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

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.