tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Leadership is mostly a matter of hard work

David Metzen, former superintendent of South Saint Paul's School District, is chairman of the board of regents for the University of Minnesota. I had an opportunity to sit down with him for a conversation about leadership recently. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

Are leaders born or made?

They are made. I feel very strongly about that. It’s a myth that they are born. People usually get ahead through hard work. Successful people are always learning and growing. The ones who are stuck in the past are the ones who quit learning and growing.

By nature, people want to be liked. How important is ‘being liked’ to successful leadership?

I went down that road of wanting to be liked and it is a recipe for failure. What you want is to be respected. Being liked will not take your company to where you want to be. I started out as a 28-year-old principal, wanting everyone to like me. But it doesn’t work. I also made a mistake in trying to make people happy. All you can do is create the environment. You can’t be an enabler to people.

What advice would you have for a mid-level manager who wants to be the CEO someday? What should they do to get that promotion?

First, you have to be authentic. You have to know your strengths and weaknesses. And you have to work hard. You have to keep learning and growing. You should hook onto a mentor or someone you really respect. Try to shadow that person, learn as much as you can. Set goals for yourself, and if you are in an organization where there aren’t any spots for you in senior management then you might want to start looking for a different organization.

You are the chairman of the board of regents of a major, land-grant university. You also serve on the board of a bank. What do you expect from the relationship between the University and industry?

The most important thing for industry to understand is how important it is to have an educated population. Look at the state of Minnesota. One of the only things we have to offer is a smart, hard-working population. The day we stop producing smart people will be the day we won’t exist as a state. I think we have been riding on the coattails of the investment our parents made in the 1960s. All the wonderful companies we have here are the direct result of having smart, hard-working people.

Who do you identify as outstanding leaders of our time, and why?

Thinking way back, I think of Bill Norris, who ran Control Data. History has proven that he had a vision back in the last 1960s, early 1970s, as a person who looked at the welfare of his employees, looked at daycare issues, looked at places in Minneapolis that needed jobs. He was a visionary who I really respected. Another leader is a person by the name of Tom Swain who was chief of staff to Gov. Elmer Andersen. He has given back to his community for over 50 years. He’s 84 years old. But if you look around, the Twin Cities has been blessed with some very wonderful leaders. People like the Daytons, who have given back to their community.

What would you say about the need to weigh the need to make a profit against the desire to give back to the community?

It’s a balance you have to achieve. You can’t give back unless you have a profit. So you first have to make a profit. You have to care about your employees and make sure the place is profitable. After that, look at a formula. I think the Dayton-Hudson organization for years had a formula of giving back 5 percent to the community. It’s up to each company to ascertain what their comfort level is.

Any final thoughts on leadership?

The most important thing is that you have to keep learning and growing. That’s part of leadership. One thing I want to emphasize is that either you are getting better or you are getting worse as an organization. If you are living in neutral, you are getting worse. The good organizations, even during tough times, are always investing in their people. With all due respect to technology, it really gets down to hiring the right people. Jim Collins wrote a wonderful book, “From Good to Great.” He talks about ‘the bus’ and getting the right people on the bus, the right people off the bus, getting people in the right seat on the bus. Then we decide where we are going to go. That makes good sense to me. The real tremendous organizations are always investing in their people, trying to make them better.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Greetings at Christmastime

A Charlie Brown Christmas was on the other night and I watched it with the kids. Internet lore has it that network executives initially balked at airing the Charles Shultz program because they were afraid it was too religious. Since it was first shown in 1965, however, A Charlie Brown Christmas has become the most successful Christmas special ever made.

I like the show because of its timelessness. Charlie Brown complains that he doesn’t feel happy. He knows he’s supposed to be happy but he doesn’t feel that way.

I know how he feels. I have been looking for happiness since the day I was born. First it came in the form of milk, then in an ability to walk, then as a bicycle, then a car, then a good job. All the things that brought me happiness seem so short-lived; I always found myself searching for more.

And I am not alone, at least according to Fareed Zakaria, the editor of the International edition of Newsweek magazine. In his book, “The Future of Freedom,” Zakaria says this about Americans and happiness:

They say that money can’t buy happiness, but you would think $5 trillion would make a dent. In the last quarter century the United States has added just that amount to its real gross domestic product and yet every survey and measure that psychologists use suggests that Americans are no happier than they were twenty-five years ago.

Wow, people are spending a lot of money in search of happiness. For the past 18 months, Susan and I have been involved in scripture study, led by nationally-known instructor Jeff Cavins. He exposed us to the teaching of St. Augustine, a Church father who wrote that there are four levels of happiness: 1) instant gratification; 2) achievement; 3) giving to others; and 4) communion with God.

I guess all those things I mentioned earlier – bike, car, job – fall into the first category. Regarding the second category, I did achieve a significant personal milestone this year when my first book, “Emerging Son,” was published. It’s an autobiographical memoir. That achievement brought me a certain amount of happiness.

And I understand the third level. During one of her shows this year, Oprah Winfrey gave everyone in her studio audience a car. I am sure that made her as happy as the audience members. I don’t have any cars to give away, but I understand the joy that comes with giving, especially at this time of year. One of the big joys of Christmas is watching the reaction of those to whom you give gifts.

That fourth level – communion with God. That’s what I really want. That’s what Charlie Brown was looking for in that Christmas special. And that’s probably what Americans are trying to buy with $5 trillion. I guess it is all a matter of where we look for God. I’ve been looking for some time and one of the few things I know for sure is that I see God in the faces of those closest to me. When I look at Michael, our two-year-old, or Catherine (5) or John (8) or Paula (9), there’s more than just a little kid staring back at me. When I look into Susan’s eyes I see more than the woman who said ‘yes’ to my marriage proposal some 15 years ago. I see Him in my friends, relatives, neighbors and in the people with whom I work. God is alive and He’s all around us. All you have to do is look for Him, and I am sure a good place to start looking is in the faces of those around you.

Merry Christmas and may you find new levels of happiness in the new year.

Monday, December 20, 2004

A conversation about ‘Emerging Son’

Emerging Son, an autobiographical memoir, was published earlier this month. Memoir enthusiasts – especially American men at midlife – are likely to find the book to be a worthwhile read. The last two posts offer excerpts. For information about ordering your copy, see the conclusion of the December 14 post. Following is an interview with author Tom Bengtson.

Why did you write Emerging Son?

The newspapers, big-time magazines and television shows are filled with stories about people who are far from ordinary – movie stars, athletes, politicians, billionaires, or people who have done amazing things like climb Mount Everest, or break a world record, or make some great discovery. The stories of these people should be told, but not to the exclusion of the stories of ordinary people. I am marginally interested in the pro athlete and movie star but I am really interested in the guy who has to figure out a way to put his four kids through school. Or the guy who has to work three jobs to make ends meet, or the person who is trying to understand God. Those are universal struggles that are the stuff of great stories, but too often those stories go unrecorded. Ordinary people need to write their stories down. These stories can be affirming and inspirational to other ordinary people.

So Emerging Son is one of those stories?

It’s the story of an ordinary guy making his way through life from about age 20 to about age 40. The story deals with topics nearly every American guy addresses during that time of life: finding a job, getting married, starting a family, figuring out who your friends are, figuring out that the world doesn’t revolve around you.

You are 43 years old. Isn’t that kind of young to be writing a memoir?

Many of us are familiar with end-of-life memoirs but this is a genre that can work at many points in a person’s life. I wanted to write about this period in my life while it was still relatively fresh in my mind. It is essentially an adult coming-of-age story and I found there was a lot of thinking that went into that maturation process. This memoir tries to tap into some of that thinking.

What kind of ego-maniac writes an autobiographical memoir?

It is true that I am the protagonist in Emerging Son, but my hope is readers will see the book as being more about them than about me. The themes in the book are so universal to typical, middle-aged, white, American males that I hope people see the “Everyman” in my character more than specifically Tom Bengtson.

How long did it take you to write Emerging Son?

The classic answer is “all my life.” The actual writing process started in June 1999 and the manuscript was mostly complete in summer of 2003.

Tell us about the process of writing the book.

I was 38 when I started writing the book and I had it in my head that I wanted to publish a book by the time I was 40. I had always called myself a writer and I felt like the title was a little hollow without a book to my credit. Part of me wanted to prove to myself that I could even write a book-length work, something I had never done before.

A good friend encouraged me to journal and I spent most of that first year on the project doing just that. I wrote down just about everything I could think of from my life – all the little episodes and stories and interesting things that happened, and memorable moments. I put those stories into chronological order and thought I had a book. Then I took a memoir writing class at the University of Minnesota and learned I didn’t have a book at all, just a bunch of ramblings. The class was extremely helpful in terms of learning the essentials of story telling. I learned something about the arch of a story, when to introduce characters, and what level of detail to include. The class was a huge educational step forward for me. So I started over and developed an entirely new draft. I ran that version by my instructor and he very kindly told me it needed a lot of work. I eventually ended up scrapping that version and started over again. The third version took a lot of fine-tuning but it eventually became what is the published book.

What about the process of getting a book published? You went the self-publishing route.

Yes, I did and there are a number of reasons for that. First, NFR Communications is a magazine publishing company but I have thought for a long time I would like to develop a book publishing division or service, so this was a natural way to try that out. Second, I didn’t find the book publishing industry to be interested in my work. I was told 80 percent of books are purchased by women, and that the books purchased by men are generally about investing or sports. The universe of men who buy memoirs is, apparently, very small. Emerging Son speaks mostly to men so I had no luck attracting the interest of any book publishers. Having now published the book on my own, I am hopeful that in the future NFR Communications will be able to help other ordinary people who write worthwhile books bring them to market.

Is everything in Emerging Son true?

Essentially, yes. Whenever you write a story you might have to mold a few episodes to make it work for the overall book, but I didn’t have to do that very much. I addition, you have to work with the limitations of the human memory. I did the best I could, drawing from my memory on some of the episodes from twenty and thirty years ago.

People who know me ask more about the things I left out than about the things I included. For example, I worked for a couple years at Honeywell and at the Minnesota Bankers Association. I don’t mention those two experiences at all. That’s not because I have anything to hide, but simply because my experiences there didn’t fit into the story I was trying to tell. Those first two versions of the book that I scrapped included stories from my work experience with those two organizations. They ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor. That, in fact, is where most of my writing ended up. Emerging Son is 227 pages, but I easily wrote twice that in the early drafts.

You spend at least one chapter in Emerging Son describing your faith. Is this a religious book?

Emerging Son certainly is a spiritual book, but there is no preaching in it. I think for any true story about a person to be worthwhile you have to address the big questions: Who are you? What do you believe? Where did you come from? Where do you hope to go? God inevitably is going to be a part of those answers. I try to be honest in the book with my insecurities and doubts, but also about my developing faith and increasing comfort level with my place in this world.

Your father plays an important role in the book. Is Emerging Son a tribute to him?

My father played an important role in by life, so he is important to the book. I think every man has to figure out his relationship with his father. I found this universal experience makes a pretty good basis for a book.

Did you learn anything through the process of writing Emerging Son?

I learned a lot. For one, I think I learned how to be a better writer, and I hope that shows up in my work for NorthWestern Financial Review magazine. Second, I learned a thing or two about story telling. This has sharpened my eye when I watch stories on television or in the movie theatre. For example, it has made me appreciate a really well-written show, like “West Wing.” Third, the writing process helped me to define some direction in my own life. By looking back seriously at where I have been and deciding what’s important, I can see the path I am on. This has helped me to decide whether I want to remain on this path or make changes for the future. And finally, the book writing process taught me a lot about perseverance. Five years is a long time to work on any project, especially for a journalist who is used to daily and weekly deadlines. But seeing this project through from beginning to end, resisting the urge to give up, as been very reassuring for me. A person can accomplish things. It may take time -- more time than you like -- but things do get done if you stick with it.

What’s next? Are you going to write another book?

Well, first I want to devote some energy to promoting Emerging Son. It is a good book that will mean something to a lot of people and I want the book to have the best opportunity possible to reach a wide audience. But beyond that, yes, I hope to write another book. I have a lot of books inside me and the challenge for me is to channel my energies into the most worthwhile project. My next book likely will have something to do with spirituality and the workplace. I do really like memoir, however, and I hope to produce another one, God willing, when the time is right.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Another look inside 'Emerging Son'

Following is an excerpt from chapter 8 of "Emerging Son." For information about ordering your copy of this delightful memoir, see the conclusion of the December 14, 2004 post.

Back home, the details of the adoption process were weighing us down. Before a couple could adopt, they had to prepare an information packet called a “home study.” The packet required couples to describe everything in writing, from job history, to family status, to personal philosophies, to religion, to the television shows they enjoy. And a social worker conducted interviews.

“Are you angry about your fertility situation?” asked an expressionless social worker.

“No,” I said. “I was sad about it but not angry.”

“So you are in denial?” she responded, writing “denial” on a notebook she kept on her lap.

“I am not in denial!” I shouted.

The social worker underlined her original answer in the notebook.

LSS wanted to know so much about us before they would approve us for an adoption. We had to give them a picture of our extended family. A social worker came to our home. She looked in every room, humming as she checked things off her clipboard. “Will the child have her own room?” we were asked. “How old is the house? Is this lead-based paint? Are these pipes protected with asbestos? I see. How many smoke alarms do you have?”

Then they asked about our plans for discipline. “You won’t be spanking the child will you?” I had to think fast. How was I supposed to answer? Truth was, I didn’t know if I would be spanking our child or not. Of course I hoped I wouldn’t ever have to. But could I imagine a situation where a swat on the bottom was the only way to get my kid’s attention? Yes.

“No,” I told the social worker.

LSS required couples considering international adoption to participate in a cross-cultural workshop, a three-hour meeting Susan and I dutifully attended with a dozen other couples. The session offered a potpourri of information about cultures around the world but there was little on Colombia and even less on some of the really important questions we had about adoption. Susan wanted to know about adoptive nursing and I wanted to know if there were any shortcuts we could take to minimize the paperwork demanded by the Colombian court system. The workshop didn’t address those topics.

Instead, workshop leaders spent a lot of time describing the ramifications of inter-racial adoption. Our adoption would fall into this category, although I had a hard time considering Colombians as being a different race. Colombians have skin colors that vary as much as Americans – some are dark and others are light. One prospective adoptive couple shared concern that their relatives wouldn’t accept their South American-born child as readily as they accepted their relatives born in the United States. “I know they will make an issue of the brown skin,” the wife said. “I have relatives who refused to come to my baby shower.”

Although a social worker told us these kinds of reactions were common, our relatives were supportive. In fact, Susan’s parents were excited about the culture that Colombian children might bring to a clan that was otherwise dominated by Scandinavians. The social worker asked us to consider several questions: Would we celebrate Colombian holidays with our new child? Would we teach them Spanish? Would we teach the kids about Colombian history and culture? Would we make an effort to expose them to other Colombian children living in the Twin Cities? We listened to the questions and we sensed that some of the couples took the exercise quite seriously, but one couple didn’t.

“The kid is going to be raised in Minnesota,” said a woman. “We are going to raise an American. All this heritage stuff is nice but the kid won’t be living in Colombia. He’ll be living in Minnesota. He won’t need to know how to speak Spanish. He is going to need to know how to speak English.”

The social worker nodded.

We were eager to encourage our child to study his or her heritage, and to learn to speak Spanish. Francophiles since college, Susan and I were conversant in French, which did us no good at all in our current station in life. When we first began to think about international adoption, I was hoping there would be some orphanage in the south of France that would need an American couple to take a child. No such Mediterranean opportunity existed so we prepared to immerse ourselves in a culture that would be entirely new to us.

The prospective parents we talked to at the seminar seemed like well-educated people living upper-middle class lifestyles. Many were managers at Fortune 500 companies like 3M or Honeywell. As I thought about how the responsibility of parenthood would affect Susan and me, I looked around the room. Susan already had given up full-time work at NFR Communications in anticipation of spending time at home with our new baby. How many of our peers intended to stay home full-time with their new child? Would they put their baby in daycare? Would nine hours a day at a KinderCare be much of an improvement over life in an orphanage? I wish the social worker had shed some light on this for me.

At one point, we needed to be fingerprinted by an official from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which happened to have an office in the basement of a building in Bloomington. We got an appointment only after working an automated phone system for hours. One time, Susan called at 3:30 and was put on hold for 90 minutes. At 5 p.m. sharp, the line clicked to a dial tone.

The service wasn’t any better in person. Spending more than an hour in a hot, crowded waiting room, we listened to the low-level chatter of people who sat around us. Much of the banter was in languages I didn’t understand and I wondered why so many people were there. These were not prospective adoptive couples. Mostly, I guessed, they were foreigners looking for a legal way to stay in the United States. They must have been highly motivated because there was nothing welcoming about this INS office. In fact, our country seemed to be going out of its way to express indifference toward these people from a multitude of lands.

No one acknowledged us as we waited to be fingerprinted so the authorities could check us against their national database of criminals. Susan and I knew we weren’t criminals but they made us feel like we were. Eventually our number came up and we paid a fee. An aide helped us roll each finger in ink and apply it to a special fingerprint card. We were told to relax. Tight finger muscles apparently don’t provide a good print. We had to give two sets of prints so by the time we were finished, we were in desperate need of the industrial strength cleaning solution they offered us on our way out. Months later we received a computer-generated form from an office in Washington, D.C., telling us that our fingerprints had failed to turn up any matches in their criminal files. We could continue with the adoption process.

We also needed to have a psychological evaluation. We were given the name of a doctor, who interviewed us separately, asking us questions about our childhood and whether we were addicted to drugs or alcohol. Ultimately, he gave us each a certificate verifying our sanity. I joked that I was going to have it framed and hung in my office so that if anyone ever questioned my sanity, I could point to the certificate for proof. Susan reminded me that the certificate was dated and valid only for six months.

I can understand the extensive vetting but I wondered why adoptive parents were held to a higher standard than birth parents. A couple gets pregnant, has a kid, and raises it any way they want. No one checks to see if their home is good enough. No one wants to see a picture of their relatives. No one asks how they plan to discipline their child. No, those questions are reserved for adoptive couples. I complained, not so much because I wanted anything to change but because I found the venting to be somewhat therapeutic.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

A look inside ‘Emerging Son’

Following is an excerpt from chapter 1 of “Emerging Son.” Another excerpt will be posted tomorrow. See the end of the December 14 post for information about ordering your copy of this engaging memoir.

We opened the sailing season that year like we had before – in the community room at one of the city parks. Early each spring, the Minneapolis Park Board conducted a lottery for the buoys on the lakes. During the winter, sailboat owners registered with the Park Board to get in on the drawing. As the names were pulled from a hat, boat owners got to choose the buoy they wanted for the summer. If you didn’t show up for the drawing, the Park Board gave you whatever buoy was left over at the end of the lottery. These were the worst buoys on the lake, the ones farthest from the sailing dock requiring the longest tender boat ride. Dad and I considered the acquisition of a well-placed buoy to be absolutely essential to having a good summer. Attendance at the lottery was very important and we prayed for weeks leading up to the event that our names would be drawn early. On our way to the lottery that evening, neither of us said a word. Our fate lay before us and there was nothing we could do about it.

We arrived to a crowded room and the drawing soon began. The first name was announced and it was not ours. The winner leapt out of his chair and raced up to the map displayed at the front of the room. The lucky sailor drove a pin through the best buoy on the lake – No. 1, located only a few feet from the sailing dock. His summer in paradise was set; he’d get all the benefits of a city lake mooring without much of the work. More names were drawn and happy boat owners eagerly claimed their prize positions on the lake. Sometimes the moderator drew the name of a no-show. “He’ll be sorry,” my dad muttered just loud enough for me to hear.

Finally the man drawing the names called “Frank Bengtson.” Dad and I rushed to the front of the room and selected a buoy in the middle of the pack. The one we got was far enough from shore that we wouldn’t have to worry about fishermen casting into our boat, yet close enough to the dock that we wouldn’t wear ourselves out rowing to and from our boat. With a decent buoy placement, I figured we could have a pretty good summer.

The Rose Anne proved easy to sail and like Myron’s boat, it was designed to heel. On a good run, the high side of the hull would rise out of the water and the boat would pick up speed. I learned just how far I could push the Rose Anne before she would begin to lose speed and even tip over. In fact, I eventually learned to tip the boat on purpose and right it by myself without getting wet. As the boat was going over, I’d climb over the high side of the hull and stand on the sideboard. My weight would reverse the momentum of the boat and she would begin to right. As the mast came up out of the water, I’d climb back into the cockpit, my foot leaving the sideboard just as the hull would come crashing back on top of the water. Dad was so impressed by this little maneuver that he asked me to do it in front of the sailing dock where he captured it on film with his Super-8 movie camera.

Sailing brought me life. The sound and smell of the lake water mixed with the warmth of the sun on my lean teenage body and made me high. A city lake is a wonderful place for a teen to be in the summer. How many people were watching the Rose Anne from shore, perhaps a little jealous? How many were looking at me, this kid who happened to be lucky enough to have a dad bit by the sailing bug? Maybe no one, in fact, but in my mind it was everyone and I liked the celebrity status. I liked that I could sail the boat by myself. I wasn’t dependent upon someone else.

Melanie, my high school sweetheart, came from a sailing family, her father keeping a boat on a large lake west of the cities. The first time I took her sailing on Lake Nokomis she wore a yellow, two-piece bathing suit. She knew how to sail, moving from one side of the boat to the other, depending on the wind. Another time, Melanie and her parents took me sailing on their lake. I would hate to have to choose between a girlfriend and a sailboat but that summer I had both and it seemed like heaven.

Myron and I would sometimes race, as the Calypso and the Rose Anne were evenly matched. The Calypso had a jib but the Rose Anne had a slightly bigger mainsail. Myron and I would sail along, our boats only a foot or two apart. The upwind boat had a slight advantage if it was positioned directly in the path of the wind for the other boat. If you could steal the wind from the downwind boat, it would lose speed and the upwind boat could race ahead. Sometimes we devised a racecourse made up of several legs. The trick was to figure out how to complete the course with as few tacks as possible. While Myron and I might start out with our boats a few feet apart, we often ended up on opposite sides of the lake by the middle of the race depending on where each of us decided to turn for a new tack.

Although a sailor is completely dependent upon the wind, I found that a good afternoon of sailing actually has very little to do with the wind. I had fun regardless of whether the wind was whistling at 15 miles an hour or barely stirring. Apparently, it’s not so much the power of the wind that matters but what you do with it.

I don’t know if Dad ever realized how much his investment in a sailboat paid off for me. Sailing taught me lessons at a young age that I have carried with me all my life. You can’t control the wind, and the best sailors don’t complain about it. They focus on the things they can control, making adjustments that help make the most of their situation. Sometimes, a sailor encounters an unexpected shift in the wind that other sailors avoid. Yet, if you react to the shift correctly, it doesn’t always slow you down. It may, in fact, prove to be just what you need.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

New memoir now available

I am very pleased to announce that my first book is now available. Below is a description of “Emerging Son,” followed by information for ordering your copy. The next two posts will offer excerpts from the book. For an interview about the book, see the December 20, 2004 post.

“Emerging Son” is an autobiographical memoir about a man’s journey to a purposeful midlife from youthful uncertainty. The author’s quest to recreate the happiness of his youth takes him from the newsroom to the courtroom as he launches a career, from the Midwest to Rome as he deepens his faith, and to South America as he builds a family. Tom Bengtson looks to his father as an example but ultimately discovers he has to look within himself for answers to life’s questions about faith, family and work.

The book opens with Tom recalling the lessons he learned as a kid when he sailed with his dad. Sailing teaches him to pay attention to details, to forget about things he can’t control and to make the most of what he has -- lessons that prove valuable as Tom later becomes a writer, entrepreneur, husband and father.

His journalism career gets off to a rocky start when he quickly finds himself at the center of a libel case. Daily newspaper work back East ultimately proves to be the wrong fit for Tom and he returns to his hometown of Minneapolis where he begins a career as a financial reporter for a magazine – a magazine that he eventually purchases and grows into a profitable business. As Tom transitions from reporter to publisher, he works to inspire employees, grow the business with new publishing ventures and keep up with the latest management trends.

But more than professional success Tom wants a family like the one he grew up in, where he was one of five children. Tom and his wife struggle with infertility, frustrated by the inability of doctors to help them. They turn to adoption, making their way through an equally frustrating social services network. Over a seven-year period, they adopt children from Colombia, traveling to South America four times.

Tom’s efforts are guided by a renewed interest in his Catholic faith, rekindled after years of dormancy by the example of an Evangelical friend. Tom remembers fondly his years as a child serving as an altar boy and learning in Catholic schools. As an adult, however, he finds Catholicism challenging. He contemplates the meaning of life-long marriage, the practicality of natural family planning over birth control and the sacrament of confession. His experience with infertility further tests his faith commitment.

In addition to appealing to memoir enthusiasts, “Emerging Son” will be of interest to four groups. First, it will be of interest to anyone suffering with infertility. Second, it will interest people contemplating adoption, particularly international adoption. Third, it will appeal to anyone preparing for marriage, especially marriage in the Catholic Church. And fourth, it will be of interest to small business owners who want to read how one entrepreneur grows his company by taking on a business partner and adapting to changing market conditions. This 58,000-word memoir is a timeless work that addresses themes that will be of interest for decades to come.

Order your copy of this 227-page hard-cover book by sending a check for $24 to: NFR Communications, 3109 West 50th Street, No. 125, Minneapolis, MN 55410-2102. Make check out to NFR Communications. Rate includes $3 for shipping. Paypal paments accepted.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

New Ag Secretary will have to perform a tricky balancing act

Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns will be a key player in the formation of the nation’s farm policy when he becomes U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. President Bush nominated the Iowa native, Minnesota-educated 54-year-old attorney to the position last week, after Ann Veneman resigned.

It is worth it for everyone, even life-long city-dwellers like me, to keep an eye on farm policy. The U.S. Government spent about $16 billion on farm programs last year; that’s actually down from really expensive years like 1986 when the government spent $26 billion. Congress determines farm program spending levels through legislation it passes about every five years. Assuming the Senate confirms Johanns and he fulfills his term, he will be a key player in the formation of the 2007 farm bill. The big, on-going questions are, how much should we be spending on farm programs and who should get the money?

I was at a meeting last month in Minneapolis where a trade group brought in experts to debate these questions. Dr. Barry Flinchbaugh, professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University, squared off against Kenneth Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a group advocating for the redistribution of farm subsidies. Flinchbaugh was instrumental in the creation of the 1996 farm legislation, commonly referred to as the “Freedom to Farm” bill, which was designed to integrate market forces into the government payments system.

Cook said the current subsidy program is flawed because most of the money goes to the biggest farm operations, while most small and medium size farm operations get little or no money. Across the country, Cook said, the 10 percent largest subsidized crop producers got 71 percent of all farm payments made between 1995 and 2002. He said 60 percent of farmers got nothing. Family farms, he said, generally get only a few hundred to a couple of thousand of dollars.

Cook argued that since farmers export 20 percent to 40 percent of their yield, the policy framework for the 2007 farm bill should be away from farm subsidies and toward “trade adjustment assistance.” He said he would like to see money currently earmarked for farmers mixed in with assistance programs designed to aid all workers, whether they work in agriculture, manufacturing, textiles or other industries.

Flinchbaugh disputed Cook, saying “one-fourth of all payments go to small farms, half go to medium size farms, and one-fourth go to large farms.” He said payments do go to family farms. Flinchbaugh described the typical family farm in Kansas: 1,800 acres with $240,000 in annual sales and $51,000 in net income. People working these farms typically have living expenses of $39,000 and receive $28,000 in government subsidies. He said there are 2,100 such operations in Kansas. “These payments are going to these farmers,” he said.

Flinchbaugh said it is very unlikely that there will be major changes in farm subsidy payment programs when the 2007 farm bill is passed. He said the eight states that gave President Bush his highest margin of victory on November 2 are the states that would suffer the greatest losses in farmland value if subsidy programs were curtailed. The decline in farmland value would be dramatic in Texas, for example, where it would drop 34 percent according to a 2003 study conducted by Kansas State University. Oklahoma would suffer a 44 percent loss in farmland value; Kansas a 35 percent loss; Nebraska a 31 percent drop; South Dakota a 30 percent drop and North Dakota a 47 percent drop. Farmland in Wyoming and Utah also would lose value.

Although Cook said he would like to make the largest ag producers ineligible for farm payments, Flinchbaugh called that idea impractical. He implied that large farm operations would simply restructure their organizations to fit the size requirements of any new subsidy parameters. Furthermore, he said large farms have to be included in programs if environmental goals are going to be attained.

And farms are getting larger all the time. Mike Boehlje, an agricultural economist from Purdue University, cited hog producers as an example. In 1988, less than 10 percent of hog operations sold 50,000 head or more per year. Today, 70 percent of them do. “We’re seeing the same thing in potatoes,” Boehlje said. “We’re seeing more and more 10,000 acre, 20,000 acre and 30,000 acre corn and soybean farms.”

Flinchbaugh said he would like to see farm payments “decoupled” from production and market prices. In addition, he said the United States should set up a farmers’ savings account program, which already exists in Canada. These accounts would help farmers weather periods of drought or other typically difficult times.

Flinchbaugh and Cook represent just two of the competing viewpoints regarding the country’s ag policy. Johanns ultimately will be judged according to his ability to balance the interests of competing points of view. My hope as a citizen who likes to eat is that the outcome does not add to the country’s debt burden, improves the security of our food processing systems, and assures the viability of a strong agricultural sector in the United States.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Emotions run high in debate over sports facilities

Nothing stirs emotions like a good football or basketball game. A down-to-the-wire finish in any sport get spectators off their seats, gets them cheering, and sends them home euphoric or despondent, depending on the outcome. So it’s probably no surprise that the debate over the need for a new stadium in the Twin Cities is so emotionally charged. Without new facilities, the teams will leave, damaging the economic vitality of our state; on the other hand, no one wants to devote millions of dollars in taxes to a stadium that will benefit millionaire players and billionaire team owners.

In the 1970s, I was in high school and I watched my share of Twins baseball games at Bloomington’s Metropolitan stadium, built in 1956. It was a good park for baseball. I have fond memories of my dad taking me to games on “knothole” days when the price of admission was only 50 cents. The stadium always seemed good enough to me back then, and it was a little bit sad to watch them tear it down in the early 1980s after building the new Hubert Humphrey Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis.

A similar facilities drama was unfolding at my high school at that time. Holy Angels High School in Richfield had only a very small gymnasium when I was a student there. It was too small to accommodate a varsity basketball game so our team played all its home games at a nearby grade school, which had a bigger gym. Throughout my four years there, we were asked to raise money for a new gym – a quality on-campus facility that would be big enough to accommodate a regulation basketball court and bleachers for several hundred fans. We did all kinds of things to raise money. For a while, I remember going door to door in my neighborhood selling electrostatic magnetic carpet sweepers. They cots $20 each and I think I sold two of them. It was $40 on the way toward the school’s goal of $550,000. The money got raised and the new gym was built. It opened the year after I graduated.

Now, 20-some years later, they have torn down that gym and built a bigger indoor athletic facility – a gym that is apparently as good or better than any in the area. That gym built with the money we raised, wasn’t big enough or good enough or something. It kind of rubs a person the wrong way to think that the thing we all worked so hard to build 25 years ago is no longer good enough. It seems like a gym ought to last more than a couple of decades.

I have those same feelings about the Metrodome. This was the stadium that was going to solve all our problems. With a covered facility, games would always be played as scheduled and no one traveling a long distance to see a game would have to go home because of rain. It would also be a lot more comfortable for fans to watch, particularly in late fall when the Gophers and Vikings were playing.

Now there’s a lot of talk about building a new stadium. Somehow the Metrodome, built in 1980, just isn’t good enough. It doesn’t seem that long ago to me that I was covering Gopher football games at the Metrodome for my college newspaper; now some people want to retire the Metrodome. Just as the whole high school gymnasium thing rubs me the wrong way, this flap over a stadium rubs me the wrong way too. What’s worse is that the talk is not about the need for another stadium but the need for three more stadiums. Apparently the Twins, Vikings and Gophers just can’t get along sharing a single facility; each team feels it needs its own stadium.

About a month ago, I had a chance to listen to Roy Terwilliger explain the stadium debate. Roy, whom I have known for many years, is a banker from Eden Prairie. My company has even done some work for him. He served in the state senate for 11 years and ran unsuccessfully for governor and U.S. senator. He is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet and he has a reputation as a common-sense consensus builder who gets things done. About a year and a half ago, Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed Terwilliger chairman of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, the seven-person body charged with managing the Metrodome.

“Our first and foremost job is to retain professional football and baseball,” Terwilliger told a business group on November 4. Terwilliger noted that the Twins do not have a long-term contract to play in the Metrodome; their agreement runs year to year. The Vikings, on the other hand, have signed a contract obligating them to play there until 2011. Terwilliger said it takes about five years to move a team, so he feels it is necessary to reach agreement on a contract extension before 2006. The only way to get the extension, he says, is to offer the team a new place to play.

The Vikings frequently point out that other teams in the midwest – the Lions, Packers and Bears – are playing in facilities that have been upgraded in recent years. All are seeing their revenues rise, while the Vikings complain their revenues are flat.

Terwilliger said the metro area gets a stadium for all kinds of uses because of the Twins and Vikings. He explained that the Metrodome has 300 dates a year available for events. Eighty-one are used for baseball, 10 are used for Vikings football and six are used for Gopher football. “That leaves 203 days that we are able to do things because the Vikings and the Twins pay the freight,” Terwilliger said. “No tax dollars are being used to run the stadium. Those teams make it possible to have that facility for our use.” Over the years, the Metrodome has hosted big-time concerts, rallies, truck-pulls and other events, not to mention a Super Bowl, All Star game and two World Series.

Terwilliger obviously wants the state legislature to authorize the construction of new stadium facilities. “We don’t know what the legislature will do,” Terwilliger summarized. Keep in mind that the biggest issue the legislature will face when it convenes in January is how to balance a budget that is expected to be $700 million in the red.

“We know it is pretty tough to put athletes ahead of kids and senior citizens,” said Terwilliger, who wanted to make one point clear. “No one is advocating using general fund money for a stadium. We are looking at special assessments to finance a stadium.

“The fact is, we don’t want to lose the Vikings or the Twins, and we want the Minnesota Gophers to have a good on-campus program,” said Terwilliger. The Gophers, he said, have $200 million already committed to build a new stadium on campus. Because of that head start, he said a Gopher facility is likely to be the first new stadium built.

Next year will be a better year to work on stadium issues in the legislature than 2006 for two reasons. First, it is not an election year; this timing gives lawmakers additional freedom to make difficult decisions. Second, there’s still plenty of time to work things out before the Vikings’ contract comes into play. Terwilliger believes lawmakers can reach agreement on an approach to new facilities, citing Denver and Detroit as examples of similar metro areas that have separate baseball and football stadiums. “I can’t believe we can’t get this done,” he said.

Losing either of the pro sports teams would be bad, according to Terwilliger. He said the impact of pro sports is significant in Minnesota. Each of the teams, he said, generates millions of dollars in revenue to the state and in economic activity. He said pro athletes pay between $10 million and $12 million in income taxes in Minnesota. “When other teams play here, those visiting players pay income taxes here for the work they do while in the state,” Terwilliger said.

And fans spend millions of dollars because of the teams. “Money spent is not just entertainment dollars that would be spent elsewhere if the teams didn’t exist,” Terwilliger said. “I don’t believe that money would be spent.”

Emotionally, these are difficult issues. Just like it rubs me the wrong way to tear down a high school gym that’s not even 25 years old, it’s a little difficult to get excited about financing new stadiums when the one we’ve got seems adequate to me. But just like I am willing to put my emotions on the shelf so today’s students at my old high school can have athletic facilities as good as those at many other high schools, I am probably willing to put my emotions on the shelf to support efforts to retain pro sports -- an important economic catalyst -- in our Twin Cities.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Economy growing but falling dollar shows concern over debt

Despite the declining value of the dollar on world currency markets, at least one economist is optimistic about the short-term prospects for the U. S. economy. Last week, when the Federal Reserve raised interest rates, the dollar fell further against the euro and the Fed Chairman articulated concerns about growing deficits and trade imbalances, Dr. Sung Won Sohn said the economy is actually humming along and looks solid at least through 2005. Long term, however, he said the United States economy faces challenges that have serious consequences.

Speaking to a group of agri-business professionals in Minneapolis on Nov. 16, the eminent economist from Wells Fargo & Co., made two obvious observations. Dr. Sohn noted the price of oil is coming down and reminded the 600 of us in the audience that we got through the elections without a terrorist attack. “We are headed in the right direction,” he declared. Dr. Sohn said the economic growth rate for the country will come in at 4 percent for 2004 and will be about 3.5 percent for next year.

The economic fundamentals, he said, “are pretty sound.” Rising incomes are fueling increased levels of consumption. Income and spending, of course, are what make the economy go.

Dr. Sohn also said individual net worth is “very, very high.” It is averaging about five times annual income for most Americans. The question mark there is the degree to which that figure consists of real estate. On average, individual net worth is made up 34 percent with real estate. It is higher in places like New York and California. “So people worry about a real estate bust,” Dr. Sohn said. “That would be a national economic catastrophe.” He said, however, that he expects the real estate market to hold its value.

Interest rates have been inching up, Dr. Sohn acknowledged, but the effect of those increases is hardly negative. The Federal Funds rate, which is the rate the Fed changes directly, is now at 2 percent – still a historically low rate. This is the amount of interest the Fed charges banks when it lends them money overnight to balance their accounts. It ultimately affects all other interest rate pricing, like the prime, home mortgages and business loans. While the Fed Funds rate sat at 1 percent for most of the last year, the Federal Reserve was trying to stimulate the economy. It was being “accommodative,” as the economists like to say. But now the economy is improving and it no longer needs the Fed’s aggressive help; Dr. Sohn said the Fed is moving the interest rate toward “neutrality.” That is the rate at which it neither helps nor hurts the economy. Dr. Sohn said such a rate is between 3.5 percent and 4 percent; that is where he expects the Fed Funds rate to be by the end of 2005.

Dr. Sohn pointed out that at 78 years of age, Alan Greenspan is in the twilight of his tenure as Chairman of the Federal Reserve. His term is scheduled to end Jan. 31, 2006. Dr. Sohn said Greenspan is likely thinking about his legacy and does not want to close out a 19-year run with inflation out of check and rising interest rates retarding the economy. “Do you want to go out as the chairman who caused one more recession by raising interest rates too high when he went out?” Dr. Sohn asked. “No. That is one reason I think Greenspan is going to be very cautious raising interest rates.”

The Federal Reserve, however, is not the only influence on interest rates. Foreign banks, such as the Peoples Bank of China and the Bank of Japan, purchase huge amounts of Treasury bonds and U.S. securities. In fact, the U.S. needs to sell about $2 billion in such debt every day of the year to finance the budget deficit. Foreigners hold about half the country’s debt. That’s why the value of the dollar is so important. A dollar that is losing value means that investors around the world are willing to pay less for American currency. In order to attract those investors back to dollar-denominated securities, the Fed raises interest rates. When securities pay more, investors regain a desire to buy. But rising interest rates fuel inflation and make everything for Americans more expensive.

Although the dollars is falling against the euro and yen, countries like China and Japan remain willing to lend to the United States because Americans are the biggest purchasers of products made in their countries. If Japan and China were to back off from buying U.S. Treasuries, American interest rates would rise and Americans would buy fewer goods manufactured overseas (including China) and fewer Japanese cars. So the United States needs to keep borrowing to finance its deficit, and foreign countries need to keep lending to keep their economies going. It’s a dance that Dr. Sohn said may end in heartbreak.

“In the short run, it’s a win-win situation,” he said. “In the long run, clearly we have a problem. No nation can go on borrowing at a rate of $2 billion per day, 365 days per year. The Wall Street Journal calls this a moral issue. Is it right to pass this debt burden to our children and grand children? They will have to work more, perhaps 10 hours a day – four to pay debt and six for themselves. What do we do? I don’t know.”

If Greenspan indeed is winding down his career, he has a certain freedom to make bold proclamations during the remainder of his tenure. That may explain his comments in Frankfurt November 19 where he wondered aloud how long foreign investors would continue financing United States debt. The growing U.S. deficit is tarnishing the sheen on American investments. Greenspan spoke about the benefits of cutting the U.S. budget deficit, which at the end of fiscal year 2004 was $412 billion.

That deficit was one reason so many people were watching Congress over the weekend, when it approved a $388 billion spending bill. It was supposed to represent a reduction in spending, but the Associated Press reported the bill still found money for 11,772 home-district projects (sometimes referred to as “pork”) worth $15.8 billion.

The trick for American political and economic leaders will be to find ways to reduce the country’s debt while times remain good. The United States needs to send some signal that it is serious about reining in its debt. Inaction or clumsy bumbling could lead to serious economic trouble for the entire developed world.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Thankful reflections on faith and family

Thanksgiving is next week; this is a time of year when people reflect on the things for which they are grateful. For me, I am most thankful for my family. I am particularly thankful because during those first few years Susan and I were married, we didn’t even know if we’d ever have a family.

Before Susan and I started adopting children nearly a decade ago, we had to come to terms with our infertility. Looking back, that picture has come into a little clearer focus thanks to some serious Bible study Susan and I are pursuing through a local parish. Jeff Cavins, nationally known for his work on the EWTN television program “Life on the Rock,” is leading the instruction.

Our study has taken us through Genesis, and one story has proven particularly meaningful to me. In the middle of Genesis, God promises Abraham and Sarah a child. Both laugh because at their advanced age they cannot believe they will have a child. Wanting to see God’s plan fulfilled, however, Sarah encourages Abraham to have a child with her slave, Hagar. Abraham follows up and Ishmael is born. Fourteen years later, Sarah becomes pregnant and has Isaac. Hagar and Ishmael are sent away and to this day the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac co-exist in a strained relationship.

This is the first recorded story of a couple wrestling with infertility. Their story, however, is as relevant today at is was in biblical times. Like most couples, Abraham and Sarah believed that God’s will included a family for them. When they ran into the roadblock of infertility, they took matters into their own hands rather than put their trust in God. How many couples struggling with infertility today seek family through means that use sperm or ova from a third party? Many couples today do what Abraham and Sarah did, albeit in a petri dish and medical lab as opposed to a tent in the desert.

Man’s ways do produce children – beautiful children, in fact. However, just as it was impossible for Abraham and Sarah to know of the Muslim/Judeo-Christian strife that would result for their descendants, it is impossible for any parents today to know what pain may lay ahead for their descendants. We all know that peace will only come to our hearts if we live according to God’s will rather than according to our own will.

For Susan and me, the Catholic Church’s counsel away from artificial means of conception proved invaluable. We accepted that teaching. We were a little unsure at first but looking back, adoption proved absolutely the right path.

Thursday, Susan and I will sit down to a Thanksgiving Day dinner with our four children and other relatives. We have so much for which to be thankful -- faith and family above all else.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Minnesota moves toward ideological balance with latest election

Minnesotans are a fickle lot. Two years ago, voters in this state took a hard turn to the right, electing 11 additional Republicans to seats in the Minnesota House of Representatives. Two weeks ago, Minnesota voters took a hard turn to the left, awarding 13 additional seats to Democrats.

With the rest of the country moving farther to the right in the 2004 election, Minnesota’s results are all the more curious. Is it the start of a trend in Minnesota, as the state’s Democratic Party leaders are saying, or is it something less significant -- an aberration or merely business as usual?

To be sure, Republicans still hold the majority in the House, albeit by only two seats (68-66). And the Republicans continue to hold the governorship. My sense is that it is too early to declare any kind of sea change in the philosophy of typical Minnesotans. I’ll be watching to see what the legislature does over the next two years and whether it is any more productive than it was in 2004. Plus, I am eager to see how voters respond during the midterm elections in 2006. But for now, my sense is the 2004 results were just another chapter in the state’s metronome-like election cycle.

While it is dramatic for either party to pick up 13 seats out of 134 in the House, it is not all that unusual. In 1986, the Democrats gained more than 20 seats. In 1992, Democrats picked up 10 seats. In 1994, the Republicans picked up 13 seats and eight years later they picked up 11 seats. Most of those Republican wins in 2002 were very close and this time around, with a higher turnout, Democrats took some of those seats back.

Historically, Democrats in Minnesota have done well in presidential election years. Democrats typically have done a better job than Republicans getting the vote out for their presidential candidate and that has a beneficial spillover effect for Democrat legislative candidates. That was certainly the case in St. Louis Park where Democrat Steve Simon beat Republican Jim Rhodes by 12 percent of the vote. More than 20,000 people voted in that election, which is 3,000 to 5,000 more people than typically go to the polls there. The Democrats got their people out to vote for John Kerry, and those people cast ballots for whoever the Democrat on the ballot was for that District 44A legislative seat.

Republicans were saying as early as last July that this would be a tough election for them. Only one Democrat incumbent did not seek re-election this year, while eight Republican incumbents decided not to run again. And one Republican incumbent who ran again lost his party endorsement. All of these factors pointed to a tough night on Nov. 2.

Conventional wisdom holds that voters were upset by the 2004 legislative session when little was accomplished. Voters reacted against the incumbents and that explains all the turnover. Since only House seats were up for election, the tide went against Republicans. They had held an 81-53 advantage in the House and voters nearly wiped that out completely. Had the Democrat-controlled Senate been up for election, I think you would have seen a reaction against the majority there as well. With only a one-seat majority, had voters been allowed to vent their frustrations at Senators as well as Representatives, my bet is we would have seen a change in control of the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, for example, very well may have lost had he faced election this year. President Bush easily won Johnson’s District 13. It is not difficult to imagine that the Democrat who was at the center of a legislative logjam in spring of 2004 would lose to a good Republican challenger, had there been one.

Minnesota is fairly evenly divided with about half its population in the Twin Cities metro area, and the other half in what the state’s Department of Tourism people call “Greater Minnesota.” Typically, urban people vote Democrat and rural people vote Republican. So it is perhaps predictable that the state should be so evenly balanced between Republicans and Democrats. Consider for years Minnesota elected probably the most liberal person in the U.S. Senate, Paul Wellstone, at the same time it elected one of the Senate’s most conservative people, Rod Grams.

Rather than the most recent election results signaling any philosophical trend, they more likely reflect the state’s long-established desire for balance. For the most part, Minnesotans seem to be moderates, uncomfortable too far to either end of the ideological spectrum.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Post election analysis

Our country is better off for the fact that President Bush won last week's election by a decisive margin. The last thing we needed was another result like we had four years ago, when the counting and legal wrangling delayed the final outcome until well into December. Although most people expected a close election this time around, the three-million-vote margin was enough to denude any legal challenges; even voting delays in Ohio only extended the drama to the next morning. John Kerry conceded graciously and promptly. There would be no talk this time of anyone stealing the election, or of the difference between the popular vote and the electoral vote.

The 2004 general election produced what citizens expect of an election: an unambiguous decision about who will be our president.

Going into the election, I thought Kerry was going to win. Signs of his success seemed to be all around me, but then, I live in Minnesota, one of the states Kerry won. Furthermore, I live in Minneapolis, where Kerry won 78 percent of all votes cast. In the end, however, an old political adage proved sound: it takes a distinctive candidate to beat an incumbent. Not only does a candidate need obvious differentiation from an incumbent but he needs a clear message about where he will lead. For the most part, John Kerry failed in this regard.

Here are a few thoughts about why the election resulted in a Bush victory. My bias as a Republican probably comes through in my analysis but I am not offering this to widen any partisan divide; my assumption is that sincere observation from one citizen's perspective can be useful to those who are interested in politics on almost any level.

Perhaps the most important issue in the election was the war and John Kerry's position wasn't sufficiently different from President Bush's. Kerry had a lot of criticism about the past, and said he never would have gotten us into this situation in the first place. At this point, however, more people are interested in the future than the past and, looking forward, Kerry's message was the same as Bush's message. Kerry wasn't going to withdraw troops immediately. He was going to stay until the job was done, train Iraqi citizens, and withdraw our troops only after a certain level of security is achieved. This is what Bush had been saying all along. The difference between the candidates on the future of the war was indistinguishable.

Indeed, Kerry spent a lot of time looking at history. He told us he was a veteran, but that fact confused more than it convinced. We could never really figure out what to make of his military service. Was he proud or ashamed of his service in Vietnam? He was on both sides of that question. Then, he pointed to mistakes he said Bush made in the past four years. Kerry never said anything that convinced me he would not have made the same mistakes, or that he would not have made other equally grave mistakes. Most of us are Monday morning quarterbacks to some degree, so we know how much stock to put into second-guessing -- not much, and that's apparently what most Americans did.

Kerry tried to make a big issue of the economy, but it turned out to be less of an issue than he hoped. While in a nation of 280 million people it seems there always will be pockets of trouble, for the most part the economy hasn't been all that bad. Kerry tried to make an issue out of job loss, but the unemployment rates were in a range most people deem acceptable. Plus, I think there is a difference between what is reported in the newspapers and what Americans are actually experiencing. The U.S. Labor Department uses an unemployment figure derived from something called the “establishment” survey. This means that several of the country's largest firms report their payroll levels and the Labor Department issues an unemployment rate based on that survey -- most recently coming out at 5.5 percent. But in today's economy, where so many entrepreneurs work out of their homes or in very small businesses, this method of assessing employment levels is inaccurate. Especially where I live, there are many people making a good freelance living. Those people count as unemployed in the establishment survey. Even me -- I am self-employed and I don't show up in the establishment survey. Us folks making a living on our own show up in another survey, called the “household” survey, but the results of that survey don't get nearly the press play that the establishment survey gets. Kerry was always using the grimmest available statistics on the labor front, which made for great rhetoric, but failed to match with most people's experience. And, immediately after the election, the Labor Department, using its antiquated measures, announced 337,000 new jobs had been created in October.

There was a big difference between the candidates on health care, but I think most people are skeptical that anyone can do very much to improve the system. Sure, the government might be able to nibble around the edges of this problem and slow the increase of health care costs by a percent or two, but the government cannot change a fundamental law of economics. People are living longer and the demand for health care simply outweighs the supply of doctors and other health care professionals. No matter what you do with insurance, co-pays, and federal programs, you are going to have rising costs as long as the demand exceeds the supply. No one seems to know how to fix this problem and most people understand this, so that is why Kerry was unable to turn this into a compelling issue for his campaign.

Another issue where Kerry failed to gain traction was the deficit. This could have been a huge issue in the campaign, but in the end Kerry lacked the credibility to argue convincingly that he could lead a deficit reduction effort. Kerry rightly criticized the president for turning a budget surplus into a sizeable deficit but he lacked the credentials to convince anyone that he could do anything about it. It was easy to point to the late 1990s, when the budget was balanced, and take credit for it since the Democrats held the presidency at the time. But I don't think most people were buying it; I know I wasn't. The reason the budget reached balance in the late 1990s was because of the work of the Republicans in Congress, largely elected in 1994. Also, the Internet boom fueled the economy like nothing else in the last 50 years. The boom created many new, high-paying jobs (albeit relatively short-lived). A lot of new tax revenue was generated. Those two developments combined to result in a balanced budget. It had very little to do with President Clinton and the Democrats. If you go back through history, you see it is generally the Democrats who have run up spending, not the Republicans. Rightly or wrongly, just as the Republicans have a reputation for catering to the rich, the Democrats have a reputation for fiscal laziness. It was a very hard sell from the outset that Kerry could be trusted more than a Republican to balance the budget.

Social Security proved to be an even bigger problem for Kerry, the candidate who said that he wouldn't change the system at all. When asked about Social Security in one of the debates, he said Congress fixed the problem in the late 1990s. That was news to everyone! Social Security is fundamentally a problem of an increasing percentage of people qualifying for benefits while a decreasing percentage of people are paying into it. The system is destined for bankruptcy unless something changes. But Kerry really had his head in the sand on this issue. Not that any of the solutions are easy; and Bush's solution of privatizing a portion of peoples' Social Security accounts is fraught with issues but at least he acknowledged that something needs to be done. People, apparently, wanted at least that much.

Finally, Kerry suffered at the hands of those who oppose abortion. Although Democrats don't like to acknowledge it, there are a lot of Americans who are ashamed and distressed that 1.4 million abortions take place in this country every year. Many voters want a candidate who will at least admit this is a problem. And these voters are particularly turned off by a candidate who says he is personally opposed to abortion but will not do anything about it. I know I am confused by a candidate who says he personally feels one way but will legislate another way. How does the candidate feel about poverty, homelessness, and public education? Apparently we are not to consider how the candidate feels personally on these issues because he tells us he doesn't legislate accordingly. But that is poppycock. Voters want transparency in a candidate, consistency, and straightforward leadership. The way a politician feels and talks needs to be reflected in their actions, or voters won't know what to make of that candidate. And, in the end, enough people didn't know what to make of Kerry. Lots of people don't like Bush but no one is confused about where he stands on issues. No one is sorting out his personal beliefs from his public policies.

Last July, I had the opportunity to listen to Charlie Cook when I was working in Iowa. Cook is an eminent non-partisan political commentator. At the time, he said Kerry and Bush were even, each with about 45 percent of the vote locked up. That left 10 percent of the vote undecided. He noted that undecided voters typically do not vote for the incumbent. He, therefore, predicted Kerry would get most of those undecided votes and win the election. Well, as it turned out, the election was not about undecided voters. In fact, I really wonder whether there ever were very many undecided voters. Judging by all the yard signs, I doubt there were any in my neighborhood. In the end, it was all about who could get more of their supporters to the polls -- who could energize their base, as the politico like to say. Across the country, Bush supporters were excited about their candidate and got out and voted in droves. People who didn't like Bush got out and voted for Kerry, but apparently there weren't enough people who passionately supported Kerry. Bush had more people than Kerry who believed in him; ultimately, that made the difference.

Friday, November 05, 2004

A president’s son shares stories about dad

I was 12 years old when the United States witnessed one of the strangest sequences of events in the history of the American presidency.

In the fall of 1973, Spiro Agnew was vice president; a man named Gerald Rudolph Ford was the House minority leader, a Republican congressman from Michigan. Agnew was forced to step down as vice president in October because he was caught in a bribery scandal. President Richard Nixon was looking for a new vice president. Ford was on a list of 10 candidates Nixon considered.

Gerald Ford and his wife Betty were living in Alexandria, Va., with their daughter and three sons at the time. The house had two phone lines coming into it: a private line in the bedroom and a phone with four lines in the living room. The phone in the bedroom rang. It was Alexander Haig, President Nixon’s chief of staff. Haig told Ford that the president had something to tell him that both he and his wife should hear. President Nixon got on the phone and Ford immediately asked him to call back on the other line so Betty could pick up and listen. And he hung up!

“We waited five minutes,” recalled Steve Ford, one of the three sons. “It seemed like forever. Five minutes later, the President called back on the other line. And together my parents experienced that moment of being asked to be vice president of the United States.”

Steve Ford was in the Twin Cities last month to address a business group. He had numerous interesting stories to share about his father, who became the 38th president of the United States.

Ten months after that phone call, Nixon resigned under pressure from the Watergate scandal and Gerald Ford was sworn in president.

“We were not able to move into the White House the same day as the swearing-in ceremony,” Steve Ford recalled. He explained that although the nation will never forget that image of Pat and Richard Nixon boarding the Marine One helicopter on the lawn of the White House, closing out a beleaguered presidency, relatives stayed behind for a week to pack all their belongings.

“We went home that night to Alexandria for family dinner,” Ford said. “Dad was president of the United States, living in suburbia. My mother was standing over the stove, cooking. She said: ‘something is wrong here. You are president of the United States and I am cooking!’ The next seven days we lived in that home. For that week, the neighbors waved to Dad as he left every morning to go to work in the Oval Office.”

Ford explained that his dad pardoned Nixon in order to quickly close a dark chapter in American history. President Ford was concerned that the legal proceedings surrounding Nixon’s resignation would consume the country for years, at a time when it had other issues – like recession, the cold war and Vietnam – to deal with.

“When he took over, he gathered leaders of Congress and they told him they were spending 25 percent of every day dealing with Nixon,” Steve Ford said. “Dad was spending 25 percent of his time on Nixon.” Ford said his father knew that Nixon would never admit guilt related to Watergate. By pardoning him, President Ford could not only put an end to the costly waste of time, but he could also get a backdoor admission of guilt from Nixon. A 1933 Supreme Court case ruled that if someone accepted a presidential pardon, they were admitting guilt, although they remained free from the possibility of prosecution.

Steve Ford has obvious respect and admiration for Gerald Ford. Steve noted that his father came from very humble beginnings. He was born July 14, 1913, Leslie King, Jr., son of a man who physically abused his mother. In the middle of the night, Dorothy Gardner King snuck away from their Omaha home with their only son to escape back to her parents in Illinois. A divorce was filed and the shame of the situation was so strong that she had to move out of the area and begin her life anew. She moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., where she met a man named Gerald Ford. He married her and adopted the son, renaming him after himself.

“That man invested in my father’s life,” Steve Ford said of his father’s adoptive father. “This man was not a blood relative, but he is the man who chose to invest in my father’s life, giving him the character and integrity so that he would be able to handle the presidency in a very unique time in American history. He never lived long enough to see Dad become president. It is love, not blood that makes a difference in a kid’s life. That’s why family meant so much to my dad.”

Steve Ford recounted that his father “was sure any man who could lead a family could also lead a business but he wasn’t sure that a man leading a business could necessarily lead a family.”

Gerald Ford was an All-American football player for the University of Michigan in 1934. The university has retired the number he wore back then – No. 48. Steve Ford explained that the team went undefeated during the 1932 and 1933 seasons. In 1934, Michigan was scheduled to play Georgia Tech University, which was an all-white school at the time. Georgia Tech told the University of Michigan that it would refuse to play against the Wolverines because the team had one black player. The player was Willis Ward, who happened to be Gerald Ford’s roommate. Ford, a senior that year, was so upset by the racism of the Georgia Tech team that Ford said he would not play the 1934 season if Ward sat out the Georgia Tech game. Ward, however, agreed on his own to sit out the Georgia Tech game and urged Ford to stay on the team. Ford returned to the team, although the Wolverines lost every game that season except the one against Georgia Tech.

Steve Ford concluded his presentation by holding up a small collection of papers that looked as if they had hand-written notes scrawled on them. Steve said that many years ago, his father took out a legal pad and wrote 20 one-page essays on subjects such as character, learning how to win, the art of compromise, making friends, and the definition of a good marriage. Ford said it took his father about six months to write it all, but when he was done he gave each of his children a copy. Gerald Ford is 91 today, but Steve still carries around those papers.

“I will never be able to thank him enough for writing this,” Steve Ford said. “This is one of the things that saved my life when I was in the dumps 10 years ago struggling with alcoholism. He gave this to me when I was a teenage kid. I didn’t get it at the time he gave it to me, but he knew I would some day. And when I needed it, I did get it.”

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Fond memories of Mom and the Sears store

The Sears store at Lake Street and Chicago Avenue was the biggest store I knew as a kid growing up in South Minneapolis. Its illuminated sign at the top of the 13-story tower was visible for miles. They don’t light the sign anymore and today the art deco structure sits vacant, waiting for developers to transform it into the buzzing center of commerce that it was in the 1960s. This past summer, a health maintenance organization said it would set up shop on the site, and a housing developer said he plans to build 300 condos and apartments there. That’s great, but whatever the site becomes it will never be the magical place it was for me when I was a kid.

I think my mother did all her shopping at that Sears store. When I was growing up, our family only had one car, which Dad needed much of the time, so Mom took the bus. When Mom would buy me clothes, we’d walk two blocks toward Pearl Park on 54th Street and catch a No. 5 bus heading north on Chicago Avenue. At the rapid rate I was growing, Mom had to take this oldest boy shopping at least twice a year. By the time I was 10 or 11, the procedure had developed into a loveable ritual.

The 24-block ride on the bus was like a commute into another world. My familiar surroundings extended as far as 52nd Street. Once we got north of Minnehaha Creek, I was lost. Four blocks from home was about as far as I ever strayed on my bike. The ride toward the center of the city took us past houses, stores and buildings that seemed mysterious to me. Who lived there? What went on in some of those buildings? Did anyone buy things in these stores? Of course, there was nothing mysterious about those places at all, only did it seem that way to a kid living in a very small world.

Several commercial buildings made up the southeast corner at the intersection of 53rd and Chicago – a drycleaner and a take-out restaurant that featured chicken. The whole corner burned to the ground when I was in the third grade. It happened in the middle of the afternoon, and you could see the smoke through my classroom window at Resurrection Grade School. After school, I ran to the corner with my brother. Chicago Avenue was blocked off to make room for the fire trucks and other emergency equipment. A maze of hoses, wires and tools covered the street and sidewalk. Barricades prevented us from getting too close, but we could see flames shooting out from the roof of the building. I had never seen a real fire before and it scared the be-gee bees out of me. I didn’t stay long, but it was long enough. I later found out Dad was at the scene and caught much of the action with his super-8 movie camera. To this day, the fire is archived along with Bengtson family events in Dad’s collection of home movies.

Every time we passed that corner, I remembered the fire. The businesses never re-emerged; they were replaced by a three-story apartment building. Sometimes I looked the other way as the bus drove by.

It was a half-a-block’s walk to the front entrance of Sears from the corner where the bus dropped us off. The entryway seemed remarkably understated for such an otherwise impressive building. When this store opened in 1928, it was the largest retail building in Minnesota and even today it is second only to the Mall of America. The parking lot in front of Sears seemed huge to me, and Mom always said she was glad she didn’t have to drive because it would be so easy to lose a car in that lot. Like the Sears catalogue – my first exposure to retail commerce – the store had everything. Tools, furniture, appliances and clothing were organized by floors. We took the escalator to the floor where they sold boys' clothing.

Mom would buy me camping shorts at Sears. These were knee-length shorts featuring numerous pockets that snapped and zipped. They also featured a clip that could be used for securing a flashlight. I had several pairs of these shorts during my childhood, in colors that included tan, navy blue and green. I never considered myself fat, but my official pant size fell into a category known as "husky.’’

Mother never bought a pair of shorts for me without having me try them on first. I would go into the changing room by myself and spend 10 to 15 minutes securing the lock on the door, hanging up our prospective purchase on a hook, removing my shoes, unbuckling my belt, unzipping my fly, stepping out of each pant leg without falling over, removing the new shorts from their hanger, stepping into each leg hole and snapping and zipping them up. About half the time, the first pair we’d select would actually fit. Either way, I’d emerge from the changing room where my patient mother was chatting with a sales lady. Mom would have me step in front of a three-way mirror. Mom and the sales lady would assess the fit, asking me to turn around. Sometimes they asked me to bend over. Worst of all was when the sales lady would put the open palm of her right hand into the back of my pants to demonstrate the beauty of the fit. "There’s plenty of room back here,’’ she would say. That generally convinced my Mom and the sale was secured. To this day I don’t really like shopping for clothes and I am sure that sales lady at Sears has something to do with it.

The bus ride to return home was more one-on-one time with Mom, which I liked. On those rides, I asked her a lot of questions, like why they don’t make dresses out of diamonds, why the buses were red, what was on the top floors of the Sears building, why it costs more to take the bus at some times during the day than others, why the sky was blue and would I ever be getting another brother or sister? Mom was very patient. One time, another passenger on the bus heard all my questions and joined in our conversation. He said I seemed like a very smart boy and asked if I was in high school! As a fifth-grader I went home feeling king of the world.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Balancing that head/heart tension

The original ``Star Trek’’ television program featured a character named Spock, a half-vulcan, half-human space traveler who had a logical mind. The program was in re-runs when I was in grade school. Watching the Gene Rodenburry creation five days a week, the man with pointy ears impressed me with his reasoning ability and his lack of emotion. I wanted to be like him. I even remember praying that God would give me a logical mind ``like Spock’s.’’

Years later in high school, a history teacher introduced the class to the great French Philosophes. These were the world’s greatest thinkers in the 18th century, who formed the basis for philosophical thought that remains relevant to this day. The teacher, Mr. Dawson, asked us to contrast the reasoned life described in the works of Voltaire with the passionate works of Jean-Jacque Rousseau. We were instructed to write an essay about the man who we believed presented a better framework for living. Everyone in the class but me wrote that Voltaire offered the better choice. Having long since stopped watching Star Trek, I chose Rousseau. I wrote about being overwhelmed by the beauty of nature and a love of music. Mr. Dawson liked my essay so much he read portions of it aloud to the class.

Mr. Dawson was asking me to consider for the first time a question that I would wrestle with most of my life: is it better to listen to my head or my heart? Does knowledge provide the best basis for action, or does emotion? The answer, of course, is not one or the other, but both.

Writing taught me this most important lesson. My best work comes from my heart, but depends on my mind. Reviewing the columns I have written over the last dozen years, it is evident the best ones come from my heart. They communicate passion that can only originate in the center of my being. Without my head, however, the ideas in those columns would be meaningless. The best emotional pleas spring from a solid intellectual foundation.

I think of the columns that have originated solely in my head. I wrote them on the basis of research and study. While these columns meet a certain professional standard, they are not artwork. They lack passion. Literally, they lack heart. These columns are a little like an empty train traveling from point A to point B. The train still arrives at the station, but somehow the arrival is not very exciting without passengers. When a baby is conceived, its heart forms first, and then the brain. The human body is the greatest artistic creation of all time. Is it any wonder that smaller works of art should depend on this same pattern of development?

As a boy, I learned to play the French horn. Over the course of years of study and practice, I learned to move air cleanly through the brass tubing. By fingering the valves in a certain sequence or according to certain rhythms, I could produce a pleasant enough sound but it was never really music. The sound didn’t originated in my heart. I had to think about every note, every beat, ever breath. Mechanically, I could work my way through a piece, the same way a well-oiled machine completes its shift to the satisfaction of the plant foreman. But I couldn’t really make music, the way a golden-glove short stop can scoop up a ground ball, pivot, and throw to second without a thought. For me, it was all intellect and no heart. It was Salieri, not Mozart. Today, I would never make the mistake of calling myself a musician.

Just as there are endeavors in my life that were entirely intellectual, there were others that were entirely emotional, like my first love. My heart was in overdrive while my brain went to sleep. That first relationship involved a beautiful high school girl, with whom I spent far too much time. All I saw was her long dark hair, big brown eyes and her friendly smile. I couldn’t see the obvious. I couldn’t see that, in fact, our interests were different and that our goals were incompatible. So like my foray into music, that relationship didn’t last. The head alone wasn’t enough to sustain my musical endeavors and the heart alone wasn’t enough to sustain a relationship.

In a way, we are all artists trying to paint the picture of our lives. True art, which I am trying to achieve with my life, is a perfect blend of heart and head. It is the head and heart working together like a good pitcher/catcher combination. The pitcher can’t do anything if there is no one to catch the ball after he’s thrown a strike. And a catcher without a pitcher has nothing to do. A life without passion is hardly worth living but a life that’s all passion would be madness.

Life is not about choosing between the practicality of the intellect and the emotion of the heart but bringing them together into a splendid balance -- the way a conductor brings together great sounds to create a symphony, or the way a chef mixes the right ingredients to come up with a tantalizing recipe. I am neither a conductor nor a chef; using my heart and head like a map and a compass, I am, nonetheless, navigating my way through life at the dawn of the 21st century.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Reflections of a news anchor: Tom Brokaw on clashing cultures, media and American politics

Tom Brokaw, the long-time anchor of NBC’s Nightly News, delivered a sobering message to a business group in New York on October 5. Drawing on 38 years of broadcast journalism experience, including several visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, the South Dakota native warned his audience: There are people in this world who hate America and we better learn to get along with them.

“We all have to work harder at understanding an enemy that is too eager to sacrifice his body to do great harm to what we hold dear,” pronounced Brokaw. “We cannot ignore hundreds of millions of young Muslims who love our culture and hate our government; who envy our success but disdain our pluralism, and most of all, who are enraged by our sense of entitlement…

“I think we have to work harder at understanding this conflicted world in which too many young Muslims in politically and economically oppressive regimes are influenced by devout, intelligent and fanatical religious teachers. Just as they are frustrated -- not just in Iraq but also in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- by the absence of economic and social opportunity within their own societies, they are inclined to lash out against the West. Young and old Muslims believe we are too eager to control their lives and too reticent to deal with the long-standing and deathly feud between the Palestinians and the Israelis, a situation that is getting too little attention from both parties during the course of this presidential dialog.”

Brokaw, who will be leaving his anchor duties at NBC in December, said about 30 percent of the world’s population is Christian and 20 percent of its population is Muslim. “In the next 20 years or so, that will change,” he said. By 2025, he said, the Muslim population will grow to 30 percent of the world, exceeding the population of Christians.

“The primary challenge of our time is not only to secure our nation and to defeat militarily the forces of terrorism, but also to bank the fires of hostility burning out of control, to neutralize the hatred, to expedite not just global competition economically and politically, but also global understanding. It’s a monumental task. And it requires a carefully calibrated mix of military might and diplomatic finesse...

“In this uncertain new world, I strongly believe that ideas are equally important to military power. It is not enough to be feared alone, for fear is not a complete defense against the zealotry of those who are at war with the Western world and the ideas of the rule of law, tolerance, modernity and gender equality.”

Brokaw, the man who wrote a best-selling book about the people who lived through World War II, the people he names “the greatest generation,” called the challenge we face in this clash of cultures a challenge as great as the cold war or the proliferation of communism were.

He said every American has a stake in this challenge and all of us must engage in the effort to find resolution. “Participation is not just invited but required; it is a fundamental obligation of citizenship,” he said.

Brokaw expressed concern about the condition of our democratic society. “I am persuaded we have become one country and two nations as a result of both parties determined to divide and conquer,” he said. “I am also persuaded during this time of profound change -- of challenges at home and abroad -- that is a schematic for structural weakness” at a time when there is a great need for finding common ground.

“I have no illusion that American politics should resemble spring break, when everyone gathers on the beach and loves everyone else,” Brokaw said. “But must it be scorched earth, all day, every day? In a country that seems to be so evenly divided -- when a handful of precincts in a couple of swing states can determine the outcome of a presidential election -- I know that is the battle plan for both parties. Couple that attitude with the modern tools of politicking and campaigning -- ruthlessly efficient mass marketed polls and surveys that map the electorate down to the fungus in their suburban yards, media campaigns and buys that target every paranoia, real or imagined -- and you have American politics as kill and kill again.

“That party machinery is reinforced, of course, by single interest organizations,” he continued. “The single interest citizens have become a power in American politics well beyond their numbers alone. They have the ability to make a surgical strike in the election process. To single out candidates… These people are members of the NRA, but they are also members of the teachers’ union. They are manufacturers and they are consumer activists. They are physicians and they are trial lawyers. In so doing, they often reduce the American electorate to a body that is less than the sum of its parts. They encourage the population of public servants who too willingly develop a myopia in which their vision is confined to the narrow interests that helped elect them. Their methods and their impact on the commonwealth have been well documented by the mass media but their money, their momentum, and their focus, is so considerable that mere exhibition is not enough for course correction.

“Having said that, those of us in my business also have a role in all this,” Brokaw confessed. “We need to spend less time on the minutia, less time on the horse race, less time on the gossip, and more time on the larger, over-arching issues that confront us all and present them in a way that the American voter feels they have been enlightened and not repelled by what they have seen or read.

“We have an unparalleled opportunity to define our time, and leave a lasting legacy,” Brokaw concluded. “We are all dazzled by the new technology that we have available to us now. It has changed the whole world. The Internet is the single most empowering development of my lifetime. But the fact of the matter is, you can look at the keyboard and hit the delete button and it won’t change poverty, or racism, or economic opportunity, or hostility toward who we are. It will do us little good to wire our world if we short circuit our secular and spiritual souls.”

Thursday, October 14, 2004

What's America's future in the global economy? Journalists offer two views

In the last couple of weeks, I have had the opportunity to listen to two noted journalists offer vastly different views of the United States' place in the global economy.

On September 19 in Des Moines, I heard Stuart Varney describe a world economy dominated by the United States. He sees a future in which the United States maintains a position of world leadership. Varney helped launch CNN in 1980 and has contributed to a variety of cable news programs during the last 25 years. Last January, he joined the Fox News Channel.

On October 4 in New York, I listened to a speech by Fareed Zakaria, who sees numerous challenges to the United States' position at the pinnacle of the global economy. He sees America's leadership waning and proposes that other countries are much more suited to succeed in the global economy. Zakaria is the editor of Newsweek International Magazine. The former managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, he is the author of the best selling book, “The Future of Freedom.”

Zakaria argues that economics and technology were the great drivers of globalization in the 1990s. Many countries were swept along by these factors, adopting laissez fair economic structures that resembled those of the United States. Zakaria said these countries felt like they were in a "golden straight jacket," where they no longer controlled their own economic destiny, but if they went along they would succeed in the end.

A few countries, however, resisted the U.S. economic model, and Zakaria points to Sweden as an example. He noted Sweden has 62 percent of its GDP devoted to state spending, compared to America, with 32 percent. It has inflexible labor markets and it is increasing its subsidies, not cutting them back. "By American standards of capitalism, Sweden is doing everything wrong," Zakaria said. But, "what is Sweden's GDP growth rate over the last 10 years? The same as the United States."

Because countries like Sweden are proving that a country can succeed economically without adopting all components of American capitalism, a new kind of globalization has emerged for the 21st century. "You are seeing globalization 2.0, which is quite different from the globalization of the 1990s," Zakaria said. "If you look at the 1990s version of globalization, everyone believed that the only thing countries could do was to become like the United States and deregulate their economy. Now, what you are beginning to see is a globalization that the rest of the world is owning, and using as its own."

While countries recognize the need for economic reforms, they are realizing they don't have to do everything at once. Some countries, like India and China for example, are resisting a fully convertible currency. The South African government, Zakaria noted further, is spending money on the rural poor. "Brazil is finding ways to provide farmers with some safety net," Zakaria continued. "The result is we are increasingly finding ourselves in a world where these countries are stable, with effective government, moving forward economically, with comfortable political support... a world in which these countries are confident and increasingly these countries see themselves as actors on the world stage," Zakaria said.

"This is a world the United States has not known, a world in which we are not the single dominant power that we have become used to."

Zakaria qualified that the U.S. military remains by far the most powerful in the world but, regardless, he said, the United States will have to "contend with a world in which people are not as comfortable with U.S. leadership."

Zakaria cited world initiatives underway without the involvement of the United States, listing first the Kyoto accord. Although he said the participating countries will never meet the accord targets for limiting carbon monoxide emissions, "they will coordinate without American leadership or involvement."

He also noted that the international standard for bar codes recently adopted the European model instead of the U.S. model. The European Union, Zakaria pointed out, is larger than the United States.

"The universe of trade is no longer a uni-polar world, it is a bi-polar world," with the United States and Europe, Zakaria said. "In fact, one could argue we are no longer the strongest pole."

He cited the growing confidence of other countries that want a place on the world stage. At the world trade talks earlier this year, he said, Brazil walked away from the talks because Europe and the United States refused to reduce their subsidies to farmers. Brazil, representing poor countries, gave up access to U.S. markets by refusing to negotiate. "Their feeling was," Zakaria explained, "we'll get access to your markets. There will be another time to have this negotiation but we're not going to sign on to a bad agreement right now. That confidence is new."

Zakaria further noted our mono-lingual culture and our unwillingness to convert to the metric system as evidence of the United States' inability to deal with a global marketplace. "It's a whole new world out there and my greatest fear is we are not prepared for it," Zakaria said.

Our budget deficit, Zakaria argues, hurts the United States. "Every morning Treasury Secretary John Snow wakes up trying to find someone willing to buy $2 billion worth of U.S. Treasury bills because we have a current account deficit of some $500 billion per year, about 5.5 percent of our GDP," Zakaria said. "If we were any other country, the rest of the world and the IMF would have put the U.S. government in receivership."

Zakaria said that the United States is getting a "grand exception," and wonders how long that will last. "Probably a long time," he said. "They have a vested interest in not plunging the United States into chaos. But one of the problems is there has never been an alternative [to the dollar, the international currency]. There is an alternative now with the Euro. There is a foreign Euro bond market. It is smaller than the dollar market, but you are beginning to see things. You are beginning to see small attempts to price oil in Euros," he said.

Zakaria's conclusion: "These trends all point to a world in which the United States is going to have to come to grips with a world in which its special position is substantially reduced."

Zakaria's view was quite a bit different from Varney's, who agrees there is a shift going on in the global economy. Varney, however, sees the United States emerging as an even stronger player in international markets.

Varney said that during the 1980s and 1990s, the conventional wisdom was that the U.S. economy was in decline while Japan and Western Europe offered real economic opportunity. As we enter the 21st century, however, Varney said we have moved into a bi-polar economy with the United States and China taking charge, leaving Japan and Western Europe distant also-rans.

"During the nine years leading up to March 2000," Varney said, "the United States created 220,000 new jobs every month. Europe, with a population of 385 million people, in the last five years has created one million net new jobs. The United States, with a population of 280 million, was creating one million new jobs every five months."

Varney noted that the United States is home to the most important industries in the world, particularly computing. He said the top five computer companies in the world are located in the United States, with the exception of Japan's NEC. "But what's inside an NEC computer?" Varney asked. "Intel, an American company." He further noted that the software industry is dominated by American companies.

Japan, once held up as the economic future of the world, is not keeping up with the United States, Varney said. "In 1990, the Japanese economy was two-thirds the size of the American economy," he said. "By 2000, it had shrunk to two-fifths. That's the story of America clearly pulling away."

Japan, nonetheless, continues to represent the second-largest economy in the world -- behind the United States. "This year, America will have GDP of some $11 trillion," Varney stated. "That's the dollar value of the total economic activity within our society. Japan is second with $4 trillion. Germany is third with $2 trillion. Britain is fourth, fifth is France, and sixth is California. Seventh is China; eighth is Mexico; ninth is India; and tenth is the city of Los Angeles."

China has emerged as the "great factory to the world," Varney noted. The country's economy is growing. "Sooner or later, to make it in this world, you have to compete with China," Varney said.

Varney sees a bright future for the United States and China, and a dim future for Western Europe because of changing demographics. "Fertility rates have fallen in every developed country on this planet, so much so that we are about to see population declines throughout the developed world," he said.

"You need a fertility rate of 2.1 to keep your population stable," Varney explained. "The fertility rate is defined as the number of live births per year, per 1,000 women of child bearing age.

"The fertility rate in Italy, Spain and Russia is 1.2. In Germany, Greece and Japan, it is 1.3. In Austria and all of Scandinavia, it is 1.4. In Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, it is 1.2," Verney said.

"We are about to see population decline in about 55 countries around the world. It is beginning to hit Japan. It already has hit Italy. The Economist magazine says Germany, with a population of 82 million people, because of its fertility problem, will have a population of only 60 million by 2030. In one generation, the country will lose one-quarter of its population. It will be the first time that has happened without the aid of war or disease. This will have a radical impact on economic and social policy.

"We must also consider the aging of society," Varney continued. "In developed countries, people are living longer, so you have this great bubble of people who are retiring, and fewer people actually working to support them. How can you possibly maintain health and pension benefits for an expanding retirement community with a smaller working community? You cannot keep those levels of health and pension benefits in retirement. To keep it up, you have to have mass immigration, which most European countries will never allow."

The situation in the United States, however, is not so bleak, Varney said. The U.S. fertility rate is 2.0, which is actually up from the 1.9 rate that held through most of the 1990s. That's still slightly below the replacement rate but he said the decline is being more than offset by the arrival of millions of legal and illegal immigrants into the United States.

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