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

Friday, November 28, 2008

An afternoon of college football

Last weekend, my sixth-grade boy and I accompanied the 9th and 10th grade boys of Chesterton Academy to the Notre Dame football game in South Bend, Ind. The Fighting Irish lost to Syracuse, 24-23. Maybe they will do better tomorrow night at USC.

What a tremendous thing game day is on the campus of the University of Notre Dame! We arrived on campus about five hours before the 2:30 kick-off. Sounds like a lot of time, but it flew by.

Professor Charles Rice, professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame law school, serves on the Chesterton Academy advisory board; he greeted us with donuts and shared a few kinds words.

We then visited the campus book store, which was abuzz with fans buying sweatshirts and memorabilia. The scene was as busy as Wal-mart at 6 a.m. this Black Friday. I found tranquility in the part of the store where they actually sold books. What a selection! Someday I really need to return to do some serious book shopping.

Coming out of the store, we ran into the Notre Dame cheerleaders, who were bundled up to accommodate the 26-degree temperature. They visited with our high school guys and we got a picture to commemorate the moment.

We toured the administration building, famous for its gold dome which supports a gold statue of Our Lady. Inside, the first-floor hallways are adorned with murals. I saw several depicting the life of Christopher Columbus. We visited other buildings before entering the Notre Dame Basilica, a wonder of church architecture. It is absolutely beautiful inside. Then we visited the Notre Dame grotto, located behind the church. It is a replica of the grotto at Lourdes, France. The place was buzzing with football fans, many of whom took a few minutes to kneel and pray.

We had lunch at a tailgate party, courtesy of the father of the Chesterton headmaster. A long-time Notre Dame fan, he clued us into some team history and accompanied us into the game. But before going in, we waited for the Fighting Irish marching band, which must number in the hundreds of members. We followed as they marched into the stadium from the center of campus.

My boy and I had row-six seats at the 5-yard-line in this bowl stadium that seats 55,000. By kick-off, every seat was filled. We watched a great game with Notre Dame getting out front to a 23-10 lead early in the fourth quarter. Syacuse score and then scored again with only 43 seconds left in the game to go ahead, 24-23. Notre Dame had a chance to win the game. With seven seconds left, they tried to make a 53-yard field goal but the ball missed the uprights and the Irish lost.

It was a great experience, although our feet grew cold from the snow and ice that were packed on the ground. It has snowed 10 inches the day before the game and although they had shoveled the seats off, the ground was covered with frozen precipitation. We left the game with about 10 minutes to go, running to the Basilica where we warmed up and waited for Mass to start. Apparently, they always have Mass 30 minutes after home games. What a great idea for Catholic football fans!

We slept well that night, staying in an economy hotel some 40 miles way in Chesterton, Indiana. For all of us, it was a great experience; and for my boy and I it was the source of memories we will carry with us forever.

The University of Minnesota, where I went to college, is moving into a new outdoor football stadium next season after have played more than 25 seasons at a domed stadium in downtown Minneapolis. I hope that the U of M is able to recapture some of that great football atmosphere that makes college campuses so special on fall afternoons.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Thoughts on Chesterton Academy

Chesterton Academy opened in September and is off to a very promising start. The school has received a lot of attention; yesterday Chuck Colson featured The Chesterton Academy in his Breakpoint broadcast.

Here are some of the things I was looking for in a high school for my children. These are some of the key features we have built into the Chesterton Academy.

First, I wanted a school that thoroughly integrates the Catholic faith into a college preparatory curriculum. A good high school should teach teenagers math, science, literature, the arts, history, etc., and good study habits so they can legitimately apply for acceptance to any of this country’s top tier colleges. A good school should teach these subjects in the context of faith. While it is good to learn how to count when you study math, it is also important to learn what you are counting, that is, God’s creation. While it is good to study stories in literature class, it is better to study those stories in context of the overarching story of man’s relationship with God.

Second, I wanted a school that manifests that faith in a concrete way, in addition to the curriculum. For a Catholic, daily Mass and a faculty pledge of fidelity to the Magisterium are obvious manifestations.

Third, I wanted a school that is meaningful and socially relevant. I want a school that will prepare students to make a difference in the world, not merely get along in the world. Attacks on human life pose the greatest social injustice of our time. The Chesterton Academy is intended to be a shining affirmation of human life. We are preparing students to build a culture of life.

And we are preparing our students to take their knowledge and faith out into the world. Our goal is not to create a separate subculture, but to change the culture of death into a culture of life.

And, fourth, I wanted a school that teaches entrepreneurship, resourcefulness and leadership. So often people think school is the place you go to prepare to get a job. Well, I’d like to prepare students to create a job. I want a school that teaches students they can create their own future; they don’t have to look to a big company or the government to give them a future. The Chesterton Academy is a lesson in itself, along those lines. It was started by a group of parents who identified a need and figured out how to make it happen. Nothing is guaranteed; we are not getting any government funding. People can make things happen, but they have to try. I want a school that will encourage people to try.

The Chesterton Academy operates in a very modest facility. I wish it had better, but the facility it has is sufficient. The no-frills environment of the school teaches an important lesson. We live in an area where there are ample community resources. They should be used. We don’t all need our own private facilities with the latest bells and whistles. Let’s use what’s available to us, and be creative about identifying those resources.

Perhaps the biggest trap we set for our teens in today’s world is unrealistic materialist expectations. Kids are so surrounded by opulence and wealth that they get a false idea about the importance of “stuff.” By conducting classes in a modest environment, we are trying to promote gratitude, which I believe can be an effective antidote to excessive want.

The modest facility also helps us to keep our tuition relatively low, which I believe is very important. Typical schools that include Catholicism in their curriculum average around $10,000 per year, per student. For a family of four or five, relatively closely-space children, this tuition rate presents a sizeable obstacle to Catholic high school education. At Chesterton Academy, the tuition is $5,500 per year. I acknowledge that is still a sizable about of money, but at least it creates a more affordable option.

Nearly all schools offer students various levels of financial aid if their family cannot afford the entire tuition bill. This is laudable, although I have never been comfortable providing the personal financial disclosures necessary to request such aid. Furthermore, I suspect it would be difficult for parents to work collaboratively on school policy issues when, despite assurances of privacy, decisionmakers know which families have paid less to attend the school.

Every high school offers parents a set of trade-offs to consider as they decide where to send their teens. Some schools offer excellent opportunities for sports and extracurricular activities, but no catechesis. Others offer great facilities and curriculum, but at high tuition costs. Others, like Chesterton Academy, offer great teaching and curriculum but fewer amenities in the areas of facility and extra curriculars.

If you ask an eighth-grader “where do you want to go to high school,” they will typically identify a school that is pleasing to the eye, or a school to which most of their friends are going. I think parents have to consider the decision much more seriously. You only get one opportunity to educate your teenager. What lasting message do you want them to get during those high school years? You can judge relatively easily what your kids will learn from the curriculum, but consider also what they will learn from the environment of the school.

Dale Ahlquist and I started talking about forming a new high school in spring of 2006. We hired a magnificent headmaster and he has put together a stellar faculty. Several people have made generous donations to get the school going. Nine families have come together to send their kids to the school this inaugural year. Tonight, we are hosting a parents’ meeting regarding new students for the 2009-2010 school year. There are a lot of people who want the kind of school described here.

I certainly will write more about the Chesterton Academy as this venture develops. In the meantime, check out the school’s web site.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Lunch with Mr. Bernstein

I had lunch with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Carl Bernstein on Friday. He was in town to address a business group and I had the good fortune of sitting at Mr. Bernstein's table, along with 6 other people.

Bernstein said the job of a journalist is to present the "best obtainable version of the truth." With the emphasis currently on celebrity, sensationalism and gossip, he said journalism is falling far short of its responsibility.

He said the press and politics are part of a civic breakdown in this country since Watergate. The press and politics, he said, are supposed to exist for the public good. "We have seen a failure of the system, of incompetence overwhelming competence," he said. "We've had a failure of accountability, and it didn't start with the Bush administration."

He said congress has completely abdicated its responsibility to provide oversight of the presidency. He said the "biggest story of the last 25 years is the wholesale corruption of our Congress and our state legislatures."

He blamed the state legislatures for gerrymandering congressional districts so that most seats are "safe" for one party. He said that in any given election, only about 100 of the 425 House seats are truly competitive.

Bernstein noted that it costs $100 million to run a campaign for senate in a large state such as California, Florida, New York or New Jersey. "That's $50,000 per day," he said. There is a big difference between a fundraiser, which is what a politician needs to be to finance a campaign, and a leader. A fundraiser, Bernstein said, says whatever is necessary to please the group in front of him so that they will be inclined to contribute money. People who are trying to raise money don't take unpopular positions on issues. They can't afford to. Therefore, we end up with a Congress full of people who don't take solid positions on issues, people who don't provide leadership. Bernstein criticized the press for not calling politicians on this deterioration of leadership. Bernstein said public financing of Congressional campaigns would solve this problem.

Bernstein is more philosophically liberal than I am, but I greatly admire his work. He started his career as a reporter at the age of 19 and has covered just about everything in the span of several decades. In addition to breaking the Watergate story in the 1970s and writing All The President's Men, he has written a book on the life of Pope John Paul II, and a book about Hillary Clinton. He has written a memoir and a book about John McCain, in addition to several big time magazine pieces for the likes of Time, Vanity Fair and The New Republic.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Thanks for the recognition

Due the the thoughtfulness of four dear friends and colleagues, I was among 10 people honored by our local Archdiocesan newspaper this past week for leadership in business. You can read about it here.

The Catholic Spirit hosted a very nice luncheon for us on Wednesday. With nearly 300 people present, MC Tom Hauser of KSTP-TV, associate publisher Bob Zyskowski and Archbishop John Nienstedt presented the awards, which were given in three categories: large company, small company and non-profit. I was one of three honorees in the small business category.

Dick, who has become a valued friend in the nearly three years we have worked together, and his wife Anne, came up with the idea to put in a nomination for me earlier this summer. They immediately approached Jackie about putting together a nomination. Jackie and I had worked together for more than a dozen years before she spun off her own business venture this spring.

At the same time, unbeknown to this trio, Christina was also putting my name in nomination. Christina has worked with me for about a year on a magazine called Family Foundations. Christina is a former Catholic Spirit reporter, so she was thoroughly familiar with the Leading with Faith awards program.

Both the nominations must have been well-written because I was notified on August 11 that I was among those selected for recognition. Within a couple weeks, Maria Wiering, a Catholic Spirit reporter, came to my office to interview me for an article. Photographer Dianne Towalski took a series of photos. I have been a reporter since my college days and have interviewed hundreds of people; for the first time, I was on the other side of the notebook. I am a bit of a ham, so I have to say I kind of liked it.

Mostly I liked it because of the story I got to tell. I have always been blessed with great employees who seem much more like friends than FTEs. Before the company can make money, everyone in the company has to make a life, and I have always been happy to help my colleagues do that, to the extent that I can. Sure, in 17-plus years of business there has been a small number of folks who didn't work out, but even those employees won my respect and best wishes for future success.

My father taught me most of what I know about entrepreneurism, and I am very grateful to him. Whatever I am in business is due to him. I also need to thank my dear friends in businesses, particularly the folks at Fredrikson and Byron, and Premier Banks, who took the extra step of congratulating me with advertisements in the Catholic Spirit. Wow. And again, thanks to my friends who took the time and made the effort to nominate me. Wow, again.

The brochure distributed at the luncheon included a statement from the U.S. Catholic Bishops' 1986 Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and The U.S. Economy. Here's what is said:

Followers of Christ must avoid a tragic separation between faith and everyday life.

The road to holiness for most of us lies in our secular vocations. We need a spirituality that calls forth and supports lay initiative and witness not just in our churches but also in business, in the labor movement, in the professions, in education, and in public life.

Our faith is not just a weekend obligation, a mystery to be celebrated around the altar on Sunday. It is a pervasive reality to be practiced every day in homes, offices, factories, schools, and businesses across our land.

We cannot separate what we believe from how we act in the marketplace and the broader community for this is where we make our primary contribution to the pursuit of economic justice.

I'd like to think that's a fundamental philosophy at our company. I am going to hang that statement on my wall in my office.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Challenges articulated by state's economist

I had a chance to listen to Tom Stinson, the economist for the State of Minnesota, address a business group recently about some of the challenges facing our state. In the near term, he said he expects a bleak economy through the end of 2009. He said inflation in the third quarter of 2008 is likely to come in around 8 percent before falling off at the end of the year.

Stinson said the housing market is near the bottom, but “there won’t be any quick pick-up in housing activity.”

What I found particularly interesting, however, were his long-range concerns. The demographics of our state will create serious challenges that no one will be able to ignore. Stinson said demographic trends will result in significant aging of the general population.

While the number of people between the ages of 55 and 69 will increase dramatically by 2015, the number of people between the ages of 15 and 24 will drop significantly. “The number of people entering the workforce will remain flat between now and 2030, while the number of people retiring will skyrocket,” Stinson said.

Health care spending in Minnesota is $3,671 annual per capita, Stinson said. For people ages 55 to 64, that figure averages $6,694, and for people 65 to 74 it increases to $9,017 and for people older than 75, the figure is $9,914. These expenses, Stinson noted, will be supported by a smaller workforce. “Aging of baby boomers will result in huge increases in resources going into health care,” he said.

Stinson also expressed concern about the quality of the state’s workforce, which will have to make up for declining numbers through increased productivity. Stinson said 91 percent of the people in the state’s workforce have a high school degree; current graduation rates, however, are at 85 percent with growing minority groups averaging even lower rates of high school graduation.

“We are not replacing the workforce with people who are as educated as they once were,” Stinson said. “We are not replacing the skill level we already have in the workplace.”

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Chesterton Academy

The Catholic Spirit has written a nice article about The Chesterton Academy, which is set to open in less than three weeks. Here's the link. Thanks.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


Are we in recession? Yes and no.

That’s the answer offered by Wells Fargo economist Michael Swanson. He was speaking to a business group on June 17 in Rochester.

Swanson said the answer to the recession question is a matter of perspective. “A recession is two consecutive quarters of GDP contraction, and it doesn’t look as if we are going to have that,” Swanson explained. “But are we in a recession when it comes to real estate? Absolutely. … In the economy today, we are definitely going through a very tough spot for a lot of sectors but at the same time we are barely eking out growth in the economy.

“Debt markets and housing are holding back the economy,” Swanson said. “But there are some things that are going fantastically well. If you are in the energy exploration or extraction business; the mining business, or agriculture right now, you have fantastic results in front of you. It has been staggering the amount of export growth some of the companies have had.”

Swanson said the outlook for the remainder of the year is “very weak.” Growth will be driven primarily by trade expansion due to growing global demand and a weak dollar.

Although unemployment is at about 5.5 percent, Swanson described payroll numbers as good. He said as long as people hold onto their jobs, they should be able to repay their debts. And compensation, although it may not keep pace with inflation, is growing.

Inflation is running at 3 percent to 3.5 percent. Swanson said the Federal Reserve is confident about “tamping that back down to 2 percent or lower” but he said most economists think inflation will be higher than that.

“Interest rates are going to start to rise at the end of 2008 or early in 2009,” he said, “but they certainly are not going to be high interest rates.” The low rates will keep the dollar weak for three to seven years, Swanson predicted.

Long-term, Swanson was bullish on the American economy, referencing a Congressional Budget Office study which predicted per capita income, which is at $39,000 annually today, will increase three-fold over the next 50 years due to extraordinary gains in productivity.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Stein on 'Expelled'

I posted earlier about the movie Expelled. Well, two weeks ago, Ben Stein was in Rochester, Minn., speaking at a meeting I was covering. I had a chance to ask him about the movie. Here is what he said:

Expelled is a movie about a serious issue of academic suppression. Every person in this room, including yours truly, would agree that Darwin’s theory of evolution explains a huge amount about how speicies evolved. It doesn’t answer some of the very basic questions such as where did gravity come from? Where did thermo dynamics come from? Where did life originate?

Darwin himself said these are questions beyond my ability to figure out. For me to try to figure them out would be like a dog trying to figure out a law of physics. In fact, Darwin said, the way I see it, some of existence was designed and some happened by accident.

But in today’s modern campus setting, you are not allowed to say that. You are not even allowed to say what Darwin said. You have to say it is all accident, random mutation and natural selection. If you say, "Look, can we go back to where Darwin started?" and ask the question on that basis, you get ostracized and lose your job.

We think that is a serious abrogation of the laws of freedom of speech in this country and we’re concerned about it and that’s why we made the movie.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Urban Adventure

It was raining at 11 a.m. on Wednesday morning, when we started our urban adventure by walking four blocks to a bus stop. There were 16 of us in the group, and only two umbrellas between us. Needless to say, we hustled; thank goodness for the shelter at the bus stop.

A friend and I chaperoned 14 eighth and ninth grade girls. It was an end-of-school-year gathering organized chiefly by my own eighth grader. She asked for my help with the planning; I figured that since most of the kids live in the suburbs, they may not have had a chance to ride a city bus or the light rail train; they may not be comfortable navigating the streets and skyways of downtown Minneapolis. Let’s plan an urban adventure, I thought, and make sure the kids get these experiences.

Rain wasn’t the best way to start the trip, and the moist weather fogged up the windows on the bus, so we missed most of the urban scenery on the way into downtown. But once we got into a building and up to the second floor, the skyway system kept us dry and gave us a great view. We snaked our way from Hennepin Avenue to City Hall. I led the group, with my buddy John at the rear, making sure the girls we between us. It was crowded on the skyway at about 11:45, and there were a lot of distractions, but we stuck together and made it just fine. I think the highlight was the tunnel from the Hennepin County Government Center to City Hall, where you get to see an impressive display of falling water from below street level.

Twice each month, the Mayor of Minneapolis sets aside an hour in the middle of the day to visit with anyone who wants to come in. He calls it an open house. I had called the Mayor’s office only the previous Thursday, wondering if there was any chance we could see him the following Wednesday. It would be a long shot to get on his schedule with such short notice, but I figured I would give it a try. And boy, did I get lucky. Open house was scheduled for that day!

We visited with Mayor R.T. Rybak for about 15 minutes. I was so proud of the girls, who greeted the Mayor politely, listened attentively, and asked intelligent questions. For more on the meeting, see my other blog at

It was still raining after the mid-day meeting, so we went back to the Hennepin County Government Center and ate our bag lunches in the massive atrium. It was a beautiful setting, with the fountain and reflection pool, as well as the twin towers which rise 20-plus floors, forming an “H”, which is the logo for Hennepin County.

After lunch, we took the light rail train to the Mall of America. There is a stop right in front of City Hall, and a ticket is only $1.50. The ride is smooth and this time, unlike the bus ride, we could see out the windows. The views through the city, along Ft. Snelling, and around the airport, are interesting. The city is teaming with so much life. Once we reached the end of the line at the Mall of America, the girls shopped for about an hour before getting a snack at Orange Julius and car-pooling back to my house. My wife and a friend met us at the mall with their vans to provide the rides.

As these girls advance through high school and college, my hope for them is that they will get the opportunity to travel and see places such as New York City, Washington, D.C., maybe even London or Paris. My hope is that this little trip into Minneapolis served as a decent primer. In order to understand the world, I think it is good to travel to someplace you haven’t been before, someplace outside your normal routine and outside your comfort zone. It’s a big world and God gave the whole thing to us. Let us never stop exploring.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Paid by the word?

The freelancers at my college newspapers used to get paid by the inch. The pay was something like 50 cents an inch, so a typical feature that went 30 column inches was good for $15 -- which was pretty good pay for a college kid way back in the early 1980s.

Staff writers, on the other hand, got paid a (modest) weekly salary. We were expected to write at least two stories a week, although sometimes it was more if there was big news on our beat. The length of the story was a consideration only to the extent that space was limited in the newspaper.

I left college thinking the freelance gig was better. I never had a problem generating more words; clearly I would do better getting paid according to volume.

As I have been in journalism for more than 30 years now, I understand that it's not about the number of words; it's about what those words say. Give me a well-written short story any day over a long-winded story that doesn't say much. I also now know that it is much more difficult to write a solid short article than it is to write a long one.

Well, the internet appears to be turning all that around. I had to laugh at this essay about a newspaper that is actually judging the productivity of its journalists according to the number of words they write. It's a newspaper where words are apparently viewed like widgets produced at the factory. Newspapers have got enough problems these days trying to figure out how to stay relevant. If this is any indication of their thinking, newspapers are surely doomed.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

SmartyPig for the kids

I might just give each of my kids a SmartyPig account. This is a service dreamed up by a bank in Des Moines that sounds to me like a pretty good application of internet social networking. is a savings account set up over the internet, which isn’t so unique. But here’s what’s new: the account holder can post a savings goal and others can contribute money to the account. So let’s say you have a high school kid who is saving money for a class trip to Chicago. The kid states his goal at his SmartyPig internet account. Friends and relatives can put money in the account on his birthday or at Christmas, or whenever they want. The giver gets the satisfaction of knowing that the money is going for something worthwhile. It is a little better than simply putting a $20 bill in with the birthday card.

There are a lot of internet bank accounts but this is the first one I have heard of that allows others to deposit money into someone else’s account.

The account has a few stipulations. First, account holders have to be at least 18 years old, but parents can set up accounts and designate a child’s saving goal so the account functions like it belongs to the kid. An initial deposit to open the account must be at least $25. Deposits are accepted as transfers from other established accounts.

Also, right now the service charges people $4.95 to make a deposit into another person’s account. The account holder doesn’t pay anything. I don’t really like the fee but I have read chatter about this account that suggests the fee will go down or go away all together. Nonetheless, if I have a niece or nephew saving money for college or a car or some other major goal, I would be willing to pay the fee in order to put $25 in their account at Christmas time.

I also think that this is a good way to teach younger kids about the importance of saving money. They all love the internet and they love using the computer, so why not marry those interests with something important like an appreciation for saving money? I can tell you that banking, otherwise, really does not interest them.

Like any bank account, the accounts are FDIC insured and they pay interest. The interest rate fluctuates, but as I write this, the rate is 3.9 percent annual percentage yield, which is not bad for a savings account.

So check it out, and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The GEO Principle

For the last several years, I have been contemplating the integration of faith with work. Usually, it seems like work is not the place to be thinking about God because, after all, work is about making money. But if we are called to live our faith all the time, them clearly that must mean at work. I know I spend most of my waking hours on the job.

I am convinced we are to live our faith on the job. I call this idea the GEO Principle, meaning "God in Every Occupation." If everyone lives their faith at work we would bring God to every occupation, and I know the world would be a better place. But there is a very real question in all of this -- how? What does it mean to bring God to work and how can a person do such a thing?

I have started a dialogue around this issue at a new blog: I hope you will take a look at it and check back often. Even if you do not work outside the home, I hope you will tell someone who does about it. I am trying to post a couple of times a week; there seems to be enough fodder on this topic for a very long discussion. My own effort to live my faith at work seems like it will be aided by talking about it.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Faith, reason and the origin of life

A movie reviewer at the Star Tribune hated Ben Stein’s film: Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. I am interested in efforts to integrate faith into the workplace so a film about the integration of faith and science appealed to me.

Let me put all my cards on the table up front here. I don’t have a particular personal opinion on the origins of life. More importantly, however, I believe faith and reason go together; the so-called “enlightenment” with separated them in modern thought was a huge mistake.

Using a documentary format, Stein explains that scientists who publicly question Darwinian evolution and suggest that God may have created the world find themselves banned from the scientific and academic arena. They lose their jobs and they lose their funding.

Stein digs deeper, however, to consider the consequences of scientific study completely divorced from faith. He states that Darwinian theory, taken to its logical conclusions, leads societies to horrible places, like the death camps of Nazi Germany. Stein talks about the social Darwinism, or eugenics, which was popular in Europe and the United States in the early 20th century. It is a notion which helped too many people grow comfortable with the idea that certain people have more of a right to live than others – the idea that the strong and the beautiful should live while the weak and the members of targeted ethnic groups should die.

The reviewer mocked Stein for linking the debate between creationists and evolutionists to the Nazi death camps. But my parish priest said something which I think makes the link clear: “If you deny that man has an origin, then you deny man has a destiny, which means he has no purpose. If there is no purpose, there are no rules,” he said. Nazi Germany certainly is an example of a society that operated as if there were no moral rules.

It is a common rhetorical trick to deny an opponent’s efforts to link the disputed idea to the next logical step. The reviewer wanted a movie that simply illustrates the creationist/evolutionist clash in the laboratory and the classroom. Stein shows that clash but goes much deeper by showing where the science-only thinking leads. And it leads someplace horrible. For me, it’s not a leap, but for the movie reviewer it was. How about you?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

I'll miss you, Bud

Bud Brey died on May 13; my wife and I went to the funeral yesterday. Bud was a modern-day Paul, that is, an evangelist using the tools of our time to spread the Good News. At 73, Bud died way too soon.

Bud and his wife Theresa started the Minnesota Catholic Film Society in 1981, lending and showing inspirational films for the next 25 years. The very first film he and Theresa ever showed was a film about Our Lady of Fatima. Ironic that he should die on May 13, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima.

For the last several years, Bud ran Channel 19, a local television station that rebroadcasts EWTN programming, in addition to a few locally-produced shows. It is an entirely volunteer operation, dependent upon donations from viewers. The station’s signal emanates from the top of the IDS Tower in downtown Minneapolis, so people as far away as New Prague are able to watch. Bud put a lot of his own time and money into keeping the station operating.

For a while in the mid-1990s, Bud asked me to host a locally-produced program on the station called “All Things Catholic.” We did a monthly show where we would invite three or four guests to have a discussion about current issues from a Catholic perspective. It was a short-lived effort, but I sure enjoyed it.

Bud and Theresa, coincidently, live just a block from me. I didn’t see him around so much in the last year or so, as health problems kept him home bound. I saw him at church about three weeks ago, however, and he looked pretty good. I was shocked to get the news that he died, two days after having a stroke. He was buried in Lucan, Minnesota, a small farming community, near where he grew up.

Bud did not call any attention to himself but he did big things. Many people watched inspirational television because of Bud. Many people learned more about their faith because of his work through the film society and the TV station. I’m going to miss his cantankerous personality, but his legacy lives on in all the people who are deeper Christians as a result of his work.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A few comments on Social Security

Our current system of Social Security is unsustainable, given the number of people retiring relative the number of people entering the workforce. I am surprised that the presidential candidates don’t talk about this issue more.

Carl Tannenbaum is a widely respected economist who was in town earlier this week. He recently left LaSalle Bank in Chicago, where he had been chief economist; he can often be seen on the cable news networks offering commentary. The question of Social Security came up during a presentation he made Tuesday. Here are excerpts from his comments:

“Folks, our liability for Social Security and Medicare is about $95 trillion carried out over time. That is about $300,000 per person.

"Make no mistake. None of us has our own individual account in Social Security. It is basically a system where the young pay benefits for the old. We are in a numbers game and in summary you have about 80 million [retirees] versus about 55 or 60 million [in the workforce]. The imbalance just means the contribution from my kids to my generation will be pretty large. The tax rate will be very high and it will be painful.”

Someone asked Tannenbaum if he thinks the problem is fixable. “Absolutely,” he said. “As many of you know, we have already saved Social Security twice when it looked like it was going to run out of money. You can raise the retirement age or change the indexing formulas.”

Tannenbaum noted many people who collect Social Security don’t need the money. “The fact is, Social Security was founded not as an entitlement but as a baseline so we wouldn’t have people impoverished in retirement. Since then, somehow it has gotten to be this birthright that people look at.”

Tannenbaum also would like to see the presidential candidates talk about the solvency of Social Security. "I hope that one of the candidates has some good ideas to try to bring this under control," he said. "I hope all of us are realistic about the hard work it is going to take to fix this."

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Best wishes, dear friend

In March of 2000, I was in San Antonio covering a big industry meeting when my back gave out. I had had back trouble before, but never anything like this. I was walking out of a crowded ballroom when I collapsed in pain. I usually cover these events alone, but Jackie Hilgert happened to make this trip with me. She was in the photographers’ bay when she saw me on the floor, unable to get up. She rushed over to help.

Within about an hour, she had helped me back to my hotel room, where I laid flat on my back for the next two days. Jackie, who had made the trip to take pictures, had to take over and cover the meeting. While she worked, I recovered and by the time the meeting was over, I was at least mobile enough to get to the airport and onto the airplane. Jackie had to carry all my bags and arrange for a wheelchair to push me around at the airport.

I recall that incident because a 12-year era came to a close yesterday when Jackie put in her last day at NFR Communications. She joined the company in spring of 1996 as production manager when magazines were put together with a waxer and an X-Acto knife. She joined the company before we were using digital cameras, Photoshop or even email. She helped me put together more than 300 magazines. Over that time, she did far more than production work. She evolved into a very fine reporter, writer and editor. In fact, her May 15 cover story on volatility in the commodities market is as good as anything you will read in the Wall Street Journal or New York Times.

I will miss working with Jackie on a daily basis, but there is more to it than just the work. Jackie really cared about the company, her colleagues and me. Anyone would be very fortunate to get a chance to work with someone like that for a while, let alone for 12 years.

Jackie is spinning off her own company, called Traditions Communications. Check it out at I wish her great fortune. I am grateful that we will have the opportunity to collaborate on some projects and I look forward to making the most of our new working arrangement. Time brings change and I suppose I would be foolish to think 12 or more years could go by without some big changes.

Best wishes, Jackie, and know that the doors of NFR Communications will always be open to you.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Home for rent

If you or someone you know is looking to rent a comfortable bungalow in Linden Hills, please contact me at A neighboring house is becoming available May 1. The 1,400-square-foot home has three bedrooms, a recently remodeled kitchen with new appliances, and beautiful woodwork throughout. It is located within walking distance of two lakes, several parks, and great local shops. Also close to a bus line. $1,400 per month. We are looking for some great neighbors!

Monday, March 31, 2008

The start of Christmas season

When a woman announces that she is pregnant, the whole household begins to make preparation in anticipation of the new arrival. I am beginning to make preparations today.

No, my wife is not pregnant, but today is the day Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation. That’s the commemoration of the announcement the angel Gabriel made to Mary that she would conceive and bear a son, who would be the savior of the world. The feast is usually celebrated on March 25, exactly nine months before Christmas. This year because that date fell during Easter week, the folks who determine the Christian calendar moved the date to March 31.

I love Christmas and its accompanying season. Even though they start playing Christmas songs on the radio during the middle of November, I find myself every year lamenting the season went too quickly. The spirit of Christmas is something we should carry in our hearts all year long anyway, so this year I am going to try to get serious about it. My Christmas season for 2008 starts today.

The Feast of the Annunciation comes every year, but usually it comes during the season of Lent, when I am thinking about Easter. This year, however, is different. We have already celebrated Easter, clearing the path toward Christmas. Easter and Christmas, of course, are linked. If we celebrate one, we are really celebrating both. This year I really want to be ready for the coming of Christ. The calendar gives us nine months to prepare and I am going to try to make the most of it.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Prager's sensibility

Dennis Prager, the national radio personality, was in town last week and my wife and I joined another couple for seats in the audience of 600 or so. He talked for a little over an hour, touching on a variety of subjects, lacing everything with humor.

While I have great respect for his commentary, I disagree with an assertion he made about marriage. He said long marriages are mostly the result of luck. My sense is that they are more the result of hard work. Now, certainly, there is a measure of luck in the equation. One has to be lucky enough not to get hit by a bus or involved in an airplane crash to live into old age, but setting aside the uncontrollables, I don’t really see luck having much to do with it. Rough spots emerge in every marriage and it is work on the parts of both spouses that typically gets them through, not luck.

He also commented that he is greatly troubled by the level of senseless suffering in the world. Who isn’t? But I think what troubled Prager was an inability to identify any purpose in suffering. Prager, a devout Jew, was in town to participate in a debate over the existence of God at a national convention of atheists. Many atheists deny the existence of God because they look around the world and see all the suffering and ask themselves: “How could a loving God allow all this?” They conclude there must not be a God.

On this issue, I am grateful for my Catholic faith which promises no relief from suffering but does bring meaning to it. Just as Christ suffered to atone for our sins, our suffering can atone for sin, and not just our own sin but the sins of others. We can actually enjoin our suffering with that of the Lord to participate in the world’s salvation. I am not a theologian and can’t explain it much better than that, but I know there is a world of theology behind this topic in Catholicism. Christ embraced His cross and we are to do the same. Suffering is inevitable, true; but pointless? No.

Prager’s strongest point was his last one. He said he worries about our country. He noted that on coins minted by the U.S. government we find three things: “Liberty,” “E Pluribus Unim,” and “In God we Trust.” He observed that all three of those ideas are under attack – not from some hostile nation, but from within.

A growing federal government, he said, is encroaching on our liberties. Furthermore, the Latin phrase means: “from many, one,” but today diversity is the mantra of the cultural elites. And secularism is stronger than ever in this country, forcing God out of every crevice of the public sector.

Prager is on the mark. We need to work to preserve our liberty by resisting needless federalism, we need to celebrate our national identify and we need to acknowledge God as the rightful sovereign over our country.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Humility at work

I have been studying business for years, and I am struck by the role of humility in successful management.

In Good to Great, author Jim Collins looks at the characteristics of really successful CEOs. In one of the biggest business books every written, Collins writes: “The best leaders display a compelling modesty, are self-effacing and understated. They are humble.” The best CEOs were not self-absorbed braggarts, Collins says. They attribute success to people other than themselves, but when things go wrong, they take responsibility.

Humility doesn’t mean walking around with your head down, responding “ah shucks” whenever anyone asks something. Being humble means admitting you don’t know everything. Collins is saying those really successful CEOs are willing to listen to others. Collins assures that no matter where you are in your career, you can benefit from listening to others. And that starts with humility.

A year or so ago, I had a chance to visit with David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University and an editor-at-large for U.S. News & World Report magazine. He links humility with faith. Gergen said: “Humility, in my experience, often comes from spirituality … The best leaders are ones who are well-anchored …Your best leaders often have been those who have been anchored in spirituality.” Gergen should know a thing or two about leadership, having worked for four presidents (Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton).

The wisest counsel on humility comes from the Bible itself. “Conduct your affairs with humility and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God. For great is the power of God; by the humble He is glorified.” This passage is from the third chapter of Sirach (17-19). Or consider this passage from Proverbs (22:4): “The reward of humility and fear of the Lord is riches, honor and life.”

The opposite of humility is pride, and it is pride which so often separates us from God and from those around us. That same noted chapter in Sirach warns: “a stubborn man will fare badly in the end…A stubborn man will be burdened with sorrow…For the affliction of the proud man there is no cure; he is the offshoot of an evil plant.” (25-27).

Humility is an important management characteristic for anyone in business to develop. I am working on it all the time, although I admit to only marginal success. Scripture offers a surprising amount of wisdom applicable to the workplace. At least for now, I am finding this to be my favorite area of scripture study.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Broken political system fails to produce real leadership

Tony Snow, former White House press secretary for President George W. Bush, spoke in Orlando at a conference hosted by the American Bankers Association on February 18. I was there covering the meeting for NorthWestern Financial Review magazine. Snow offered analysis on the presidential race and on the political envirnoment in this country. Following are excerpts from his remarks:

We’ve got a political system that is broken. If you don’t believe it, look at what’s been going on up on Capitol Hill. There are 208 appointments, many of them vital, that simply are not being filled because Democrats hate the president and they are not going to help him. It doesn’t matter if it is in the national interest. If there is a campaign irregularity this year there won’t be any investigation because there are hardly enough members on the Federal Election Commission to get a quorum. There are many judicial circuits that are now woefully short on judges. This is not what we elected people to do, but because we have a system where being elected is almost like being elected for life, members of Congress have stopped thinking about the public interest and their communities the way they ought to, and they are going after each other. It has become small and insular and very childish.

We cannot afford that as a country. We’ve got to find a way to revitalize the system, so that in all matters the individual becomes sovereign once again. The voter becomes sovereign with the member of Congress. When you think about health care you come up with a system where the consumer is sovereign. When it comes to the economy, something where we reward entrepreneurship rather than punishing it. Something where we go back to the Horatio Alger model where someone works hard and succeeds and we say “Hurrah! That’s what this country is all about.”

The other thing we are missing in politics right now is a sense of real optimism. If you take a look at what has happened in the world in the last seven years, it is absolutely extraordinary. We always hear in the press about failures, whether it is in Iraq or in our own country. Let me run you through some things that don’t get covered when it comes to this country since Sept. 11.

On Sept. 11, 2001, we were in a recession. There were a couple of tax cuts that came along but since then we have had the Enron and corporate scandals, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have had the costliest natural disaster in history (hurricane Katrina), we’ve had $100 oil, and the subprime mortgage mess. If I had told you in 2001 that we would encounter these obstacles you would have thought we’d be in bread lines by now.

Well, what has happened? Since 2001, despite all these obstacles, which have imposed trillions of dollars in cost on our economy, we have had 52 consecutive months of employment growth. That has never happened in the history of the United States. We still have six-and-a-half years of continuous economic growth. Yes, it’s more sluggish now but it is continuing to grow.

We also have a country where some pretty extraordinary things are happening. More people are working than ever before. They are making more money than they ever have before, and they tend to save more than ever before. We’ve got more people going to college. People are doing better in school. We have this ownership phenomenon. More Blacks and Hispanics own homes more than ever before. Those are good things.

You need to take a look at what’s going on in home and hearth: Crime rates down, youth crime down, drug use down, alcoholism down, teenage pregnancy down. You also have divorce rates down, abortion rates down.

The Pew organization conducted a poll a couple of weeks ago where they asked “how’s the country doing?” Everyone answered “stink-o.” And then they asked “how’s your life doing?” Eighty percent responded they were satisfied or very satisfied with their own lives. They understand that once you get past the America of the front pages some amazing things are still going on. And one of those things is we are still privileged to be part of the most dynamic country, the most dynamic economy in history.

If you don’t think we are awash in dynamism in this country, think about your kids and your grand kids’ Christmas lists. Do you understand any of the stuff they are asking for? … The fact is, innovation is exploding in this country. Everyone in this room probably has a PDA or cell phone, and in that PDA or cell phone is more memory and computational power that existed on all the aircraft that took every American to the moon and back. The world is generating new information equivalent to all the books in 37,000 Libraries of Congress, essentially billions of volumes per year. We are living in an explosion of information, an explosion of challenges.

We live in a dynamic economy where you cannot shelter your eyes; you’ve got to plunge in and figure out how to win. The challenge for government is to realize they shouldn’t try to protect people from that economy; they should equip them for it. Give them freedom. Give them the ability to innovate. Do not punish them when they try new things. Nobody in either party is talking in these terms about the world we actually encounter when we go to work. Nor is anyone saying: “This is a great country awash in a very special kind of success; let’s build on it.”

We need leadership that says there are dynamic new challenges ahead and it is time for the United States once again, without any doubt, to reclaim its position as No. 1 in the world.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Who's Better Off?

I read an interesting book recently called “Better Off” by Eric Brende, an MIT graduate who spends 18 months living in an Amish-like community. In the book, published in 2004, he chronicles his experience living without electricity, motors or telephones. He writes about growing pumpkins and sorghum without a tractor or chemical fertilizers, about the birth of their first child at home with the aid of a midwife, and about constructing buildings without power tools.

One of the things he learns from this experience is the way technology separates people. In his 19th century village, he found community with dozens of other people living the same way. Without electricity, motors and power tools, people are really dependent upon each other; they have to work together to survive. That kind of mutual dependence builds human relationships you don’t find in the modern world where electricity and 21st century conveniences make everyone self sufficient.

Brende first got the idea to try this experiment after realizing that many people work in order to afford a car, which they need chiefly to get to work. Brende is looking to escape this kind of self-perpetuating busyness. Even in his community of Minimites, as he calls them, he questions the use of horses, which require people to plant more crops in order to feed the horses. If they didn’t have to grow food for horses, they wouldn’t have as much work and they wouldn’t need horses in the first place.

The book spurred me to look at my own life and consider how I am spending my time. If you think about what Brende writes, you end up questioning whether one form of work is a better use of time than another form of work. This is an interesting question and I have no answers. I do think Brende is on to something, however, with his observation that some forms of work join people with others in communities, while other kinds of work separate people into isolation. Personally, I like community.

At the end of the book, Brende talks about how his life settles after the 18-month experiment. He lives in a neighborhood in St. Louis where he can walk just about everywhere, or use public transportation to get downtown. His wife homeschools their four children; they don’t have a television set, nor a computer.

As I was reading his experiences in the farming community, I thought I could never live like that. But where this experience took him was a life not much different from my own. I prefer hand tools to power tools, we don’t watch much television in my home, and I am blessed to live in a neighborhood where we can walk to many destinations. Public transportation in my neighborhood is good.

Although Brende’s memoir is categorized under “science and technology” I think the book is really about human relationships. Brende’s experiment is a search for the good life; he found an ability to connect with neighbors to be essential to that life. That has been my experience as well. Ultimately, I don’t think Brende has anything against technology, per say, but he proposes that it is always a good idea to consider the broader implication of implementing technology – whether that be a iPhone, diesel engine, or television set. I think that’s a decent proposition.

(Thanks to my good colleague Jackie for lending me the book.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Working to start a new high school: The Chesterton Academy

This week's edition of The Wanderer features a front page story on The Chesterton Academy, a new high school in the Twin Cities. I have been working on the launch of the school with my good colleague, Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society. To be sure, a lot of work remains to be done, but things are on track for a fall opening. Here is the article:

The Wanderer Press 02/21/2008
In Twin Cities . . .

Lay Catholics Launch The Chesterton Academy


ST. PAUL — Last November, a 32-year-old attorney with the Army Judge Advocate General's Corps at Fort Drum in New York packed up his wife Annie and their five children and their belongings and headed west to St. Paul to take on a daunting new challenge: founding headmaster of The Chesterton Academy, a private, independent high school inspired by the thought of G. K. Chesterton.

"This is ridiculous," said the new headmaster's 5-year-old daughter in true Chestertonian fashion.

The new headmaster is John DeJak, a graduate of Loyola University Chicago, where he was a recipient of the Presidential Scholarship, and a 2004 graduate of the Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor. He was an easy pick for the school's founding board of Catholic parents, led by Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society and an internationally recognized authority on Chesterton's life and work.

DeJak has taught Latin, theology, Church history and ecclesiology at Catholic high schools in Chicago and Cleveland, worked as a legal intern for the St. Thomas More Society, and is an active pro-lifer, fully committed to The Chesterton Academy's goal of building a "culture of life."

And he is a passionate devotee of Chesterton and Chesterton's mentor, Hilaire Belloc.

Also leading the effort for the new school is Thomas Bengtson, publisher of the North-Western Financial Review and a member of the board of the Couple to Couple League and publisher of its Family Foundations magazine.

The founders of the school are in the process of settling on a permanent location for the school in the southwest Minneapolis area, and a closing date is forthcoming, DeJak told The Wanderer in a recent telephone interview.

"This is a wonderful effort by parents here in the Twin Cities," DeJak said.

"As parents are the primary educators of their children, this new academy is truly an effort that comes from the heart of the Church's teachings and what better model than G. K. Chesterton in terms of intellectual giant and culture warrior.

"Chesterton is someone who appreciated everything. He took an interest in everything and he was excited about everything and through that love of learning and the world he came to a profound love of God; through God's creation, he also came to understood how all truth is connected to The Truth, who is Jesus Christ.

"What we seek to do at the Chesterton Academy," he said, "is to provide an integrated education and to teach our students that there is a whole truth of things, and in knowing that we are happy."

The project to establish the academy, he said, began some two years ago when a group of parents started discussing secondary schools and saw the need for a high school that not only taught the faith, but taught all subjects through the lens of the faith, and how they are all interconnected.

"From my experience as a theology teacher in various Catholic schools," DeJak said, "there are too often elements in place that have the effect of undermining the faith, and this new endeavor is a chance to build up the faith and introduce it in a holistic way to our students.

"Parents in the Twin Cities are looking for a school that will be academically rigorous and will offer spiritual formation through daily Mass, frequent Confession, and an emphasis on articulating great ideas through the arts."

The board is currently recruiting students by word of mouth, giving presentations at parishes in the area, and visiting with interested families. "We're especially reaching out to the various home- schooling groups, which is quite a large enterprise out here," he added.

Strong Academics

The academic program at The Chesterton Academy is a solid, tra- ditional, liberal arts program that, over four years, will educate students in the story of civilization, as well as provide them a solid foundation in math, music, art, science, and literature.

Freshman year will cover ancient history, from the Egyptian through the Greek and Roman civilizations. Students will learn the background against which the Old Testament was written and how classical philosophy, with attention to Plato and Aristotle, developed. Sophomore year will cover early Church history through the High Middle Ages, which, said DeJak, is probably one of the most important periods in world history and yet most neglected in other schools.

Junior year will cover the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, and show students how the renaissance in art and literature was accompanied by the rise of the Church Militant.

Senior year will cover the Modern "Revolutionary" Era: the American and French Revolutions, the In dustrial Revolution, the Communist Revolution, and the Sexual Revolution (which led to the acceptance of contraception and abortion). The Catholic Church lost its temporal power but developed its religious and moral authority on a universal scale.

The study of literature will be tied closely to the study of history and the rest of the humanities.

During freshman year, students will be introduced to the classic epics of Homer and Virgil. As sophomores, they will be exposed to early English classics such as The Canterbury Tales, as well as modern literary renderings of medieval history. During the junior year, students will get healthy servings of Shakespeare. As seniors, they will read American literature, Dickens, Dostoyevski, and Hugo. And Chesterton.

Also in their senior year, students will be introduced to modern economic thought by reading Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, Karl Marx's Das Kapital, Pope Leo XIII's
Rerum Novarum, Hilaire Belloc's The Servile State, G.K. Chesterton's The Outline of Sanity, and Joseph Pearce's Small Is Still Beautiful.

Art education will also be a major component of the academy's curriculum over four years. As the founders of The Chesterton Academy explain: "A complete education must include the development of the child's creative nature and must provide him with the tools and the technique with which to express his ideas, his feelings, and his love.

It must also include the analytical skills with which to judge a work of art and therefore must provide the continuous exposure to great art. Most importantly, the mechanical skills and the aesthetic aptitude must be put into the proper context of eternal Truth. A good artist is a complete thinker and vice- versa. Chesterton says that in order to be a good artist, one must be a good philosopher: 'A man cannot have the energy to produce good art without having the energy to wish to pass beyond it. A small artist is content with art; a great artist is content with nothing except everything'."

There will also be an equal emphasis on music. Over four years, students will learn music fundamentals (theory, performance, ear training, music analysis and appreciation) but also music history, where they will see music in the context of the times and philosophy of the period in which it was created, with special attention to the role of music throughout Church history and specifically its role in the Catholic Mass.

In science studies, freshmen will study astronomy and geology; sophomores biology; juniors chemistry; and seniors physics.

Thanks to a donor in Chicago, DeJak told The Wanderer, the new academy's library is off to a good start.

The academy is also forming a lay board of advisers, and has already attracted three big names in Catholic circles: Notre Dame law professor emeritus Dr. Charles E. Rice, Chicago's pro-life activist Joe Scheidler, and Minnesota pro-life activist Mary Ann Kuharski.

For more information about The Chesterton Academy, Wanderer readers can contact Dr. DeJak by telephone: 952-831-3096; or by email:, visit the academy's web

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Bee Movie

I saw Bee Movie yesterday and I liked it. The critics hated this movie, saying it wasn’t funny, that the story was stupid and so forth. Well, I’m glad I never bother to read a review until after I see a film.

Bee Movie has two very good messages. The first is that if you do your job well, no matter how small the job is, it can make a big difference. This lesson is repeated throughout the film, which shows us the inner workings of a bee hive, where thousands work at very small jobs, ultimately producing a beautiful product – honey.

The second lesson is about the importance of honest work for bringing meaning to one’s life. The story of the movie is how Barry B. Benson, a bee with Jerry Seinfeld’s voice, sues the human race for stealing honey from bees. Benson wins and humans are no longer allowed to take the honey. The bee population stops making honey. All the bees initially are happy with their new life of leisure. But soon, the bees begin to miss their work. More importantly, all the flowers in the world begin to die because the cessation of honey production means the bees are no longer pollinating plants. At the end of the movie, the bees decide to let humans have their honey, bringing important purpose back to their lives, and giving them a reason to fly about from plant to plant, bringing back the process of pollination. The bees are happier, all the world’s plants come back to life, and humans can once again enjoy honey.

The real message in the movie is that your work is important, even if it seems unimportant. While most of us think we would love a life of leisure, this film tells us that we really need to be doing something that contributes to the world.

Bee Movie is not a great movie, but I liked the message and I found much of it to be very clever. I also found it funny, particularly a line from a mosquito about being well suited to be a lawyer given that he already was a blood sucking parasite. And at 90 minutes, the story was just as long as it needed to be(e).

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Early lessons in the presidential race

While they failed to clarify the race for presidency, the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries taught us a lot.

Mike Huckabee's victory in Iowa over Mitt Romney shows that it is more important to connect with people than it is to be organized. Romney, the man with all the business experience, set up a highly sophisticated operation in Iowa. He was the clear leader before Jan. 3, based on the money he spent to put a professional campaign team in place in the state. Huckabee ran a much more modest operation. He didn't have nearly the money nor the organization. And he won. Whether you like Huckabee's message or not, it resonated with Iowans, and that is all that mattered when the results were tallied after the caucuses.

John McCain's victory on the Republican side in New Hampshire shows that we shouldn't pay any attention to the so-called experts. You might remember my post of April 19 last year where I reported on a presentation I heard by James Carville in which he predicted John McCain would drop out of the race before the Iowa caucuses. Carville, a political expert if ever there was one, clearly got it wrong. Not only was McCain still in the race, but he actually finished on top in one of the early states.

And third, Hillary Clinton's victory on the Democrat side in New Hampshire shows that we shouldn't pay any attention to polls. Going into the Jan. 8 primary, all the polls had Barack Obama winning handily. There was even talk about Hillary getting out of the race after her dismal showing in Iowa. But she won convincingly in New Hampshire, exposing the various polls as utterly worthless.

These lessons have application in the business arena. While it is important to have good systems in place, as Romney had in Iowa, it is far more important to have a product which resonates with potential customers. If your market is excited about your product, they will put up with minor delivery inefficiencies, but if they don't like your product, the best distribution system in the world won't do you any good.

Also in business, there are a million consultants who want you to pay them to tell you what to do. They position themselves as experts who know more than you do. Maybe some of them do, but most of them don't. If you are running a business or a department, you probably know more about what to do than anyone. People in business have to figure out who to listen to, and what expertise to pay for. But ultimately they have to make the important decisions themselves. A sure way to tank your business is to rely too heavily on the experts.

And finally, a lot of businesses spend big money on customer satisfaction surveys. I think these kinds of surveys are fine, but people in business should refrain from over-relying on them. Clinton proved that surveys provide only marginally-reliable information. Let's face it: a lot of people lie on surveys. People wrestle with all kinds of influences with they respond to pollsters or survey-takers. A lot of people simply tell the pollster what they think they want to hear to get it over with. Honest communication about anything takes a lot of time; a survey is rarely the best way to get an honest story.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Lindbergh and aviation made the world smaller

Flying to Florida and back last week got me to thinking about the best book I read in 2007, which was a biography of Charles Lindbergh. Born in 1902, Lindbergh was 25 when he flew nonstop to Paris from New York in May of 1927. A. Scott Berg in his 1998 book, "Lindbergh," offers a very detailed account of the aviator's 72-year life. I also really enjoy the insight the author provides into 20th century America. A lot changed between the time of that trans-atlantic flight and Lindbergh's death in 1974.

The book gives you a sense of a country growing up. Far-away places became accessible in the course of those decades. In the beginning of the century, it seemed inpossible that things going on in Europe and Asia could have much to do with the United States, but World War II changed all that. Aviation made the world smaller and suddenly we were living in a global community, enjoying the world's blessings but also entangled in its problems.

In the early 20th century, aviation was a curiosity. It took a daredevil to fly in an airplane, let alone pilot one. But aviation quickly developed, initially proving particulary useful for mail delivery. Those mail routes paved the way for passanger service. Lindbergh did a lot of work to scout out the best routes and make recommendations about landing systems and airport design.

Aviation was a tremendous development in the history of humanity, but Lindbrergh ultimately lamented the progress. He said that during his lifetime the world changed from when "men flew airplanes to when airplanes flew men." Lindbergh was clearly a controlling personality and he wanted to control the machinery, he didn't enjoy being controlled by the machine. It's a tough trade-off for an adventurer but it was a necessary trade-off for bringing aviation to the masses.

The book offers a detailed account of the abduction and murder of the Lindbergh's first baby. We also get the story of Lindbergh's political thinking during the late 1930s and early 1940s. He desparately opposed U.S. intervention into the "war in Europe." Lindbergh made a lot of speeches urging the country to stay out of the war, a position similar to the one his father, a congressmen from Minnesota, took during the first world war.

Charles Lindbergh traveled to Germany several times during those pre-war years and people began to call him a Nazi. The book paints those allegations as being unfair. After the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh completely changed his sentiments regarding U.S. involvement in the war.

One of the most interesting parts of the book was the description of his relationship with his wife, Anne Morrow, the daughter of the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico who became a U.S. senator. They met shortly after Lindbergh's historic flight to Paris. She was stary-eyed and worshipped him. They married quickly and initially she traveled with Charles all over the world. As the children came, she traveled less, although Charles continued to travel frequently. He was gone for long stretches. As time passed, Anne wanted to make her own name. She was a writer who wanted to be recognized for her own skill rather than simply for being the wife of the aviator. The tension is well-described by Berg.

One of the things that is a little difficult to comprehend for a 21st century American, is the world-wide celebrity status Lindbergh gained completing that 33-hour flight to Paris. It was a celebrity status that lasted the rest of his life. Others who completed longer, more dangerous flights never knew such fame. There was something about Lindbergh that the whole world latched onto.

We have it so good in 21st century America. It is easy to forget it wasn't always like this. It wasn't always easy to get to Florida and back from Minnesota. Most Minnesotans throughout history never had a chance to fly to India. A book like Berg's "Lindbergh" helps a reader maintain some measure of perspective. And the natural result of that perspective for me is a certain measure of gratitude.

Friday, January 04, 2008

New Year's Day at Disney World

My family traveled to Disney World in Orlando for the New Year’s break, along with about a million other families from around the world. As we walked the streets of the Magic Kingdom on New Year’s Day, it seemed like everyone was here. I wondered: Why do they all come here?

Maybe it’s the weak dollar. The Euro and other foreign currencies are at historic highs against the American dollar, making it a very opportune time for foreigners to visit the United States. I heard many other languages being spoken by visitors around me.

But I suspect the reason throngs of people flock to Disney World is not so logical. A Disney vacation is clearly an emotional buy. If you thought about it too much, you wouldn’t do it. It’s too expensive, too hectic, and too crowded. When it comes to non-essentials, like winter vacations, people almost always buy with their heart, not their head. Walt Disney figured this out a long time ago.

The Disney experience appeals to the heart. It pushes the emotional hot buttons. We visited four theme parks in four days: Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park. We experienced only a fraction of what each venue has to offer, but what we saw was tremendous – from the thrill show at the Hollywood Studios, to the musical version of Finding Nemo at the Animal Kingdom, to the Buzz Lightyear ride in TomorrowLand at the Magic Kingdom. All the buildings and infrastructure looked new and authentic, whether we were in recreated villages from around the world (Epcot), or recreated scenes of classic Americana from a century ago (Magic Kingdom).

The entertainment in the parks is magnificent. The stage shows featuring the various Disney characters are very well done, with music, dancing, amazing costumes, and even fireworks. I liked the stage version of The Little Mermaid we saw at Hollywood Studios, and I liked the behind-the-scenes look they gave us at the soundstage featuring The Chronicles of Narnia.

I am intrigued by Walt Disney who created all this – not bad for a story teller. Sure, he was a businessman and movie maker, but his core ability is telling stories. And people have been attracted to his stories for decades. Often he does not even tell his own stories, but stories written by others. But he chooses good stories and tells them in a compelling fashion.

Essentially, the stories typically involve someone looking for happiness. In those stories, happiness is usually equated with finding the love of your life. Some good-versus-evil conflict often adds depth to the story. In the Disney version of the Hans Christian Andersen story, the Little Mermaid, for example, Ariel puts her soul on the line and gives up her voice for a three-day shot at the love of her life. I think the story is relevant today in a culture that regularly encourages young women to trade a valuable, un-retrievable personal asset for a chance at love.

There is something about the whole Disney experience, however, that has always rubbed me the wrong way. I used to think it was the commercialism, and gross over-exposure of the brand. But watching Mickey, Minnie and others dance on the stage in front of the Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom made me realize it is something else. The theme of the 20-minute song-and-dance was “believe in yourself.” At one point, Mickey says:
“All things are possible if you just believe in yourself.” Well, I think I have heard that before, only Mickey changed the last word. All things are possible if you believe in God. Believing in yourself is important, but useless if you don’t believe in God first. The God part of the message is never communicated. That is a sorry omission.

I liked the Disney parks, and my family will probably return at some point. People of any age can have a great time there. Disney tells a great story, whether that’s in the form of a movie, stage play or some kind of roller coaster ride. But it would be a mistake to look to Disney for theology. If you keep in mind that the theme parks are all fantasy, you won’t be misguided.

Blog Archive