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

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

How to approach retirement in the context of selflessness

Replacing our natural born selfishness with selflessness is perhaps the greatest on-going challenge of growing in a relationship with God. This is why marriage and family are so important: they help most people turn from a self-centered existence to a life focused on others.

The secular culture, of course, does not help us in the quest for selflessness. Most of the culture is about getting as much as you can for yourself; think of yourself first, the culture says, and worry about others later, if at all. The New York Times offered a striking example on the front page of its business section Sept. 24 in a column where the author advised people to save for their own retirement instead of putting away money to finance their kids’ college tuition.

The article got me to thinking about retirement in the context of the battle between selfishness and selflessness. Is it selfish to retire, especially at an age when you likely have many productive years of life remaining?

Retirement is largely a post-World War II phenomenon. Prior to the mid-20th century, when life expectancies were shorter than they are today, most people assumed they would work their entire life. In 1935, President Roosevelt’s Committee on Economic Security determined 65 would be the retirement age when it launched the nation’s Social Security system. The idea came from Germany, which already had a social security system in place based on a retirement age of 65. The Committee selected a retirement criteria based arbitrarily on the calendar, not based on anyone’s ability or capacity to work. This approach was attractive politically because Social Security was seen as a way to raise the rate of employment among young people in the United States during the Great Depression. If older people retire from their jobs, the thinking went, more jobs would open up for younger people.

The employment demographics today are the exact opposite from what they were in the 1930s. The debate over Social Security is in the news because the number of retired persons is going to swell in the coming decades relative to the number of working people.

That is, if they retire at 65. If most people decided to continue to work, the solvency of the Social Security trust fund would not be an issue.

Growing old is not what it once was. Look through the magazine for the American Association of Retired Persons and you will find features on seniors who climb mountains, ride bikes, play tennis, and dozens of other physically demanding activities. This is a magazine that recently declared: Age “60 is the new 30.” That statement is consistent with a survey of the nation’s 65,000 people older than 100 years old. They were asked to reveal the age to which they would like to return, if they could live any year of their life over again. The consensus was 70.

It is easy to think of people who did their greatest work long after most people are considering retirement: Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables when he was 61; Gutzen Borglum began carving Mount Rushmore when he was in his 60s; Ronald Reagan was president in his 70s; Karol Wojtyla did his best work as Pope during his 70s and 80s; Noah was at least 100 when the flood came and Moses was at least 80 when he led the Israelites out of Egypt.

“What, give up my retirement?!” you are probably asking yourself about now. “Is this guy nuts?!” Maybe, but I think the question of when and whether to retire is a serious one. Is it right for able-bodied people to set aside the last third of their life for leisure?

The reason most people are repulsed by the idea of working long past the traditional retirement age is they don’t like their work. So many people see their work as drudgery. People who are eager to stop working may benefit by seriously reconsidering their line of work now, rather than using an automatic retirement date as a way out of a bad situation. For those of us who like our work, the concept of retirement should be considered in the context of the over-all life goal of living selflessly in an effort to serve God.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Community group is focusing on wrong culprit

I can appreciate ACORN’s zeal, but I question its sincerity. Let me explain.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now published a report earlier this month based on 2004 Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data that concludes African-Americans and Latinos pay more for mortgages than whites.

“Wells Fargo has been preying on communities of color and charging us higher rates and fees,” said ACORN’s national president, Maude Hurd, in a Sept. 9 press release. Jordan Ash, an attorney with ACORN, was quoted in a newspaper saying Wells Fargo “is concentrating its high-rate loans on low- to moderate-income neighborhoods and communities of color.”

Banks that make mortgage loans in certain urban areas are required by the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act to file information with the government. In the industry, the law is known by its acronym, “HMDA.” Such data now includes the annual percentage rate charged on each loan. A change in the law became effective earlier this year that requires banks to report this information, and the data has just been made public for the first time. The data, however, do not include information about income or credit history, which are key determinants in most loan pricing decisions.

ACORN’s criticism of Wells Fargo, therefore, is based on a woefully incomplete picture. It is claiming the bank is making loan pricing decisions based on race even though it doesn’t have sufficient information to fairly draw that conclusion. Anyone who looks at this knows ACORN is off base. The thing is, I am sure ACORN knows it too. This is why I question its sincerity.

Race-baiting is an effective publicity strategy. ACORN can almost always get a headline by accusing a big lender of racism. I cover banking as a journalist, but let me clarify that I am not writing this in order to defend the banking industry or Wells Fargo. I am simply pointing out the misappropriation of a lot of energy on the part of a well-known community group.

Now let me explain why I am sad about this. Racism is a real problem in this country. There are educational disparities between people of different races, which lead to income differences and differences in credit availability. ACORN has a lot of resources, energy and grass-roots support to put into real social justice efforts. But it is squandering them.

Does ACORN really think Wells Fargo lenders – or any lenders for that matter – deliberately charge blacks more than whites for the same loan? Do they really think lenders consider skin color when they price a loan? That is not going on in any widespread fashion among regulated lenders. There are very explicit laws against racial bias in lending. Do they really think regulators, who look pretty closely at loan files, are missing this?

No, Wells Fargo is not the problem. The problems are much bigger, and a lot harder to fight, than a mortgage company. The enemies are broken families and an over-burdened educational system. These are the things that keep people from getting jobs that pay good wages so they can buy a home at the best rate. The fact that people of color statistically find themselves so often the victims of broken families and poor schooling is a national scandal.

That is a real problem. Take that on, ACORN, and you will really be doing some good.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Orchestra brings heaven to earth

Count me among Osmo’s fans. Last night, Susan and I enjoyed a fabulous concert by the Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by Osmo Vanska, the Finish conductor who became the group’s music director two years ago. It was the season-opening concert that included two Beethoven works and Ravel’s Bolero. The orchestra opened the evening by playing the Star Spangled Banner, the first time I’ve ever heard that song played like it was music.

Vanska, tall and distinguished in his formal black tails, conducted the orchestra with wild animation. He punched the air, pointed at musicians, crouched and jumped. He moved in a manner that brought to mind the best of Muhammad Ali and John Travolta. His face strained with emotion, and he dabbed the sweat from his brow after each selection.

An evening at Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis is always a treat, but Vanska has elevated the experience to a new level, at least as far as I am concerned. I remember previous conductors, like Neville Marriner and Leonard Slatkin from my younger days, but they did not move like Vanska.

I am convinced that everyone is born with a natural longing for beauty, and I think orchestral music is about as close to pure beauty as one can find on earth. I admire the musicians, one hundred or so people on stage, executing their specific role with perfection, combining in a complex harmony that fills the concert hall and the soul. As I sat there Friday in my second-row seat, I wanted to be a part of the music. I felt like I could get up and touch one of the musicians – maybe the base player who was directly in front of me. Maybe that connection would somehow integrate me into this heavenly creation. But, of course, I didn’t. My role is to listen and clap at the end of each piece. So on Friday, I stood and clapped, for a long time. I am convinced I need this beautiful music in my life, and I suspect those musicians need appreciative patrons in their lives.

I played the trumpet as a child, advancing from sixth-grade band to a college-level concert band at the University of Minnesota. But I was never a musician. Through a lot of repetition and grunt-work, I learned how to move air through a horn well enough, fingering the individual notes as prescribed. But I was, at best, only a practitioner. I never felt the music in my heart the way real musicians do. I never felt what you need to feel in order to make real music, to win a seat in a major symphony orchestra, to move like Vanska moves.

So when it comes to musical performances, I am in the audience. That’s where I belong. And when you get a chance to hear a top notch orchestra directed by a world class conductor, that’s a good place to be.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Gergen on Leadership

I got an interesting lesson in leadership this summer during a seminar I attended at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. About 350 people from across the country gathered in the church-like Gaston Hall of the Healy Building at the center of the Georgetown campus in mid-June to listen to David Gergen, an advisor to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton.

“Leadership is about mobilizing people in the pursuit of joint goals,” he said, commenting that too many organizations are over-managed and under-led. “That means you are going to have to have a relationship with those people… There’s the leader, the followers and the goal. You’ve got to get those three in alignment.”

Gergen, an editor at large for U.S. News & World Report and director of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, spoke extemporaneously about the three qualities he said leaders need: ambition, capacity and character.

“All the presidents and great leaders I know share one attribute: they are all ambitious,” Gergen said. “Ambition is important in a leader; you have got to want to leave your mark, leave your imprint. The question, of course, is ambition for what?” The great leaders, he said, start out ambitious for themselves, but as they obtain important positions, they shift that ambition to others. Their ambition is no longer for their own greatness, but for the greatness of those they are leading, Gergen said.

Great leaders have a large capacity for knowledge, Gergen continued. Leaders are genuinely curious and want to learn. Nixon learned by traveling; Clinton was a voracious reader. Drawing on examples from history, Gergen said Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt also were big readers. Gergen quoted Harry Truman, who said: “Not every reader is a leader, but ever leader is a reader.”

Although Presidents Nixon and Clinton were ambitious and had great capacity, they suffered for lack of character. Nixon’s dark side prevented him from achieving the greatness he was capable of; Clinton’s character flaws held him back as well.

“The one president who surprised everyone, including me, with his ability as a leader, who brought these three abilities together in a nice balance was Ronald Reagan,” Gergen said. “He was the best leader we’ve had since Roosevelt… You can disagree with his policies, but his capacity to mobilize others in pursuit of shared goals, you have to say Reagan was a very good leader.

“Reagan was ambitious but not overly ambitious… He was not as bright as Nixon or Clinton, but he was good enough,” Gergen explained. “Reagan was a well-anchored person, who was comfortable with himself. He had his gyroscope. He had a sense of direction about his life, a sense of purpose. He had the character that made him a really great leader.

“To be a leader, you have to know who you are. You have to be ambitious and you have to master your emotional side, master the difficult things. You can’t be a leader of others until you can lead yourself.”

Monday, September 12, 2005

Campaign for Minnesota Governor unofficially underway

Minnesota Republicans met for their annual state convention on Saturday; attendees were addressed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. I didn’t attend the convention, but I talked to people who did. Pawlenty is already campaigning for the election, which is 14 months away. He undoubtedly will face Mike Hatch, the state’s attorney general. Hatch is an experienced political bulldog, who has had his eye on the governorship as far back as the mid-1980s when he was the state’s Commerce Commissioner. This political contest will be very interesting to watch.

I had an opportunity to hear Pawlenty address a business group in mid-August in Duluth. Following is a summary of that speech, which also sounded a lot like a campaign speech.

Pawlenty called Minnesota one of the best states in the country, but described challenges in the areas of education, health care and taxes.

“We live in the greatest state in the nation. Pick your measure and I can show you a credible third-party measure that proves it. We lead the nation in just about everything,” Pawlenty said. He offered the following examples:

* Minnesota students lead the nation in ACT test scores.

* Minnesota has the highest rate of high school graduation in the country.

* Minnesota has one of the lowest rates of unemployment in the nation, now 3.7 percent, compared to a national average of 5 percent.

* Minnesota has the highest rate of worker productivity in the nation.

* Minnesota has the highest rate of women in the workforce in the country.

* “Governing” magazine just named Minnesota the third-best governed state in the nation.

* “Entrepreneur” magazine rated Minnesota last fall to be the best place in the nation to be an entrepreneur.

* Minnesota has the healthiest people in the nation.

* Minnesota has the lowest number of uninsured folks in the nation.

* Minnesota has the second-longest living people in the country, behind Hawaii.

* Minnesota has the highest rate of home ownership in the country.

“We have beautiful outdoor amenities such as lakes and prairies, streams and rivers. We have culture, and the arts, and the list goes on and on and on,” Pawlenty said. “We live in a remarkable state. We should be proud of that and grateful for that.”

“But the world is changing very rapidly,” he said. “It is changing at a rate and scope the likes of which we have not seen before, having profound implications on our economy, on the way we do business, on job growth, on investment, on culture, and even on language.”

Pawlenty quoted Peter Drucker, saying: “The things that got us here, will not get us there.” Pawlenty says that in a rapidly changing world, any organization that wants to say relevant, including a state, has to do things in new ways. “There is a call for change,” Pawlenty said, at the same time admitting how uncomfortable change makes most people feel. “But change is exciting and it is challenging,” he reassured.

“One of the main things that is driving all this is globalization, Pawlenty said. Referring to a book written by Minnesota native Thomas Friedman, ‘The World Is Flat,’ Pawlenty said: “The things that used to protect us and separate us from the rest of the world, in terms of geography and time and distance and cost, in communication, in culture and language, have essentially melted away.”

Pawlenty used the example of telecommunications, noting that calling long distance to a place such as Kansas City used to be a big deal, but today we can call India and Europe for almost nothing. Because of advances in shipping, Pawlenty noted that items can be shipped to places as far away as China for $25 to $50 per ton. And whereas it used to take months to get the word out about something, anyone with access to the Internet can communicate with the entire world in seconds.

“The point is, the world is on our doorstep, and we are on their doorstep in a way we have not seen before,” Pawlenty said.

So what does that mean for Minnesotans?

Pawlenty’s answer: “It means Minnesota and America are no longer the world’s cheapest screw turners. If our proposition to the marketplace is we are going to take a repetitive, fungible, labor-intensive, low-skill task, and we are going to do that more economically than the Chinese or the Mexicans, or some other place like that, we are not going to do so well…We are not the world’s cheapest screw turners.

“So what are we going to be? We better be the smartest. We better be really good at invention and innovation. We better be really good at attracting research and development. We better be really good at productivity enhancement and applications that are going to give us efficiency advantages. We better make sure we have infrastructure like broadband, and traditional infrastructure like roads that give us an efficiency component as we try to move goods and services and people around. We better make sure we have our share of innovators, and designers, and dreamers, and entrepreneurs, and risk-takers, who are going to give us that next increment of growth. That speaks to a lot of things.

“It speaks to the fact that we better have a focused and effective educational system. On average, we are the best in Minnesota, but I think we can make it even better. We have an average that is really good but we have some districts and some students who aren’t doing too well. For example, you go to the urban school districts now and even though we spend a good chunk of money there, if you are a disadvantaged student or a student of color, the statistical probability of you graduating from high school is less than 50 percent. One generation ago, if you grew up in South Saint Paul where I grew up, if you missed the educational wrung, there was a big safety net. I don’t mean social services safety net; I mean you could go get a strong-back job. You could go to the meat-packing plants or related industry, and cut meat, throw freight, load and unload trucks, drive a fork lift, you could do stuff like that. And you could make a decent wage with benefits, and support you and your family. Those jobs are gone. Or at least gone at that wage and benefit level. So the safety net of the strong-back job has shrunk and now you have to have a strong mind skill or education that applies to the economy of the future. We are not ready for that in this country.

“It doesn’t always have to be college, but if you don’t have a relevant skill or education post-high school that applies to the economy of tomorrow, today, you are in big trouble. You are marginalized in a hurry. We are not preparing enough of our students for that reality. On a good day, in a good school district, we have about 30 percent of our kids in rigorous, relevant path roads, like international baccalaureate, advanced placement, post secondary enrolment options; but that means 70 percent aren’t. That is not nearly enough for the economy of the future. Minnesota does well compared to the rest of the nation, but that is not our comparison anymore. We have to bring more rigorous and relevant educational opportunities to our high schools.”

Pawlenty said one of the big problems with the state’s public education system is the pay system for teachers. “I want them to get paid in a modern and professional manner. The way they get paid now is based solely on seniority and college credits. That is not the worst system, but it is not a modern and professional system. So we are offering financial incentives for school districts and unions to voluntarily move toward a performance pay system, aligning those resources with things that are more relevant to student performance.”

Pawlenty then turned his attention to the cost of health care. “Eighty-five percent of all health care money goes into five chronic conditions: cancer, diabetes, obesity, end of life issues, and heart disease,” Pawlenty said. “So if you have one of those five chronic conditions, we know the likelihood of your healthcare outcome varies wildly depending on what provider you go to. The provider you select could affect your outcome by 5 to 40 percent in those chronic conditions. And guess what, so does the price. But the good news is there is a correlation between quality and price, and it’s a good correlation. The most efficient providers often tend to be high quality. They do it all day, every day, and they are really good at what they do. Consumers don’t know that. Even purchasers of health care don’t know that. We buy health care stupidly. Most people don’t have any idea what kind of quality they are buying in their health care.

“If you start to empower consumers and purchasers with this kind of information, they make pretty good decisions, and utilization and cost and quality start to look a little more reasonable. And you don’t have to sacrifice the health of the folks you are trying to serve.”

Pawlenty noted that health care premiums for state employees did not go up this year, in an environment when health care premiums for government employees around the country increased an average of 9 percent and premiums for private sector employees increased even more than that. He said Minnesota was able to hold the line on its costs by giving employees the tools to buy smarter.

Pawlenty closed on the subject of taxes. “Some people say, just raise taxes, we can government our way to prosperity,” Pawlenty said. “That’s not true. I am in discussions every week with businesses that talk about expanding or growing in Minnesota or somewhere else. And, taxes, regulation and insurance matter. That doesn’t mean it is the only thing, but it is a thing. And we are on the high end of that stuff.

“I get accused of being unreasonable for trying to keep a lid on it. We are the fourth-highest taxed state in the nation according to the U.S. Census bureau. Our revenues coming into the state are growing without a tax increase at 8 to 10 percent in the upcoming budget cycle. Most Minnesotans would say you should be able to fund your priorities and do it pretty well with that kind of bump in revenue. We are in a highly-taxed state; we should live within our means, live within that kind of growth.”

These are themes Minnesotans will hear repeated numerous times in the upcoming year, particularly as we head into the 2006 election.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Real leaders don’t point fingers, they take responsibility

I saw in the newspaper that Aaron Beam was recently sentenced to three months in prison. Beam is one of the guys who helped Richard Scrushy found the HealthSouth Corporation in 1984, which has been the subject of a big financial scandal over the last few years.

This little news bite caught my attention because I remember where I was the day a jury found Scrushy innocent of the fraud charges shareholders filed against him. It was June 28, and I was returning home from a business meeting in Duluth, Minnesota, where I heard a speech by a former Navy commander named Scott Waddle. Scrushy and Waddle could not be more different. Waddle took responsibility for his actions. Scrushy pointed the finger at others.

Waddle was a rising star in the Navy when his submarine collided with a Japanese fishing vessel, resulting in the death of nine civilians. The accident occurred on February 9, 2001 and after an inquiry, Waddle was honorably discharged. Although the story of the accident is dramatic, the pinnacle of Waddle’s presentation -- which he calls “Failure is not Final” -- is his description of apologizing to the victims’ families. Against the advice of the Navy and his legal counsel, Waddle took full responsibility for the accident and ultimately traveled to Japan so he could personally apologize to the families of each of the nine victims. (The Right Thing is the name of a book Waddle wrote about his experience.)

Listening to the news on the radio on my way home from Duluth that day, I got a little better sense of the magnitude of what Waddle had done. Earlier that day, a jury had acquitted Scrushy of fraud charges related to his leadership of HealthSouth. Scrushy was the former CEO of this company that at one time employed 50,000 people and ran health care facilities in all 50 states. Over several years, the company had inflated its earnings by $2.7 billion. When shareholders and government auditors began asking questions, Scrushy denied knowledge of any financial shenanigans and blamed his financial officers, including Beam. Amazingly, a jury bought it.

I don’t know any more about this case than what I have read in the newspapers, but it is hard for me to believe that the CEO of the company didn’t know how the books were being kept. Scrushy is a man who refused to take responsibility; he blamed subordinates. Waddle, it occurred to me, could have done the same thing. But he didn’t. He took full responsibility. It is not too difficult to figure out which of these two men is really a leader.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Katrina exposes meaning of poverty

The last few days have had a kind of 9-11 feel to them. Like the rest of the nation, I am digesting the destruction of a major national treasure and a massive loss of life. There is the chaos that follows, along with the obligatory finger-pointing. And there is a rise in gas prices. Just like in the days that followed the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there is an uncertainty in the air. We are still trying to figure out the extent of the disaster, what it means for our future, and what it means specifically to me.

I had some time to think about all this on Thursday and Friday, the first and second of September. Katrina, the hurricane that caused all the trouble, hit Florida one week earlier. The weekend of August 27 and 28 the hurricane grew in strength while hovering over the Gulf of Mexico. August 29, it hit Louisiana and Alabama. By late Monday, however, many people were breathing a sigh of relief. The hit wasn’t as bad as people expected. New Orleans seemed to escape the worst.

But the worst was yet to come. On Tuesday the city filled with water that spilled through a breach in one of the levees that protects it from the sea, which is actually a few feet higher than most of New Orleans. On Wednesday, 80 percent of the city was under water and we saw images on television of the devastation. People said there were dead bodies floating everywhere. People were still trapped in their homes. There was looting in the streets.

I had a meeting in Lake Delton, Wisconsin, which is 220 miles from Minneapolis. The drive gave me three-and-a-half hours to think about what was going on. I thought about Jackson Square, the famous gathering place in the French Quarter where I had visited several times on business trips. What a magnificent place, with the old Cathedral, the CafĂ© Du Monde, the lace shops, and the street musicians. I have always wanted to bring my wife and kids there. Now I don’t know if I will ever get the chance.

All those European-style buildings, and Preservation Hall, -- what would happen to them? The convention center, where I had been to so many trade shows, looked like a war zone. In recent years, they had actually done quite a bit to make the city more attractive. For example, they added a light rail system that could take visitors from the downtown, convention center area to within walking distance of the French Quarter, a trip I took the last time I was there.

I stopped in Menomonie, Wis., to fill my car with gas, and groaned when I saw the price at the two gas stations along the interstate: $3.25 a gallon. In Minneapolis, gas had jumped the day before to the $3 mark after spending most of the last month between $2.50 and $2.65 per gallon. When I got to Lake Delton, around noon, I noticed the gas stations near my hotel were selling gas for $2.99 per gallon. Darn, I should have waited until I got here to fill up. But four hours later, when I returned to my car after the meeting around dinner time, the price was $3.29 per gallon. The gas situation always seems to go crazy when there is a national disaster. The night the Twin Towers came down, I remember driving around my neighborhood and seeing lines that extended 10 cars or more at gas stations.

That night in my hotel room, I got a good opportunity to watch the news. I saw the desperate faces of the victims. I saw video of a dead person in a wheel chair at the convention center; another video showed a dead person floating in the water. There were angry people begging for help. The mayor of New Orleans was desperate and the governor of Louisiana looked like she had been through a war.

Although I am the lucky one – I haven’t lost my home or worse – I still end up thinking about myself. Could this happen to me? I wonder. Is Minneapolis prepared to handle a disaster on this scale? Would we fare any better in a similar situation? It is not like the hurricane came out of nowhere. Everyone knew it was coming. People had two days to evacuate. If the people of Minneapolis knew a disaster was coming in two days, would everyone leave? Would the city or the state have the means to transport all the people who couldn’t evacuate on their own? I don’t know but I hope our local officials are watching and taking notes.

And will they rebuild? That is a big question. Does it make sense to put houses on land that is lower than the nearby water? In St. Paul, they used to build houses on the river flats; that is where the immigrants and other poor folks lived. Every spring those houses would get flooded out. In the 1960s, they stopped building houses there. Today, the entire area is cleared out and there are no houses. I am not sure where the immigrants and poor folks are living now.

As I watched on television all the sick and bedridden people who were brought to the terminal at Louis Armstrong Airport, I wondered about their families. Are their families in safe places? Did some people evacuate, only to leave grandma in the nursing home? You get the sense that some people must have done that. Of course, there are people who literally have no one. They could do nothing but rely on the government. But what about these families that actually let grandpa fend for himself while they took off to higher ground? This is a disaster that CNN didn’t cover, the breakdown in the family.

All these victims, all these people in the Superdome and at the convention center, these are the city’s poor. These weren’t wealthy or even middle class people left behind. These were the folks who have nothing. That means they don’t have much money, and more importantly it means they don’t have family who care about them. You really need both in this world. You need a little money so you can get out of town on two-day’s notice if you have to, and you need family – either so they can save you if you can’t save yourself, or so you can save them.

The people who could have left but chose not to -- it isn’t as easy to feel sorry for them, although I do. The people who could not leave, those are the folks I feel bad for. I wonder where their kids were, or their siblings. Even if they didn’t have any, how does someone go through life with no one? How does someone get through life without anyone to care for, and for them to care back?

So what Katrina is showing us is the plight of poverty. We can blame the government for not acting quicker, for not doing more, but I suspect the various government agencies probably did as well as they could. The fact of the matter is, government is not family. It can only do so much. Government treated these folks the way it always does, the only way it can – it crosses its fingers and hopes everyone will be okay. That is what happened during previous hurricanes. Every day, the government hopes it won’t hear from its poor; it hopes the poor won’t demand too much. But it was different in New Orleans this time. Katrina made it clear that the poor are not okay. This time, the government had to intervene. Although it was a little late for some, the government response to Katrina was about what it is in any situation – a little less than what desperate people want.

It sucks to be poor; that becomes really obvious during a disaster. Education, training and jobs are the antidote to a lack of money, but the lack of a family network is something the government really can’t do anything about. Nobody can force people to love one another. But that is what we have to do. We especially have to love our own blood and heritage. We cannot alienate our family members, not even one, not even the one who is the biggest pain in the neck. Society cannot function without strong families; it cannot function when the only level of social cohesion is government. We are seeing that it New Orleans.

I just read that the French Quarter is probably going to be okay. Apparently, it is built on higher ground than much of the rest of the city. Maybe I will get to go back to Jackson Square. Maybe I will hear the music there again. And maybe I will get to share this special place with my wife and kids.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Arthur Ashe was a First Class role model

The U.S. Postal Service is now producing a 37-cent stamp featuring tennis great Arthur Ashe. The Postal Service unveiled the stamp, fittingly, at the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament in New York, earlier this week.

Ashe won the U.S. Open in 1968; seven years later he won a Wimbledon championship. He suffered a heart attack in 1979, which ended his serious playing days, but he served as the captain of the U.S. Davis Cup Team in the 1980s. In 1992, Sports Illustrated magazine named him Sportsman of the Year. He died in February of 1993.

During Ashe’s childhood days of the 1940s, Arthur Ashe, Sr., taught him to respect everyone. That came at a time when Ashe and many blacks growing up in the South were the object of frequent disrespect.

Ashe, Sr., was the supervisor of a park in Richmond, Va. The park had a tennis court and a swimming pool, although the city ordered Ashe to drain the pool, lest blacks – “Negroes” – swim in the same water as whites.

Ashe, Jr., learned to play tennis in the park his father supervised. When he was 10, he came under the tutelage of Dr. Robert W. Johnson, who taught him to succeed in the white tennis world.

“We were taught when you walked onto the court, you have to be impeccable in your appearance,” Ashe told author Herbert Warren Wind for his book Game, Set and Match. “When we got on the court in our junior days, we didn’t have linesmen. Umpires, that’s all. Every close call would go to your opponent so they could never say you cheated. When you changed sides … if your opponent happened to be serving next, you were to pick up every ball and hand them to your opponent. In fact, you were to be the most courteous guy – you know, faultless person – one could find.”

Playing for UCLA, Ashe went on to win the NCAA title in 1961; professional success followed.

I had the good fortune of meeting Arthur Ashe in November of 1984 when I was a sportswriter for the Press/Sun-Bulletin newspaper in Binghamton, N.Y. Ashe and other athletes were traveling around the state on behalf of a program called “Be New York Fit.” By that point, Ashe had devoted himself to bringing tennis to people who might not typically think of it as an option for themselves.

“Blacks do well in sports that are highly social, the team sports,” Ashe told a group of reporters that included me. “Tennis is not really a team sport. You’re out there all by yourself…What we have to do is make the sport more available and accessible to the public school system, so not only blacks will benefit, but people in general who come from families whose income is not more than $25,000 a year. There’s no reason why the best teachers should be stuck in the elite, isolated enclave of private clubs.”

Ashe always felt that way. After playing the South African Open in 1973, Ashe set up a foundation for non-white South African players. It provided money, clothes and equipment to players who showed promise at the junior level.

Three years earlier, he had helped to set up the National Junior Tennis League, which provided free lessons to beginners all over the country. His original idea was to limit the program to urban neighborhood kids, but ultimately decided it should include all youths interested in learning.

I wrote an article about Ashe that appeared in the Nov. 8, 1984 Binghamton Press/Sun-Bulletin. I have repeated much of that article in this essay.

When I was a kid, I idolized many sports figures, including several tennis players. Many of those heroes went on to disappoint. They proved themselves to be selfish or unsavory in a variety of ways. But not Arthur Ashe. He was a true gentleman, on and off the court, long after his professional playing days were over. He died way too soon, and I miss him. But I will never forget him.