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.