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

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).