.  I would just like some thoughtful give and take and what our options are moving forward.  Let’s keep things good-natured, open-minded to various concepts, and let’s keep it focused on the items listed above.  The challenges we face should not be defined by political party or persuasion.  We’re all in this boat together, and hopefully we can solve it together.  : )

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Randy Matthews and The Last Temptation of Christ

My dear friend Randy Matthews has never been afraid to blaze some trails.  Whether being one of the first Christian artists to put together a full-fledged rock band, or hanging out with the Hell’s Angels, or suffering through one of the most high-profile “unpluggings” while on stage at the country’s largest Jesus Festival, Randy has tried to be true to himself and honest in his interactions with the gospel as he experienced it.

In the late ‘80s when The Last Temptation of Christ was released in film version by Martin Scorsese, Randy was curious about seeing it, and he asked me in a phone conversation what I had heard about it.  I told him I’d seen it a few nights earlier, and had to work my way past a throng of protesters who were claiming it was cursed of God.  “Consider yourself forewarned,” I chuckled. 

Randy had a rare night off during one of his myriad tours, and while scouring thru the local paper found the only little one-screen art house theater in Denver that was showing it.  He hopped in a cab and was dropped off directly in front of a group of fifty sign-toting, scripture-chanting picketers who were making life miserable for anyone who dared pass in order to see the movie.  It seemed to be working on some folks who sized-up the situation before them, and decided to turn tail and walk away, not wanting to get into a confrontation with some Bible-thumpers.

Not being one to shy away from an interesting venture, Randy smiled broadly as he strode straight through the encircled agitators to purchase a ticket at the box office window.  As he waited for the salesperson to go get some change for his twenty-dollar bill, one of the dissidents dressed in an ill-fitting black suit marched up to him.

“Do you realize that this movie is full of God-hating lies?  That it’s an abomination to all that is holy?”

Randy turned and looked directly at the fellow. “Well, I’ve read some conflicting reviews on it, and thought I should check it out for myself.”

“Don’t you realize that you will be exposed to deception straight from the pit of Hell?” the man blurted.

“I’m a big boy…I think I can discern what lines up with scripture and what is conjecture,” Randy reasoned.  “It’s just one man’s interpretation of what he thinks might have happened.”

“Well, sir, you’re going to have to stand and give an account to a righteous and just God one day for your actions here today, and He will not be pleased,” accused the militant.

Randy then posed a question to his prosecutor as the clerk handed him his ticket and change: “How is it that you know so much about the film?  Have you seen it yourself?”

“”No!” the objector defiantly bellowed.  “But I’ve read the book.”

“So, “ Randy smiled, “I guess you’ll be standing right next to me on that day with God.” 

With a wink and a pat on the guy’s shoulder, Randy concluded, “See you again someday,” and he walked past the befuddled gentleman into the cinema.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

I'm An Ungrateful Lout

A few years ago I was in Ecuador visiting homes of people caught in what economists and social workers call “the downward cycle of poverty.”  A nice little handle to put on such a sad scenario.  Over half the world’s population living on less than $2 a day. Families “living” in what would certainly be considered sub-standard conditions.  Sub-human is more like it. 

One family of eight sharing two flea infested, soiled queen size mattresses in mosquito swarmed wetlands along the steamy Pacific coast.  Employment is scarce, and opportunities are almost negligible in these cramped, wreaking barrios full of those who have moved from the countryside in hopes that the big city would deliver both. No running water.  No sewer systems. Dangerous and unpredictable electrical service.  Out of this hopelessness even deeper wounds become manifest: Gangs, the underworld, gambling, prostitution, drug dealing, alcoholism, various STD’s including a dramatic increase in AIDS. And everywhere, a veritable legion of mangy, rabid dogs at nearly every turn shaking and snarling through foamy teeth.

As a well-to-do American, it is a slap in the face.  The most profound reality check that any of us could be confronted with.  I have been around the stench of poverty in my work for over twenty years on four continents.  I’ve seen more than my share of horrific conditions. I’m certainly familiar with it—but I can’t say I ever get used to it. I pray that I never do.

But more profound than the suffering and the overwhelming sense that this debilitating hopelessness continues onward and downward for these people every single day is this paradox: How grateful they are for the good they do have in their lives.  How many lovely, sincere smiles did I see?  How many peels of laughter did I hear?  How many warm embraces, kind greetings, and humble compliments did I receive?  I listened to heartfelt, honest, and truly thank-full prayers of mothers for God’s blessings in their lives. I saw children full of energy and dreams for what could be, despite what appeared to be smothering nightmares.

Flash forward a few days, and I am on my way home to Nashville.  Upon reaching Atlanta at 7 PM for my final connection to Nashville, I discover there will be a two hour delay.  I’ve been up since three that morning and am weary from the hectic week.  I find myself muttering curses under my breath for the inept airlines, the weather system that passed through five hours before that caused all the delays, and the long lines for fast  food.  Then it dawns on me that less than a hundred years ago, it would’ve taken literally months to make the trip via boat all the way around Cape Horn (before the Panama Canal was built), as well as by steam train and wagon once on dry land.  Of course, the people I had just spent the previous week with would’ve gladly “endured” my inconvenience for the chance to simply visit America, let alone return to a splendid, air conditioned house.  They certainly would’ve happily stood in line for an hour just to have a fraction of what I ate on my chinese plate.

Once home, and nestled in my cool waterbed, I was awakened at 2 AM with that ominous feeling in my lower intestine.  Having traveled over the decades, I immediately knew what is in store for several days ahead with “Montezuma’s Revenge.”  This turns out to be a particularly bad batch, including vomiting as well as the traditional “runs.”  I’m up every ten to fifteen minutes making a mad dash to the toilet.  Sometimes I opt to just sit there for long stretches since it seems nearly pointless to go lie down again.  Wave after wave of fluid flushes out of my system.  This continues for seven hours. I ache.  I’m bone tired. I finally nap a bit later on Saturday, but, to my dismay, the cycle begins again later that night, and I have a second sleepless evening in a row with dozens of commode performances.  All told, I lose eight pounds in thirty-six hours.  In the midst of my weary regret over what the hell I could’ve possibly ingested that caused this woe, I am reminded that at least a billion people on this planet live with chronic dysentery for their ENTIRE lives.  This is “normal” for them. I can’t possibly imagine how anyone can function in this way. 

Once recovered, I realize my lawn needs cutting.  I fight through the thick Nashville air, sopped in sweat, battling sneezes and drooling due to allergies (how on earth can any more fluid possibly be coming out of this body?!),  and swatting away aphids, gnats, flies, and wasps in the warm mid-day sun.  As I’m putting my Murray mower back in its storage, I realize that the foundation, siding, and roof of this tool shed is better than what most of the families I visited a few days prior lived in.  And the idea of having green grass, let alone a yard would’ve been completely surreal to them and their children.

While I am regaining some strength after my illness, I decide to go over to a friends house to watch a DVD.  When we are done with our visit, as I start my car, there is a massive “bang” and smoke starts pouring out from under the hood followed by gritty screeches.  My AC compressor died a violent death at that moment.  I waited three hours for an AAA service truck.  The mechanic jerry-rigged a way for me to continue driving for the remainder of the 4th of July weekend until I could get it into a shop.  We forget the days before prevalent AC in cars, when we used the tried-and-true “4-50 air cooling system” (four windows down at fifty mph).  With temps in the mid-nineties and typical mid-south humidity, any trip in my car for the next few days seemed to compress any further potential stomach problems. It took $1,330 to fix the AC.  That is twice what some of the families I had just met in South America earned for an entire year.  And none of them had ever even sat in an air conditioned car before, let alone had that luxury in their home.  Heck, I didn’t meet one person who even owned a car, and most were lucky to scrape together rent to “live” in the shacks they were in.

It is amazing how God can show us things so clearly in one moment, and then literally a few days later, we can be blinded by our own day-to-day rituals and sense of entitlement.  At my core, I, like most human beings, am a very selfish lout.  I take so much for granted. I am impatient.  I am too quick to blame. I complain and whine too much (if not verbally, then certainly in my spirit).  Bottom line, I am ungrateful. 

May I continue to be reminded, taught, and even disciplined into realizing how very blessed I am.  And in return, may I be all the more gracious, giving, kind, and understanding of those who are not as fortunate as me.  

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Ever Feel Like a Small Fry?

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”    -Margaret Meade

“We must be the change we wish to see.”    -Gandhi

Who'd like to change the world?
Who wants to shoot the curl?
Who gets to work for bread?
Who wants to get ahead?
Who hands out equal rights?
Who starts and ends that fight?
And not rant and rave?
Or end up a slave?
Who can make hard won gains?
Fall like the summer rain?
Now every man must be, what his life can be

Who wants to please everyone?
Who says it all can be done?
And still sit up on that fence?
No one I've heard of yet
Don't call me baby
Don't talk in maybes
Don't talk like has-beens
Sing it like it should be
Who laughs at the nagging doubt?
Lying on a neon shroud?
Just gotta touch someone, I want to be

Who wants to sit around?
Turn it up turn it down?
Only a man can be
What his life can be

One vision
One people
One landmass
We are defenseless
We have a lifeline
One ocean
One policy
One passion
One movement
One instant
One difference
One lifetime
One understanding
One island
Our placemat
One firmament
One element
One moment
One fusion
Yes and one time

-Midnight Oil, “One Country” from Blue Sky Mining, 1989 (Moginie/Garrett)