The First Amendment: A Double-Edged Sword

american-flag-1It’s been awhile since last we spoke.  Personally, I have been having a hard time finding subjects on which I feel strongly enough to write.  My writer’s block has however been finally been broken by a flood of Facebook posts deriding the recent trend of National Football League (NFL) players refusing to stand; kneeling through; or raising black fists in protest of varying social conditions during The National Anthem.

The Facebook pleas encourage me to stop watching the NFL; to boycott league-sponsored merchandise and broadcast sponsors; and demand corrective action, even laws to punish the offenders.

Now most people, who know me, will expect me to come down hard and fast on the side of showing our National Emblem the deference and respect we believe it deserves without fail … ever.  And certainly I believe that …

What nags at me however is the thought that Respect for national symbolism – be it The Anthem or The Flag – trumps the Rights of the First Amendment, particularly that of Free Speech.  While I do not appreciate disrespectful displays or treatments of The Flag, what I choose to cherish most are the Freedoms that allow such behaviors as an expression of perceived failures or injustices.

Unfortunately for our various sensibilities, Respect for the First Amendment requires a higher level of tolerance for the ways in which our Freedoms are expressed.  Accommodating the freedom to express oneself requires an Advanced Degree in American Citizenship, particularly when its display encroaches on the symbols, institutions, and rituals for which we wear our Hearts on our sleeves.

This is not easy.  But then again, it was never intended to be easy.

Certainly we can express our scorn and anger at what we interpret to be unconscionable violations of national heritage and symbolism.  That freedom to express one’s disdain is covered in the same protections that allow the type of demonstrations that annoy the bejesus out of us.

We can publicly judge those who burn The Flag or choose not to stand for The National Anthem is the best – or only way – they can express their own anger and frustration.  But punishment and retribution?!?

No, those reactions are the purview of authoritarians, dictators, and oppressors who look to preserve their own peculiar claim to rule by denying Voice to the People!  This is not what Americans do.  It is not how we roll!

No matter how maddening the behavior …

Allow me please to reiterate, since I am sure some will take this message as endorsement of the practices.  I do NOT agree with flagrant displays of disrespect for my Country, its cherished symbols, or the Principles for which it stands.  What I do recognize is that there are degrees of disrespect I can live with, in the knowledge that our Founding Fathers no doubt intended for The Bill of Rights to be a challenge to both the Government and its citizens!

And I have had my moments in celebrating the actions inherent in those who Advanced Degrees in Citizenship spurred them to action!

I applauded – wildly, I might add – the Chicago Cubs’ Rick Monday, when on April 25, 1976 he ran from his outfield position to arrest the flag-burning attempts of two supposed war protesters.

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Those of us who would appreciate Mondays’ quick actions should also recognize that demonstrations of national disrespect sometimes accomplish nothing more than to illustrate a protestor’s failure of perspective, particularly when they simply draw negative attention to the person or position they claim to support by physically mistreating or burning The Flag.  In my opinion, your cause, your candidate – even the people who support them – will suffer in our view.  When they fail to recognize or value the Sacrifices made by others, whose sacrifice allows them to express themselves so freely, they cheapen whatever message they are pushing.

There’s the rub really that protesters of this sort fail to appreciate.  You might attract limited, short-lived attention for your cause or position ; but that transient recognition will fade faster than the headshakes and mental “F— you!”s tossed your way by those drawn serendipitously into your protest.  For those whom your message is intended, you run the greater risk of alienating them rather than changing minds or opening a discussion.

The story is quite different when it comes to the quiet, almost reverential protests we have witnessed recently at football games … at least in my opinion.  These passive demonstrations, inspired by a back-up quarterback no less, where sitting or taking a knee as the National Anthem is played or the slightly more active stance of raised black fists is – if nothing else – much easier to manage emotionally.

We may not like such displays.  But we should also wonder why they are considered necessary by those protesting.

I may not understand the need to turn one’s back to The Anthem or to embellish one’s seemingly reluctant participation with a raised fist.  But many people do understand the need to take such action.  If they did not, we would not be having these conversations today.

And that’s really what that pesky, sometimes irritating Freedom of Speech is intended to do … Give voice to those who feel isolated or left behind, whether or not we can appreciate their position!

So no … Do not ask me to boycott the NFL or Pepsi or Hyundai or Papa John’s pizza simply because your sensibilities were offended by a kneel or a clenched fist at an inappropriate time.  Because I have news for you …

The emotions you feel, the reactions you have to such displays are exactly what the Founding Fathers were likely hoping might occur when one group or another feels the need to draw attention to their perceived plight in any way that stirs our emotions.  The Stars and Stripes is a collection of fabric to which we attach a great deal of pride and symbolism; but it’s the Fabric of our Nation, expressed in the Freedoms passed down to us, that makes all things possible.

I leave you with this

 

 

 

 

 

No, I don’t … Honest!

49370Dear Sam’s Club Shopper:

I want to be completely open and honest, now that you’re not standing in front of me with that inquisitive look, no doubt thinking to yourself, “Does he use these things?!?”

I don’t … honestly.

I know you saw me perusing the selections and placing the Bulk Economy package (Then again, what else does Sam’s Club sell?) into my cart.  I know that you were only looking for a recommendation … from a guy … who MIGHT use them, even if you can’t come right out and ask that question without running the risk of insult or embarrassment (mine, not yours).

I know I shouldn’t feel awkward or uneasy discussing what has become a more frequent, open, and necessary product.  Of course I knew that whenever Carol asked me to pick up “feminine needs”.

I know there’s nothing odd, weird, or emasculating about running such a loving errand. Still it made me a bit skittish and self-conscious.  Just like our conversation today.

I swear … I really was buying them for another family member. I swear …

Just stop looking at me like that!

Or was that just my skittish, self-conscious imagination?  Maybe it was the fact that I had mumbled to myself … right before you walked up to me,  “I wonder if anyone who sees me thinks I need these things?”

Sometimes I am my own worst enemy.

KC_Super_Plus-Men

By the way, your father seemed like a very nice man when he rejoined you and we exchanged knowing glances.  He’s lucky to have someone, who is looking out for him and doing everything they can to maintain his dignity in a difficult, but thoughtful way.

My wife, Carol, could teach a few things on the subject of taking care of our parents.

I hope I helped what little I could.

It’s never easy to confront the ravages of age.  Most of us will get there in due time.  Let’s hope we have those to take care of us when the time comes.

The Inconspicuous News

American Board of Thoracic SurgeryDr. Achintya MoulickDylan PurcellTom Avril Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Children’s Hospital of PhiladelphiaDiscussion and comment on selected articles from The Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, March 20, 2016.

(Jeff Gamage) printed an article, Those Kids Never Got to Go Home about a small, sad cemetery located within the confines of the U.S. Army base in Carlisle, PA. … about 125 miles west of Philadelphia.

The U.S. Army base in Carlisle, PA is the object of an unusual request from the Rosebud Sioux Indian tribe of South Dakota.  Long before the army base existed, the site was home to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the flagship of federally-funded, off-reservation boarding schools where the motto was “Kill the Indian, save the Man.”

PRETURN20P

A photo of the student body of the Carlilsle Indian School from March, 1892, is photographed on the school grounds where it was taken. The Rosebud Sioux in South Dakota have begun efforts to repatriate the remains of the 10 Rosebud students buried on the Carlisle school grounds. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Within the Army’s current home 186 graves of Indian children from numerous Native American tribes.  The children victim of disease, abuse, and inadequate care at the industrial school intended to assimilate Indian populations with white culture and society.  The children were largely the offspring of Indian chiefs, who were convinced by the program’s agents that the children would be properly educated and better prepared to lead their scattered tribes to relationships on more equal footing with their white counterparts.

The intent of the program might be looked upon today as simply one of those backward thinking, even “progressive” attempts to help a defeated and exiled people to adapt and even prosper within the dominant society.  Maybe even a noble cause to promote better relations with the Europeans, who were spreading westward like ants.

However the abuses, including forced labor, beatings for refusal to speak English, physical and sexual abuse, and inadequate care, exposed the program as an attempt to expunge Indian cultures.  These 186 children never made it Home.

The Rosebud children were sent 1400 miles away from home. Some were pried away from parents forced with the choice of giving up their children or their food rations.  Many of the children died from diseases and malnutrition, some due to abuse.

675abb611e806736640cba306701eeb7Leaders of the Rosebud Sioux tribe had forgotten about the spirits of their dead children buried (some without parents even knowing they were dead) so far from home.  The issue was raised after a group of young Rosebud students visited the cemetery after a trip to Washington, D.C. last Summer for the Tribal Youth Gathering.

Now I never understood the motivations and mindset of our earlier American ancestors as they set upon a vanquished Nation, taking advantage of Position and Power to denude Indian cultures and then to exploit them in their imposed poverty.  This example seems to be one of the more egregious ones, although the effort does reflect much of the social and cultural thinking of the time.

I hope we have evolved beyond that kind of social engineering think.

As for the Spirits the Rosebud Sioux insist are restless to return home, demonstrated – they say – by the swarm of fireflies that visited the cemetery after a traditional Sioux ceremony, the Army should simply allow the Rosebud Sioux to take their children home.

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Next up is a rather disturbing article about the length of post-operative stays at Philadelphia’s St. Christopher’s Hospital for complicated newborn cardiac surgery vs. stays for similar procedures at regional counterpart, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).  The article, Recovery Times for Newborns Lengthy, written by Tom Avril and Dylan Purcell, suggests the extended stays at St. Chris’ have much to do with the quality of post-operative care.

6e1c643a636c67f002280f826731ae3e.jpgThe Inquirer’s study, based on a review of insurance claim forms, follows another study that found St. Christopher newborn cardiac patients were also much more likely to die than similar patients at CHOP.  St. Christopher’s recently stopped all non-emergency heart procedures as it conducts an internal review of its heart surgery program.

As bad as all that is, one also learns that Dr. Achintya Moulick, head of the heart surgery at St. Chris’ is not certified by the American Board of Thoracic Surgery!  This in contrast to the other five heads of pediatric heart-surgery program in Pennsylvania and Delaware.  Dr. Moulick does possess certification in thoracic surgery from the University of Bombay (Mumbai) in India … from 1995!

Now, I’m no medical professional, but I would presume that in the 21 years since Dr. Moulick attended the University of Bombay, there have been a few changes in the ways thoracic surgery is performed, particularly for infants.  When you consider that the Head of Thoracic Surgery also sets the tone for those performing under him, you get the idea that maybe it’s time for Dr. Moulick to break out his “How to …” books and seek an American-style recertification from this particular century!

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Finally a story, Bringing Down Blumberg, by Aubrey Whelan on the history and destructive end on the Norman Blumberg Apartments at 22nd and Sharswood Streets in North Philadelphia.  Blumberg was built in the late 1960s as a high-rise apartment complex dedicated to low-income residents.

l_phabuildings-3“But within a few short years, the towers came to typify all that had gone wrong with the public-housing policies of the 1960s – a symbol of misguided urban planning, concentrated poverty, and official neglect writ large.”

Two intricately related resident reactions – just seven years apart underscores the kind of hopelessness that permeated mass low-income urban housing in many parts of the country.  In 1967, the day Blumberg opened to its brand new residents, one gushes how “Each resident helps out the other.”.  Just seven years later after a gang-rape at Blumberg, a resident told The Inquirer, “The amazing thing is that no one helps anybody out.”

 

Baby, It’s Cold Outside!

For years now, I have had difficulties understanding the attraction of a song we never hear at any time other than the Christmas season. That’s kind of weird really, because whenever you listen to the song you never hear a reference to Christmas or the holidays in general.

Yes … Baby, It’s Cold Outside!

But to be honest, I hadn’t really wondered aloud about why it’s considered a “holiday tune” until I downloaded the song – in one of it’s many, many versions sung by many, many artists – to my iPod. Then, after a few years of hearing it only during the playing of my Christmas playlist, thinking to myself, “What the hell does this have to do with Christmas?”

And in these Days of Enlightenment, the lyrics are simply creepy! At least in Neptune’s Daughter, the movie where the song made it’s premiere wide distribution, the women get a bit of a turn-around in the second part of the song, which featured the comical interpretation by Red Skelton. But it’s the first part of this popular song duet, as sung in the movie by Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams, that most listeners connect with.

Unfortunately, and for good reason, that connection – as Jessica Cantrera writes in The Washington Post– is “icky”.

The song obviously is the whimsical version of the classic late-night attempt at seduction. The wily male working his mystical – or mythical – charms to seduce the seemingly attracted, yet uncertain, female. Plying her with compliments, alcohol, and his “worries” she might suffer hypothermia due to the rampant Winter weather.

But in this day and age, when we consider ourselves so much more enlightened, critics point to the female’s repeated desires to leave, although she seems unwilling to “break the spell”, the phrase “Hey, what’s in this drink?!?” (and flashes perhaps of Bill Cosby), and the females pointed, “The answer is ‘No!'” as indications of something more sinister.

Maybe they are right …

Now I have a theory about the hows and whys the song became and remained so popular. It’s my own personal theory, which I do not recall ever hearing discussed, so I’ll lay it out there for you to consider. But first some history on the song itself

Frank Loesser

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was written Frank Loesser – an accomplished Broadway composer (Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) – in 1944, and performed by he and his wife, Lynn Garland at their house-warming party. They performed it together for years before Frank sold the song – to his wife’s consternation – in 1948. The song appeared in Neptune’s Daughter (1949) and won an Academy Award that year for Best Original Song.

Now my theory is wrapped in the biggest event circling the globe in the year Loesser wrote the song, 1944 and World War II.

It’s not hard to understand the attraction “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” may have had for those in our parents’ (and grandparents’, great-grandparent’s) generation. At a time when the song was published (1949), many men had been home just a few years after witnessing and participating the largest, most tragic periods of American history. Many of these men may have witnessed the deaths of friends in the most grisly of manners. Many had killed men themselves in the most grisly of manners.

I envision a mindset that suggested living Life to its fullest; refusing to allow opportunities for Life, Love, or Fun to pass by. Perhaps the song touched that chord that suggests living for Today and being bold enough to pursue such pleasures.

The same chord might have just as easily been struck in the women of the day as well. Many of them fresh off the assembly lines of the war, building tanks, trucks, airplanes, bombs, etc. Some say the female subject of the song was exercising a form of liberation by not conforming to the expectations and standards of a society after shouldering the burden of supplying the Arsenal of Democracy in its destruction of fascist oppression.

She earned many a hefty paycheck and the Independence that goes with financial power. Perhaps she is flaunting social convention as held by her parents, siblings, maiden aunt, and even her neighbors … She simply doesn’t sound so sure that’s a good idea!

Maybe … After all the sexual revolution would be just 15-20 years away in 1949; and certainly some of that rebelliousness would have been felt by both sexes coming off four years of liberating responsibility!

Then again … The fact that the original song score referred to the male role as the “wolf” and the female role as the “mouse” coats the entire subject once again in potential ickiness.

Only you simply cannot get past the fact that the song has amassed incredible popularity for those generations that preceded us! You only need look – even now – at performers still singing the song every holiday season: Seth MacFarlane and Sara BareillesIdina Menzel and Michael BubléDarius Rucker and Sheryl Crow. And that is in just the last two years!

But certainly, it seems the song has outlived its playfulness.

Heck, I still can’t get passed the fact that it’s considered “holiday music”. And for the past few years, every time it came up on the iPod rotation I would mention this to whomever was sitting next to me who might – or might not – care. It has gotten to the point where Carol now will immediately say, “Yes, I know … Why is this a Christmas song?!?”

I can be a bit redundant. Surprise!

Now it’s becoming common to drag the song out into the light and bludgeon it with images of Bill Cosby (as Saturday Night Live did recently) or date rape as “Funny or Die” portrayed the song.

Personally, I think that’s a bit unfair as parodies seem to be sometimes. After all in all versions of the song, we are left to imagine what the outcome was. Can any of us say it was Good or Bad? Who are we to judge?

I do have a healthier respect for the song now that I have read of its origins, the man who created it, and its initial purpose. And frankly, until today I had never seen its basic premise turned around 180 degrees, as it was in the second part of its Neptune’s Daughter version.

One must concede that its imagery and language are dated and present complications for a society firmly ensconced in no-pressure sexuality, where slick talk or chemical gimmicks are rightfully seen as robbing individual choice. Yet I can not ignore that initially it was simply a quaintly mischievous song, written by a renown composer to be sung with his wife to family and friends as a way of saying “Good night, the Party’s over.”

Now, someone needs to explain to me how this duet became associated with the Christmas holidays!

Trump Is Wrong On Muslims … Kinda

Donald Trump made a rather bold and infuriating statement the other day. He also told the Truth … at least in part.  And what he said was what a lot of people wanted to hear.  Of course a lot of people didn’t want to hear it too.

Both groups were right.


Trump told us that Americans do not want and that America should block all Muslims from immigrating to the United States from Syria.

He was right and he was wrong.

As a country, we have grown past religious tests.  We are not perfect.  We have had them.  We have learned, sometimes the very, very hard way.  We have – collectively – moved on.

JFK was too Catholic for some people, who feared the Pope would be running the country.  Of course the earliest settlers came here to flee British religious oppression, only to set up their own style of religious repression here.  And there were flirtations with Nazi extremism in the late 1930’s, and then that very uncomfortable World War II prelude in the voyage of the St. Louis, loaded with Jews to be denied entry to the US though they could view the lights of Miami from on-deck.

But we’ve grown past all that. Or so we thought.

No, Donald … We do not exclude people from our country just for religious reasons. It’s the lowest form of exclusion, right next to race.

But you can’t really blame the approach to a problem that – in the wake of Paris and San Bernardino – has a lot of people avoiding crowded spaces, high-value locations, and mass public events.  The demographics drive you to the Conclusion … almost.

Personally, I don’t think you target all Muslims.  You can whittle down the high-risk pool by narrowing the focus to the true demographic … the demographic prized and targeted by the extremist political factions we worry about most … young, unattached to family, disenfranchised Muslims.

Trump is partially right, but importantly wrong.

Then there’s the other lessons from our History, that give you a look at how Presidents in the past have over-reacted when you have the luxury of 20-20 hindsight.

Jimmy Carter cancelled the visas of Iranian nationals who might visit the US during the Iranian hostage crisis.  But this was not a “national security measure” as much as it was a pressure point to force Iran to comply with demands to release the hostages.

And it wasn’t based on religion.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt – on the other hand – went a bridge-too-far in interning 120,000 Japanese nationals during World War II.  He indeed did this for National Security, but on purely racial terms, which is horrendous even if you can dismiss the fact that few Germans or Italians were similarly interned.

Were his actions contrary to American ideals?  Definitely.  Were they productive?  Hard to tell from the existence of a negative (the absence of wartime sabotage).

Were the actions reasonable, given the events of the time?  Certainly, they provided a sense of greater security at a dangerous time in what was seen as vulnerable areas.  Remember, Japanese forces invaded and created a tenuous foothold in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.

Looking back, were the measures excessive?  Certainly … But you do have the Luxury of Hindsight!

Let’s look at the official release from the Trump campaign.

“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on .”

Now I’m willing to bet dollars-to-doughnuts that not too many sources condemning the Trump issue provided those last 11 words.  And if you really think about it, it’s not far off the same reasoning FDR used.  Securing what was perceived as the riskiest elements of the country’s western population until they could figure out what was going on.

Frankly, given all we know the reaction makes perfect sense.  After all, there are no Uruguayan basketball players heading to America with the intent of shooting up the infidels.

But it goes too far.  It’s far to broad and is based purely on religious belief.  It reeks of prejudice and violates American ideals.

So let’s take the most reasonable, sensible, and fair approach.

Ban all young, unattached, disenfranchised Muslims until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.

Debt of Honor (PBS, November 10, 9:00 PM EST)

disabled_veteransUsually at this time of year, I dedicate a blog post to U.S. veterans of foreign conflicts as an homage to their dedication, patriotism, and sacrifice.  It’s a bit odd for me, not having served in the military myself.  I think it’s simply a matter of trying to pay back what little I can within the realization that the sacrifice they made was to the benefit of all of us.

This year though, I will diverge a bit to recognize a very special class of veteran, the disabled veteran.  Those who came home from conflicts with horrible wounds that left them significantly disabled for life.

Tonight (November 10) at 9:00 PM EST (2100 HRS EST) PBS will air the premiere of Debt of Honor, a documentary that looks into the history of America’s disabled vets.

Disabled veterans hold a unique place in the history of veterans in the United States, one that palpably illustrates the human cost of war, and speaks to the enormous sacrifices of military service. Debt of Honor examines the way in which the American government and society as a whole have regarded disabled veterans throughout history, beginning in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War through today’s continuing conflicts in the Middle East.

Many of us consider the issue of disabled veterans to be a recent phenomena, the result of political scandal over the management of the Department of Veterans Affairs.  The problem came to the forefront of American politics largely due to the neglect of veterans recently disabled from present day conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But instead of sitting here, trying to blame one President or another for the problems they rightfully have responsibility for, I’d like to take a different tack today.

dav-logoThe problems faced by veterans in all walks of like, from those suffering not at all to those able to function physically but unable to psychologically due to the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to those horribly disfigured and only permitted to function through the graces of modern medical science once they return from protecting us is no one’s fault but our own!

We own it, because so many of us simply do not care enough. If we care enough about it and make it a serious National issue, potential Presidents and all sorts of politicos would find import in the issue.  We allow politicians to skirt the issue because we skirt the issue.

I make no bones about the aspect that many politicians might only care because we MAKE them care about it.  Who really cares what selfish motivation we might instill in our politicians, if it gets the job done?  Self-interest – particularly in politicians – can be an extremely lucrative motivator.  So let’s put it to use!

Take the challenge … The next time you have a chance to speak to your Congressional Representative or a local politician with a potentially promising future in National Politics, don’t ask them first about Jobs, the Economy, Immigration, Gay Marriage, or their views on the Rights of gun owners, minority members of society, or the 1%.  Ask them FIRST about what they would do to improve the lives of disabled veterans in their own districts, or how they would address disabled veteran care during their next term in Washington, D.C., or what they might do to fix the problems at the Veterans Administration.

disabled veteranIf you can’t wait that long (and certainly there is no time to wait), write them a letter and demand an answer from them that matters.  Do not take “no” or a lot of fluff as an answer.  Press the issue and press it hard.

With 11 months until the Presidential election, much hay could also be made by constantly asking our POTUS candidates what they will do in their first days in office to address the problems faced by disable veterans across the country!

The only way we can make this problem go away is by making it The Constant Problem of every politician we elect, especially those we send to Washington, D.C.!

Rocky Balboa, the common cold, and “Family Feud”

latestThose three things are an unusual combination.  And although there’s nothing Rocky Balboa, the common cold, and “Family Feud” have in common with each other, they converged to create a social phenomena in Pennsylvania in the Spring and Summer of 1977.

The Pennsylvania Lottery was only five years old at the time; offering only a Daily Number (3-digit) until recently adding scratch-off instant lottery tickets.

It was May 1976.  Tom and Philomena Drake had been married for two years and living in McMurray, PA when Tom happened to plop into a seat in a Pittsburgh movie theatre to see the critically acclaimed movie, “Rocky“, about a down-trodden Philadelphia club fighter thrown by happenstance into a title fight against Apollo Creed, the Muhammad Ali-like Heavyweight Champion of the World.

It was the planting of a seed that would soon sprout for Tom Drake a tree of dubious inspiration.

One year later, Philomena came down with a cold.  Their doctor told them that stress was contributing significantly to her health issues.  The Drakes were pulling in roughly $20,000 a-year in wages, and they were never seeing each other. She working during the day as a secretary at U.S. Steel; he as a neophyte real estate salesman working many nights and weekends.

Tom was looking for a way to relieve their financial pressure and maybe – just maybe – allow Phil to give up her job.  Or as Tom put it, “What can I do so she can quit her job and we can get closer together?”

richard-dawson-440_featured_photo_galleryThat Monday Tom was watching “Family Feud” (the original version with the since deceased Richard Dawson) and that – amazingly enough – was the clincher!  Somehow Tom put together his wife’s physical malady, a movie about a brawler’s a never-ever Big Stage opportunity, and a game show highlighting overly energetic family members being alternately wooed and ridiculed by a smarmy Brit in a nice suit to come up with a – not surprisingly – wacky idea.

Tom called his wife at work; told her to come home right away; to not even wait for the bus.  Take a cab ($20 fare)!  When Philomena arrived at home, she found that her husband had cleaned out their savings account ($1100.) and then announced the fruit that had flowered from that Tree of Dubious Inspiration.

His idea:  Liquidate all their assets and buy $20,000 worth of $1 Pennsylvania “Instant Bingo” scratch-off lottery tickets!

The goal:  Win the grand prize of $1,000-a-week for Life!

State lotteries were new back then.  So when someone saw what looked like a get-rich-quick scheme, they perhaps did not take as close a look at the odds of winning.  The odds, under the method Pennsylvania was using for “Instant Bingo” and awarding the grand prize, came out to 35,000,000-to-1.  But since the Drakes were intending to buy 20,000 tickets, a local university professor calculated the odds at 1700-to-1.

Not exactly a sure thing …

Once State lottery officials heard of the scheme, they tried – unsuccessfully – to talk the Drakes off their 20,000 ticket ledge.  To no avail, largely because of “Rocky” and “Family Feud”.

“The people want me to win.  They really believe I’m going to win.  I’m going to win.”, Tom said, climbing higher into that Tree of Dubious Inspiration.  He was certain “Rocky” had sent him a message.  No one gives up.  Family Feud proved ” … all over the country people were rooting for these people to win.”

In Tom Drake’s head they would root for Tom and Philomena Drake too.

Maybe they did.  Maybe they didn’t.  But certainly I can remember the story, and thinking to myself, “This guy is nuts.”  But what did I know.  Over the course of that Summer I lost track of the story.  The Drakes were scratching off tickets into November of that year.  I wondered from time to time how that all turned out.

1972_Chevrolet_Vega_HatcbackAmong the assets the Drakes sold were their furniture, two trotting horses, and three acres of farm land.  Despite the farm, they were living in a one-bedroom apartment.  They also sold their 1974 Chevrolet Vega.  (Remember those butt-ugly cars?)

There were two ways you could claim the top prize of $1000-a-week for Life.  One was to collect enough games pieces to spell out (There were letters on each “Instant Bingo” card.) “Pennsylvania”, “Lottery”, or “Bingo”.  The second method was to win a random drawing, where entry was controlled through qualifying numbers on the “Instant Bingo” cards, resulting in 42,000 potential entrants.  Ten (10) qualifiers would be picked from those 42,000, then one Grand Prize winner would be selected from those 10.

The Drakes’ dream amounted to allowing Philomena to quit her job; buying a nice house; raising a family; and allowing Tom to “… get into harness racing the right way.”  Hmmmm …. to that last one, but dreams are dreams.

Personally, I might have been satisfied with the horses and the farm land, though maybe not the Chevy Vega.

So how did it all turn out?

Through their first 1500 scratch off tickets, they won $500 (down $1000.).  After 3000 scratches, they had accumulated $700 (down $2300.).  $14,100. in scratch-offs later (roughly 200 scratches a day), they finished up by a thousand, having hit one $10,000. prize and several smaller hits.

Was it worth it? Going through all that work, the scorn, the shaking heads and perplexed looks, not to mention the obvious anxiety of “chuck(ing) it all” – as Tom characterized it – at a lottery long-shot dream?

Most of us would say, “No.”

But Philomena would disagree, echoing a statement by Tom quoted earlier in this post.  As they sat a card table in front of a drug store perfume counter, speaking to a reporter and frantically scratching instant tickets, Phil said, “We get to spend so much time together now.  We’re so much closer.”

Sometimes the Dream that gets answered is The One you really needed, not the Dream you thought you wanted.

Tom Wolf, The Terrible

Tom "The Terrible" Wolf

Tom “The Terrible” Wolf

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has followed up his first blundering month in office with something a bit different …  Putting a stop to all forms of disagreement from within the Executive Branch of State Government!

Of course, when this happens you must have that first sacrificial lamb; and that lamb was the unfortunate, now former Chairman of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, Bill Green.

Green was quickly and unceremoniously dumped from the chairmanship last week by Tom Wolf, The Terrible for crimes against the State, Education, and children of all ages.

His crime?  Disagreeing with Tom The Terrible (aka Triple T) on charter school applications in the Philadelphia School District!

You see, Triple T wanted the SRC to deny completely any and all applications for new charter schools in the beleaguered Philadelphia School District (PSD) for which the SRC has maintained oversight since December 2001.  The SRC resulted from frequent turmoil over school funding and poor performance, finally provoking the State to take over the schools.

Over the years, the situation became so bad in the school district that parents clamored for choices and a way to ensure quality educations for their children.  Part of the answer became privately run charter schools.

From the School Reform Commission website:

Charter Schools are independently operated public schools that are funded with federal, state and local tax dollars.  These schools are established to provide families with more educational alternatives for their children. Charters are non-profit, non sectarian, organizations that are approved by the local Board of Education   (the “authorizer”) or the State Appeal Board. Each charter has its own Board of Trustees and administrative staff and operates as a separate, independent  local educational agency (LEA) within Intermediate Unit 26 (IU 26).  The Pennsylvania Charter School Law – Act 22 of 1997 – set up charters to operate free of many of the local and state requirements that apply to traditional public schools.

Bill Green  He never had a chance!

Bill Green
He never had a chance!

The problem for the PSD is that the district – any school district, since charter schools are found throughout the state – must apportion any funding it receives to any charter school that enrolls district students.

Disagreement abounds about exactly what that cost is.  Current requirements state that a charter must be funded to $2000. per child enrolled.  The PSD asserts that the cost to the District is closer to $7000., but support for the figure is questionable.  Currently, the PSD faces an $80 million funding shortfall.

All this led to Triple T insisting that the SRC not approve ANY new charter school applications, despite parent pleas for more choices from even more charters, so long as they were properly overseen and provided quality education opportunities.

In February, faced with 39 applications for new charter schools, the SRC approved 5.

Yes, that’s right … just 5!

Many were disappointed in the SRC’s conservative approach.  Many expected 21 of 39 approvals.  Some were pushing for all 39!  The SRC approved 5.

No one was happy.  Not the Parents, not the State Legislature, not the school district.

Apparently Triple T was apoplectic!  So, just days later Triple T swung his mighty claymore and dislodged the Head of the SRC.

Tom's Terribly swift sword

Tom’s Terribly swift sword

Of course, the demoted – though yet to be completely vanquished – Bill Green should have seen this coming for miles from across the moor.  He should have seen Triple T’s armies amassed in the foggy distance.  Mighty steeds puffing hot breath in the cold, damp morning air.  A vista of cold steel held aloft by the minion army gathering and peering towards his vulnerable redoubt.

Or he could have just asked Eric Arneson, vanquished appointee to the Office of Open Records!

Those minions off in the distance?  Nothing more frightening than the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers!

You see, Triple T’s power – as a Democrat – rises and falls with the fortunes of public unions.  This is why Pennsylvanians will not see much-needed initiatives to quell the Public Pension problem from Triple T, nor changes to the anachronistic system of State Stores in the distribution of liquor products.  But you will see plenty of tax increases to keep the minions happy, their horses mobile!

Tom's Terribly swift Union minions

Tom’s Terribly swift Union minions

Triple T needs them!  He needs them badly!  And he will behave badly if it means keeping the minions in truncheons.

Perhaps the darkest visage however, delivered by that terrible swift Triple T sword, is that our state employees, managers, directors and commission members have now gotten the message.  Don’t cross the boss …

Not even when you are certain he is wrong … No matter how much experience, expertise, and value you bring to your job.  Don’t even suggest that your boss, Tom the Terrible, might be wrong.

You may just lose your head!

Jefferson Station and the thing about Healthcare Reform

20140905_jeff_1024The acquisition has become quite commonplace in recent years, from sports stadiums and entertainment venues to infrastructure basics like roadways and railway stations.  Naming rights, long reserved for notable philanthropists placing a family name on hospitals, university halls, museums and libraries, are now a convenient – though costly – method to promote brand recognition and consumer confidence.

Earlier this month SEPTA announced the naming of Market East Station to Jefferson Station in a deal between the regional transportation provider and the Jefferson Health SystemThomas Jefferson University Hospital is only two blocks south of Market East.

The naming deal follows an earlier arrangement to rename the Broad Street Subway station at Pattison Avenue “AT&T Station” and previews a future naming rights deal with their Verizon or Comcast for Suburban Station.

http-planphilly-com-sites-planphilly-com-files-dsc_0027_2-jpg.752.502.sFacility naming deals are an easy way for cash-strapped or opportunistic entities to raise funding from wealthier, healthier corporations.  In the overall scheme of things, it’s a no-brainer for a constantly short-funded regional utility, like SEPTA, to use its captive commuter audience as a way to raise needed capital.

SEPTA’s five-year deal with AT&T cost the communications company $5.4 million, although SEPTA only received $3.4 million.  It’s advertising agent made out very nicely, pocketing $2 million in the deal.

But what of a hospital spending $4 million to buy branding rights all in the name of product recognition?  To me, it speaks to several interesting questions and one Big Duh observation.

First off, the obvious question … Is it prudent, necessary or progressive for a medical provider to seek publicity of this sort at what most would consider a sizable chunk of cash?  Arguments could be made that such attempts at name recognition promote Jefferson as a top-class service provider, educational institution, and research facility.

Yet, I would think that’s a tough nut to crack since Jefferson is already a renown regional name.  Once you get outside the Philadelphia region it’s hard to figure exactly what naming a railway station adds to the Jefferson brand.   How many prospective medical students or established medical professionals would actually be swayed by a name on a subway marquee?

artmax_178They might even look at such largesse as a needless and wasteful expenditure in a research-heavy profession where funding often determines how much a dedicated research professional can accomplish.

On another level, it’s difficult to ignore what equipment, expansion of service, or community involvement could be financed with that $4 million marquee grab.

Jefferson’s argument might be that all testing, diagnostic and treatment equipment is sufficiently updated and in top-level performance condition.  Yet I would be willing to bet you can find a few areas of their network that might very well be begging for additional investment, updating, and manpower.  From that point-of-view, buying a railway station would seem like an unnecessarily extravagant expense to anyone who consumes Jefferson medical services.

Which brings me to my real reason for making so much more out of a relatively small ball approach to the Naming Rights Game …

Healthcare reform … REAL healthcare reform … The kind of healthcare reform we did not get in the Affordable Care Act.  The kind of healthcare reform that would make a difference to those who consume and those who are forced to pay big premiums, big deductibles, and large shares of those Usual, Customary, and Reasonable costs.

Affordable was supposed to be the key word ...

Affordable was supposed to be the key word …

My Big Aha Moment was in the realization that if the Jefferson Health System has $4 million to spend on a subway station, they certainly have a lot of other money available for a lot of other non-medical investments!

This is not an attack on JHS alone though.  This I’m certain is the same financial truth that can be found in any large, successful medical system, be it in Philadelphia or Dallas or Nashville.  I have never hidden my contempt of the ACA, mostly because of the way it was birthed … forced in hurried fashion through a brow-beat Congress.  And as “healthcare reform” it wasn’t real reform at all … Not even close in any way, shape, or form.

Real healthcare reform would have addressed the REAL problem with healthcare … The Cost!  All the SEPTA-JHS deal did was highlight the crux of the healthcare problem … Medical services that are so expensive that a hospital has a few million lying around to buy a subway station name.

All the ACA did was dump more people into a system that costs way too much.  Logic would dictate that if you want to provide medical coverage to more people the trade-off should be reducing the costs – if at all possible – of the services to be provided.

Can anyone imagine saying that medical costs in this country were affordable prior to the passing of the ACA?  Obviously not, since “Affordable” was the first word they thought of when they created the Affordable care Act!  Yet no significant action was taken to make healthcare more affordable prior to adding millions to the Well-Care portion of U.S. healthcare (i.e. that segment of healthcare that the uninsured COULD NOT AFFORD to use, resorting to Emergency Rooms as their sole source of healthcare once they became sick).

Wouldn’t it have made more sense to take a long, deep look into the cost structure and profit margins of American healthcare BEFORE adding a significant new market for services that would only see demand and usage skyrocket with the passage of the ACA?  Would it not have seemed a reasonable approach to restructure medical costs in a way that potential savings might have paid for many new ACA subscribers?

The SEPTA-Jefferson Health System deal suggests that it would have been on both counts.  Not that we were ever given the chance to find out …

 

Well, health and maybe a good game of railroad Monopoly ...

Well, health and maybe a good game of railroad Monopoly …

 

 

Why Pennsylvania needs Public Sector pension reform

Governor Corbett discusses pension reform in Dresher

Governor Corbett discusses pension reform in Dresher

Last week I had an opportunity to attend one of Governor Tom Corbett‘s mini-town hall meetings on Pennsylvania‘s precarious public pension situation.

The Governor is spending a lot of time this Summer pushing the need for public sector pension reform to improve the State’s financial health and put a lid on spiraling property taxes.  The problem he is facing is that the Pennsylvanians who pay taxes do not view Pension Reform as a problem let alone a problem-with-high-priority.

Much of this disconnect comes from the plain fact that most voters do not understand how State pensions work; how much they cost; or how they affect the other real problems with which my fellow Pennsylvanians can readily identify.

Recent polls (Quinnipiac University 2013, Franklin & Marshall 2014) found that Pennsylvanians recognized Unemployment, the Economy, Education, and Taxes as the biggest problems being faced in the Keystone State. These opinions are even more disconcerting from a taxpayer’s point-of-view, because it illustrates a very basic fact about the magnitude of the pension problem …

Few appreciate how the State’s pension mess plays into the perceived problems in Education, Taxes and the Economic Health of Pennsylvania.

For that you must look at the numbers.

  • $47,000,000,000. (billion with a capital “B”) … The current pension funding gap in Pennsylvania
  • $65,000,000,000. (also with a “B”) … The projected pension gap by 2019.
  • 63 cents of every $1 in revenue … 63% of PA State revenue currently goes to cover State pension responsibilities
    • That is, $2 Billion per year, all covered by PA tax payers
  • $13,000. … The amount each Pennsylvanian would have to pay to cover the current pension fund gap.

State-pensionsForty-one percent (41%) of the annual State budget goes to Education funding.  Another 40% goes to support Health and Human Services (and yes, that’s BEFORE you factor in the potential of accepting ObamaCare’s proposed Medicaid expansion, which will be funded by the Federal Government to only 90% of costs after 2016) …

The budget percentages for Education and HHS are equally important in understanding the overall picture.  Why?

For one, they illustrate the impact both Education and Social Services have on the State budget.  When you spend 81-82% of your budget in two specific areas, it does not leave much room for the other good things State government can do.  These huge obligations place the State in a financial straight jacket.  Pension costs make up a significant burden to school districts and public healthcare providers insofar as those costs are a subset of whatever funding is provided by the State.

As an example, when a School District receives its annual budgeted funding, they must – each and every year – immediately set aside a significant portion of that funding to be applied towards that school district’s allotment of pension coverage.  As pensions costs grow, school districts are forced to pay more and more for their pension service; meaning they will have less and less to spend on actual education.

pension-reformSo when you speak of those “real problems” facing Pennsylvania … Education, Unemployment, the Economy and Taxes … there is a genuine, behind-the-scenes connection between pension costs obligations and all those REAL problems.  And more importantly, to financing any solutions to those REAL problems.

So what’s State and local Government to do?  What tough choices do you make now?  Do you raise Property Taxes again?  Do you raise Corporate Taxes in a state which is already has the HIGHEST corporate tax rate in the country?  Or do you do something about the most easily identifiable and underlying problem?

As a taxpayer, this is a chilling reality.  If you subscribe to the theory that high taxes kill Economic Growth, raising Corporate Taxes is not the BEST alternative.  (And yes, that also goes for a Job Creator like the Natural Gas Industry.)  Neither is raising Property Taxes, which is what school districts must do to meet the growing pension budget hole.

Pension reform won’t lower current property taxes however.  Replacing pension plans does nothing to alleviate the pension obligations already facing the State and local school districts.  It’s a solution for the future, by putting a lid on rising property taxes by replacing an unsustainable pension structure with one that lessens the future burden on taxpayers!

If you are not yet convinced, take a look at recent examples in countries like Greece and Italy, where excessive pension costs drove cataclysmic threats to economic stability.  Or take a look closer to home …

CT Emanuel_Method_04.JPG

Chicago Mayor – and former White House Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emanuel

When uber-Liberal Rahm Emanuel left the cozy confines of The White House as President Obama’s Chief-of-Staff to become the Mayor of Chicago, the first major initiative he undertook was to tackle Chicago’s financially threatening pension problem.  To take a peek at what could happen to cities in Pennsylvania if leaders do nothing, look at what has happened in Detroit!

The Rahm Emanuel story is critically important for one reason many people might overlook.  It illustrates that this is not a problem restricted to one political party or the other.  Pension costs with all its ramifications – from taxes to education to health services to economic vitality – is a Democrat and Republican problem.

So what is the real problem with Pennsylvania’s nightmare pension scenario?  It’s reliance upon Defined-Benefit public pensions …

This is not a new problem, not in the pubic sector, not in the private sector, not in the manufacturing sector, not in the financial industry.  Individual companies, whole industries, other States, even the Federal Government have recognized the threat to financial stability presented by growing defined-benefit pension obligations.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am employed in the Public Sector by the Federal Government since 1980.  In 1986 the federal government introduced a two-tier retirement system under the Federal Employees Retirement System Act of 1986.  The Act essentially grand-fathered all existing employees under the existing Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS), while requiring all new employees – hired after the laws effective date – to participate in the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS).  The reasoning behind the switch from a Defined-Benefit CSRS to a hybrid Defined-Benefit/Defined-Contribution plan was much the same in 1986 as it is now for Pennsylvania in 2014.

This is pretty solid framework for changing Pennsylvania’s Pension Problem.  Allow those already vested in current defined-benefit pensions alone.  Address a change in pension structure only towards new employees at all levels of government!

In the Federal Government, FERS provides its own two-tiered approach, consisting of a Defined-Benefit where a minimum government contribution is mandated.  Then the federal government fully matches any employee contributions up to 5% of salary (the percentage matched drops on additional employee contributions) made to the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), which acts essentially like a 401(k) with employees able to choose investment options of differing risk and return.

That the Federal Government is out in front of Pennsylvania on anything – by nearly three decades no less – should be more than a little troubling to Pennsylvania tax payers!  And this again is a problem whose responsibility falls squarely on BOTH political parties.

Former Gov Tom Ridge, not exactly the brightest light on pension sanity

Former Gov Tom Ridge, not exactly the brightest light on pension sanity

In 2001 it was the Tom Ridge Republican administration that cut a foggy-headed deal with the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, where both Democrats and Republicans agreed to significantly increase the pension benefits of Legislators, state workers, and teachers.  (Not surprisingly, those same Legislators all got fat pay increases as part of the deal!)  Then they compounded their stupidity by slashing the taxpayer contribution to service that very same pension obligation. 

It’s a case of an entire government turning a blind eye towards its very own economic future!

Changes to the way employee pensions are managed and financed have been rippling through the entire U.S. economy, most drastically of course in the private sector, where change depends not on the consensus of 250 State Legislators, who are so intimately tied to the very benefits economic reality demands must change.  It is virtually impossible – in this day and age – to find an employer who will provide an employee with a defined-benefit pension plan.

It’s a Republican-Democrat problem that will need both parties in the State Legislator to step up to the plate and get fixed.

Now, I’m not sure Governor Corbett’s approach is necessarily the best alternative for Pennsylvania’s particular pension situation. The devil is always in the details.  However, you must admire Corbett’s tenacity in pushing for pubic awareness of a problem very difficult to fully understand and always controversial … And for doing so during an election year!

That – my friends – is Leadership with all its risks and political exposures.  Like the national bi-annual conniption over Social Security insolvency, it’s always the first person who goes through the door that gets bloodied. 

Yet this is a problem to which even tax & spend liberal Tom Wolf has begun to awaken.  Oh wait a minute … That was for his furniture company, not necessarily the tax-paying citizens of Pennsylvania!

All politics aside, the message is clear.

If you live in Pennsylvania and believe that the REAL problems we face are Education, Taxes, and Economic Growth, you simply must recognize the threat that growing pension costs pose to the economic health of The Keystone State.  Tell this story to your Pennsylvania neighbors.  Let your voice be heard by demanding your State Representatives and Senators act together with Governor Corbett to address pension reform NOW!