Category Archives: Current Affairs

Today’s 30-Year-Olds Face Steep Challenges

The graph below, which comes from this Axios article, paints a pretty clear picture of the challenges being faced by today’s 30-year-old Americans:

being30.jpg

My kids – 25, 24 and 21 respectively – face a different economic reality than their mother and I did at their age in the early ’90s. On average they and their peers are earning the same amount of money as we did, but all of their expenses are higher. The result? Far fewer are getting married, having children or buying a home by the age of 30.

These trends are already having an impact on our country. At my day job I spend my time thinking about housing, the apartment industry in particular, and I can tell you that we’ve been seeing the impact there. That decline in the rate of homeownership you see in the graph above? That translates into more rental housing, which is obviously a positive thing for the apartment industry.

Even when they do get married, this generation isn’t rushing into parenthood mode. From the article:

  • Having fewer children: When Boomers were in their 20s, the fertility rate was 2.48, well beyond the replacement level of 2.1. Today, it is just 1.76.
  • When a recent survey asked why they were having fewer kids, most young adults said “child care is too expensive.”

And these folks are understandably more risk-averse than we were. After all they saw what happened during the great recession, when millions of people lost their “American Dream” homes to foreclosure. They are much more likely to wait until they know they’re financially solid before they venture into parenthood and homeownership.

So how do we fix this? Well, it begins and ends with household income. Until household income starts increasing at a faster clip than basic household expenses, we’re going to be stuck in place. Sure we can look at trying to control the costs of everyday life, but inflation is an economic reality so even if we reduce the rate of inflation we still need to make up lost ground on the income side. Easier said than done, but it’s something we must get serious about.

Framing the Issue

Guns are the issue du jour right now, thanks to yet another school shooting (Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida) that resulted in multiple deaths. We’ve had lots of mass shootings in America in recent years, and we’ve also had a well-documented cycle of reactions that lead, eventually, to…nothing. No matter the number of innocent people killed, or the circumstances in which they’ve been killed, the cycle has been the same: outrage, intense scrutiny in the media for a week or less, calls for gun control, calls for mental health reform, lots of grandstanding and then…nothing. Until the next time, usually within a month or two, when the cycle starts anew and we all get a little number, shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it. Is there a good comedy on Netflix to lighten the mood?”

The most recent shooting seems to have a slightly different feel. Mainly that’s due to teenagers. It ends up that some of the kids in the high school that was the scene of the shooting are actually quite articulate, and they’re impassioned, and they’re inspiring a lot of people to speak out for gun control. They’re so effective that the Fox News and NRA crowd are accusing them of being “crisis actors” (whatever the hell that is), which is an amazingly extreme form of victim blaming, not to mention picking on kids, which can only backfire on them in the long run.

When you think about it, this is an amazing turn of events. The pro-gun folks, led by the NRA and their media arm at Fox News, have been amazingly effective at framing the gun control debate for the last generation. No matter how serious the shooting, they always have a plan for framing the debate so that it moves away from gun control and ends up at promoting gun rights and identifying mental health reform as the only viable solution for ending mass shootings. The debate quickly devolves into a bunch of shouting, everyone becomes entrenched in their familiar positions, and within days we have a society that’s lost interest/given up. These kids seem to have at least ensured we’ll be paying attention longer, and that’s obviously a good thing and I’m heartened by their activism, but I’ve been around long enough that I’m highly skeptical their efforts will lead to a radically different conclusion.

My skepticism stems from the gun lobby’s skill in framing the debate. Of late their primary tack has been to say that in addition to mental health reform, the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to have a good guy(s) with a gun around. Because the current focus is on schools and the latest tweak to their scheme is to propose arming a certain number of teachers as the best line of defense against an armed attacker. It’s no surprise that this “solution,” which President Trump has endorsed, has generated a heated backlash and unfortunately, I think this reaction is the turning point that could lead us closer to where we always end up – doing nothing – than to see any substantive change in terms of alleviating gun violence.

I seriously doubt the gun lobby, Fox News pundits, and President Trump, ever truly believed that arming teachers was a proposal that would see the light of day. What they did believe was that it would frame the debate; it would signify the worst possible idea from the perspective of gun control advocates, and stake out a negotiating position for the gun lobby that would allow them to compromise and accept a proposal that would calm the gun control people and still be acceptable to gun proponents. I don’t know what that is, and obviously, it’s better than nothing, but I expect that if you see anything happen at all, it will be closer to nothing than to a solution.

It sucks being pessimistic, and I truly am glad to see these kids getting engaged, but I think we’d seriously be mistaken if we thought this was going to lead to revolutionary change. I guess a more positive outlook would be this: maybe we’re seeing the first step in evolutionary change.

For the sake of innocent bystanders everywhere, I hope that’s the case.

Passing the Buck

As I write this Hurricane Harvey is, finally, leaving Houston and southeast Texas in its wake and heading towards Louisiana. During the several days that the hurricane inundated the Houston area there emerged many stories of heroism, harrowing escapes and increasingly desperate attempts by leaders to cope with a level of flooding never seen in their community’s history. In the midst of all

In the midst of all this the pastor of a very well-known mega-church, Joel Osteen, came under mounting criticism for not opening the doors of his church, a building that was once a coliseum that housed the Houston Rockets, to help the displaced and desperate residents of his city. His church’s initial reaction was to post pictures of their facility showing that it was inaccessible due to flooding, but then some local folks visited it to check it out for themselves and found that the facility was indeed accessible and pretty much dry compared to other parts of the city, and they shared that info (with pictures) on social media and the pressure on Osteen and his church mounted. Eventually, they did open the church as a shelter and to collect donations of clothes and sundry items, which is great, but the fact that the leader of one of the largest congregations in the country took so long to make it happen is a stain that will be hard to wash off.

So how did Osteen proceed to try to wash that stain? He appeared on the Today Show and promptly tried to pass the buck. Here’s a quote from the interview with him: “(The city) didn’t need us as shelter then,” Osteen said. “If we needed to be a shelter, we certainly would’ve been a shelter right when they first asked. Once they filled up, they never dreamed that we’d have this many displaced people, (and) they asked us to become a shelter. I think this notion that somehow we would turn people away or we weren’t here for the city is about as false as can be.”

You can see the interview for your self here.

He went on to say that the church was concerned for people’s safety because the building had flooding issues in the past. That’s all well and good, but here are the problems with his reaction:

  1. What kind of church leader waits to be asked to help?
  2. What kind of leader of any stripe tries to shift blame during a crisis?

To be clear, it’s a good thing that the church has rallied and is contributing, especially given the resources it can bring to bear. I’m pretty certain it would have, eventually, even without the pressure of the criticism from social media. But Osteen himself showed some real deficiencies of character and leadership in how he responded to the crisis itself and the criticism that resulted.

I Don’t Wanna Be Anyone’s Wrapping Paper

This piece from Quillette Magazine hit home with me in so many ways, but more than anything it articulated why I’ve never registered with any political party: I simply don’t want to identified by the labels attached to the parties. Here are some excerpts that will, hopefully, outline what I mean:

Labels suck.

Conservative, liberal, progressive, libertarian, green. These words have come to mean nothing about the folk that embody them. In our era of career politicians, it would be like saying a quarterback drafted by the Oakland Raiders is irresistibly  —  unequivocally  —  a “Raider” in his style of play. He’s not; he’s just a guy throwing a ball whilst wearing their black jersey…

As a corollary, political labels seem not just irrelevant but also treacherous. The wrapping paper of your Christmas gift may delight you… it still doesn’t tell you what’s inside the box. And that, matter-of-factly, is the gift with which you’re bequeathed; the wrapping paper soon squeezed and discarded. To think, and vote, using labels grants us a false sense of security and prohibits the unmasking of (most) politicians for what they are: virtue-signalers to their base, peddling false and reductive narratives  —  often devoid of context and policy. It’s a cunning sleight of hand, abetted by the mainstream media, that leaves a great number of us agreeing with people with whom we would otherwise disagree. And the principal reason why this occurs is because of labels.

It’s not only the politicians  —  as a system  —  that are to blame for this upside-down world. It’s us all, callous bearers of that almost archaic duty: citizenship. Too often we favour the collective over the individual, group think over free thought, headlines over trends. We reflexively embrace our fellow [insert your label] without examining how we ever wound up ascribing to their “ideology” or “party.” In the practice of political faith, no matter the denomination, we are either fundamentalists or atheists. We subscribe to all the commandments or none at all. When is the last time you met a Democrat in favor of the Second Amendment or a Republican supporting abortion? Religion was once described by Christopher Hitchens as “a surrender of the mind.” Increasingly, so is political partisanship. Truth and sense, historical perspective and systemic thinking, matter less than jersey colour. We relish the chance to define and affirm our sense of self in proclaiming, say, our liberal credentials or conservative pedigree. Politics shifts from a practice (“what”) to an identity (“who”).

You don’t have to work hard to test this theory. Simply post a hot-button political story on your Facebook timeline and watch your friends react exactly as you’d expect them to based on their labels, i.e. their party affiliations. It’s truly remarkable.

kellyanne-conway-accused-of-disrespecting-the-oval-office-1

Picture linked from Piximus.net. Attributed to Brendan Smailowski/AFP

A silly non-consequential example that appeared on Facebook this week was related to the picture of Kellyanne Conway sitting on a couch in the Oval Office (see above) in what some people thought was an inappropriate way. Of course many “liberal” friends jumped all over it and then many “conservative” friends accused them of overreacting, and in the midst of that came this comment from a “conservative” that to me defined irony: “Why? Because liberals believe every photo/meme that they see on facebook is the gospel truth. That’s why.” This from a member of a group of people that spent eight years gleefully sharing every idiotic anti-Obama (including Michelle) meme you can imagine.

Here’s the thing: I have no idea if that particular “conservative” friend ever shared one of those anti-Obama memes, but she has identified herself as a member of that tribe so by default I’m assuming she did. That’s what happens when you identify yourself closely with a political party – you give people permission to assume that you believe whatever line that party is spouting. You can claim you’re an independent thinker all day long, but by raising your hand and saying “I’m a Republican” or “I’m a Democrat” you’re giving the world permission to assume that you believe everything that party espouses until you can prove otherwise. That’s why you’ll never see me join a party; I’m certain I’ll disagree with at least 25-50% of the policy positions that any party takes so I’m just not going to have my name associated with it.

As for the argument that people turn off their brains and just toe the party line, I’m pretty sure that if you asked anyone whether that’s true they would say, “Absolutely it’s true, especially with members of <insert opposite party name here>. Of course some members of <insert good guy party name here> do that too, but mostly the hard core nutjobs. Me and my friends aren’t like that.” Then they’ll fire up Facebook and start sharing idiotic memes as soon as your conversation is over.

Some Thoughts About Immigration

midtownsign

The morning of February 16, 2017 I had a breakfast meeting at a restaurant in Winston-Salem. When I arrived I found a sign on the door (pictured above) announcing that the restaurant was offering a limited menu and open for limited hours due to the “A Day Without Immigrants” protest. While I’d seen something about the protest on the morning news, I hadn’t really paid attention, and to be honest I was a little surprised to discover that the protest had made it’s way to our small North Carolina city.

midtownmenu

When I got to our table I looked at the menu that the restaurant had printed for the day and on the back I found a letter to customers (pictured above, and sorry for the poor quality). After reading it I asked our server about the protest she said that the kitchen staff had talked to management the day before to let them know they were going to participate, and management had hustled to put together the limited operation so they could open their doors. After the meeting was over I headed to my car, and before leaving the parking lot I decided to post these pics and the following post to Facebook:

Had a breakfast meeting at Mid Town. They are working with a limited menu and shorter hours to support their staff who are taking part in the “Day Without Immigrants Protest.” Our server said it was just about their entire kitchen staff. Have to say I admire the folks at Mid Town for taking this route. As far as protests go I think this is a very effective approach – makes crystal clear the impact that our immigrant neighbors have on our community and economy.

Well, it probably wouldn’t surprise you to hear that I got some feedback on the post. Some agreed, some disagreed, and as always I enjoyed the back and forth. The best feedback I received, however, was in a series of private messages from a friend who works for a company that processes chickens. He didn’t want to post his comments on my Facebook post because he didn’t want to “start a big war of words” on my post, but he did give me permission to share his perspective and so I’ve pasted some below. Please take a moment to read it, because I think his experiences and viewpoints are important to keep in mind when we discuss immigration. Here’s the first message he wrote:

Saw your post. And this might get long. Sorry.

We have been planning for this day all week. Honestly about all we have done this week.

We have 1500 workers across 10 states and are directly responsible for supplying about 20% of all the chicken consumed in the US. Our workforce is about 90% Hispanic. We (along with Tyson, Perdue, etc) have been working hard to minimize the impact on the nation’s food supply. There are several plants running at 75% and less capacity today. Some plants not operating at all.

Trust me, without the immigrant workforce, this country does not eat. It is not a matter of just a limited menu, or prices being higher. We do not eat! We have been working on utilizing the EB3 visa program to bring in workers. Long story, but basically it allows someone to come in to the country and bring their immediate family. They must work for us for 1 year. After the year is up, they are free to stay and work anywhere they want. They can stay with us if they want. Or they can go work for you.

Well, we have to prove to US Govt that we cannot get good ol’ red blooded ‘Mericans to work. So we ran a few ads on Monster, etc. We received 250+ responses for Monroe NC. We asked all of them to complete an application.

  • Of the 250, we received 15 applications. We tried to schedule interviews with all 15.
  • Of the 15, 6 replied to scheduling something.
  • Of the 6, 3 actually scheduled an interview.
  • Of the 3 scheduled interviews, 1 showed up.
  • The 1 that showed up brought in a document for us to sign that stated he had an interview so he could get his unemployment benefits. He did not want a job. All he wanted was his form signed so he can keep collecting his benefits.
  • All done we had 0 out of 250. Meanwhile we hire about 40 workers per week. But nobody named Bob, Mike, John, Brian are showing up.

This is unskilled labor. It is hard work, but unskilled. We pay about $17-$20/hour. We are not looking for the cheapest labor we can find. We are not looking to pay under the table. We need workers. These immigrants are NOT taking people’s job. They just want to work and make money and the citizens are too lazy to do these jobs.

I wish we had a pretty open worker visa program. Do a decent background check. Give them a real SSN. Allow them to work. Then we do a mandatory backup withholding of 20% for federal tax and 5% for state. Get it all above board. Tax revenue increases. From a humanitarian side, people are not being taken advantage of.

So there, in a nutshell, is the scope of the issue we’re dealing with when we talk immigration. The current administration likes to focus on building a wall to keep bad, dangerous, illegal immigrants out of our country and by doing so they are scratching the itch of many Americans who feel disenfranchised, but the reality is that we need the immigrants or we don’t eat, plain and simple. But what about the idea that these illegal immigrants are stealing Americans’ jobs? Well, my friend addressed that with the job-posting experience and after a couple of messages back and forth he expanded a bit on why many business owners might not want an effective legal immigration system:

I am adamant about getting things above board. Most of our competitors want the undocumented worker. It means that even if they pay the same net wage we do, they can operate 25% cheaper than we do.

The Hispanic community says you are “baptized” each time you get a new fake ID. Our competitors will make them new identities each year so they can evade the tax system. They will file 1099’s using a SSN for 2015. Give the guy a new name and SSN (baptize) for 2016 and file 1099. Baptize them again for 2017 and file 1099. Rinse repeat. Year after year. Nothing gets in to tax system.

If you are legal, our competitor will “baptize” you anyway because they do not want anyone legal.

Talk about making your blood boil, how does that make you feel? Pissed off, right? Now here’s something he shared that my downright scare you:

One of the things we are worried about is they do this in the late summer/fall and do it for 10+ days. Whole year of harvests of fruits/vegetables are left in fields to rot. That will prove a huge point. Or, they do not show up to harvest turkeys in late October/early November and 1/3 of all US homes do not have turkey on Thanksgiving. That will not go unnoticed. These folks know they have the US by the balls because of the food supply. They will use it in a big way at some point. Today is minor I am sure.

So here’s the deal as I see it. Building a wall and going on a massive immigrant round up might make some of us feel good, perhaps a little safer, but the reality on the ground is that it will solve nothing. In fact it would create a massive problem for our economy and when the roundups are done we’ll be sitting around wondering why we can’t have fresh produce turkeys for Thanksgiving. And if the economic realities dont’ sway you, maybe humanitarian concerns will. Again from my friend:

Women get raped trying to make it here. People are left for dead after a mule steals all their money. They are treated like shit when they get here.

We have competitors that do not pay them. This guy has a compound in eastern NC. Lots of mobile homes. They all live there for free. He feeds them for free. He provides clothes. He transports them everywhere. They are all trapped like slaves.

So what’s the answer? My buddy provided some pretty simple action steps earlier:

  • Establish an effective, open worker visa program.
  • Do a decent background check.
  • Give them a real SSN.
  • Allow them to work.
  • Do a mandatory backup withholding of 20% for federal tax and 5% for state.

The result would be the decriminalization of our immigrant labor (black) market, an increase in tax revenues, a decrease in incentives for illegal border crossings which would eliminate any need for a boondoggle of a wall that wouldn’t work anyway.

Of course this all makes a lot of sense so it doesn’t stand a chance in DC.

A Glimmer

One test of a leader is her willingness to do something that may displease her fans/followers if she thinks it’s the right thing to do. Sen. Elizabeth Warren did just that when she voted in favor of Ben Carson for HUD Secretary. Even better, she utilized her Facebook page to explain why. Here’s an excerpt:

Yes, I have serious, deep, profound concerns about Dr. Carson’s inexperience to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Yes, I adamantly disagree with many of the outrageous things that Dr. Carson said during his presidential campaign. Yes, he is not the nominee I wanted.

But “the nominee I wanted” is not the test.

Millions of American families depend on HUD programs, including tens of thousands of families in Massachusetts. For many of them, HUD assistance is the difference between a safe, stable home and life on the street. As someone who has spent a lot of time working on housing policy in this country, my focus is on helping these families – and the countless others who could benefit from a stronger agency.

During the nomination process, I sent Dr. Carson a nine-page letter with detailed questions on a whole range of issues: Section 8 housing assistance; lead exposure in public housing; programs to prevent and end homelessness; programs to help victims of domestic violence; fighting housing discrimination; HUD’s role in preparing for and recovering from natural disasters; and, more broadly, the standards he will use for managing the department, including the steps he will take to protect the rights of LGBT Americans.

Dr. Carson’s answers weren’t perfect. But at his hearing, he committed to track and report on conflicts of interest at the agency. In his written responses to me, he made good, detailed promises, on everything from protecting anti-homelessness programs to enforcing fair housing laws. Promises that – if they’re honored – would help a lot of working families…

If Dr. Carson doesn’t follow through on his commitments, I will be the very first person he hears from – loudly and clearly and frequently. I didn’t hesitate to criticize past HUD Secretaries when they fell short, and I won’t hesitate with Dr. Carson – not for one minute.

That, my friends, is the first glimmer of light I’ve seen during a very dark period in Washington. I’m not saying I agree with her vote, but I am saying I’m glad to see someone finally showing some guts and exhibiting a little leadership.

Inauguration Got You Down? This Probably Won’t Help

Harper’s Weekly Review is usually a compilation of single sentence summaries of the previous weeks news made humorous by their juxtapositions to one another and usually totaling three or four long-ish paragraphs. This week’s was a single, very long, paragraph about Donald Trump titled Tower of Babble and it’s worth spending a couple of minutes reading it. Here’s a taste:

Donald J. Trump, a reality-television star erecting a mausoleum for himself behind the first-hole tee of a golf course he owns in New Jersey, first declared his candidacy for president of the United States in the atrium of Trump Tower, which he built in the 1980s with labor provided by hundreds of undocumented Polish workers and concrete purchased at an inflated price from the Gambino and Genovese crime families. “The American dream is dead,” Trump said to the audience members, each of whom he paid $50 to attend…

Trump said that his book The Art of the Deal was second in quality only to the Bible and that he never explicitly asked God for forgiveness. At a church in Iowa, he placed a few dollar bills into a bowl filled with sacramental bread, which he has referred to as “my little cracker.” Trump, who once dumped a glass of wine on a journalist who wrote a story he didn’t like, told his supporters that journalists were “liars,” the “lowest form of humanity,” and “enemies,” but that he did not approve of killing them. “I’m a very sane person,” said Trump, who once hosted a radio show in which he discussed the development of hair-cloning technology, the creation of a vaccine for obesity, the number of men a gay man thinks about having sex with on his morning commute, and the dangers of giving free Viagra to rapists…

Trump said that he doesn’t pay employees who don’t “do a good job,” after a review of the more than 3,500 lawsuits filed against Trump found that he has been accused of stiffing a painter and a dishwasher in Florida, a glass company in New Jersey, dozens of hourly hospitality workers, and some of the lawyers who represented him. “I’m a fighter,” said Trump, who body-slammed the WWE chairman at WrestleMania 23 in 2007, and who attended WrestleMania IV with Robert LiButti, an Atlantic City gambler with alleged mafia ties, who told Trump he’d “fucking pull your balls from your legs” if Trump didn’t stop trying to seduce his daughter. Trump, whose first wife, Ivana, accused him in divorce filings of rape, and whose special council later said rape within a marriage was not possible, said “no one respects women more than I do.”

There’s more. Much, much more. This piece should be considered a contribution to the public good and Harper’s is to be commended for running it.