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

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Memo to lawmakers: Focus on the big stuff

Christmas is the day after tomorrow and I know the state’s Democrats who recently took control of the Minnesota legislature are feeling in a holiday mood. One of the very first initiatives they identified for the session which will open next month is gift cards. They want to outlaw those pesky fees and expiration dates that accompany some of the cards. I say they are wasting their time; they really should focus on much more important issues.

True enough, gift cards are big business. In 2006, U.S. consumers will purchase $72.8 billion in gift cards. In my view, that is an argument to leave the gift card industry alone; lots of cards are being sold and used with the laws just as they are. It doesn’t seem any change is needed. But some legislators say they want to help us consumers.

However, this is not something we need any help with. Let’s face it, we give gift cards when we really don’t care what we are giving. It’s a default product we can always give to that someone we don’t know very well and really don’t expect to get to know any better. Certainly if we cared, we’d take the time to get them something unique. That’s the reality from the giver’s side of it.

Now consider the recipient’s side of it. It’s a gift. We may not have been expecting anything in the first place. We are lucky to get anything at all. What does it say about the value I place on the gift card I received if I let it sit in a drawer for a year without using it? Clearly I don’t value it all that much, and so if the merchant starts deducting fees from the card after of year, I don’t really care. Either way, I am ahead.

But lawmakers have a solution so they need to identify a problem. And the Democrats in Minnesota are not alone. Twenty-five states already have beefed up laws related to gift cards in recent years. In Connecticut, Montana and Rhode Island, it is actually illegal to offer a gift card with a fee or an expiration date.

Legislators abuse their authority when they exercise it to interfere with pricing negotiations between buyers and sellers. In most cases where the stakes are small, the market weeds out the bad players as consumers naturally migrate to the best offers. I can see where a case can be made for lawmakers to get involved in major purchases, such as a home or car, or situations where consumers are in a particularly vulnerable situation, like when they are paying for a funeral. But lawmakers don’t need to get involved in the purchase of a $50 gift card.

Bans on fees and/or expiration dates will ultimately reduce the availability of gift cards. Oh sure, the big guys like Wal-Mart and Target will continue to offer gift cards – as they do now – without fees or expiration dates. But the specialty stores and family-owned one-of-a-kind shops are less likely to offer them. At a smaller shop, the time value of money actually means something. If these merchants are not afforded the opportunity to recoup their costs for keeping a gift account open for years, then they may just decide not to offer them at all.

There’s not a legislator in Minnesota who was elected to “do something about gift cards.” Our elected officials should focus on the big things – doing something about the rising cost of health care, improving our transportation networks and bringing our schools into the 21st century. These are the issues to which lawmakers should be directing all their energies. Once the session opens next month, I hope they don’t waste any energy on something as trivial as gift cards.

Monday, December 11, 2006

It’s a Wonderful Life & Christmas – stories in humility

It’s two weeks before Christmas so that means It’s a Wonderful Life will be on television soon. In fact, I see NBC is scheduled to broadcast it this Saturday night (Dec.16).

This is one of my favorite films. It is a beautifully-written story presented through the genius of director Frank Capra and first-rate acting from James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Berrymore.

The movie gives us a story that particularly speaks to people like me – American men in mid-life. This is when we wonder if we have made any difference in the world. This is when the burdens of family life can get heavy. This is when we might feel like we are stuck in a rut.

If only we could all have a Clarence -- an angel who could show us what life would be like had we never been born. Most of us are too preoccupied or lack the imagination to do this on our own.

George Bailey saw that the world would be worse off had he never been born. He was on the right track all along. What tremendous affirmation!

George’s life was like the lives of so many men in their 40s and 50s. It is not a glamorous life. There isn’t a lot of money in it. It’s a life where you live with mundane things like a smaller home, an older car, close-to-home vacations, and movies at home instead of nights out at the theater. There’s always the former classmate who went on to become a millionaire or adventurer or big-time politician. They don’t really make us feel any better.

So many of us have big dreams when we are young. I wanted to get rich in international business, traveling between offices in London, Los Angeles and Tokyo. George Bailey wanted something similar. He wanted to build skyscrapers. He ended up helping people build two-bedroom homes in his hometown. I wanted to run a big newspaper; I ended up in niche publications seen by very few people.

It is not easy to transition from youth, when dreams are big and glamorous, to mid-life when reality is important but usual. For some men, it leads to a mid-life crisis. George’s crisis was precipitated by the threat of the loss of his business. Sometimes it takes a crisis to see things clearly. George saw what he really had and how important it really is. With the love of a spouse and a good prayer life, a man can often weather a mid-life crisis, emerging happier than ever.

It’s a Wonderful Life reminds me of another very good movie: Mr. Holland’s Opus, the 1995 film staring Richard Dreyfuss as a high school music teacher. Like George, Glenn Holland has big dreams when he is young. But, commitments to marriage and family tie him to his hometown where the work is mundane if not important. Holland, like Bailey, does what he is supposed to do; he doesn’t get rich in the process. He watches others go off to the big city to make their fortunes. At the end of Mr. Holland’s Opus, Holland sees what his decades of teaching has meant a lot of kids who come back to honor him. They are not giving him money, as the friends give Bailey in his crisis, but they affirm the importance of his life’s work.

I suppose all men need affirmation. We want to believe what we are doing is important. These two movies are fantasies where two men get that affirmation. In real life, there may or may not be affirmation; and if there is, it probably won’t be very dramatic. We have to believe in what we are doing, not worry about the success that everyone else seems to be getting, put our lives in the hands of God. It’s a Wonderful Life, after all, is a Christmas movie. It is Jesus Christ who brings meaning to anything we do on this earth.

If you ever wonder about the value of what you are doing, if you ever grumble about the difficulty of living the role of faithful husband and father, I think Christmas is especially for you. The Nativity affirms the unsung. The Nativity is the most humble – the least glamorous – of stories, yet it has the greatest meaning. A baby is born in a barn, among sheep and goats. If our lives are devoted to humble things life spouse and kids, and unglamorous activities, like office work and parish activities, then maybe we are in good company. If the world missed the significance of the birth of Christ, then should we be surprised that it continues to miss the importance of family and typical work?

Christmas is a great time of year and I appreciate the stories that have been created over the years to explain the meaning of the season. It’s a Wonderful Life is one of those stories.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Nativity: See the movie

We opened the season of Advent in my family by going to the movie theater to see The Nativity. I hope you get to see it before the Christmas season is over.

We all know what happens, but to see the events compiled into a movie gives one a sense for how fantastic the story really is. The virgin Mary becomes pregnant; Joseph, a righteous man, stays with her instead of having her stoned; three kings from Persia cross a desert in order to be there when Jesus is born in a cave; and an insane Herod responds by killing all the babies in Bethlehem to protect his throne.

Our culture has become so accustomed to associating Christmas with candy canes, snow, cards, lights and gift-giving that we forget the real events that took place some two thousand years ago. I am glad for the reminder this movie provides.

As a father, I was particularly struck by the character of Joseph. He is portrayed as a young man, seeking an honorable wife. His anguish is palpable when he lays eyes upon Mary when she returns from her visit to cousin Elizabeth. Mary is visibly pregnant. What scandal this brings! Joseph struggles as he searches for a dignified response. He cannot believe what has happened, nor can her parents. The matter is hardly settled when Mary tells everyone that an angel informed her she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit and bear the Son of God. Of course, Joseph sticks with Mary, but this causes whispering among everyone they know.

The film also does a chilling job of depicting the brutality of Herod and his Roman soldiers. It must have been a horrifying time to live, especially if one was not a Roman citizen. Near the end of the film, Herod sends his soldiers to Bethlehem to kill ever male child under the age of two. Joseph senses the danger and immediately whisks Mary and baby Jesus away. The film closes with them reaching Egypt.

Joseph is doing what all husbands and fathers are called to do: protect their family. I have to ask myself, would I be decisive enough to take my wife and child out of harm’s way, even if it meant leaving everything we knew on short notice? If the culture should close in on me and my family, seeking to destroy my innocent children, as Herod’s soldiers did, would I act boldly enough? Would I seek to take them to a safe place?

I think we fathers face exactly that challenge today. Soldiers are not seeking my children, but marketers who wish to destroy them with materialism are. The popular culture is after my children and seeks to destroy them with deceptive messages about self-centered living, rebellion, and pleasure-seeking. I do have to protect my children. I do have to keep evil forces away from them.

The Nativity is a very good movie to see any time of year because the message is so timeless. It is a message of incredible faith, good triumphing over evil, and tremendous hope. Those are the things God gave to the world when He sent His only Son to become a man two millennia ago. Those are the things we have today because Jesus Christ is still with us.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

What’s the meaning of taking an oath?

My congressman-elect, Keith Ellison, is in the news because he says that when he is sworn into office on January 4, he will place his hand on a Qur’an. Ellison is the first Muslim elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Ellison’s decision is causing a lot of debate. Many people are saying elected U.S. officials should only take an oath swearing upon the Bible. My local newspaper immediately came to Ellison’s defense and called detractors “wingnuts.” It is nice to see such a sophisticated debate underway.

In fact, no book is used during the official swearing in process, but because an actual oath is sworn, this is an important discussion. If nothing else, it gives us an opportunity to think about the importance of taking an oath. What does it mean and why do people take an oath?

If I give you my word, I am staking my name and reputation on the fact that I will do what I promise. In most cases, this is good enough. If I give my neighbor my word that I will return the shovel I borrowed, my neighbor generally accepts that. If I break my word and don’t promptly return the shovel, the consequences are minimal. My neighbor has to go a little longer without a valuable tool; I reduce the chances that others will lend me anything in the future. These are minor stakes.

But in cases where the stakes are much greater, we ask for something more than a person’s word. For example, in court, when a witness is presenting testimony, we don’t just ask “are you telling the truth?” We make them swear an oath that they are telling the truth. We make them take an oath because the consequences of the things being considered are substantial. While we might be inclined to believe an individual based on their reputation, that’s not enough. So, society makes the person on the stand call God as their witness that they will tell the truth. This gives the public important assurance. We know the consequences of lying under oath -- damnation. The public can know that either the person is telling the truth, or if not, that person will face a much more serious consequence on Judgment Day. In those cases, we pitty the person who fails to respect his oath.

At the school my children attend, the teachers all take an oath of fidelity to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church on the first day of classes every year. Sure, the teachers all say they will teach the faith, but if they take such an oath they are saying that “with God as their witness” they will teach the faith. This oath gives us parents a much higher degree of comfort about what our kids will be taught in the school.

So the important thing about an oath is that it is for the people who are being served by the person promising the service. In other words, the oath isn’t so much for the witness or the teacher or the congressman, but for society, for the parents and for us constituents. An oath gives us assurance beyond the person’s word that they will try to live up to their obligations.

That’s what I find so unsettling in the Ellison debate. Everyone is acting like the oath is for him. It's not. It’s for me. It’s for us. We citizens have every right to expect that our elected representatives will back up their promise to serve with a meaningful oath. Ellison has been elected to serve us, so he should be willing to take an oath that means something to us. Like the vast majority of people in Ellison’s congressional district, I honor a Judeo-Christian God. If Ellison wants the oath to mean anything to most of his constituents, then he should swear by the God most of his constituents honor.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

A little fun

Here is a puzzle you can use, guaranteed to dazzle your friends -– just in time for the Holidays!

Ask someone to think of their birthday and tell them that by using math you will guess it correctly! Here’s how it works:

1) Have them think of the month number for their birthday, where January equals 1, February, 2, and so on.

2) Have them multiply the number by 5.

3) Then add 6.

4) Then multiply that total by four.

5) Then add 9.

6) Then multiply this total by 5.

7) Finally, have them add to that total the day they were born on. (If they were born on the 16th for example, they would add 16.)

Ask the person to give you the total. In your head (you have to be good at math too!), subtract 165 and you will have the month and day they were born on. (418, for example, would be April 18.) Works every time!

(I picked this up some time ago from another blog, although I can't remember where. If the originator leaves a comment, I would be happy to give appropriate credit!)

Friday, November 24, 2006

Catholic education book raises thoughtful points

As the father of three children in Catholic school, I was intrigued by the publication of Steve Kellmeyer’s latest book, “Designed to Fail; Catholic Education in America” (Bridegroom Press, 2005). Although I am fortunate to have the opportunity to send our children to a very sound local school, I know most parents who want their children to receive a good Catholic education do not have that opportunity. Such parents typically spend a lot of money on parochial school tuition but receive only marginally Christian, largely secularist teaching for their children.

Kellmeyer’s book goes a long way toward describing why that is. He lays out the history of the parochial school system in the United States. It is, unfortunately, largely a reaction to the public school system. So rather than getting a truly Catholic education, most Catholic schools simply offer the same fare as the public schools, with a religion class added to the curriculum.

Kellmeyer makes a lot of interesting points. He says that the institutional school model was started in Prussia, largely to turn independent-minded farmers into soldiers who would take orders. Most of the rest of the world copied that model in order to fuel the industrial revolution. First in England and then in the United States, industrialists promoted a school system that would produce docile employees who would show up to work on schedule and do what their bosses tell them.

He also notes that the Catholic Bishops made a huge mistake turning to religious orders to provide teachers. Bishops have little control over most orders yet nuns from these orders were given free reign to teach what they wanted in the schools. Sometimes that was Catholic, but a lot of times it wasn’t. As many of the religious orders fell away from the teachings of the Magisterium, they began to fall apart themselves. Bishops could no longer rely on inexpensive teaching labor from committed religious who saw their role as vocational; the Bishops turned to professionals who needed a living wage, further mirroring the secular model. This move has hopelessly raised the cost of Catholic education to the point today where most Catholic schools are a drain on parish resources while still carrying tuitions that many parents find difficult to pay.

Perhaps most serious, however, is the charge Kellmeyer makes about the way bishops inserted themselves between parents and children as the child’s rightful teacher. Catholic teaching always clearly has stated that parents are the first educators of their children. Kellmeyer asserts that the American bishops somehow forgot that teaching and took such responsibility away from the parents. Most Catholic parents would say they are delegating certain teaching authority to the teachers at the Catholic school, not turning over the responsibility entirely. Nonetheless, Kellmeyer’s charge has got me to thinking about the seriousness of my role as the primary educator for my children.

While Kellmeyer raises several interesting points, the book has shortcomings. The main problem is he never really proposes a solution. The closest thing he offers is that parishes should close their schools and use that money instead to fund weekly seminars for adults conducted by professional speakers. It isn’t a very practical suggestion and it lacks credibility given Kellmeyer’s own status as a professional speaker.

I also think Kellmeyer is unduly hard on the American bishops, and I think he has romanticized the agrarian era in this country. He claims that pre-industrial America was a time when people learned to read on their own and everyone learned a profession by apprenticeship. This strikes me as exaggeration; I don’t think he fairly considers the numerous hardships that went along with rural living pre-20th Century.

People who are seriously interested in Catholic education will find this book worthwhile, but I think casual readers will find it tedious and hopeless. Nonetheless, I would encourage people to work through the book’s 221 pages and think about the major points Kellmeyer raises.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Gratitude has never been more important

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day, and there has never been a country that needs a day devoted to gratitude more than the 21st Century United States of America. Gratitude is the virtue which can save us from drowning in excessive want.

Even though Americans have more stuff than any other people on the planet, we want more than most other people. From a young age, Americans are taught to want -– to want what we don’t have and to want more of what we already have. The Madison Avenue advertising professionals get at children through commercials during those Saturday morning cartoons. Advertisements in magazines and elsewhere are very influential on teens. I heard one economist say recently that the average American teenager spends $480 per month!

These kids and teens, of course, grow into adults who want more than anyone. They want bigger cars, fancier houses, better clothes, tastier food, more exotic travel -– you name it, we want it! Never mind that no one really needs any of this stuff, nor can most of us afford it. Debt levels are at record highs, yet people keep buying and buying and buying. Reason has been replaced by materialism and practicality has been replaced by consumerism. Sometimes I think we are in the process of spending ourselves straight to hell.

This is why Thanksgiving Day is so important. This is a day we say "thank you" to God for what we have. We have set aside one day a year to think about what we have instead of what we want. And most of us have plenty. Even the poorest Americans live better than most people who have ever walked the face of the earth. Typical Americans live richly blessed lives. Many of us are lucky enough to have family and friends, a home and a job, a college education, good food and simple entertainment. These are tremendous blessings.

I am convinced that the more one focuses on what they have, the less they are likely to focus on what they want. The more a person thanks God for the blessings of life, the less likely a person is to gripe about what he doesn’t have. When you take some time to think about all that you have, the idea of wanting a faster car or a bigger TV set really seems pretty silly. When you think about what a tremendous blessing your spouse and kids are, you realize that it doesn’t really matter whether you have a new set of golf clubs or the latest computer gadget.

Someone once said it is better to want what you have than to want what you don’t have. I think that is the definition of gratitude -– want what you have. Be grateful for your blessings.

Gratitude is a virtue which can be cultivated in every human heart. Gratitude does not necessarily come naturally; you have to work at it. Begin by saying "thank you" at every opportunity. Then take a little time everyday to think about all the blessings in your life. Think about all that you have. Look around you and realize that all that stuff is only there by the grace of God. We can start to do this on Thanksgiving Day. If we do this everyday, we can break out of this country’s seemingly endless, materialist, downward spiral.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Adoption in a consumer culture

Should I be surprised that in this ultra-consumer culture a person can now actually buy a baby? That’s right, a baby.

There’s a clinic in San Antonio, Texas, called the Abraham Center of Life, which has started the first human embryo bank. Reportedly for $10,000, infertile couples can purchase a pair of donor-created embryos. They are shipped to the couple’s primary medical clinic for implantation. Both are implanted with the idea that only one will ultimately survive. The center boasts a success rate of about 70 percent.

The center screens donors, both men and women; it claims to accept only people with “clean medical backgrounds.” The center requires male donors to be college educated. The center apparently even grades the embryos according to some measure it has created for “quality.”

Should I be surprised that in this culture, one can purchase an embryo in pretty much the same fashion that one would purchase an automobile? Cohabitation long ago turned marriage into a consumer experience. We’ve all heard the argument: “You’d test drive a car before buying it, why wouldn’t you test out a spouse before getting married?” So I guess it should not come as a surprise that the natural fruits of marriage –- children -– should be reduced to little more than a commodity as well.

Infertility is an emotional roller coaster; my wife and I have struggled with it for years. The culture advocates a medical resolution; we can, after all, create life in a Petri dish. During the last several years, the approach typically has been to use sperm and ova from the couple. Initiate conception in the laboratory and then implant for the gestation of pregnancy. If one of those initial components is inadequate, a donor can be tapped. The Abraham Center is the first clinic in the United States that I know of to use donor sources for both components of the conception.

These medical approaches do produce children, but I really think they represent dabbling in places where man does not belong. The question about creating life in the laboratory has never really been can we do it? but should we do it? I am so grateful to the Catholic Church for its clear direction on this question. The Church teaches that a marital relationship brings husband and wife together -– physically -– for the equal purposes of loving one another and for having children. Official Church documents use the terms “procreative” and “unitive.”

When we were first considering our options for addressing our infertility, we listened to doctors explain the medical options. Most of those options violated the unitive component of marriage. In other words, they offered procreation without the actually physical union of the husband and wife. Although we wanted the experience of conceiving a child, we didn’t want to be our own church. We did not want to make up our own theology. We wanted to live the faith, given to us by Jesus Christ, through His worldwide Church. So we got off the medical path fairly early in our marital journey.

And it was the best thing we ever did. We didn’t know anything about adoption at the time, but we studied and learned. Ultimately, over a period of seven years, we adopted four children. We have beautiful children and we thank God for the vocation of parenthood that He has given us. Sometimes I have referred to adoption as our “plan B,” but of course it isn’t my plans that matter. Maybe for us, this was God’s “plan A.”

November is National Adoption Awareness Month. Today, November 18, is National Adoption Day. Tomorrow, November 19, will be the fourth anniversary of the date our youngest child was presented to us in an orphanage in South America. Adoption has been a magnificent blessing to our family. I pray for couples who are struggling with infertility. I hope more will consider adoption; the need is great. The rewards are even greater.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Election thoughts

Tim Pawlenty’s re-election to governor renews my faith in Minnesotans. Generally, when an incumbent runs, we Minnesotan’s re-elect the person unless they have been found guilty of some major malfeasance.

Pawlenty has generally done a good job. When he took office nearly four years ago, the budget was $4.5 billion in the red and he managed to get us back in the black. I have many liberal friends who hate Pawlenty; they say he slashed budgets without regard for the people who rely on state funds. Those criticisms, of course, would have been leveled against any Republican incumbent; they certainly are not reserved for Pawlenty.

Governing is a tricky endeavor, requiring the careful weighing of several interests. No matter what you do, there are going to be groups of people who hate you. I have had the opportunity to be in several meetings with Gov. Pawlenty and I have gotten the impression he considers all sides; he is cordial and level-headed.

That demeanor is in stark contrast to Mike Hatch, who ran against him and lost. Hatch has coveted the governorship since the late 1980s when he was the state’s commissioner of commerce. I have had the opportunity to personally see Hatch in action and I have never been impressed. I saw him lose his temper at one meeting; he shouted at the group and walked out of the room. I am glad we did not elect this blatant opportunist.

Pawlenty, in fact, has been a pleasant break from a string of hot-head governors. Rudy Perpich, Arnie Carlson, and Jesse Ventura were all emotionally volatile and apt to lash out at reporters and colleagues with seemingly no provocation. Hatch would have brought that behavior back to the spot light had he been elected.

I found the election results for Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional district to be interesting. Keith Ellison won with about 135,000 votes, which is about 85,000 fewer than Marty Sabo got when he won two years ago. Granted, that was a presidential election year when the turnout is usually greater, but even if you go back to 2002, Sabo won with 171,000 votes. Ellison challengers Alan Fine and Tammy Lee each got about 50,000 votes. Even if you throw in the votes that went to the Green Party candidate, the challengers don’t combine enough votes to come in ahead of Ellison. It proves what local newspaper columnist James Lileks said of Minnesota’s Fifth: “The Democrats could put up a canned ham and it would win.”

Andrew Favorite, a buddy of mine, ran against Ellison in the primary for the Democratic Party endorsement in September. Andy finished well back in the pack; I don’t think many people took his candidacy seriously. But I applaud him. Andy is one of these guys who just got fed up with all the non-sense going on in Washington and decided to exercise his civic rights and run for office. Getting elected, of course, takes more than conviction. If Andy runs again for anything and takes the time to build a serious campaign, I’d vote for him again. (In Minnesota, Republicans can vote in the Democratic primary, and vice versa.)

Two other lesser-known candidates caught my eye this election cycle. Erik Thompson is from a small town in western Minnesota called Milan. He was a candidate in the Fifth District for the Congressional seat but mid-summer switched to being a candidate in the Seventh District, which includes his hometown. He is a peace activist who was running on a platform solely centered on the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. He lost in the Democratic primary in September to Collin Peterson, who won re-election yesterday. Thompson and I would be polar opposites on the philosophical spectrum, but I admire his conviction.

The other interesting candidate was Ben Powers of the Constitution Party who ran for U.S. Senate against Democrat Amy Klobuchar, who won, and Republican Mark Kennedy. Powers is brutally honest with his ultra-conservative views, but again, I am impressed by someone who speaks his mind no matter what others might think.

I was shocked by the news out of our neighboring state to the south. U.S. Rep. Jim Leach lost to Dave Loebsack. Leach was in his 15th term and is probably one of the smartest people in Congress. (He is the guy behind the internet gambling bill I wrote about in September.) Leach apparently got caught up in the title wave that washed several Republicans out of office this election. That is somewhat ironic given that Leach was one of the few Republicans to vote against the Bush Administration’s plan to go to war in Iraq in 2002.

Of course, I was disappointed the voters of South Dakota struck down the state’s anti-abortion law. But I have to believe that perhaps the timing for such a law just wasn’t right. If pro-life advocates have any hope of ever seeing Roe vs. Wade over-turned, we are going to need at least one more new Supreme Court justice. If the South Dakota law had stood and gone to the current court, it probably would have been struck down. I will continue to grieve every child lost to abortion.

Now that the mid-term election is passed, the 2008 presidential election begins. There will be special attention on Minnesota as that election unfolds with the Republican National Convention set for Saint Paul in 2008. Republican Norm Coleman, Minnesota’s other U.S. Senator, is likely to find himself in a race against Al Franken, who really hasn’t been very funny since his Saturday Night Live days. In fact, I'm not even sure he was funny then.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Thoughts a day before the election

I care about the elections and, like all good citizens, I plan to vote tomorrow, but my expectations about the possibilities for government are low. My liberal friends expect government to fix a lot of problems that it simply is not equipped to fix.

Many people believe government officials lead our culture, but the truth is our culture leads our government. Elected officials are among the most reactionary people on earth. Once the culture is moving in a particular direction, expect our elected officials to reflect that direction.

Whenever I contemplate the tension between those who want limited government and those who want expansive government, I think of chapter 8 from First Samuel in the Old Testament. This is the chapter where the Israelites ask Samuel for a king. Up until that point, the Israelites had been ruled by a network of Judges, but now they want a king. Samuel doesn’t like the idea, but God tells him to give them what they want. So Samuel says they can have a king but warns them about the demands that a king will make on them:

“He will take your male and female servants, as well as your best oxen, and use them to do his work. He will tithe your flocks and you yourselves will become his slaves. When this takes place, you yourselves will complain about the king you have chosen…

We don’t call our elected officials “kings,” (although former Gov. Jesse Ventura thought he was king of Minnesota), but I think Samuel’s warning is valid today. Government has a great price. We end up working a long time to pay for an ever-expanding government sector. And every election cycle, we complain about those we chose in the last election.

I believe in democracy; it’s the best form of government anyone has come up with. But my point is, government has its limits. It can handle some responsibilities, like fixing roads and maintaining fire departments, but it is unrealistic to ask too much of government, like arranging for universal health care and guaranteeing everyone a good job. There are a lot of things that we have to resolve on our own -– starting in our own homes, with our own families. That is the basis of our culture. And culture will always be many steps ahead of government.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Let’s redraw the map to get better campaigns, better elected officials

Every year about this time, the approaching elections make me face an uncomfortable fact: I am philosophically out of synch with my neighbors. I live in an overwhelmingly Democrat area where Republican candidates for office have virtually no chance of winning. My votes are completely meaningless for state legislative offices and for the Fifth District Congressional seat. In the context of the state as a whole, my vote is meaningful, thankfully, in the race for Governor and U.S. Senator.

The race for Congress in my area pits Keith Ellison, a Democrat, against Alan Fine, the Republican. Ellison is a state legislator from north Minneapolis. Although the Star Tribune called Ellison a “flawed candidate,” he will win easily. History suggests that Fine will get about 25 to 30 percent of the vote with the remainder going to Ellison, whose views are the exact opposite of mine on most major issues.

Because the result is so predictable, we don’t get much of a campaign. And what campaigning does take place is largely ignored by the media. I would like to live in a place where there is a real race for Congress. Where door-knocking matters. Where candidates really have to articulate their views on a wide range of issues. Where we could all feel as if the winner worked for the victory. But, not in Minnesota’s Fifth.

The Fifth District is the smallest congressional district in the state in terms of geography, consisting mostly of Minneapolis and some first-ring suburbs. Minnesota’s eight congressional districts are distinct along definitions related to population density. The Fifth and the Fourth (mostly St. Paul) are inner-city urban; the Third is suburban; the Second and Sixth are exurban; and the First, Seventh and Eighth are decidedly rural. Generally speaking, people with a liberal philosophy tend to live in urban areas and people with conservative philosophies tend to live in more rural areas. I guess I am an anomaly.

The Sixth District seems to be the only congressional district in Minnesota where the election outcome is not a foregone conclusion. People in that district seem to be pretty evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, and therefore you get competitive campaigns there. Two women are fighting it out for that seat: Democrat Patty Wetterling against Republican Michele Bachmann. At this point, the race is too close to call, although the Star Tribune gives Wetterling the edge.

I wish they would come up with a new map of congressional districts for the state. I think it is a mistake to lump a vast majority of people of one philosophy into a single district so the outcome of these elections is so predictable. I think it would be good if all the districts included people from the urban core, from the suburbs and exurbs, and from rural areas. Rather than pitting residents of these geographic subdivisions against one another, I think you could get a lot more cooperation on national policy if House members had to represent some people from all these groups. It is too easy to think of “rural” districts and “urban” districts and pigeon-whole the thinking of the Congressmen who represent them. I would prefer that our representatives be forced to consider the needs and interest of people living in all these settings.

So if I could redraw the Minnesota map into eight congressional districts, it would look like the rays of the sun, with all eight districts converging in the center of the Twin Cities. It would consist of eight wedges, expanding out from the center cities all the way to the borders of the state. Since the urban core is located in the east part of the state, the wedges on the east would be short and wide, and as the map spans to the west, the wedges would become narrower and longer. Each of the districts could then include people who live in the urban core, people who live in the suburbs and exurbs, and people who live in the country.

I think this kind of mapping would result in more competitive races, where candidates would really have to campaign and really have to let voters know where they stand. I could get excited about participating in an election like that.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Dr. Sohn sees soft landing in 2007

I got to know Dr. Sung Won Sohn when he worked at Norwest Bank in Minneapolis. He is a former White House advisor and associate of Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve Board chairman. Sohn worked at Norwest for many years, through its transition to Wells Fargo Bank, but left in January 2005 to become president at CEO of Hanmi Bank in Los Angeles.

I got a chance to visit with Sohn last week, when we were both in Phoenix for an industry meeting. I was intrigued to hear his optimistic comments about the economy. While the media bombards us with stories about the slowing housing market, Sohn isn’t so worried about it.

“We do not have a housing bubble,” he said. “That is a rapid increase in prices followed by a rapid decrease, and that has not happened.”

Sohn said the best way to predict the housing market is to assess the economy. “If people think the economy is going to go well, housing prices increase,” he said. “If they think it is going to do poorly, housing prices decline.” As mortgage rates decline, however, he noted that home sales generally begin to pick up, which encourages sellers to increase prices. “If short term rates fall, the yield curve will flatten. Housing will get a second wind,” Sohn said. “Despite all the bad predictions, housing is not going as bad as people thought.”

Sohn said there isn’t much discussion about increasing the federal funds rate much more, even in light of an increase in the core inflation rate (consumer price index minus energy and food costs). “The question is ‘should we be cutting interest rates or should we wait?’” Sohn summarized. “My personal prediction is the federal funds rate has topped, and will not be going up very much, if at all, in the future. So in the near future we will see the federal funds rate moving sideways.” The federal funds rate is currently 5.25 percent. The Federal Reserve's Federal Open Market Committee, which officially sets the rate, met today and left the rate unchanged.

Sohn sited the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which is indicating a drop to 5 percent or lower for the fed funds rate by June 2007. “I think the market expectations are reasonable,” Sohn said. The federal funds rate is near the top, if not at the top. In 2007, we will actually see lower interest rates. That is what the market is saying.”

Sohn noted a drop in the price of energy, which is stimulating the economy. The price of natural gas and oil is down. Sohn said that 9 percent of all goods are derived from energy – “from plastics to shoes.” Energy prices, he said, have a huge impact on the economy.

“When the price of gasoline goes down by 10 cents, it is like putting $1 billion in our pockets. It is like a tax cut.” Sohn said. “So when the price of gas drops 70 cents, it is like a $7 billion tax cut. Eventually energy prices find their way into the core inflation rate because of its impact on so many other goods. So as energy comes down, the price of these other products should begin to come down. The result is the inflation outlook improves.

Sohn warned, however, that on-going demand for energy from China and India will keep oil and natural gas prices from falling very much.

Sohn concluded: “Economic growth rates will slow, but not a great deal. Long-term economic growth is about 3 percent. I am very optimistic about the economy.”

You might find Dr. Sohn’s web site to be of interest, at

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Gergen sees one last push in Iraq coming

David Gergen, the editor-at-large for U.S. News and World Report, spoke to a business group in Phoenix on Oct. 16. He spoke on a wide range of issues, but I thought his comments on the war in Iraq were particularly interesting. Gergen has worked for four presidents -– three Republicans and one Democrat. His comments are about as even-handed as any I have ever heard from a Washington insider.

“There is a sense in Washington that we are in a holding pattern until after the election,” Gergen said of the Iraq situation. “When Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) recently came back from Iraq, he said, ‘We are moving sideways in Iraq.’ He said we’ve got a couple months and then we’ve got to re-evaluate.

“There is a great sense in Washington that we are moving toward Plan B, that Plan A has not worked, and that we are going to move to Plan B. Everybody is asking, what is Plan B? It will not be cut and run, it will not be airlift everybody out of there in the next six days. Clearly this president has the inner fortitude not to do that. That would be a bad mistake, to pull the plug on this thing like that.

“But what we are doing is not working either, so you have got to find something in between. We don’t want Plan C; Plan A is not working. You’ve got to come up with Plan B.”

Gergen noted that former secretary of state Jim Baker (Republican) and Lee Hamilton (Democrat) are co-chairing a commission on Iraq. The commission includes former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

“The commission is going to come up with a set of proposals,” Gergen said. “It is widely believed that those proposals will be Plan B.”

Gergen said Baker is a master at getting people out of tight spots. The commission will quietly brings its conclusions to President Bush and the President will likely agree to them before the commission goes public. The President will say it is time to re-evaluate and he will endorse the proposals of the commission, Gergen said.

“When he comes up with Plan B, I think it is also very possible that he will suggest the architects of Plan A might want to do other things in life. That that might be a good time to change teams,” Gergen said. “That’s what Lyndon Johnson did in the Viet Nam war. He had Bob McNamara there; that wasn’t working and he sent McNamara to the World Bank. He brought in Clark Clifford as his Secretary of Defense. I don’t know whether Jim Baker would do that or not. He is 76. I don’t know whether he would be willing to be Secretary of Defense at this point. It’s a lot to ask of him. But the President could reach out to a Sam Nunn. Democrat, Georgia, that would be a marvelous choice. A really smart, smart choice.

“There is a lot of talk in Washington about Plan B requiring us to send a lot more troops. There is a lot of loose talk in Washington that we are talking as many as 100,000 troops who would go in for a short period of time, maybe six months to a year, to try to stabilize this place. The idea is if you put a lot more troops in there you can quiet everything down. That’s the idea. Problem is, we don’t have enough military. We have maybe 20,000 you could throw together, unless you drew down from future assignments.”

Gergen said he believes the American people have not completely given up on the President. “I think the President has one more shot,” he said. “I think the President can go to the country and say ‘This is not working.’ He has to eat some crow, which is not easy for him to do. He is a rightfully proud man. But he can say to the country ‘I need you,’ to the Democrats, ‘I need you. Iraq is too important to let go down the drain. Let’s give it one more shot. Let’s give it one more big push. Let’s see if we can’t succeed here, and if we can’t then we will have to go to Plan C.’ I think the president can get people to go along with him.

“When you look down into the abyss and say ‘Do you really want to let Iraq go down?’ I think most Americans will say no. Let’s try.”

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A Father for All Seasons

I have written in the past about the importance of ordinary people writing their stories, and one person who has done so is Bob Welch, a columnist for The Register-Guard newspaper in Eugene, Ore. Welch is the father of two kids and he has compiled a number of moving stories in a book called “A Father for All Seasons.” It was published eight years ago, but until a friend gave me a copy of the book two weeks ago, I had never heard of it. I read it, and now I want to make sure as many people as possible hear about this book.

Welch is a pretty ordinary guy with a lot of ordinary stories. But those are precisely the stories that should be told and preserved. History should not be limited to the fantastic, the horrible and the amazing. Books like the one Welch wrote present a much more accurate reflection of life than do newspapers and television news.

Welch writes about the things that are important to him and does a great job weaving in comments about his faith. So many writers are afraid to deal with religion in their work. But they shouldn’t be. Every work of memoir, in my opinion, needs to deal with the writer’s relationship with God. If the writer doesn’t have a relationship with God, then that should be discussed in the book. Welch, however, has a pronounced relationship with God and he writes about it, seemingly without effort. Welch and I might quibble over some doctrinal points, but I found his seamless integration of spiritual reality into his work to be one of the strengths of the book.

As the title implies, the stories are presented in sections named after the seasons, starting with springtime. He walks us through stories that depict summer, fall, winter, and then a second spring. He writes about his parents, the death of his father, the birth of his sons, about the death of a friend’s son, about two boys who went off to Viet Nam, about his son going off to college, and about another father and son who struggle with a drug habit. Some of it is pretty heavy stuff, but almost all of it is stuff that is common to anyone alive today.

At one point, Welch writes about a father’s role as teacher: “Better to teach our sons the selfless character of Christ than the flawed character of ourselves…” he writes. “We should not teach our sons with flash cards that do nothing but embed in their minds memorized facts. Instead, we should teach our sons to seek wisdom from the Word. We should teach them less calculation and more character. We should teach them not to blindingly follow the world, but to faithfully follow the truth.”

At another point, he writes about a boy reaching the age of 21. The only way society acknowledges adulthood, he notes, is by giving him the right to purchase alcohol. He comments: “…manhood had much more to do with responsibilities than with rights. Manhood isn’t found in a bottle. It’s found in the hearts of men, in the form of such attributes as courage, humility and vulnerability.”

There is a chapter in the book where Welch makes reference to Jon Krakauer, the adventurer who chronicled his climb to the top of Mount Everest in the best-selling book “Into Thin Air.” Welch was a classmate of Krakauer and Welch comments that while he settled into a community and raised two sons with his wife, Krakauer and his wife chose not to have children so he could travel around the world and write fantastic adventure stories. Krakauer’s life seems so glamorous.

I think a lot of fathers feel that way. We can all identify a former acquaintance who went onto glamorous living while we fathers chose a relatively conventional life involving the raising of kids, a mortgage, and relative anonymity. You don’t win any notoriety for fatherhood, of course. It’s a thankless pursuit (that is, trying to be a good parent). If you’re lucky, your kids will thank you some day. They will say you were important in their life. But there’s no guarantee. It might not work out that way. In fact, parenting is a pretty big gamble.

But that is why it is so worth writing about. That is why Welch’s collection of stories, which seem so simple, is really quite fabulous.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Sen. Hagel offers comments on fiscal situation

U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) used sobering language to describe the country's fiscal situation during a speech he delivered in Omaha on Sept. 22. There is talk that he may run for president in 2008; I think his candor is necessary but he will have to frame his message in a more hopeful fashion to develop any kind of a nationwide following.

Sen. Hagel said runaway spending by Congress jeopardizes the future of the country. “Without economic power, we have nothing,” he said, stressing the importance of a sound national economy. He said the budget deficit for this year is running about $260 billion. Although that sum is lower than it was a year ago, and although many people are hailing the figure as a sign of fiscal restraint, Sen. Hagel said deficit spending is still dangerous. “This takes a toll on our currency, on our competitive ability,” Sen. Hagel said. “We are going to have to get control of our spending; when that happens it is going to get a little uncomfortable.”

Sen. Hagel said that politicians usually come home with news about all the money they have brought back to constituents. They then head back to Washington with promises about reigning in the budget. “We want to have it both ways,” Sen. Hagel said. With Congressional approval ratings coming in between 25 percent and 28 percent, Sen. Hagel commented that “the American people do not think we are doing a very good job. And they are right.”

Sen. Hagel said Congress needs to tackle the major entitlement programs if it hopes to make any progress on fiscal reform. “The entitlement issue alone hangs as heavy over this country as the threat of terrorism,” he said.

The second-term Senator cited a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland which noted the country has $42 trillion in unfunded liabilities over the next 75 years related to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He said in 2016-17, the Social Security Trust Fund will begin to pay out more money than it collects. The country currently spends $380 billion per year on Medicare and $190 billion per year on Medicaid. Three-quarters of the budget, he said, goes to pay these three entitlement programs, as well as other so-called “non-negotiables,” such as interest on the debt and pension obligations. Interest on the debt alone, he said, runs about $300 billion per year.

Even more troubling, he said, is our dependence upon foreign investors to finance that debt. “You know that $2 billion to $3 billion has to come in every day from off shore to cover our debt,” he explained. “We are at a record low for savings in this country, and individuals are at record high debt levels.

“If we do not get our house in order,” Sen. Hagel said, “if we don’t make some tough decisions one of these days, if we don’t prioritize our resources and where we want to go, then we are headed for a lot of trouble.”

Monday, October 09, 2006

Articles show why I’m skeptical of the things I read in the newspapers

I am skeptical of much of what I read in the newspapers because I am so often unable to determine the motives behind the publication of certain stories. The motivation to publish a page one story, for example, should be obvious to the reader. The story should describe an important, obviously newsworthy, event or issue. The gossip and speculation and hearsay should be reserved for columns appearing deep within the newspaper. But increasingly, I find that the front page is barely discernable from most poorly written editorial pages.

To provide examples, consider two front page stories that appeared over the weekend: one on Saturday in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the other on Sunday in the New York Times.

The Start Tribune article was about domestic troubles Alan Fine had with an ex-wife 11 years ago. Fine is the Republican candidate for the Fifth District congressional seat in Minnesota. The Fifth District is overwhelming populated with Democrats and Fine has virtually no chance of winning the open seat against state legislator Keith Ellison, who is running with the DFL endorsement.

I cannot figure out why the Star Tribune ran this article. The article focuses on a 1995 domestic violence charge made by his wife at the time. She dropped the case against him, and two years ago, Fine had the record expunged. So why is an argument between a husband and wife who eventually divorce worthy of a front page story? No case was ever tried and all we have is a ‘he said, she said’ account from more than a decade ago. I would be happy to read articles about real political issues, but I don’t believe any of my fellow voters in the Fifth District care about Fine’s marital troubles.

I think, although I can’t be certain, that the Star Tribune’s reason for running the story appears in the last paragraph, where it says “Fine has repeatedly said ‘character matters’.” So I get the sense that the newspaper is calling Fine a hypocrite. But I really have to laugh at that. Of course character matters. Is the newspaper telling us that Ellison thinks character doesn’t matter? And if that’s really the point of the story, then why isn’t the lead something like: Congressional candidate Alan Fine’s comments about character mattering are hypocritical, unconfirmed events from 11 years ago suggest.

As for the New York Times, the Old Gray Lady ran a story about religious organizations getting exemptions from certain state and federal laws. It is an absolute non-story that was started above the fold on page one and jumped inside where the remainder of the copy took up two entire pages.

The article starts by describing two day care facilities in Alabama. One is subject to inspection and regulation, the other, which is affiliated with a church, is not. The tedious article goes on to note that churches get tax breaks unavailable to typical commercial businesses. There is absolutely no news here. Any commercial business that competes with a non-profit entity is well aware of the inequities.

One paragraph in the article: “These organizations and their leaders still rely on public services – police and fire protection, street lights and storm drains, highway and bridge maintenance, food and drug inspections, national defense. But their tax exemptions shift the cost of providing those benefits onto other citizens…”

Wow. Are they actually saying that it is wrong for Americans who don’t pay taxes to enjoy these services? There are thousands of low-income people in Minnesota who don’t pay income taxes who enjoy all of these things and no one has any problem with that. And if it is the fact that churches are specifically exempt from paying taxes rather than unable to because of their limited means, consider the many very profitable credit unions across the country that enjoy all these benefits and pay no income tax. Only a small group of citizens, mostly made up of bankers, complain about that.

The Times never comes out and says it, but I think they are implying that churches should not get these breaks. I think they see it as a violation of the constitution which guarantees the separation of church and state. I am not aware of anyone who sees it that way, except people who are openly hostile to organized religion. Remember, people came to North America in the first place to get away from oppressive government regimes that tried to interfere with the practice of religion.

So the New York Times story just doesn’t make any sense. Their motivation for running this story is very unclear and leaves me only to speculate. This piece just makes the newspaper look hostile to organized religion.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Economist sees slowing economy, maybe even recession

The next Federal Open Market Committee meeting is Oct. 24-25. If you have a mortgage with an adjustable rate, or if you have tapped into a home equity line of credit that charges a floating interest rate, you should pay attention every time the FOMC meets. This is the Federal Reserve board committee that sets interest rates, specifically a rate called the Federal Funds rate. All other interest rates fall or rise correspondingly.

The last two times the committee met, it decided to hold the rate at its current level (5.25 percent). This is important, because the 17 previous meetings in a row, it elected to raise the rate. Some people are now beginning to say the Fed will lower rates, and the process could start as soon as the meeting later this month. Most people who watch this stuff, however, expect the Fed to hold rates through the end of the year and perhaps begin to lower rates in the first quarter of 2007.

I had an opportunity to listen to Michael Gasior deliver a synopsis of the economy on Tuesday. Gasior is an economist who founded an institutional investment firm called American Financial Services. He thinks the Fed will lower rates early next year, but he doesn’t see that as necessarily good news. He is afraid the economy will need rejuvenation and the Fed will lower rates to stimulate an economy that he sees headed for recession.

Here are the points he made about why he believes the U.S. economy is headed for recession:

*) Foreigners are financing our debt. He noted that since 2000, the U.S. government has issued $1.3 trillion in new debt and foreign investors have bought virtually all of it. Plus, he notes, U.S. private domestic investors have reduced their holdings of U.S. Treasuries by $300 billion. That means foreign investors have actually bought $1.6 trillion in U.S. debt in the last six years. Gasior says it is not a good sign that Americans are unloading their Treasury bonds and that they are not buying the bonds being issued currently.

Gasior noted the uneasiness of the country’s growing dependence upon foreign investors. If the Japanese or Chinese stopped buying U.S. Treasury bonds, bond rates would have to increase, which would make everything in the United States more expensive. This kind of pressure really handcuffs the Federal Reserve. It may want to lower rates to stimulate the economy, but if it does, foreign investors may not be as willing to finance our debt.

*) He doesn’t like the inverted yield curve. When long term interest rates fall below short term interest rates, it almost always leads to recession, Gasior said.

*) Gasior said he does not like the fact that the U.S. dollar is weaker now than it was four years ago. Today, a dollar will buy you 0.78 euros or 117 yen; four years ago a dollar would have bought you a full euro or 134 yen. A weak dollar is a plus for American manufacturers selling abroad, but it makes it much more difficult for foreign companies that attempt to sell their products in the United States. We need those foreign companies to do well, so their economies do well, so they will continue to buy our debt.

*) Gasior said he also is concerned about the contracting real estate market. Particularly troubling is the fact that the contraction is taking place during a relatively good economic period. If interest rates were to rise one or two more times, it would really send real estate into a nosedive.

Gasior concluded: “We are already slowing down, but by the first, maybe second quarter of next year, it will be very evident the economy is slowing, perhaps to the level of recession. I don’t think the Fed is going to wait that long to begin cutting rates. It will have to do something in order to keep things stimulated, to keep things from melting down.”

Monday, October 02, 2006

Law set to beef up internet gambling prohibition

Rep. Jim Leach is getting his internet gambling law. (See Sept. 20 post.) The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act was tacked onto the Port Security Improvement Act, which the Senate passed late Friday. The bill now goes to President Bush, who is expected to sign it into law this week.

Although I am not a gambler and I feel for people who struggle with gambling additions, I really wonder whether this is the right approach. Internet gambling is a problem worthy of congressional scrutiny, but does the answer really necessitate the involvement of the banking industry and the credit card companies? I don’t think so.

Internet gambling currently is illegal but since most of the gambling web sites operate in other countries, the prohibition is nearly impossible to enforce. The Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury already have a comprehensive regulatory enforcement mechanism in place for the banking industry, so Rep. Leach proposed to tap into that mechanism to mitigate internet gambling. Good intentions not withstanding, going after the credit card processors does not solve the problem. Private industry facilitating the payments system shouldn’t be saddled with the cost of Congress’s attempt to resolve yet another social problem.

It is true that many of the credit card companies and big banks favor the new gambling enforcement rules. Those companies, however, would be far better off implementing the bill’s provisions voluntarily rather than under the threat of fines and incarceration. In fact, banks and credit card companies build a world of good will when they take on serious social ills on their own.

The thing about money is there will always be people who choose to spend it foolishly, whether it be on gambling, pornography, recreational drugs or other nonsense. As people of goodwill, we have an obligation to help others make wise decisions about living well. That is a responsibility that falls on all of us, not just those who work in the credit card industry.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI on Faith and Reason

One of the really good things to come out of the demands by radical Islamists that Pope Benedict XVI apologize for his September 12 speech at Regensburg, Germany is that the ensuing media brouhaha might actually incite some people to dig up the speech and read it. That’s exactly what I did and I hope you will too. Find the full text at

Benedict delivered an absolutely brilliant speech about the inseparability of faith and reason. The great divide among God-fearing people in our world today is between those who believe God’s actions are completely random and indiscriminate, and those who believe God’s actions are in harmony with reason. Some people say God can do anything He wants, even evil. This doesn’t make any sense to me. We Catholics believe God cannot contradict Himself. God is pure love and evil does not come out of true love. Reason would require this consistency.

I am very grateful for the integration of faith and reason. If God’s actions correspond with reason, then I have some hope of knowing God and of understanding His ways. But if His ways are entirely separate from reason, then I have no way of discerning the meaning of God’s actions. I would have no way of knowing whether a particular action is godly or otherwise.

Benedict notes the Greek translation for “word” in the first verses of John’s Gospel. The Greek word is “logos,” which means both “reason” and “word.” Benedict said: “John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God…”

Although faith and reason are necessarily integrated, Benedict notes three distinct efforts in Western culture to separate them over the last 500 years. He notes, first, the Reformation of the 16th century which reduced faith to one component of an over arching philosophical system, unduly influenced by the philosopher Immanuel Kant who stated that “he needed to set thinking aside in order to make room for faith.” The principle of sola scripture, a pillar of the Reformation, dramatically reduced the grandeur of God and His revelation to mankind.

The second effort to bifurcate faith and reason came out of liberal Christian thought developed in the 19th and 20th centuries which focused on the humanity of Jesus. The idea, Benedict said, “was to bring Christianity back into harmony with ‘modern’ reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ’s divinity and the triune God.”

The third effort, which is currently underway in some theological circles, discounts the significance of Greek culture in the presentation of the scriptures. It dismisses the word “logos” and its significance as merely a cultural phenomenon that should not have meaning in a world-wide application of scripture and theology.

Benedict states that faith without reason prevents religion from creating community because faith ends up being entirely personal. On the other hand, reason without faith offers a very narrow view of science which reduces mankind to something much smaller than God intended. The fullness of God's creation can only be understood in a context that honors the inseparability of faith and reason.

God-fearing people should be willing to have the discussion that Pope Benedict initiates with his speech at Regensburg. The radicals who threatened the Pope with death and burned his image in effigy clearly don’t want to have that discussion. Their reaction to the speech validates the importance of Benedict’s message.

While the opportunity for dialogue with Muslims may be minimal now, my hope is the opportunity is far greater with non-Catholic Christian denominations. What is the role of reason in a “scripture alone” theology? Was Kant right? Do we really need to turn off our brains before considering our faith? Pope Benedict in his speech affirmed that the Catholic Church says no.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Author, speaker shed light on gender differences

I’m reading a book by Myrna Blyth, who edited Ladies Home Journal magazine from 1981 to 2002. In the publishing world, the magazine is referred to as one of the “seven sisters,” the others being Family Circle, Redbook, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Gardens and Woman’s Day. These magazines have absolutely nothing in common with the industry magazines I work with on a daily basis, but I always find it interesting to read the musings of other magazine editors.

The premise of Blyth’s Spin Sisters: How the women of the media sell unhappiness and liberalism to the women of America, is that the seven sisters exploit women by promoting unrealistic images of beauty. They also play on women’s anxieties by printing a preponderance of journalistically flimsy stories about health, stress and safety.

Blyth offers a glimpse into how major media works, but what fascinated me most was her take on the differences between men and women. It seems so politically incorrect today to acknowledge any differences between men and women. But Blyth is not worried about political correctness. She goes into quite a bit of detail about how the media (not just the major women’s magazines) prepare stories differently for men and women.

“Coverage of health topics, which provide the best fodder for frightening stories, dramatically increased during the past decade both on television and in women’s magazines,” she writes on page 125 of the hard-cover edition I’m reading. “On TV, the increase was part of the ‘feminization’ of the media, the realization by executives that more and more often it was women out there watching -– and watching everything -– including the news. Media analyst Andrew Tyndall, of the Tyndall Report, a network news monitor, who tracked CBS news broadcasts in 1968 and 1998, saw the broadcasts shift from foreign policy, military, economic, and business issues to lifestyle topics like health, education, and sexuality. In fact, measuring coverage on all three networks, he found that the news time devoted to what he calls ‘news you can use’ aimed at women quadrupled from 16 minutes to 71 minutes a month and helped transform TV news in the process.”

Blyth cites a University of Michigan psychology professor in her explanation of the different way news impacts women and men. According to Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, “women tend to ruminate, brood, and worry a lot more than men,” she writes on page 116. “Through an extensive 20-year study, she found that many women spend countless hours thinking about negative ideas, feelings, and experiences.” This finding is in apparent contrast to men.

“Gender plays a powerful role in the perception of hazards, was the conclusion of Professor John Graham, founding director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, after the center polled more than a thousand Americans to find out whether they believe in widely reported but unproven ‘hazards’ like radon and pesticide residue on food. Graham found that women were more likely to believe such scares were true by a margin of 10 percentage points or more.”

Blyth got me to thinking about a speaker I heard who addressed a group of parents in Arkansas last June. Dr. Philip Mango, the president and co-founder of Saint Michael’s Institute for the Psychological Sciences in New York City, described distinct neurological differences between men and women in his presentation at the annual convention of the Couple to Couple League. Dr. Mango doesn’t have a lot in common with Myrna Blyth but he affirmed the hypothesis that there are concrete differences between men and women, including the way they approach problems, think about things and come to conclusions.

Testosterone and vasopressin, the two primary male hormones, flood a man’s mind, affirming characteristics such as assertiveness, Dr. Mango explained. For men, maturity is a matter of harnessing these hormones.

Dr. Mango took us back to the beginning, noting that when a girl is born, her first relationship is with someone like her –- her mother, a women. This is not true when a boy is born. Initially, a boy identifies with his mother, but as his self-awareness grows at about 18 months, he becomes aware that he is not like his mother. His search to find his identity can affect his outlook for the rest of his life, Dr. Mango said. The greatest responsibility of any father, Dr. Mango said, is to love his son. A father must help his son affirm his identity.

“Most boys today are not getting that from their fathers today. Most boys are walking around hungry for their father’s affirmation,” Dr. Mango said. In the same way that God the Father affirmed Jesus at His baptism, saying “this is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased,” (Mt. 3:17) fathers should affirm their sons, Dr. Mango said. “God gives us affirmation; when we know that the King loves us, that gives us the power to go out and do anything. That is what fathers can give their sons.” Dr. Mango urged fathers to spend time with their children and show physical affection toward them.

I can read about the differences between men and women, and I can listen to speakers explain the differences, but I can learn the most just by watching my own two daughters and two sons. My girls have magnificent feminine characteristics and the boys have the classic masculine traits. Whatever this means for the way they will approach life as adults, I only know one thing for sure. My wife and I love those kids and that love is essential to their healthy self fulfillment.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

National security expert says we’re much safer

The United States is a safer place today than it was five years ago, retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey told a business audience in Des Moines, Iowa on Sept. 18. McCaffrey is a national security and terrorism analyst for NBC News and writes a national security column in the Armed Forces Journal. He is the president of a consulting practice based in Arlington, Va., and he is an adjunct professor of international affairs at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

A year ago, I had a chance to interview McCaffrey when he was in Minneapolis. (See my November 4, 2005 blog entry.) Hearing him speak again earlier this week, McCaffrey largely re-iterated the message he delivered a year ago.

In Des Moines, McCaffrey urged his audience to review the web site maintained by the U.S. State Department, where 42 organizations are identified as terrorist groups that threaten U.S. national interests. He noted that the majority of these organizations are funded by criminal activity. One group is smuggling cigarettes out of North Carolina and selling them in New York, generating “tens of millions of dollars for a middle east terrorist organization,” he said.

The Taliban, which is operating in Afghanistan, is funded largely by its sale of opium and heroin. Last year, McCaffrey said, Afghanistan produced 582 metric tons of heroin, which is more than 90 percent of the world’s supply. “If you want serious resources as a terrorist organization, you have to get involved in the drug trade,” said McCaffrey, who noted the convergence of international crime, drug money and terrorism.

Many of the 42 identified terrorist groups, McCaffrey said, “are Islamic extremist groups who have hijacked Islam and have attempted to explain their terrible animosity and frustration with their own governments, which frequently they characterize as incompetent, corrupt and hypocritical toward Islam.” Americans are having a difficult time understanding the situation because “we don’t want to see it as a war of Islam against the West, nor do we believe that’s the case.”

The State Department web site also lists governments which it believes sponsor terrorism. Five years ago, seven countries were on the list –- North Korea, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya and Cuba. At the time, the United States thought five of those countries had weapons of mass destruction, McCaffrey said.

“We should understand that WMD capability is still resident in many of these states,” McCaffrey said. “There are probably 30 nations that could rapidly develop a nuclear weapons capability. Our concern is, can any of these 42 terrorist organizations gain access to that technology?” McCaffrey called North Korea and Pakistan particularly harmful due to their potential for proliferating such technology.

McCaffrey called the threat to the United States “considerable,” but described a three-pillar approach the country is using to defend itself.

The first pillar is made up of the country’s law enforcement agencies and its intelligence services. He called the CIA and the FBI among the greatest agencies in the world. Despite widespread international displeasure with American foreign policy, McCaffrey said the CIA continues to enjoy tremendous access to sensitive information. The FBI, he said, which traditionally has responded to criminal activity, is in the process of transitioning into a pro-active agency which prevents terrorist actions before they occur.

The second pillar, McCaffrey said, is the United States’ armed forces. He called the American soldiers in Iraq today the “most courageous, competent force we have ever fielded.” American armed forces, he said, are tactically nimble and very powerful.

The third pillar is the country’s domestic counter-terrorism effort. The Department of Homeland Security brought together 22 government agencies into one department of 177,000 people. Although much more work needs to be done, McCaffrey said progress has been made in many areas. “The nation’s 104 nuclear power plants are immensely better defended, and the nation’s aviation system has gone from unprotected to being pretty well defended,” he said.

Border patrol, McCaffrey said, is one of the greatest homeland security challenges. He said there are currently 12,000 border patrol officers. “Why would you think you could defend America’s 304 ports of entry with a force that is a fraction of the size of the New York City police department?” he asked. He said the border patrol needs 45,000 people.

The Coast Guard also is understaffed at its current level of 32,000 people. “That force ought to be 75,000 people,” he said. And the National Guard, he said, is not equipped to keep up with the demands that are being made of it. He said the National Guard needs more military police brigades, light infantry, engineering and medical resources and fewer F-16 aircraft and M-1 tanks.

“At the end of the day, the great question asked every 9-11 is going to be: Are we any safer? It’s a silly question,” McCaffrey summarized. “Of course we are. We have made enormous strides internationally and at home to better set ourselves up to protect us from these new forms of terrorist threat. To a large extent it’s working.”

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Congressman pushes bankers to help stop internet gambling

I had an opportunity to listen to Congressman Jim Leach earlier this week speak about the growing phenomenon of internet gambling. It is illegal to gamble over the internet in the United States, but internet gambling web sites are among the fastest growing category of web businesses. Rep. Leach has introduced legislation to improve the enforcement of laws prohibiting internet gambling.

I have had the chance to cover Rep. Leach for more than 15 years and I have a great deal of respect for this Republican from Iowa, who often is called the smartest man in Congress.

“The fastest growing financial industry in the world and in the United States today, probably by a quantum measure, is gambling,” said Rep. Leach. He said $6 billion per year is wagered over the internet. “In the last five years, it’s grown three-and-a-half fold; it could grow at least that in the next five years.

“In gambling, in general, there are about 2 percent who participate who become what are called ‘pathological’ gamblers, which means they absolutely cannot stop. There are about 5 percent who become ‘problem’ gamblers, which means they can hardly stop, and about 20 percent of bankruptcies relate to gambling,” said Rep. Leach.

Rep. Leach’s legislation, which was approved by the House of Representatives, would prohibit banks and credit card companies from settling internet wagers involving credit cards. “If it works it is clearly worth it. If it doesn’t work, we will all have to reconsider,” Rep. Leach said.

Rep. Leach said he hopes the Senate takes up the legislation this fall. It will be interesting to see what happens. If credit card companies stopped honoring wagers made over the internet, they could shut down the internet gaming business instantly. But most bankers don’t like the idea of being cops. Bankers already don’t like their role in the Patriot Act and other anti-terrorism measures which require them to take extra steps to look for money-laundering. While most bankers would agree that internet banking is a problem, it will be interesting to see whether any believe they should be required to do anything about it.

“I personally think bankers ought to be amazingly sympathetic to this kind of approach because of concern for your customers, and concern for other Americans in a society that wants to save rather than go for the big pot at the end of the rainbow,” Rep. Leach told a group of bankers in Des Moines on Monday.

Rep. Leach said internet gambling is a particularly serious problem among college students, citing one study that estimated 10 percent of college students gamble on line. “The number of college males who reported gambling on line once a week or more increased four fold last year alone,” Rep. Leach said. “Never has it been so easy to lose so much money so quickly at such a young age.

“Gambling through the internet has been brought to the home and to the bedroom. It’s been brought to the office, to the college dorm, and increasingly in the very near future, to cell phones and Blackberries so you can gamble to and from work or while waiting in a movie line,” Rep. Leach said. “This is a very serious phenomenon.”

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Gratitude is key to living in the moment

One of the big mistakes that so many people make in life is they always think about the future. They never take pleasure in the moment because they are always worried about tomorrow or next week, next month or next year. They can never enjoy the present because they are too concerned about what they are going to do later. This is a particular problem for men, who by nature tend to be goal-oriented. Women, who generally are more process-oriented, don’t seem to fall into this trap quite so often.

I am convinced that excessive want, sometimes called greed, is at the root of this problem. People who always want something are always looking ahead to when they might get it; they cannot appreciate what they have and where they are at that moment. People who cultivate a real sense of gratitude find it much easier to live in the present.

I have found this to be an important concept in my business. As a reporter, I am frequently interviewing people. In my early days, I used to worry more about what I was going to ask next than about what the person was saying. I never really listened to the person because I was thinking ahead. I wasn’t appreciating the value of the moment, because I was worried about the future.

Over the years, I have become much better at interviewing. I make a great effort to really listen to people when they take the time to answer. I don’t think much about what I’m going to ask. Often, I find, an obvious question comes out of their response. I don’t have to dream up the next question; they basically give it to me. My interviews now are much better than they were 25 years ago.

I connect with people much better today than I did 25 years ago because I really try to live in the moment with the person I am talking to. I make the most of the present. This concept has proven fruitful in my work, but it has really been helpful at home. I try to live in the moment with my wife and kids. I try to give them my attention without being distracted. I actually put the newspaper down when Susan asks me something. I look my kids in the eye when they talk to me. This is simple, perhaps silly, stuff, but it has made a big difference in my life. I am grateful that they actually want to talk to me. I am thankful that they care what I might have to say. Since I started to really value the conversations and time I have with my wife and kids, I realize I don’t have to want anything for the future because I have so much in the present.

There are 525,600 minutes in a year. I invite you to commit that number to memory. If we can easily count each minute, then let’s make an effort to really live each minute. Rather than skipping over any of those minutes, really make an effort to live each of them. This is what I learned to do when interviewing people. This is what I try to do on the job. When an employee, customer or vendor brings something to me, I really try to live in that moment with them. That means listening to what they are saying, taking time to comprehend it and think about it. And this is what I try to do at home.

So much of respecting another person’s human dignity is simply acknowledging them. That means that when they initiate interaction with you, you take that interaction seriously. You shut out distractions so you can really focus on them. If they sit down next to you for five minutes, give them the full five minutes. Relationships are built one minute at a time and we should be thankful for each minute of attention that anyone gives us.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Independence Day

What a precarious thing is independence, which we celebrate tomorrow. I just finished reading “1776” by David McCullough and it really gave me a sense for how fortunate we are to have any country at all. Victory over the British in the Revolutionary war was not at all certain. The tiny, rag-tag band known as the Continental Army was badly out-numbered, under-financed, ill-trained and largely unorganized; miraculously it defeated the best military of the time, and tomorrow we will cook hotdogs and hamburgers on the grill to commemorate the feat.

McCullough describes the American victory at Boston in spring 1776, and then the string of stinging defeats in the latter part of the year. The British had Gen. George Washington on the run all the way from New York, through New Jersey and across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. McCullough describes a dramatic turning point for the Americans with victories in battles at Trenton on Dec. 26 and Princeton a week later. They would fight another six years – 25,000 Americans would die in the fighting -- until the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the war in 1783.

It is mind-boggling to contemplate the obstacles Gen. Washington faced. His army was almost completely untrained. He couldn’t even get an accurate count of how many soldiers he had. Every day, dozens of soldiers would just walk away, deserting their post. Others would feign illness. There were no uniforms and many didn’t even have shoes. Early in the war, there was a shortage of gun powder.

Gen. Washington had to rely on the colonies to send troops, and he never knew what he would get. At year-end 1775 and again in 1776, Gen. Washington begged his troops to stay on past their obligation because so few new troops were on the way. After 1775, most left, but on Dec. 31, 1776 he convinced many to stay only by promising them bonus pay that he didn’t even know for sure he was authorized to offer.

Reading this book, you get a sense for the loneliness of leadership. People honored Gen. Washington when things were going good, but after they lost New York, people began to doubt him. People left the army and even his own No. 2 officer wrote letters behind his back questioning his “indecisiveness.” Although this lack of confidence hurt him privately, Gen. Washington kept an optimistic public face and forged ahead. He did not give up. His surprise attack at Princeton was bold and courageous.

It is interesting, too, that when the fighting started in the fall of 1775, the battle was not for independence. Revolutionaries were fighting for representation in the British government. It wasn’t until the war got going that the cause morphed into full-blown independence. Members of the Continental Congress, most of whom had no contact with the fighting, passed the Declaration of Independence on July 2 in Philadelphia.

While some members of Congress and Gen. Washington were convicted about the need for independence, one gets the sense from this book that most Americans were uncertain. Many people remained loyal to Britain and King George III. The loyalists were key in the British victory to win New York. And when things looked bad for the Americans, many of them signed a document declaring their loyalty to the King so as not to be tried as traitors after the war.

I could not help but ask myself upon reading this book whether I would have sided with the rebels or the loyalists had I lived in 1776. What a difficult choice. For Americans living in the big cities of the day, living well and making money in the marketplace, what incentive did they have to fight for independence? Sure, there was taxation without representation but that was a small price to pay to be part of the greatest empire of the era. If you wanted independence, the odds seemed so totally overwhelming against you. How could the rebels beat the greatest military in the world? It seemed impossible.

The country was deeply divided, which gives me some perspective for today. We commonly hear that our country is divided on all of the important political questions but I am realizing that is not new. We were divided at the time of the revolution, at the time of the Civil war and today. One of the real tricks of living peacefully in any era is getting along with people who disagree with you.

“1776” is an optimistic book. It demonstrates what enormous feats can be accomplished even if you don’t have what you need, even if you don’t have supplies. Success must have something to do with will. Gen. Washington was willing to fight on Dec. 26; unlike the Hessian soldiers fighting for the British, the Americans weren’t hung over from Christmas Day celebrations; unlike the British who were waiting out winter in the comfort of New York City, the Americans were willing to fight in the snow and sleet storms, and in the end, it made a big difference.

Gen. Washington and the members of the Continental Army could not have imagined the scope of the United States of America more than two centuries in the future. What would North America look like today had Gen. Washington given up and the Continental Army lost? It is impossible to know. But we do know that we have a great country today and that that greatness has something to do with the courage and conviction exhibited by people like Gen. Washington and others throughout the last 230 years.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Reflections on being a father

On the occasion of Father’s Day, I am pleased to reflect on the qualities that make a man a good father. As a man with four children ranging in age from 3 to 11, I know that spending time with the kids is very important. The kids crave my time and attention. It makes me realize what a position of honor it is to be a father.

There are so many things a man can do to be a good father, but I want to suggest that the most important two things that a man must do is love God and love his wife. If you do these two things, everything else a father does for his children will be more meaningful.

A man can show his love for God in all kinds of ways; keeping the commandments is one of the more obvious ways. Let me focus on two of the commandments: No. 1, “Love God with all your heart and have no strange gods before me;” and No. 4, “Honor your father and mother.”

Let’s look at the first half of the first commandment. One of the most important ways to show your love for God is to pray to Him. As parents, we are teachers, and one of the very important lessons that we teach our children is to pray to God, to talk to Him regularly, to develop a relationship with Him. It is very important for children to see their father praying to God. In our own home, I am pleased to lead prayers every evening for our children. In addition to standard prayers, we mention specific needs, asking for God’s grace.

Not all prayer is done in a group. I encourage each of the kids to pray on their own. Sometimes if my kids get up early they will see me praying by myself. I think it is important for them to see that for me, prayer is real. I mean it when I am talking to God, or trying to listen to Him. They see me on my knees, taking time to communicate with my Maker. There is no more powerful teacher than example and my sincere hope is that each of the kids will develop meaningful prayer habits that help them grow as close to God as possible.

It is typically said there are four kinds of prayer: praise, penance, petition and gratitude. In terms of being a father, I particularly want my kids to focus on those prayers of gratitude. We are so richly blessed, living in the United States in the early 21st century. We have a better life than most of the kings in history had. It is so easy to take our blessings for granted and this is a mistake. I really try to encourage my kids to take time at the start of every day to thank God for all that He has given to us.

While we can all work on being more grateful, I think gratitude is an attitude that is particularly important to develop in children. Media bombards our children with messages about things they should want. Those TV commercials are always telling kids they should want more. No matter what they already have, TV is pointing out the things they don’t have and encouraging them to want more. This sets a kid on the road to materialism, which never brings true happiness.

It is reasonable for a person to want the things that he needs, and perhaps a few things he doesn’t. Consider, however, that if a person allowed himself to be influenced by all the advertisements out there, he would want far more things than anyone could ever buy; he would be miserable. Perhaps adults can make distinctions about when to draw the line on more things to want, but I don’t think a kid is naturally equipped with that ability. I child will always want more and more, especially if the child is encouraged by the messages he sees and hears.

While we can shield our kids to an extent from these messages, the real antidote to want is gratitude. If a person has a healthy attitude of gratitude, those messages won’t sink in so quickly. If a child gets used to thinking about all the things they already have, they are less inclined to focus on the things they don’t have. I once heard someone say that one of the great tricks in life is to want the things you have, not the things you don’t have. That’s a definition of gratitude, and it is something I believe every good father needs to try to cultivate in their children; prayers of gratitude are one great way to do that.

The second part of that first commandment – ‘Have no strange gods before Me” – speaks particularly to fathers. We don’t typically think of false gods in today’s world. Nobody worships a golden calf anymore the way they did in the Old Testament. But in today’s world, I think men are particularly susceptible to making a false god out of their work. Many men relish their role as provider and some men get carried away. They focus all of their energy on their work and forget about their wife and kids. They justify consuming work schedules by telling themselves that they are providing for their families, but if a father can’t provide some time for his kids then the money he provides is far less meaningful.

My own house, like the homes of any family with four small children, is chaotic. For me, going to work is an escape. It is a place of peace compared to my house. It would be easy to begin to think of the office as my temple. It would be easy to begin to think of my work as my god. It would be easy to fool myself into believing that I need to work seven days a week, and that as long as I am earning money, it is okay that I don’t have any time for my family. What a mistake that would be. But I think a lot of guys make that mistake.

Work is important, but it cannot become our god. The second part of that first commandment is an admonition to keep our priorities in order. In any man’s life God comes first, then wife, then children and then work. The first commandment should help fathers remember this, even in the face of temptations to fiddle with that order.

The other commandment I really like to think about in terms of fatherhood is the fourth commandment. Of course, I like the idea that children are supposed to honor their father and mother. I make sure my kids know this commandment. I remind them of it whenever I can. But the real power behind this commandment is not what my kids should be doing for me, but what I should be doing for my own parents. Commandment No. 4 doesn’t stop when I turned 18. I had parents then and I still have parents, so the commandment still applies. I am still required to honor my parents, and I have to be mindful that my kids are watching.

One of the biggest issues for many people like myself –- people in their 40s –- is figuring out how to care for aging parents. My parents are living independently on their own at this point, but what will happen in the future if they really need my care? I need to be there for them. This means really caring for them, offering them my home if they need it. Just like being a good father means being there for your children, being a good child in adulthood means being there for my parents.

Living up to the demands of the fourth commandment is a big responsibility, and it requires planning. Where will mom and dad live in their old age? Where will the surviving spouse live after one of them dies? Although it is highly unfashionable for elderly parents to live with their children, I really think people should consider this arrangement and make plans for it as a possibility. Although thousands of people die every year surrounded by strangers at a nursing home, I can’t believe anyone really wants that. We don’t want to see our parents living in a nursing home. And I don’t believe any elderly person really wants to be there. People naturally want to be around the people they love, who typically come from their own families.

So honoring mom and dad means thinking about these end-of-life issues and making plans to deal with them in a meaningful way. Of course, this is not easy. Many older parents don’t want to talk about it. Many aging parents have judgment that is adversely affected by their pride and sense of independence. They consider themselves to be a burden rather than the gift from God that they truly are. Adult kids have to talk with siblings about this; they have to plan as best they can, and they have to be willing to consider the welfare of their parents to the same degree that they would consider their own welfare or the welfare of their children.

Children will always watch how their mom and dad treat their parents. I know I did. I was fortunate as a child to have the example of my own father who cared lovingly for his dear aging aunt. I watched as he visited her daily, took care of her affairs and brought her to our home frequently for visits. So honoring your mother and father is an important commandment from at least two perspectives. First, as adults we need to care for our parents as part of our own obligation, and second, the degree to which we care for our parents is likely to be the degree to which our own children one day care for us.

In addition to heeding the commandments, the other thing a man can do to be a good father is love his wife. I can think of at least a couple of ways to do that.

The first is to show complete unity with your wife in front of your children. When it comes to raising kids, I think it is essential that the kids get a consistent message from their parents. So when it comes to guiding the kids, Susan and I are always in agreement. We discuss differences in private, but in front of the kids, we display a unified front. Remember that natural order of priorities I mentioned earlier?… God, wife, kids, work. I think kids naturally understand this and they test it by occasionally trying to divide mom and dad. They play us against each other or try to win the affection of one parent over the other. But the best response from the parents is to show the child that mom and dad are in lock-step together. This might lead to some surface-level disappoint for the child but I think deep down, the child is actually glad to have the parents affirm a natural order where they love each other first, and then they love their kids.

I know one of the greatest ways I can show my love for Susan is to back her up in any situation in front of the kids. Most of the discipline in our home falls on Susan, simply because she is around the kids more than I am. So there cannot be any ambiguity about Susan’s parental authority. The kids need to know that what she says stands. Usually Susan’s own word is enough, but sometimes the kids press the situation and they need to hear from me that whatever Susan says goes. Again, while the kids might not like having to do what Susan asks, I think they are affirmed by seeing mom and dad in agreement.

The other way that a man can truly show his love for his wife is to think seriously about what it means to respect her human dignity. People are not things that should be used, like a good power tool. People are created in the image of God and therefore have dignity beyond any man-made object. So I cannot use my wife for my own pleasure or convenience. I have to respect the way she is made. Women obviously have a fertility cycle that differs from men and I have to respect that. Attempts to change that are really just me being selfish. It’s me saying I don’t really like the way God made women and I think I can do better for my own purposes.

Nobody likes to talk about this because marital relations are so deeply personal. Sex is a great gift from God and my own experience tells me I don’t need to try to improve on God’s plan for married people. He has given us the science to determine with incredible accuracy when we are fertile and infertile, and He has given us the will to act accordingly, if we choose. This isn’t something He gave to animals. This is something uniquely human, and Susan and I try to celebrate this Godly dignity in our marriage.

As my kids grow, I am gradually understanding more and more what it means to be a father. I understand now that fatherhood is a great gift from God, something I wasn’t necessarily clear on when we got our first child in 1995. I can see now that God is concerned about my salvation and one of the reasons He gave us kids is to help us get to heaven. We are born with natural selfishness and life’s journey is about moving toward selflessness. Children are really helping me along in this journey.

Before Susan and I had children, it was so easy to be selfish. It was so easy to focus on myself – what recreation I was going to pursue, what trips I was going to take, what I was going to buy next. None of that stuff is bad on its own, but collectively it was all about me.

Then the kids came along. All of a sudden, I am forced to think about someone other than me. I have to respond to my kids. And the more I do, the less I think about me. And fortunately, God understands my weakness and He gradually works me into the program. We didn’t get all four kids at once. With our first child, I really didn’t have to give up many of my personal pursuits. With the second child, I could begin to see that I would need to make some adjustments to my lifestyle. By the time the third and fourth child came along, I had given up most of my personal pursuits, and was now directing my energy and time to someone other than me. And this has been a great blessing… the great blessing of fatherhood.

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