Saturday, November 27, 2010

Let's Be Honest--About Social Security and Why We're Going Broke

It's funny how you often find insights where you least expect them.

A few weeks ago, my dog Kiva got bitten on the nose by a rattlesnake and I ended up with a better understanding of our health care system.  This week, I came to understand why our Social Security system is in such danger just by reading the mail. Actually it was a letter that a friend of mine received from the Social Security Administration outlining his future benefits.

This friend is almost 45 and isn't working at the moment. He worked for a total of about 20 years before his current hiatus. During that time, he paid about $17,000 into the Social Security system--an amount that was matched by his employer bringing the total contribution to $34,000. He also paid a total of $4,200 into the Medicare system.

According to the letter, When he turns 62, he can start collecting more than $10,000 a year in benefits (with cost of living increases it could be double that) for the rest of his life. So given how long healthy people are living these days (see my recent article on health care reform), he will probably pull between 10 and 25 times more out of the system than he and his bosses ever paid in. 

He paid $34,000 into the system and will probably take out between $300,000 and $500,000 over time.  And there are tens of millions of hard-working American citizens just like him.  And in 20 years, his $4,200 Medicare investment will buy him lifetime health care coverage that will also be worth a fortune.

Let's be honest.

The main reason our Social Security system faces so many challenges is pretty simple. We were promised and are receiving benefits based on formulas that tax us too little while we are working and assume that we would not live much past 70 years of age. Now that millions of Americans are living well into their 90s (with the help of very expense drugs and medical treatments that are paid for by the government) our new-found longevity has created a national financial catastrophe.

Just after reading my friend's letter and doing the Social Security math, I left to spend Thanksgiving in St. Louis, the place of my birth. My 84-year old mother (who still drives--which is one of the reasons why I don't live there) lives in a retirement community where the average age of the residents is 92 and most of them show up for Happy Hour every day. The young woman who works as the bartender says she is constantly being proposed to by the feisty older men.

This is not the demographic scenario that the people who set up the formulas for Social Security and Medicare had bargained for.  The dozens of people I talked with during Happy Hour have been collecting Social Security for an average of 30 years each and have pulled millions more out of the system than they ever put in.  And not one of them was an illegal immigrant or a welfare queen or a Muslim.  These once hard-working, "real" Americans are the ones who are bankrupting us--not the foreign invaders and poor people that Fox and the Right would suggest are to blame.

Responsible Americans need to have a grown-up discussion about what kind of benefit systems we can realistically promise our citizens and what our kids are going to have to pay in taxes to fund it now that we're living so damn long. It's the same grown-up discussion that we have needed to have since 9/11 about how to pay for our wars and security going forward.

But let's be honest.

These conversations have not yet taken place and there is no appetite for them now. Instead, we are encouraged by our political leaders and the cable and radio screaming heads to invent villains and blame them for everything that's wrong with the world--and some of the things that are right. Even the Tea Partiers who are angry about spending money on anything are not interested in dealing honestly with Social Security, Medicare, paying for our wars, or sharing sacrifice by calling for mandatory military or public service.

They just like to complain about politicians in general, Obama in particular, and how big government  has gotten out of control. When it comes to specific details of what needs to be done or any kind of positive agenda they don't have much to say.  And they sure don't want to talk about the morality of sending poor young rural kids to serve a dozen terms in Afghanistan draft or the economics of their favorite entitlement programs.

Instead of having that honest conversation, they spread phony allegations that the costs of providing Social Security and Medicare to illegal immigrants are what is driving us broke. Or they spread professionally manufactured email lies about free "Obamaphones" and other benefits that our president has allegedly decided to give to illegals, freeloaders, and drug dealers as though that would be enough to bankrupt America even if it was true--which it isn't.

They also like to talk about how we should be investing our own Social Security accounts in stocks and gold and whatever we want. But that's not honest either because it implies that we actually have money in our accounts to invest--which we don't.   Our taxes go to pay our parents' generation and there is no money actually set aside for us to be invested even if we wanted to.  That's the way Social Security has always worked and the news media and politicians know it.

Let's be honest.

We can't even begin to address these serious issues until we can have an honest discussion about the current situation and what our real choices are to effectively deal with it.

But promoting fear and outrage and creating villains is apparently so much easier that it seems unlikely that honest grown-up conversation will take place any time soon. As I've mentioned, CNBC now has a daily segment on Larry Kudlow's show that's called "Viewer Outrage." They are committed to finding people who are really pissed off about something every single day and giving them a podium from which to rant.

When we start seeing segments entitled "Viewer Sacrifice" and "What You Can Do For Your Country" where people talk about the responsibilities that each of us needs to take on to help make things better, then we will be getting closer to the road to fiscal sanity.

If the national obsession with fact-free anger, fear and demonization continues to grow, then maybe  I will stop writing and move back in with my mother.  Those folks seem to enjoy life more than most of my current friends and they don't seem to be afraid or outraged about anything except running out of Chardonnay during Happy Hour.  They won't make very good villains because most of them are white and don't speak with an accent. 

Besides, that bartender is really cute.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Let's Be Honest--About Health Care Reform

A few weeks ago our dog Kiva was bitten on the nose by a baby rattlesnake. Kristen was walking him on a bike path near our home in Tucson and Kiva pounced on a bush hoping to feast on a lizard but got much more than he bargained for.

She took him to our vet whose office was fortunately just a few blocks away and she was told that the situation was serious. Kiva needed at least one vial of antivenim serum ($900 a vial) along with numerous blood tests, IVs, and other treatments IF everything went well. Within an hour, Kiva's head looked like a pinata after a wild party but he was lucky and made a full recovery in just a few days.

But this is not an article about my wonderful dog or our good fortune. It is about the epiphany I experienced during the 24 hours that he was in the doggie hospital.

Actually it is about the check-in process. Before the hospital would agree to accept Kiva as a patient, we had to go into a special room to make financial arrangements. We were told that his treatment would cost between $2,500 and $4,000 and that they wouldn't admit him unless and until we gave them a credit card up front and let them charge us up front for $2,400--60 percent of the high estimate. If we didn't have the cash, we could take Kiva home and take our chances.

They then told us that unless we signed an agreement to pay them an additional $600 (minimum) up front, they would take no action to resuscitate him if he suffered a heart attack or some other crisis in the middle of the night.

We agreed to their terms and, happily we picked up our very valuable canine son the next day well on his way to a full recovery. The treatment was a complete success. Everyone at the doggie hospital was delightful and responsive to our calls and treated Kiva and us wonderfully.

But it got me thinking.

Our dog is alive today because we had $4,000 that we were willing and able to pay to keep him alive. I'm pretty sure that he received a higher level of care than the vast majority of the humans in the world and most in our own country.

In the U.S., no hospital would turn away or refuse to treat an accident victim or someone whose life was in imminent danger. But follow up care, treatments for life-threatening conditions, and cutting-edge surgeries are often only available for those who are willing or able to pay up front.  My doctor friends here all confirm that is the case.

As a type-1 diabetic with a fake hip, no thyroid, and spots on his lung I am not unfamiliar with doctors' offices. In recent years, the biggest change in their decor are the many signs prominently announcing the types of insurance that are not accepted and other declarations that the physicians understandably want to make sure that they will get paid before treatment is dispensed.

Let's be honest. About health care

We live in a country where we pay several times what residents of other nations pay for health care and by any objective measure our outcomes are much worse. There are still more than 50 million Americans who lack any insurance coverage at all and where those of us who are insured have been paying more and more each years for less coverage, higher deductibles, and co-pays that have gone through the roof.

As a candidate for president, Barack Obama accurately identified health care reform as a top priority and most Americans agreed with him. After dozens of incarnations and versions (each of which was labeled "Obamacare" by his political enemies), an inadequate but important first step was passed and signed into law this year.

The response of the Republican leadership and and their media promoters has been to convince Americans that this undefined Obamacare has made us worse off today than we were a couple of years ago. That we are being charged much more (we aren't) for coverage that will somehow be worse (it won't)--even though most of the provisions of the bill haven't even kicked in yet and really haven't been set in stone anyway.

They have convinced millions of Americans that we are being bankrupted by a health care system that caters to dark-skinned people who pay nothing and get everything for free--Mexican immigrants and black welfare freeloaders--at the expense of the rest of us.

But let's be honest.

All those people really get is the assurance that if they walk into an emergency room bleeding to death or with some other pressing ailment that they will be treated whether they have insurance or not.

Beyond that, tens of millions of Americans who are too young for Medicare deal with the health care system in the same way that Kristen and I dealt with Kiva's vets. If you have a long-term chronic condition or symptoms of something seems like it might be serious, you'd better be covered by insurance that your doctor accepts (an ever shrinking list) or come up with a whole bunch of cash up front. Otherwise they face the choice that we did with our dog. Find the money or go home and hope you don't die.

All of the fact-free ranting about Obamacare has mainly succeeded in distracting Americans and keeping many of us from coming to grips with what a total disaster our current health care system has become. A comparison with Canada (which has socialized medicine) shows that we spend about 60 percent more per capita on health care than they do and yet our infant mortality rates and life expectancy is far worse than theirs.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen cites a CIA study that shows the U.S. ranking first in the world in health care costs and 49th in life expectancy and 47th in infant mortalityHis piece on the subject is well worth reading.

On top of that, about half of all personal bankruptcies in the U.S.--millions a year--are due to health care costs. People who don't have the money choose to spend it anyway to save their loved ones or themselves. Who do they think they are?

To make matters worse, most of them have financed those life-saving treatments by maxing out multiple credit cards which has only hastened their slide into bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, in Canada there are zero bankruptcies due to health care costs.

Reasonable people can disagree about how to best fix our broken system. But right now, Republicans seem to be only focused on undoing Obama's efforts to make things better--and undoing Obama altogether.

Let's be honest.

Our health care system is one of many things that are driving us broke not because of freeloaders or illegals or whatever your definition of Obamacare might be. It's because the rest of us are living much longer than we were supposed to. The whole system was financially based on the assumption that we would work until we were 65 or so and live a few years after that before succumbing to old age and/or diseases. Today, many of the members of my golf club are over 80 and can beat me scratch. We all have relatives who are in their 90s and are doing just fine.

They paid in a little and are taking out five and ten and twenty times as much in benefits. Many of them are retired and been net takers for almost as long as they worked and paid into the system. Two bipartisan committees have just recommended that benefits to retirees be cut significantly in the future as part of our effort to get out of debt but polls show that most of us and our elected officials just don't want to go that route.

We'd apparently rather get angry and outraged at blacks and Mexicans and single mothers and poor people. And, of course, Obama.

I tried to explain this all to Kiva but he just licked my face and begged for a treat. I'm not giving him anything until he learns to bark at Glenn Beck.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Let's Be Honest--About Jobs and the Economy

As many of you know, I have been obsessing lately about the way in which truth and facts have seemingly become irrelevant and missing from the public conversation of politicians and our news media. It's not about whether one agrees or disagrees with the point of view of another. It's about the way issues are framed in a way that often has nothing to do with the truth and, more often than not, in a way that makes no sense.

This will be the first in a series of articles entitled "Let's Be Honest." Each article will deal with an important issue which our news media and political leaders are framing in a way that is so distorted and misguided that it makes rational discussion impossible.

For example, reasonable people can disagree about whether Barack Obama is doing a good job as president. But they can't disagree about whether he is a Muslim (more than 30 percent of Republicans believe he is) or was born outside the U.S. (more than 40 percent of Republicans believe he was). Those are simply lies.

The same would seem to apply to any reasonable assessment of where our economy and job situation stand right now and whether our president's policies have helped or hurt. Reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom of Obama's approach and about the long term ramifications.  But, as with so much else these days, the news media and politicians have chosen to make rational discourse almost impossible by filling the airwaves and print with so many lies and distortions that useful give-and-take can't even get started.

For example, we are constantly hearing about the horrible condition of the U.S. economy and how Obama's socialist preoccupation with bailouts, redistributing wealth, and taxing us to death is killing business.

But let's be honest. When Obama became president the economies of the world were in an American-induced economic death spiral. Stock markets and commodities prices were in free-fall, our economy was shedding 800,000 net jobs a month, credit was not available to most companies at any price. General Electric and Goldman Sachs had to pay Warren Buffett 10 percent interest and provide an equity kicker just to get a loan which should give you an idea how impossible it was for mere mortals to borrow. There was a very real risk that hundreds of major companies and financial institutions would disappear.  Many actually did.

We still have enormous economic challenges, but let's be honest. It is now 18 months later and the stock markets in the U.S. and around the world are 50 to 100 percent higher. With federal help, General Motors and many other companies staved off bankruptcy and are now able to sell stock to new investors. Commodities prices have recovered broadly and credit is widely available to a broad range of credible borrowers. 

We have enormous debts to repay once we get the economy on even better footing and other challenges remain. But the sequencing of the "experts" is backwards. We already had the economic crisis they are predicting for the future and it had nothing to do with Obama, taxes, or socialism. It was due to good old American greed and free-market capitalism run amok.  People are buying less because they are worth less, owe more, and are earning nothing on their savings.  They are doing the responsible thing by paying off debt and putting more money away for a rainy day--not because of uncertainty about what Obama will do to them next. 

We are repeatedly told that making the richest Americans pay the same level of income tax as they did during the boom times in the '90s would kill the economy.  But let's be honest.  How many millionaires do you know who are putting off purchases and denying themselves stuff that they would run out and buy if they only had an extra few grand?  Most people are buying less because they are nervous about the future--in part because they are told all day in the media and by politicans that they should be outraged and afraid.  It has nothing to do with uncertainty about a proposed small increase in taxes for a handful of the wealthiest Americans.

The one problem that remains very real for far too many people is jobs.  Most companies downsized their work forces during the economic meltdown but now that business has come back--in many cases stronger than ever--they are not hiring new workers.  In most cases, they haven't even hired back the ones they laid off during the crisis.

The U.S. unemployment rate is hovering just below 10 percent and the number of people who are holding jobs that pay and require skills far below their qualifications is at least as high. We are told by financial "experts" and politicians that Obama-induced fear is to blame for reasons that make no sense.

They claim that corporate CEOs are not hiring more workers, even though many of their companies are doing more business than ever and are flush with cash, because they are "uncertain" about the impact of health care reform and tax increases they fear may be coming in the near future. These paralyzing uncertainties are simply the icing on the Obama anti-business, anti-America socialist cake which is yet another reason why the Republicans will take over both houses of Congress in a couple months. Or so the story goes.

But let's be honest. Back during the Clinton years when taxes were much higher and when health care costs were going through the roof each and every year, companies were hiring like crazy. Many, like my employer, offered big bonuses to any employee who referred a prospect who ended up being hired by our firm. It had nothing to do with certainty about the future or tax rates or socialism or health care costs.

It was all about our CEO's belief that we were missing out on a lot of business because we didn't have enough people. So we hired more people.

Today many companies that survived the financial crisis are flush with cash and very profitable. But instead of hiring back the workers they laid off, they are investing in new equipment and productivity-enhancing technology that will enable them to do more business with even fewer employees in the future. They are also using their huge cash hordes to buy other companies so they can lay off even more workers in the future and become even more profitable--at least in the short run.

And when companies make more money, their CEOs (the same ones who decide whether to hire or fire more workers) make LOTS of money. A recent report issued by the Institute for Policy Studies shows that the 50 companies that laid off the most workers last year saw their profits go up an average of 44 percent. And (surprise surprise) the CEOs of those companies made an average of $12 million last year--almost 50 percent more than average CEO pay at America's 500 largest companies.

So let's be honest. There's not a thing that Obama or any other politician can do to lower unemployment in the private sector as long as CEOs and shareholders of our largest companies are getting richer and richer because of mergers, productivity gains, and layoffs. And our free market capitalist system--which I heartily support and have earned my living managing for more than 30 years--is based on their ability to do just that.

So, if we're going to be honest there is a lot to talk about and figure out. It will be tough and it will be complicated. It is so much easier to create villains and phony issues to keep people busy being outraged and afraid. Maybe that's why so many of our politicans and media celebrities are doing just that instead of telling is the real story and helping America.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Anger and Outrage--America's Fastest Growing Religion

Last week I had an epiphany.

I have been operating under the mistaken belief that those who continually forward emails full of vicious lies and distortions smearing President Obama, his family, and others with whom they politically disagree were simply mistaken. I was sure that if I could send them conclusive proof that they were forwarding deliberately manufactured lies--not honest mistakes--then they would be grateful and thank me.

But they never did. In fact, they almost always got angry and berated me for being a liberal--which I guess is a term they use to describe people who care about the truth. They never said "Thank you so much! I can't believe I just sent a horrible lie about our president to a whole bunch of my friends. I will have to get back in touch with all of them right away and make sure they know it's not true!"

Then my friend Doug, a highly respected attorney, helped me see the light. I had just responded to a number of people who had sent me an email claiming that President Obama had sent $17 million dollars in stimulus money to officials at Oregon State University to help save the job of Michelle's brother, Craig Robinson, who was supposedly about to be fired as the school's basketball coach.

Now to any reasonable person (particulary a sports fan familiar with the Pac 10), this piece was obviously phony. In the first place, Robinson is the best coach Oregon State has had in over a decade and has turned their basketball program around. OSU fans were scared that he would leave for a bigger school and were thrilled when he signed a contract extension through 2016 last March. As Snopes, Urban Legends, and other truth sites have pointed out, every sentence in the email is false. And, as with all these creations, it is a professionally manufactured lie--not the result of an average person making an honest mistake.

So I wrote back to the friends who forwarded me this piece (under a headline encouraging me to be outraged) along with proof that it wasn't true. But this time I asked Doug "now that you know it's a lie, what are you going to do?" His response made it clear to me just how misguided I have been--and a whole lot more.

"I'm going to keep sending it out," he said. "After all, Obama lies all the time so we have the right to lie too."

Then it hit me. We are not dealing with rational discourse about politics, economics, and what is best for America any more. We are dealing with a religious cult of tens of millions of people who are addicted to anger, outrage, and hatred and the media outlets that feed that addiction.  Issues that most of us consider to be questions of truth and reason have now become questions of religious faith.

These are Americans who now believe with perfect faith the our black president, dark-skinned Muslim terrorists and Mexican immigrants, and liberal Democrats are the cause of every problem we face in America today. These self-described patriots don't just disagree with their adversaries--they actually think the bad guys are pure evil and out to deliberately destroy everything that is great about America. 

These cult patriots are true believers in the same way that Orthodox Jews believe that the entire Hebrew Bible was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai--in the same way that devout Christians believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God. It is not a matter that lends itself to intellectual discussion.  It is not about reason or facts--it is a matter of faith.

Rational discourse and fact checks that prove that what is being said is untrue have become irrelevant to people for whom this was never about truth and accuracy. Glenn Beck has become the high priest of Fox News and of the new religion and his language and demeanor have become increasingly evangelical as this trend has continued.

The business network CNBC has jumped on board as well. The late-morning business program "The Call" now includes a regular segment entitled "Viewer Outrage." Think about that. They are now committed to a televised segment of outrage on a daily basis in the way The 700 Club might commit itself to airing daily prayer or bible passage.

But all this anger and outrage and thinly veiled racism and bigotry and lies are only the symptoms. The disease is the widespread and growing sense of fear that is gripping millions of Americans who just a few years ago felt smart and confident about their circumstances and future but who today are more frightened and confused than they have ever been in their lives.

For an entire generation, most people got used to secure employment, a growing economy, rising home, stock, and real estate prices. There were ups and downs along the way but we were all told that if we worked hard, owned quality investments, and hung in for the long term that things would work out fine. And for 25 years they did.

If a person put away a nest egg, they could count on at least 5 percent a year from risk-free investments and an average of 10-15 percent a year in riskier investments. Most of my clients who retired during that period (I work as a financial advisor when I'm not busy saving the world) would  go on to buy the nicest house they ever owned, live better than they did when they were working, and see their net worth go up year after year due to the rising value of their investments. This was the case despite the stock market crash in 1987, the savings and loan crisis of the early '90s, the popping of the tech bubble, and even 9/11. We always came back stronger than we were before.

But all that has changed for the worse during the last five years. Million of Americans have lost 100 percent (or more) of the equity in their homes. Most growth-oriented investments such as stocks and real estate have been losers instead of winners. More importantly, most investors have lost confidence in the future pulling more than $33 billion out of stock mutual funds already this year and moving that money into bonds and CDs that are yielding virtually nothing.

Ten years ago there was full employment and companies such as mine were offering a $1,000 bonus to any employee who helped find a new worker because the labor market was that tight. Today, we have tens of millions of Americans out of work and most companies are looking to make even more cuts even as business has improved dramatically.

In its effort to stimulate the economy by dropping interest rates to zero, the Federal Reserve has actually hurt most investors by making it impossible to get any income at all from bank deposits and money market funds. A person with a million dollars in the bank used to be able to get $50,000 or more a year in income. Now they are lucky to get $1,000.

People who thought they had a grip on their lives are now scared and looking for someone to blame. They used to look forward to leaving something to their children and grandchildren. Today our kids are inheriting a reverse annuity--a mountain of debt they can never outlive. The Patriots blame estate taxes and Obama's anti-wealth policies, but deep down they know the truth. We just didn't have the guts to act like grown-ups. We paid our bills with credit cards and when we were maxed out, we put them on our kids' tab.

We have two basic choices. We can look in the mirror and realize that the challenges we now face are due in large part to choices we made as voters and citizens. We elected and supported government leaders who spent too much and taxed us too little. We wanted to keep our Medicare and drug benefits and Social Security and to expand homeland security and fight two wars but we didn't want to pay for it. We re-elected a president and Congress who told us we could have it all and make no sacrifices. Those same officials allowed our financial institutions and oil drillers and miners and others to take huge risks in search of profits and personal gain without regard to the consequences to all of us when those gambles crapped out.

And it's not all about money.  There are a whole lot of older people who confused brains with a bull market.  They made millions of dollars between 1980 and 2000 mainly because they were alive and in business or the stock market or real estate at the right time.  They worked hard and some were quite intelligent but because they lived during a time when the stock market went from 1,000 to 14,000 and real estate went through the roof they got rich beyond their wildest dreams.

Human nature being what it is, most of them came away feeling really smart instead of really lucky.  Now that things aren't working out so well, instead of feeling really stupid (which is no fun at all) they are just getting angry and blaming all of their challenges and things they just don't understand on the villains cited above.  The truth, of course, is that they were never that smart in the first place and now they are not that stupid but rather than unpack all that, they are forwarding slanderous emails and listening to the media high priests of fear and hatred who are preaching exactly the exact sermon they want to hear.

Instead of looking at how they need to change their own behavior and expectations, these cult Patriots have chosen to blame others and get very angry. They have chosen to blame a president who wasn't even around when everything had already come unglued. They have chosen to blame every member of Congress, even though WE were the ones who elected them. They have chosen to blame a variety of dark-skinned people starting with our Black president but not ending there. We also blame dark-skinned immigrants who, like most of our parents and grandparents came to America seeking a better life and who make a huge contribution to our economy and society.

And now, nine years after 9/11 during which Presidents Bush and Obama have repeatedly insisted the U.S. is at war with terrorists--not Islam,  Fox News and opportunistic politicans are choosing to revive a new wave of bigotry and resentment against the millions of law-abiding, tax-paying Muslim Americans (thousands of whom serve in our military and dozens of whom were killed in the 9/11 attacks) under the guise of showing respect for the Real American victims at the World Trade Center.

The anger and hatred and lies being spread about Muslims and the leaders of the cultural center are yet another embarrassment to our country. The notion that an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory three blocks from Ground Zero is "hallowed ground" while there are already two strips clubs operating even closer to the site without any concern is yet another indication of how our sense of nation fear and confusion has eliminated any pretense of honesty or fairness in how we think or what we today come to call "news.

My friend, teacher and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of CLAL has taught that anger and fear can be very useful as an alarm system--the flashing red lights and clanging bells that alert us that we are facing a serious challenge. But he goes on to point out that people should not make important decisions while they are angry or afraid, wisely pointing out that those actions never seem to work out well and are often disastrous.

Before a disease can be cured, it has to be accurately diagnosed. As long as a growing group of people continues to believe that our national sickness is all about dark-skinned people who are not like us and evil politicians, our problems will only get worse. This first step toward a cure has to be a return of honesty and rational, fact-based conversation regarding where we are and how to proceed.

And the first step toward that first step must be a rejection of news media and politicians who are the false prophets and leaders of this new fast-growing cult. And finding the "delete" button on our computers when we receive an email that blares in its headline that we should be angry and outraged and claims to have identified the villains who got us into this mess.

It's going to be long and hard but, as Will Rogers once said, when you find yourself in a hole and need to get out, the first thing to do is stop digging. Because they are angry and afraid, too many Americans have used anger, outrage, and demonization as a shovel and as a result they are sinking deeper and deeper into the pit.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Ground Zero Muslim Center--How Low Can We Go?

During the last few years Americans have seen facts and truth play a smaller and smaller role in political discourse.  At the same time, lies, distortions, nastiness and demonization have replaced civility and respect in our public conversation.  Racism and bigotry, always present in subtle ways in the past have become more thinly veiled as these trends have taken a firmer hold and anger and outrage have gained new traction and acceptance as part of political and media dialogue.

All of these toxic trends have come together during the last month and have been reflected in the media coverage, political opportunism, and email conversation about the new Muslim Center that is being built blocks away from Ground Zero.

Ironically, least affected by all of this hysteria was the government process of the City of New York.  The center is being built on private property on a non-descript piece of land and in conformance with all relevant zoning and use guidelines.  Approval of the center breezed through the required process with the support of Mayor Bloomberg and unanimous votes by the relevant committees.  For years there have been discussions and proposal for development of Ground Zero itself that aroused virtually no national interest.

As has been the case with all proposals on and near ground zero, the developers are long-time American citizens with no legal or tax issues who have a long history of working for pluralism and greater understanding among people.  The difference with this project of course is that the developers are Muslim.

That is not supposed to matter in America.  We are a country with a long and proud legal and moral tradition of people being innocent until proven guilty.  For decades it has be considered both immoral and illegal to discriminate against anyone based on race, religion, color, or ethnicity.  Unfortunately, those days seem to be long gone--the victim of the addiction to anger and outrage and the need for dark-skinned villains that has overtaken our national conversation.

As has become normal in matters of manufactured outrage and controversy, the symbiotic partnership between Fox News and the Republican Right got the ball rolling.  But the trend toward more thinly veiled bigotry and demonization of people of color and "the other" continued its acceleration.

As you may have noticed, according to Fox and the Right, the only real racists in our country are now people of color.  President Obama, Van Jones, Sonia Sotomayor, and Shirley Sherrod.  There are apparently no white racists any more.  And every economic, law enforcement, and national character problem Americans face can be directly linked to our socialist Black president, dark-skinned Mexican immigrants, and Muslims (every one of whom is assumed to be a terrorist or embrace a religion that's focused on death and destruction).  Not a single one of our national ills can be traced to the behavior of the rest of us.  The job of Real Patriots and Real Americans (white people) is to be increasingly outraged and point out how "we" are the victims of "them."

The tactics surrounding the debate over the Cordoba Muslim Center issue have taken this national embarrassment to a whole new level.  As Mayor Bloomberg, President Obama, and many others have pointed out, there is no way any law-abiding American can oppose the right of American citizens to build a Muslim Center on private land unless they believe that all Muslims share responsibility for 9/11 and that all members of a religion are guilty of the crimes that were committed by a very small group of their co-religionists.  As Michael Kinsley has convincingly explained, this thinking is flawed, illegal and un-American on every level.

The most ironic aspect of the debate has been that opponents have claimed that allowing the center to be built would grant a victory to the terrorists.  As Jeffrey Goldberg and others have accurately pointed out, nothing could be further from the truth.  A Muslim Center run by an Imam who has written a book entitled "The American Dream is the Muslim Dream" and who has worked for decades to promote cooperation and understanding will become the number one target of Muslim terrorists because he is the ultimate affront to their core belief that infidels should be destroyed--not embraced.

The fact that presidential hopeful and Fox analyst Newt Gingrich has compared building a Muslim Center led by American citizens committed to peace and interfaith cooperation to putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum is disappointing (Jeff Goldberg called Gingrich "an ally of Al Qaeda") but not a surprise.  The fact that Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity have spread vicious lies about Imam Rauf and implied that most families of victims of 9/11 are opposed to the center (they aren't--many are strong supporters) is also not a surprise.  That's how Fox and the right roll.

But as a Jew who is deeply involved with and committed to a number of community organizations, the biggest shock has been the extent to which so many Jewish leaders and organizations have gone to the dark side on this issue.  Jews have suffered for centuries from bigoted group-think and the spread of slanderous lies which has led to shameful discrimination.  And no group has fought more energetically and effectively to combat bigotry, relgious discrimination, and to uphold the rights of all Americans.

That's why it was such a shock when the Anti Defamation League came out in opposition to the Muslim Center.  More than any other Jewish organization, the ADL and its long time director Abraham Foxman have been true to their stated mission of protecting and defending the rights of all groups who were victims of religious discrimination.  As a result of its shocking flip when it comes to Muslims, the ADL has earned the criticism of respected Jewish writers, organizations, and rabbis and had distinguished journalist Fareed Zakaria announce on CNN that he has returned the award and $10,000 honorarium he received from the ADL five years ago to honor his commitment to the First Amendment and his outstanding reporting.

In response, Foxman issued a release expressing no regret for his position and saying basically that he hopes Zakaria comes to his senses and changes his mind. 

Even though the Muslim Center has received approval and will be built, I continue to receive a flood of emails from fellow Jews trying to help me understand through cherry-picked quotes from the Koran and provocative 4 minute videos that Islam is a religion of death and suggesting that "they" need to express remorse for the attack on 9/11 nine years ago before "they" should be allowed to build a mosque in New York--or, as Newt Gingrich has suggested and the New York Times has reported--anywhere else in the U.S.

These suggestions are contrary to American law and tradition on their face, but they are particularly shocking coming from a group that until recently suffered so broadly from the same kind of broad brush discrimination.  I ask my fellow Jewish friends how they would respond to a suggestion that since it is common knowledge that Jews are greedy and will do anything to make money legally or otherwise at the expense of others, that rabbis and Jewish leaders should publicly apologize on behalf of all Jews for the actions of financial terrorists Bernie Madoff and Orthodox Jews like former Enron CFO Andy Fastow and Jack Abramoff who swindled and bankrupted thousands of innocent people.

The idea is appropriately greeted as offensive, slanderous and un-American on its face.  But for some reason, those who demonize all Muslims don't realize that they are holding millions of peaceful, law-abiding, tax paying, American citizens to a similar warped standard.  The angry critics also never point out that dozens of Muslims were victims of the 9/11 attacks--including six members of Imam Rauf's mosque.  Are the families of those victims part of the "they" or are they part of the "real" victims? 

Are the families of the thousands of Muslims who bravely serve in our armed forces part of the "they"? Should all these brave Americans be forced to apologize for horrible acts committed 9 years ago by a couple dozen of their co-religionists or are they exempt from the rest of Muslims who owe us an apology and and explanation?

Are our "allies" in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan who we are spending trillions to defend and support and on whose behalf tens of thousands of Americans have been killed or maimed in recent years part of the "they?"  Lest we forget, they are all Muslims.

The roles of truth and civility have been shrinking and the role of outrage, lies, and demonization have been skyrocketing in our public conversation and news media in recent years.  And as
 it has become more obvious and apparent the problem is getting worse--not better.

By any reasonable standard, there never was a real controversy over whether the Cordoba Muslim Center should have been approved and now that American justice and values have prevailed there is really nothing more to discuss.  But we all know that this is not about a Muslim Center.  It is about political opportunism, the desire for media profits, and our growing dysfunctional need for anger, outrage and villains.  After all, without villains we might have to look in the mirror and realize that is was us and the representives we elected who have created the multiple crises we now face.  But that's worth a whole article of its own.

That's also why for some time to come, there will be a great deal of heat and very little light created around this and other issues.  We have reached a new low in the quality and civility of our national conversation.  But there can be no doubt that we haven't yet hit the bottom.  This is looking and feeling more and more like a Black Hole where there is no limit to how far we can sink.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

So Much Heat--So Little Light

Anyone who thinks Aspen is only an upscale liberal enclave clearly hasn't been here lately.

On the same day last week those who were looking for a Right wing perspective on a broad range of issues had some tough choices to make.

They could either attend the Aspen Institute event featuring five A-list Republican governors (Rick Perry-TX, Tim Pawlenty-MN, Haley Barbour-MS, Bob McDonnell-VA, and Linda Lingle-HA) or the day-long Aspen Counterpoint session on "Conflict and Conscience" featuring six speakers who enlightened them about the evils of militant Islamic strategies, Islamic persecution of women, and the media's one-sided treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Both events drew large crowds although those of us who believe that President Obama is not a Muslim terrorist in disguise or that a peaceful two-state solution is even worth pursuing in Israel felt like we had wandered on to a different planet. But we're getting used to that.  What I continue to find shocking is that the message, tactics, and unrelenting anger of the Republican Party are becoming echoed and displayed by so many Americans who call themselves "pro-Israel."

Back in the days of civil discourse when people of goodwill and common positive intent could disagree about issues in a mutually respectful way, it was possible to say things like "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend with my life your right to say it."  That has been replaced by "You are a horrible person and every belief you hold represents a mortal threat to everything decent people hold dear." If you were in Aspen last week, you would  have heard it in stereo when it came to the issue of President Obama and his true feelings about Israel.

One minute, I heard Governor Rick Perry of Texas (a renowned student of international affairs who happened to be sporting a t-shirt stating that "Marshall Law (sic) has been declared") state "the way the Obama administration has treated Israel is an absolute affront to all democracies around the world."

A couple minutes later and a few hundred yards away I was listening to Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick state that Obama has been by far "the worst president for Israel since the state was founded 62 years ago."

Thankfully, we live in America where people are free to express their opinions. But I remember a time when if a governor or journalist was going to level that kind of attack against the president, they would feel obligated to cite at least one quote or statement or action that backed those charges up.  As a proud and serious Jew, I expect more from our people. But apparently facts are no longer required to smear people in the Jewish and Israeli press now as well.

During the last few weeks, Glick (whose rants were greeted with huge applause and no challenging questions at the conference) has stated as fact that Obama has "declared war on Israel" and had told Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu weeks ago that unless Israel released hundreds of Palestinian terrorist prisoners immediately that neither Obama nor anyone from his administration would meet with Netanyahu.

Since then, the two heads of state have met twice and no prisoners have been released. Glick never followed up with a correction or retraction and, as far as I know, none of her equally rabid followers have complained.  She has also never cited a single example of a statement or action by Obama that indicated he was at war with with Israel. 

She, along with fellow panelists John Bolton and James Woolsey, assured the crowd that Obama had in fact rudely and deliberately snubbed Netanyahu two months ago when the two had a short, hastily planned working meeting in Washington. Of course, none of them were at the meeting or indicated they had talked with anyone who was.

Just a few days earlier, Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren told an Aspen Ideas Festival audience that he had been present for every minute of each of the five meetings between Obama and Netanyahu (more than Obama has met with any other head of state) and there was never a snub or a slight of any kind.  Oren systematically debunked all the lies that have been spread by those who were outraged.  For example, the snub rumors state that Obama walked out on Netanyahu to go have dinner upstairs with Michelle and the kids.  Oren said Obama's wife and children were not even in Washington at the time.

Glick's response to Oren setting the record straight was not to thank him for clearing things up but rather to slam the ambassador in writing and demand his resignation for essentially being a traitor to Israel. She stated that Oren takes his inexplicable desire to be Obama's head cheerleader more seriously than his job to represent Israel's interests. Again, no facts supplied.

Of course there was no mention by any of the speakers that Obama courageously told Muslims in Cairo last year that they needed to abandon terrorism and accept Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. Or the fact that Obama has repeatedly emphasized his unshakable support for Israel. Or the fact that Obama recently pushed through strong sanctions against Iran in both the U.N. and Congress. Or the fact that Obama has never made a negative statement about Israel.

For good measure, Glick took a shot at Thomas Friedman who she accused of being in the pocket of the Saudi royal family. The self-described pro-Israel, pro-peace organization J Street was also vilified by Glick and most of the panel as being "horrible for Israel."  Glick has chastised J Street in writing for being opposed to sanctions against Iran.  The problem (apparently only for some of us)  is that J Street has come out strongly in support of sanctions against Iran. 

One had to come away wondering how she has the energy to hate so many people (there are surely many others) and still get through her day.  She seemed like an Israeli Glenn Beck.  Always outraged, often wrong, but never in doubt.

Don't get me wrong. Much of what was said at the conference is true. Israel faces enormous challenges. It is unfairly held to a double standard by much of the world and the international media. But not every word of criticism is completely unfair and the result of Jew hatred and media bias . Israel is surrounded by neighbors who want to destroy her. But it also has an increasing number of neighbors who really do fear the threat of a nuclear Iran more than they do Israel.

It is very challenging to negotiate with terrorists and others who have shown they cannot be trusted. But it is also true that Israel cannot continue to exist as a Jewish democracy for much longer. The birth rate of the Arab and Palestinian residents of Israel and the West Bank is so high that in a few years they will outnumber the Jews. The math is unforgiving.

Like most of the difficult challenges facing the world today, these are complex and troubling issues. But what is more troubling are those who believe that simply demonizing others and backing sketchy claims with partial truths is the answer. 

Jews have a tradition of being firmly committed to the truth. We have survived and grown by getting together to talk, study, argue, disagree, and speak freely and try to learn from each other. As our most visible "pro-Israel" leaders take on the values and tactics of the American Right wing, we run the risk of losing a big part of what has made us so special and enabled us to prevail against huge odds for so long.

For centuries, the greatest risks to the survival of the Jewish people and our values have come from the outside--from those who have hated us and wanted to destroy us. Those threats are still very real and can't be ignored.

But at a time when Israel and the American Jewish community have never been stronger, I worry at least as much about the threats from within.

The Talmud says, "Who is truly wise?  He who learns from all people."  It is a pluralistic mantra that has served us well for thousands of years.  We risk a great deal by disqualifying all but a few true believers from the conversation and only learning from those with whom we already agree.

As we have sadly learned in recent months, that approach generates far more heat than light.  And far more damage than good.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Whole Bunch of Inconvenient Truths

Conventional wisdom did not have a good week--at least not in my neighborhood.

This disconnect between what people like (or need) to believe and the facts is not just annoying.  It has actually become pathological since so many seem to feel so angry and out of control about so many things in their lives that it is both convenient and sometimes necessary for them to demonize other individuals and groups and blame them for everything that is wrong with our world.

The problem, of course, is that while their designated villains do have bad qualities and do some nasty things, they are not the pure devils we'd like them to be. Every now and then we get hit in the face with inconvenient truths that should pop the mythical bubbles.

Unfortunately, the need for villains and demons is so pervasive that these facts no longer seem to matter.

Take the self-serving myths that exist regarding the challenges in the Middle East and Israel.  Please.

Early in the week, President Obama had his fifth meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu--more than he has had with any other foreign head of state. As he has since before becoming president, Obama made a statement after the meeting (as did Netanyahu) emphasizing the close and unshakeable bonds between our two countries and how the U.S. maintains a firm commitment to Israel's security and right to self defense.

Many of the self proclaimed "pro-Israel"  leaders have been ranting for months that our current president is no friend of the Jewish people and our homeland. But annoying facts keep popping up and getting in the way of a good rant. How inconvenient.

Forget about the fact that it was Obama's appointees and staff  who led the successful push in both the U.N. and out Congress to get tough economic sanctions passed against Iran

And the fact that Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. (who has been present for every minute of every meeting between Obama and Netanyahu) claims that there has never been a crisis or unproductive interaction between the two leaders.

Instead of thanking Oren for the insight and praising the American president as a true friend of Israel, the ideologues prefer to shoot the messenger and bash Oren as a liar.  Typical of the pro-Israel Right is Caroline Glick of the Jerusalem Post who has simply decided that Oren has turned traitor to Israeli interests and has become a liar and Obama cheerleader.

After all, if you've boxed yourself into an ideological position that is THE TRUTH, competing inconvient truths must be ignored or discredited.

Many of these same people have been complaining for months that the Goldstone Report (that suggested that members of the Israeli army behaved badly during the Gaza invasion) was the latest in a long chain of unfair assessments prepared for the U.N. by Israel-hating anti-Semites. Virtually every Jewish and pro-Israel group in the world has condemned Goldstone and his report and AIPAC has succeeded in getting most of the U.S. Congress to join the chorus.

After reading Goldstone, I tend to agree with the critics that the report unfairly suggested that the Israeli government attacked Gaza in an effort to systematically punish innocent Gazan citizens.  It also didn't acknowledge the fact that nearby Israeli towns were suffering frequent missile attacks from inside Gaza and that the Israelis had to do something to make it stop. 

But the emerging inconvenient truth is that the Israeli government and  courts have been issuing a number of indictments and charges against soldiers that suggest that parts of the Goldstone Report seems to actually be true.

Orthodox Israeli rabbis encouraged soldiers to be particularly ruthless to Gazans during Operation Cast Lead--reportedly encouraging them to show no mercy to innocent Gazan citizens, women, and children. There is an increasing amount of solid evidence that shows many of those soldiers followed those instructions and behaved very badly--perhaps criminally.

The response of most "pro-Israel" Jews to this has been  "why did they have to print that in the paper?" Not a single one has said, "Thank God we found out the disturbing truth." Again, it's a case of the pesky truth getting in the way of a clear cut good guys--bad guys situation.

How inconvenient.

Another simplictic view that is promoted in "pro-Israel" emails is that all Arabs, Palestinians, and Muslim are essentially the same. They are all bad and are either terrorists or condone terror.

But I just attended a lunch here at the Aspen Ideas Festival where the ambassador to the U.S. from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) made it clear that he and his people live daily in mortal fear of Iran--not Israel.
He went on to say that he would applaud a decision by the U.S. or Israel to bomb Iran in order to take out that country's nuclear capability.

"If the U.S. bombed Iran it would be a disaster," said ambassador Yousef al Otaiba--an attractive, sharply clad young man who my wife described as "hot" (pictures available upon request). "But if Iran gets a nuclear weapon it would be a bigger disaster."

He added that he would personally be grateful to Israel if it was the country that took out Iran's nukes although he acknowledged that Israel would face severe criticism from the Arab "street" if that happened.

"Israel gets blamed no matter what it does," said the Ambassador from the United Arab Emirates.

He went on to say that the day that the Israelis and Palestinians reach a peace agreement, 22 moderate Arab nations would immediately recognize Israel and its status as a legitimate nation. He suggested clearly that most Arab states fear the rogue nations among themselves far more than they fear Israel.

He made so much sense and talked so rationally that for a brief second I forgot where I was. I actually believed that there are a lot of Arabs in the Middle East who are just as worried about threats from other rogue Arab nations as we are. That they want peace and a better life for themselves and their families as much as we do--even enough that they would applaud and support actions that would make that outcome more likely.

But then I checked my Blackberry and slipped back into the fact-free zone of simplistic explanations and widespread demonization. I had just received an email from one of my Jewish friends explaining to me how Koran is chock full of lines commanding good Muslims to kill infidels so it is foolish and naive to suggest that we can trust any of them.  This friend would not know a Koran if it hit him between the eyes, but he knows THE TRUTH.

At the end of the day, many of us must need villains more than we need hope, real solutions and intellectual honesty.

How inconvenient.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What To Do When You Get Screwed By the Refs

I was among the hundreds of millions of sports fans around the world who looked on with outrage last week as an incompetent referee from Mali stole the game-winning goal from the U.S. soccer team in its World Cup match against Slovenia.

The ref clearly blew it--as he had all game long--and ruined the Americans' amazing comeback from a 2-0 halftime deficit to what would have been a 3-2 win that would have propelled them into the next round of World Cup competition.

I was among the millions of baseball fans who looked on with ourage as umpire Jim Joyce blew the call on what should have been the final out in Detroit pitcher Armando Gallaraga's perfect game. 

I am among the millions of Jews around the world who have looked on with outrage repeatedly over the years as the United Nations and much of the world have consistently held Israel to an outrageous double standard.  The U.N. has routinely ignored horrible behavior on the part of dozens of nations around the world while it routinely sanctions, criticizes, and calls for investigations of Israel for actions that seem very tame and often justifiable in comparison.  Much of the angry and truly vicious anti-Israel response to Flotillagate over the last few weeks can be cited as an example of that double-standard and the plain fact that there are people and nations around the world who are always looking for an excuse to criticize and delegitimize Jews and Israel.

What do we learn from all this?  The most obvious lesson is that for reasons ranging from bias to incompetence to just making an honest mistake, sometimes the refs get it wrong.  Players, teams, people and countries that deserve better sometimes get screwed.  In an imperfect and often unfair world, stuff happens.

But these events of the last month can teach us valuable lessons right now regarding how to respond to these injustices in the most productive way.

Players and coaches of the U.S. soccer team at first expressed anger and frustration over the blown call that cost them so dearly.  It would be shocking if they didn't.  But within a few hours, they seemed to be focused on their next game against Algeria in which a victory would still put them into the next round of the World Cup.

The news media, which ran replays of the horrible call non-stop for more than 24 hours, tried repeatedly to prod U.S. coach Bob Bradley into launching a tirade against the offending official, but Bradley knew that while that response might be fair, it would not be productive.

"You end up saying that's just how it is sometimes and you move on and get ready for the next game," said Bradley after the game.

It is safe to assume that during practice sessions over the next several days, much more time was spent watching tape of the two early goals the U.S. gave up to Slovenia and figuring out how to keep those kinds of mistakes from happening again than was devoted to watching the blown call that cost them the game. If the U.S. team had not played horribly during the first half, the final call would have been meaningless.

The same admirable maturity was shown by the 21-year old pitcher Gallaraga who seemed very philosophical about the baseball immortality that was denied him--particularly after the guilty umpire apologized to him for blowing the call.

"No one's perfect," was Gallaraga's artistic comment after the game.   Like the U.S. soccer team, he could have dwelled on the unfairness of it all for a very long time but instead he chose to move on.  His whole life and career are ahead of them and what's done is done.

As an American Jew who cares a great deal about Israel, I hope that my many "pro-Israel" friends can show more of that kind of maturity and wisdom when it comes to dealing with the many challenges the Jewish homeland continues to face.

It would be possible and perhaps even justifiable to rant about how unfairly Israel has been treated in the worldwide reaction to Flotillagate as well as dozens of other issues over the years.  In fact, I have received dozens of emails and read many articles in recent days that make just that point.  Many of the complaints are valid and much of what is said is substantially true.

But like the athletes who have been dealt with unfairly (admittedly with far less at stake than in the case of Israel), the wisest course of action for that nation's leaders and supporters would be to focus on their future game plan and try to learn from the many questionable decisions its own government has made that might have been counter productive. 

In short, focus your time and energy on the things you can control--not on all the factors (fair or unfair) over which you have no influence.

Instead of demonizing all Muslims in the world, constantly ranting about the biased refs, and insisting that Israel has done everything right and its enemies have done everything wrong, it might be more useful for the "pro-Israel" community to do a little more soul searching, self-analysis, and planning for the many games that remain on the schedule.

It has been disappointing to see how many of my fellow Jews have unfairly characterized the Turks who were killed in Flotillagate as "terrorists" and who have asked members of Congress to sign letters affirming that Israel has a right to defend itself and that Israel shared none of the blame for the fatal confrontation.  This has all come in response to an incident in which none of the participants could fairly be labelled as terrorists by any definition and where Israel was never under attack.   None of these emails and articles are helpful or productive and they change no one's mind.

The issue here is not about right and wrong or fair and unfair.  It is about smart and productive versus one-sided and self-defeating.

Most of Israel's political leaders and supporters in the U.S. are far more educated and experienced than the athletes who have suffered injustices this month.  But in this case, the older and wiser group could learn some valuable lessons about how to respond to getting screwed by the refs--about not losing the insight that the season is long and that players and teams who learn from their mistakes, bounce back from the bad calls, and continually work on their game plans are the ones who win in the long run.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The 11th Commandment--Thou Shalt Support Israel

I have been a Jewish Leader for the last 26 years.  This is undisputably true because I have the plaques to prove it. I remember when I first met Thomas Friedman in Israel back then he told me that he never met a Jew in Israel who wasn't a "leader."  He said he had yet to meet a Jewish Follower.

From the very beginning, the organized American Jewish community has been all about supporting Israel.  The United Jewish Appeal and Federations (where I chaired campaigns and will again) have raised hundreds of millions of dollars every year from American Jews who back in the day would often borrow money to give more than they could afford.  Assuring the survival of Israel at a time when that was much more in doubt than it is today was the defining issue and for many it still is.  Israel Bonds (where I chaired the Wisconsin campaign and served on the national board) did and does have the same focus. 

AIPAC (where I served on the Tucson board until I was recently asked to resign) has exploded onto the scene in recent years as an effective booster club and lobbying organization for Israel and is attracting support from Jews and non-Jews alike.

At most Jewish agency gatherings, Hatikva is sung along with the American national anthem.    That custom seems bizarre on its face since virtually all of the audience is American and few know the words to the Israeli national anthem.  I have never understood why EITHER is sung at a fundraiser for a local nursing home or day school but it is yet another sign of how support of Israel is woven into the essence of everything Jewish in this country.

The unwritten commandment to support the Jewish homeland is a good one and, in their own way, most American Jews obey it religiously (or secularly).  That's not the problem.  The challenge is coming up with a shared definition of what it means to support Israel and how to do it.

This is a problem that is common to commandments.  There is a misplaced belief that God gave us a complete guide at Mt. Sinai.  The truth is that most the Ten Commandments are so vague and subject to interpretation that they have raised far more questions than they answered.

The best example is the commandment to honor your father and mother.  It sounds simple.  The commandment is one sentence.  But tens of thousands of pages have been written struggling with how to do it in real life.

This dilemma was clear to the Talmudic rabbis.  In Kiddushin 32a, Rabbi Eliezer deals with the issue of how a son honors a senile father who is about to throw his life savings into the sea in front of the entire community. 

Do you honor your father by not embarrassing him publicly and allowing him to leave himself destitute or do you honor him by grabbing his wallet and lovingly leading him back home--saving his money but causing him to lose face?

Rabbi Eliezer, who was a supporter of Judaism, said you honor your father more by not embarrassing him and letting him throw his money away.  Other rabbis, also supporters of Judaism, disagree strongly.  They felt the father would recover from (and might not even remember) the embarrassment but the consequences of throwing all his money away would cause him physical and emotional distress for the rest of his life. 

Rabbis on both sides of the issue were religious people who wanted to "support" the commandments and do the right thing.  And as with all disputes, there was room in the Talmud for a number of different opinions and approaches. 

There was an understanding back then that seems to be missing today that being part of a religious community or wisdom tradition means finding room at the table for those who seek the same goal but disagree, often strongly, about how to best get there.

I fervently support Israel's right to exist as a Jewish democracy.  I believe Israel has the right to defend itself against its numerous enemies who seek her destruction by any means necessary.  I strongly condemn the fact that Israel is held to a double standard and constantly faces unfair criticism from the UN and foreign countries. 

I also believe that we show our love and support for Israel by pointing out what we believe to be mistakes and bad decisions made by its government in the hope that our voices will lead to clearer thinking and better solutions. 

That's why President Obama was showing support for Israel when he was critical of Prime Minister Netanyayu's decision to cave into that country's worst elements--the political Orthodox and Settler movements--and his decision to expand an Orthodox neighborhood in East Jerusalem with no strategic value at a time where the act could only  be viewed as provocative.

That's why Jeffrey Goldberg was being staunchly pro-Israel when he suggested that the Israeli response to Flotillagate showed a lack of "seichel"--a yiddish term for wisdom.

For going public with this kind of thinking, I was recently asked to resign from our local AIPAC board by a friend and national board member.  He accused me of asking inappropriate questions and writing in a way that made it clear I deserved no respect from the community.  Goldberg and others who care about Israel so much that they air their views regarding how it can be better have suffered from slings and arrows as well.

The American Jewish community is not in crisis but it is facing a number of serious challenges.  Ironically, most of them are the direct result of the successful battles that were fought by our parents to gain us access to every nook and cranny of the American experience, but that's worth its own article.  Israel is facing daunting challenges as well but it too has never been stronger and more accepted as a legitimate country in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

There are obviously people and countries who hate Jews and Israel, but as M.J. Rosenberg points out, the vast majority of the criticism of Flotillagate has not come from those who think Israel shouldn't exist.
It comes from people who support the formation of a Palestinian state in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Israel is often unfairly criticized and is held to an outrageous double standard by the U.N., most of the world media, and the Far Left Wing in the U.S.  As with all injustices, those should be pointed out and criticized by fair-minded people.

But instead of branding those Jews who agree with us as pro-Israel and those who don't as anti-Israel and self-hating Jews, it it time to take a long hard look at what it does and should mean to "support" Israel. 

Are our community organizations and their leaders required to show that support by unquestioningly applauding every action of the current Israeli government?

Does it show support to forward each other hundreds of emails claiming that Israel was 100 percent the victim of Flotillagate and made no bad judgments and did nothing unwise? 

Do we show that support by forwarding emails saying the President of United States has thrown Israel under the bus and has declared was on Israel when he has done neither? 

Do we show that support by sharing videos of Muslim extremists saying hateful things and behaving badly and telling each other that the Israeli government can't be expected to talk with these horrible people?

I don't claim to have those answers but I do know that we need to have a conversation.  The essence of Judaism has always been about having conversations.  We need to return to the Talmudic model outlined by my hero Shimon Ben Zoma who described one who is truly wise as "he who learns from all people."

Jewish leaders may not agree with Peter Beinart's important recent article describing how a persistent move to Right Wing intransigence by many Jewish organizations is causing widespread alientation of younger Jews and leading to the gradual disappearance of liberal Zionism, but they ignore it to the detriment of the organizations they lead and the causes they claim to support.

I became passionate about Judasim more than 20 years ago when I discovered the brilliance and relevance of our wisdom tradition.  To the extent that the American Jewish leadership is throwing out that pluralistic model and stifling the conversations that are essential to meeting our challenges, they are guaranteeing a sad legacy. 

To mean well is not always to do well.  The mark of true leadership is knowing the difference.

Friday, May 7, 2010

What In the World is Going On with Stocks?

This week has provided yet another perfect example of why so many people hate the stock market.

For the first four months of the year business conditions have been improving pretty steadily.  Bailed out corporations like General Motors and many banks have retooled and stabilized and paid much of the money back to taxpayers.  When Barack Obama became president, the world faced an imminent and obvious financial crisis.  The U.S. job market was shrinking as more than 150,000 more jobs were being eliminated than were being created every single week for months on end.

Today it was announced that during April, almost 300,000 more jobs were created than were lost.  That's a net gain of more than a million jobs per month from where we were a year ago. Company after company has announced improved profits based on growing sales and reduced overhead. 

The stock market seemed to be right in synch with the improving reality.  After posting large double digit gains last year, most market averages were up nicely for this year just a few days ago.  On Monday of this week, all the major indices rose more than a full percent.  Things seemed on track.  Now just a few days later, in the absence of any apparently earth shaking news and without warning everything has seemingly changed.

On Tuesday, the bottom dropped out of the stock market and just two days later full blown panic set in as the Dow dropped almost 1,000 points in less than an hour before it came back to fall "just" 347 points for the day.  All of the gains that most accounts had built up in 2010 have been erased in just a few days.

The analysts and experts have been clueless.  No one has yet been able to explain the cause of the 1,000 point roller coaster ride.  Most have chosen to blame the overall carnage on computer glitches and news about credit problems in Greece--problems that have been around and in the headlines for months and which on their face just don't seem to be big enough to warrant the rout and panic that have hit the markets with a vengeance.  It appears that the experts don't have a clue what is going on in the stock market so they are grabbing at any news headlines they can find.

On the positive side, the market selloff this week has caused investor sentiment to shift from complacency to outright panic.  The violent swings of the last few days have looked and felt like forced selling from funds and investors just throwing in the towel without regard to price.  This type of capitulation tends to almost always take place at market bottoms--not in the early stages of a protracted bear market. 

It also shows that even though the market has been in solid rally mode for more than a year, most investors have never really trusted the move.  They just have too many bad memories and the news about deficits, unemployment, and foreclosures have just been hard to ignore.

Skepticism and fear are typically bullish signs because it shows that many investors are still afraid of stocks.  The market, like a dance floor, fills up fastest when lots of people are sitting on the sidelines waiting for a song they like.  Once everyone is dancing, the floor can't get any fuller--it can only empty.  But if the dance floor is already pretty empty, the downside is more limited.  That's why high levels of investor fear are viewed as a bullish sign while complacency can be a harbinger of trouble ahead.

Certainly there has been no fundamental shift in the earnings or prospects for most companies during the last few days.  And yet many of those companies have lost 20 percent of their value or more despite the fact that their recent earnings reports and outlook have been quite upbeat.  Either these stocks represent attractive value at these levels or something very bad is about to happen to our economy that we just can't see or feel right now. 

There is always a chance that the economic disruptions in Greece will spread throughout Europe and eventually to our country as well.  There is also legitimate uncertainty and concern about the huge deficits that are being racked up by the U.S. Government and what economic consequences will ensue.  But it seems like a doomsday scenario is already being priced into the markets long before it is clear that the current uncertainty will lead to widespread economic problems.

One other complicating factor may have been the proliferation of "super sized" Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) that have become increasingly popular with many investors.  ETFs grew in popularity as a way for ordinary investors to participate in specific market sectors, indices, or geographies in a quick and easy way.  But in recent years, the most popular ETFs have been a broad range of "funds on steroids" that provide a way to make leveraged bets with 2 or 3 times the "pop" of  simple vanilla index funds

As a result, individuals now have the ability to make riskier bets using the kind of leverage that used to only be available to larger institutions.  A byproduct of that approach is greater volatility at all times but particularly during buying and selling panics when everyone is trying to get through a small door at the same time.

At the end of the day, it seems prudent to move assets away from those markets which might be less resilient to these disruptions and also away from the overweight positions in basic materials which are vulnerable to the impact of the rising dollar which has been moving up against the currencies of countries that are in even worse shape than we are.

But generally speaking, I remain upbeat on the U.S. stock market in general and technology, pipelines, credit card issuers, and some financials in particular.

There is a risk that the disruptions in Europe and elsewhere will grow into a huge economic problem that will cause people to stop buying new TVs and new I-Pads and will slow down business in general.  There is also a risk that the long-predicted financial calamity will play itself out as the consequences of huge deficits, major unemployment, and widespread foreclosures come home to roost.

But it seems the bigger risk would be to sell good companies at what seem to be low prices only to watch prices rise dramatically when the sense of panic lifts.  I'm just not convinced that the companies that have done so well over the last year and are forecasting more growth are facing a huge setback due to forces that are hard to see clearly on the horizon.

People should never put money they are going to need over the next few years into stocks.  They should also keep as much additional money out of harm's way to enable them to sleep at night during weeks such as this.  But for investors with a long term horizon and a tolerance for some risk and volatility, it seems we remain in a time of great opportunity for growth across a broad range of companies and sectors.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Flogging of Goldman Sachs--A Shell Game, A Semantic Problem, or Populist Rage Gone Wild?

Back before law and order came here to Arizona, they used to just take guilty people out and hang them. But, as locals love to point out, eventually justice became more process-oriented. Since then, they have made a commitment to give the criminals a fair trial before they hang them.

The U.S. Senate and the news media showed last week they are still in the Wild West days. Several Goldman Sachs traders and executives were summoned to the Committee on Investigations to be publicly whipped and shamed for whatever it was they supposedly had done wrong. The message was clear. We know these guys are horrible people and need to be publicly berated and hung. The fact that none of them has broken the law is an irrelevant nuisance that shouldn't slow us down.

Perhaps the most telling line of the 11-hour Senate committee ordeal was spoken by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) who commented at one point that "it's like we're speaking a different language here." Tester was referring to his belief that the Goldman representatives were being evasive and unresponsive to many of the questions they were asked by committee members.

In fact, the Goldman folks weren't being evasive. They really were speaking a different language. The most dramatic example of that disconnect occurred during the opening question asked by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) of the four young mortgage traders who were involved in the Abacus deal targeted by the SEC. "In your role as a financial advisor," Collins asked each of them, "do you believe you should always act in your client's best interest?"

The traders looked confused by what sounded like a pretty simple question. Collins thought that their confusion must have been contrived and part of a strategy to chew up time. But the fact is that none of the four men she confronted with the question was a financial advisor. I know, because I am a financial advisor. I work with unsophisticated successful people who count on me to tell them what to do with their money. That's what an FA does. In any transaction, I only have one client and I always try to look after their best interests.

But these men were traders and market makers. Their clients are all sophisticated institutions that already know what they want to do with their money. Those clients come to Goldman's trading desk seeking good transactions--not advice. The question posed by Collins was a non-sequitor and completely irrelevant to their circumstances.

As a market maker, you arrange a transaction between two or more valued clients--some of whom want to buy and others who want to sell. It is guaranteed that the deal will work out well for one side and badly for the other. As a market maker in custom-designed mortgages, your job is to make sure you are providing a good and fair market--to provide liquidity and markets for otherwise illiquid securities. That's looking after everyone's best interest.

This would be a conversation worth pursuing if the goal of the hearing in the Senate was to shed real light on any aspect of the situation. The fact that virtually no Goldman clients have stepped forward to complain would also be telling, if informing the public about the issues was the real goal of all this. But we all know that this hearing was not about providing clarity or truth.

Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) spent most of the lengthy inquisition repeating his concern and outrage over how wrong it is for an investment firm to package a security for sale to its clients and then make a bet that it will go down in value. But while Levin made it clear many times that Goldman and the people in front of him should be ashamed of themselves, he never suggested that any of them violated any rules or laws.

In fact by continually pointing out that we need a whole bunch of new laws and rules to make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen again, he essentially was admitting that those laws do not exist today. In other words, the people at Goldman didn't break the law because there are no laws against what they did, even if they did what he said.

A number of very smart people seem to share that assessment. During the week, great thinkers known for their objectivity and brilliance came to the same conclusion. First, Bill Clinton came out and said he isn't sure that Goldman did anything illegal. Then reporter Fareed Zakaria went further and said he didn't think Goldman broke any laws. Finally, billionaire Warren Buffett, known on and off Wall Street for his acumen, generosity, and high ethical standards, told his shareholders he was proud to be a Goldman Sachs customer and investor and he fiercely defended the company's ethics and policies.

This set of facts leads to the following question:   Are all these SEC suits and Senate inquisitions and leaked reports of the Justice Department coming down on Goldman supposed to lead to something real?  Or has it all been part of a political shell game designed to get the public to divert its attention from the real issue?

Has this entire Goldman show trial been a distraction to take everyone's eye off the ball while, armed with populist rage, the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress set about the business of "protecting Main Street" with far more rigorous and game-changing financial regulation than they could have ever pushed through before the Goldman sideshow whipped everyone up?

Obama and the Democrats are either ideologues with tunnel vision who just don't get it or they are savvy political tacticians who have succeeded in getting everyone to keep their eye on Goldman Sachs while the real story is taking place in the financial regulation committees on Capitol Hill.

If Goldman's stock dropped 20 percent last week over concern about the SEC suit and possible criminal prosecution, it is probably a huge over-reaction. If it dropped because draconian new regulations and tax increases on investments are on the way, then it may have been justified.

I have to admit that I can't figure out which it is.

Which is the whole point of a shell game--isn't it?