Sunday, December 11, 2011

Win your arguments with "fuddle," not facts

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 12/11/2011

Remember C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters”? It is a satire involving Screwtape, a senior demon from Hell, instructing his nephew, Wormwood, in how to secure the damnation of a man, known at “The Patient.” I had not thought of this book for a long time until I read about Frank Luntz’ plenary speech at the Republican Governors Association meeting last week in Orlando. Luntz is perhaps the top Republican political message master.

“Letters” opens with Screwtape mentoring Wormwood on how to sway “The Patient.” Screwtape emphasizes the importance of language over evidence and argument. “Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don't waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true!” Screwtape continues about the folly of trying to argue the points, “The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy's own ground.”

Luntz addressed the Governors about how to talk about Occupy Wall Street. Said Luntz, “ "I'm so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I'm frightened to death. "They're having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism." If Luntz took the role of Screwtape advising his Wormwooods (the Governors) on how to talk about Occupy Wall Street and address increasing questions from constituents about “income inequality” and “paying your fair share” it might sound like this if you substitute the public for “the Patient”: (quotes are from Luntz’ address)

My dear Wormwoods,

Don’t try to argue with them. "First off, here are three words for you all: 'I get it.' . . . 'I get that you're angry. I get that you've seen inequality. I get that you want to fix the system." If you argue with them, you might have to argue Biblical references or statistics.

Always blame Washington. Tell them, "You shouldn't be occupying Wall Street, you should be occupying Washington. You should occupy the White House because it's the policies over the past few years that have created this problem."

Call it what it isn’t, just don’t call it capitalism. "I'm trying to get that word removed and we're replacing it with either 'economic freedom' or 'free market’. The public . . . still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we're seen as defenders of quote, Wall Street, end quote, we've got a problem." Christianity doesn’t view greed well, preaches equality before God, and concern for the poor.

Even the rich are beginning to say wicked things, like Warren Buffet endorsing a millionaires’ tax. The public now responds favorably to talk of raising taxes on the rich. Thus “… talk about government taking the money from hardworking Americans, the public says no. Taxing, the public will say yes."

Don’t talk about jobs. "Watch this," Luntz-Screwtape said. He then asked everyone to raise their hand if they want a "job." Few hands went up. Who wants a "career." Almost every hand was raised. "So why are we talking about jobs?" A job just pays for food, rent, and cable. A career is about status and power.

We have been too successful at instilling feelings of greed in the public. As you cut your state budgets, don’t say sacrifice. "There isn't an American today in November of 2011 who doesn't think they've already sacrificed. If you tell them you want them to 'sacrifice,' they're going to be pretty angry at you. You talk about how 'we're all in this together.' We either succeed together or we fail together." Success is on our terms.

If Luntz were Screwtape he might have finished with a quote from “Letters:” “You begin to see the point? … Above all, do not attempt to use science … as a defence against [OWS]. … If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology; don't let him get away from that invaluable "real life." But the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is "the results of modern investigation." Do remember you are there to fuddle him. From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!

Your affectionate uncle,


I wonder if Frank Luntz ever read “The Screwtape Letters?” If so, he might have missed the satire.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

New fault lines emerge between generations

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 13 November 2011

TERRE HAUTE — Has another “generation gap” emerged between those under 30 and those older, similar to the one between the ’60s radicals (“don’t trust anyone over 30”) and the older generations? Is it reflected in the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements? Data from the Pew Research Center suggests so to me. It is a fascinating read for those who are interested (

Pew has divided the American population up into five distinct generations: the Greatest, born prior to 1927; the Silent, born 1928-1945; the Boomers, born 1946-1964; Generation X, born 1965-1980; and the Millennials, born 1981-1993. And there are significant differences in their views and politics. For instance, the Greatest Generation has voted reliably Democratic since 1994; so too have the Millennials since 2004 and Gen Xers since 2000. They bookend solidly Republican later Boomers, early Gen Xers, and the more mixed Silent and early Boomers.

We begin to see the fault lines even more so when we compare the Millennials with the Silent generation. In response to “is the U.S. the greatest country in the world,” two-thirds of Silents say yes, but only a third of Millennials do. Millennials are not as patriotic as other generations, with only 70 percent indicating they are “very patriotic” compared to nearly 90 percent for the other generations.

Significant differences show up on hot-button social issues. Fifty-nine percent of Millennials approve of legalizing gay marriage compared to just 33 percent of the Silent generation. Fifty-five percent of Millennials approve of legalizing marijuana but only 31 percent of the Silents do.

The Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements reflect this divide, with Millennials favoring bigger government, more government spending to create jobs, and they support expanding Obamacare. The other generations are more likely to support smaller government, deficit reduction, and repealing Obamacare.

As a sociologist, policy differences reflect more often where one sits. Older folks relying on Social Security are more likely to support leaving it alone, while younger folks out of work favor job creation. What about values? Nationalistic and patriotic differences aside, there is significant agreement on the “factor’s behind America’s success.” More than 90 percent across all generations indicate “freedoms” are very important to America’s success, followed by more than 80 percent across all generations indicating “work ethic.” Nevertheless, there are “gaps” on religion with less than half of Millennials citing religion as very important as a factor in America’s success while more than two thirds of the other generations rate it very important. And perhaps most important is 79 percent of Millennials compared to just 45 percent of Silents view the invention of the Internet as making life better.

Television is often pointed to as the single factor most responsible for the gap between the ’60s radicals and the older generations. The Boomers were the first generation to have grown up on television. There is no question that television has profoundly affected American culture, politics, how issues are framed, and the power of images over words. But the Internet may be even more significant. Television watching is a passive activity, with “authorities” controlling the content. It is not interactive, it is largely take it or leave it.

The Internet is different. While it too can be just as passive as television, it has created more opportunity for individuals to interact. The old days of television where a single local person would awkwardly read a dissent to an editorial is now an avalanche of interaction. And just like television, if you don’t like it, you can find something else, but far more than one or two other channels. For many above 30, the Internet is still something of a foreign area, something to be wary of. For those under 30, it is the terrain they are familiar with and find comfort in.

As a Boomer, I don’t fit the Boomer profile very well, especially the later Boomers that I am part. I’m more Millennial. I do worry though that given the growing economic disparity between the young and the old, with Millennials possibly the first generation in American history to not exceed their parents socio-economic standing (absolute mobility), that the normal antagonisms between young and old may escalate given the growing economic inequality between them. That is not inevitable, but given our rancorous politics of dividing Americans among ourselves, the apparent gaps could be used to create a perfect storm of old against the young, rich against the poor, and white against non-white.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Impact of debt reduction raises moral dilemma

(previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 10/9/11

TERRE HAUTE — How will we solve the debt problem? As solutions become framed in simple ways, which seems about the only kind of solutions possible in an age of sound bytes, Twitter, and low-information voters, it comes down to cutting spending or increasing taxes. Generally public opinion seems to support cutting spending and increasing taxes to solve the problem. No wonder the politicians can’t agree.

Of course, public policy gets into more knotty questions than do media polls. Whose taxes to raise? There seems to be overwhelming support on raising the taxes on the rich (whoever they are) but I can’t find any credible polling that asks the question, “are you willing to pay higher taxes.”

What to cut? Americans report that half of government spending is waste. Yet, significant majorities reject cutting the biggest spending: Social Security, Medicare, and the military. If half of government spending is waste, why not cut half of those?

I am concerned that as we reduce everything to the simple (simplistic at times) mechanics of a spreadsheet, that we forget about the impact of these decisions on people. To be really simple about it, raising taxes means taking from those who have it. Our current tax code, apparently, creates a situation in which half of households pay no federal income tax (this is debatable, but this seems to be the “truthiness” fact de jure). Assuming no tax system would actually tax a household into poverty, we can assume any tax increases are going to come from households that can “afford it.”

How about the cuts? Let’s leave aside military spending for a moment and focus on the big “entitlements” — Social Security and Medicare. Does anyone really think that Social Security is lavish? The problems with Social Security are not wastefulness or lavishness, they are largely demographic. When the Baby Boom generation has passed (in 2054 the youngest will turn 90), a good deal of the crisis will be over.

While increased taxes will fall on the “haves” the big cuts will fall onto the “have-nots.” Despite TV commercials that depict today’s seniors as affluent, the facts paint a picture of a more vulnerable population. Consider this statistical portrait from the 2008 Current Population Survey (note, these data are from before the onset of the Great Recession). The median household income for seniors (aged 65-plus) was $18,208; 9.7 percent of seniors fell below the poverty line. Social Security is the most common retirement benefit; 89 percent of senior households receive it. For 68.9 percent, Social Security accounts for half or more of their retirement income. For 26 percent, it is their only income. Average benefits for an elderly couple: $1,877 a month.

But what about pensions and annuities? What about those early retirees with fat stock portfolios? The trend toward early retirement ended in 1985, the trend has since reversed. Only 34.2 percent of seniors receive income from an employer-sponsored retirement plan. And the number of employers offering such plans are decreasing. What about assets? Fifty two percent of seniors derive income from assets. The median income from those assets was $1,054 per year.

What makes up the biggest expenditures for seniors? Not surprisingly, health care, and that is the target of the other big cuts. So, cuts to entitlements would hit a vulnerable population twice. And seniors feel this vulnerability. According to a study published by in July 2011, economic insecurity among seniors is on the rise.

For those who say leave the current seniors alone and change these social safety net program for today’s 50 year olds (and younger), I quote from the same study:

In addition to rising costs of essential needs, especially health care and housing, today’s 50-year-olds are much less likely than current seniors to have a defined benefit pension that would provide a life-long secure income. Many of today’s workers are not offered a retirement account of any kind, and for those who do have an employer-sponsored 401(k) or other defined contribution plan, most are woefully underfunded. Social Security remains the primary source of income for most retirees and is the only secure resource guaranteed to provide income throughout retirement for many households (


Tax increases and spending cuts may be equivalent on the spreadsheet but they are not equivalent on their impact on people. Proponents present them as moral imperatives to rescue our republic. While it may be a moral imperative to reduce the national debt, taxing the “haves” or cutting benefits to the “have-nots” are not moral equivalents.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A 9/11 essay for the paper that got lost in the ether......

What impact has 9/11 had on the current generation of college students, who were in elementary and middle school 10 years ago? On 9/16/2001 and then two weeks later, another Indiana newspaper published two essays I wrote about 9/11. The first one was somber but hopeful. The press (and I) jumped to name the generation who would be defined by 9/11. The headline for that essay was “In the future, we must become more willing citizens of the world.” I predicted that the 9/11 generation would be dubbed the world citizen generation. I wrote:

If we are to vanquish terrorism as President Bush promised [… ] or to solve this most heinous of crimes as promised by FBI Director Mueller, it will require us to develop ourselves as world citizens. The ways of other people will have to be understood beyond how to sell them products and to exploit their cheap labor. A foreign policy based on human rights or American interests must evolve into a third option … a policy of “world citizenship building” beginning at home and expanding abroad.

I hoped for a more bottom-up movement beginning with young people who would see a third path outside the partisan barricades built by their parents and grand-parents. I envisioned young people intensely and keenly interested in the rest of the world. A generation that would not fail to correctly place Canada, Somalia, Israel, or Tibet on a map and be able to name the political leaders of those countries as well. Don’t go test the first 20-something you find, you’ll be disappointed. When I reread that essay, I shake my head at the gauzy idealism.

Two weeks later another essay was published headlined, “2004: A War on US.” It was a dark, fictional piece, set three years in the future. I wrote it as a warning of what the terrorists were trying to accomplish . As I reread it, unfortunately, some of it rings true today.

I wrote about a new growth in government, the Department of Homeland Security (nailed the name), about incredibly intrusive security (Homeland Security forces checking IDs in church narthexes), a significant economic downturn (surely our enemies weren’t working with Enron), how our dilapidated infrastructure was giving us problems, and that democratic movements had begun in the Arab middle east, although anti-American in sentiment (protesting the presence of over 2 million American troops).
Evidence for the more hopeful future is scanty. College students don’t study abroad as much as they could, but, how much of that has to do with the economy? When the costs are right, they go, and go eagerly. Students talk about joining the Peace Corps after graduation, but I am skeptical whether that has to do with the poor economy, too. After a surge in military recruiting following 9/11, aren’t things pretty much back to normal--exchanging military service for an education? Students volunteering and engaging their communities is increasing, but would it happen if colleges weren’t making volunteering a graduation requirement? Does it matter?

The darker vision, unfortunately, is in more evidence: revelations of torture; secret spying on American communications; plans to data mine Americans’ library and video habits; Abu Ghraib; Guantanomo. Perhaps some of these “un-American” ways also fuel the Tea Party’s wrath? We’ve adjusted with little resistance to increased and invasive searches before flying, to increasing levels of electronic surveillance, to increasing instances where we must prove who we are to more authorities, and while we reviled at Abu Ghraib, we shrug at Guantanomo.

In the end, I think, the effects of 9/11 on the current generation of children who witnessed 9/11 is mixed. I think they may be more curious about the world (beyond tourism) than their parents, but they have accepted as normal a more skewed balance of security over freedom.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Experiencing the cultural concept of time

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 14 August 2011

I spent most of July in Thailand as part of a unique study abroad program. Several ISU faculty and students joined faculty and students from two Chinese universities on a study abroad program focused on sustainable development, experiential learning, and community engagement. Our program moved across Thailand using four different universities as classrooms.

The administrators, faculty and staff from Suan Sunandha Rajabaht University, Chiang Mai Rajabaht University, Pibulsongkram Rajabaht University, and Rajabaht Maha Sarakam University were gracious and most helpful in making our program a success.

Do you experience time as an external force pushing you and others along like a river or the wind? Do you anticipate events, plan, and daydream about doing other things? Do you “chase the clock?” Or do you live in the moment, ignore the clock and focus on the experience? Do you eat when it is time or when you are hungry?

Psychologists tell us that different individuals experience time in different ways, but after nearly three weeks in Thailand, there is a significant cultural effect on how individuals experience time. Psychologists also tell us that daydreaming, reminiscing, and planning instead of “living in the moment” makes us unhappy. Perhaps this explains the seeming happiness and general contentment of the Thai people I met.

For instance, how often do you do one thing while daydreaming of doing another? Countless times this summer as I sat working, I thought, “this is a beautiful day, why am I not outside doing x, y, or z?” How many anticipate the weekend as we trudge through the week?

I asked many of our Thai hosts, as they took us to see Royal agricultural projects or grand historical and cultural sites, “if you weren’t doing this today with us, what would you be doing?” It is not that the words were not understood, but the concept seemed foreign. Each person I asked this answered similarly: “I am here doing this with you.” I don’t think this was Thai niceness, rather, I don’t think Thais comparatively evaluate the passing of time the way we do. “Today I am going with these Americans and Chinese to the Golden Teak Palace.” Whereas, an American might think, “I wonder how Jimmie Johnson is doing in the big race today, which I can’t watch because I am taking these visitors to the local museum.”

Thais are aware that they treat and experience time differently than we time-obsessed Americans. “Thai time” was on plain display when an interpreter asked the convener of the conference we were attending what time things would begin the next morning. The answer was typically Thai: “Definitely 8:30, maybe 9.” The conference began the next day at 8:45. The clock didn’t determine when things began, the conference began when the convener was ready and the speaker was in place, not a moment before or after that. The clock was mostly irrelevant. Schedules were only approximate and changes were not uncommon.

The needs of the moment dictate action. While crossing the country from west to east, the air conditioner in our van broke down. It was hot, and with a van full of people, it was very uncomfortable. Our driver, along with two other vans, all headed into a town to get our AC repaired.

If this were in the U.S., the others would have gone ahead, but we all stuck together. After a refrigerant recharge, we headed off. Thirty minutes later the AC failed again, indicating a need for a more extensive repair. Despite the unlikelihood of getting the AC repaired that day, the driver kept trying. We suggested just continuing on with the windows down, but the need of the moment was to fix the van. The driver kept seeking a repair until both our driver and host sensed the Americans were getting upset, changing the needs of the moment; now the guests were getting restless.

It is important to note, it was the Americans who were getting restless, not the Chinese.

For a few hours today I lived in the moment. I went for an early morning paddle on the Wabash. I didn’t think about the work I “should” be doing or the workplace crisis of the moment. Just what was in front of me, a heron or an eagle, the smooth glide of my kayak as it cut through the murky Wabash waters, and I deliberately forgot my watch.

Time was marked by putting the kayak in and taking it out of the water

Sunday, July 10, 2011

What is the ‘business’ of our government?

Previously published in the terre Haute Tribune Star

Does the federal government need to be run like a business or by businessmen? According to a CBS News Poll (May 20-23, 2011) 75 percent of respondents said “large corporations” have too much influence on American life and politics today. “Business” is the most common occupation of members of Congress followed by lawyer (corporate lawyers?). Today, former occupation seems less meaningful than party label in working together and finding common ground.

This isn’t the first time that the business model has been held out as the solution to our frustration with the political process. The debate over running government more like a business or by business owners/managers usually centers on the differences in what government does and what businesses do. One thing seems clear, when it comes to debt, government, business, and families, are piling it on and on and on. The national debt might be over $14 trillion, but total individual, corporate and government debt is hovering around $57 trillion (Grand


Our love affair with debt began in the early 1980s.

Nevertheless, serious people running for president hold up the business model as the solution to our various political, economic and social problems.

What is the goal or mission of the U.S. government? The preamble to the Constitution is the mission statement: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Compare that to Ford Motor Co.’s: “We are a global family with a proud heritage passionately committed to providing personal mobility for people around the world.” Lest we forget what the bottom line of business is, I appreciate Dean Food’s no-nonsense mission statement: “The Company’s primary objective is to maximize long-term stockholder value, while adhering to the laws of the jurisdictions in which it operates and at all times observing the highest ethical standards.”

Manufacturing and selling cars at a profit is a more focused and arguably an easier goal to accomplish than perfecting the Union, establishing justice, insuring tranquility, providing for the common defense … you get the point.

The CEO of Ford can fire employees who don’t contribute to achieving the company’s mission. The U.S. president can’t fire Congress or the Supreme Court. We can argue whether the services government provides could be better provided by private enterprise, but an alternative to the current government requires a revolution.

A business owner can borrow money to expand or to invest in new technology to raise productivity. If the investment fails, the owner might be out of business. The U.S. president can borrow, too, but government can’t really go out of business although the president may be voted out of office. A business can try to change its customers by changing the mix of product or services. The president serves all citizens (or is supposed to). And while some in government seem to treat “the people” like employees, no matter how much a president might want to, citizens can’t be fired. CEO’s usually don’t tolerate employees working against them. U.S. presidents have no choice.

In many ways, clergy might have a better occupational skill set for being president than business executives, lawyers, physicians or school teachers (all former occupations of current members of Congress). Clergy head up voluntary associations with a broad and diverse mission similar to government. Managing and negotiating change in the church is challenging and dealing with factions a common occurrence. Experience organizing people for the “greater good” is an ongoing activity for religious leaders, not unlike what a president is expected to do.

President George W. Bush, the first president with an MBA, was an oil executive and owner of the Texas Rangers. His vice president also was a former CEO and at least six of his cabinet members were former CEOs. How soon we forget.

One interest group every Washington politician “owes” is their political party. Seems the primary goal of the political parties is to gain power and thwart the other side. Too many politicians focus on securing their party’s interests over those of the state, over the people, and over any sense of the common good.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Why not cut tax loopholes and spec interest deductions?

Previously published on June 5, 2011 in the Terre Haute Tribune Star

I’m confused. I thought Republicans were all about low taxes. Why then is it a problem that only half of income tax filers are paying any income taxes? Isn’t this a good thing for a party that preaches a gospel of low taxes?

Eric Cantor, House Majority Leader, is, as politicians do, willing to “sin” if it can be called something else. (To be fair, President Obama sought to decrease taxes on low-income families rather than creating a “spending” program to address those challenges.) Cantor signaled his willingness to eliminate loopholes and special interest tax deductions to create a “pro-growth tax proposal” that would modestly increase revenues. As is usually the case, specifics are missing, which “loopholes” and “special interest deductions?”

Tax-cutting mania began in 2001 with the “Bush tax cuts.” These cuts reduced tax rates across all income groups. It also created additional ways to reduce taxable income through contributions to retirement plans and increased the standard deductions for those married but filing jointly. The Heritage Foundation, at the time, proclaimed a panacea of good outcomes by 2010 resulting from this major tax stimulus plan (remember they were meant to be temporary until the economy picked up):

n Under President Bush’s plan, an average family of four’s inflation-adjusted disposable income would increase by $4,544 in fiscal year (FY) 2011, and the national debt would effectively be paid off by FY 2010.

n The net tax revenue reduction, after accounting for the larger tax base that would result from higher employment and faster economic growth under the Bush plan, is $1.1 trillion from FY 2002 to FY 2011, 33.4 percent less than conventional static estimates.

n The plan would save the entire Social Security surplus and increase personal savings while the federal government accumulated $1.8 trillion in uncommitted funds from FY 2008 to FY 2011, revenue that could be used to reform the Social Security and Medicare systems and reduce the payroll tax.

I didn’t see any concern that these cuts might produce a situation, a decade later, where half of filers paid no taxes. These predictions were prior to 9/11, two wars paid for with borrowed money, and the financial meltdown of 2008. Keep such things in mind when rosy predictions for the future for other major, if not radical, changes are offered from ideological think tanks.

The “average family of four” seems to be the benchmark for profiling the middle class. Deloitte Tax shows how the average family of four paid no income taxes in this last tax year:

n $50,000 minus (the standard deduction of $11,400 and four personal exemptions of $3,650 each — $14,600) equals $24,000. Federal income tax liability on $24,000 is $2,769. But with two kids under 17, the family qualifies for two $1,000 child tax credits. President Obama’s “Making Work Pay” credit adds $800 because the parents filed jointly. Result? A $31 check from the IRS.

According to the five most common deductions are as follows: 1) home mortgage interest; 2) charitable donations; 3) income taxes paid to state, county, and municipalities; 4) real estate taxes paid; and 5) medical and dental expenses. The five most common tax credits, according to are as follows: 1) child and dependent care expenses; 2) education credits; 3) earned income tax credit; 4) first-time homebuyer credit; and 5) the Making Work Pay credit.

Are any of these the “loopholes” or “special interest deductions” that House Majority Leader Cantor indicated the elimination of to create a “pro-growth tax proposal?” Two deductions and one credit are for housing. Is the special interest group homeowners or the construction and real estate industries? Or both? The Making Work Pay credit is for low-income filers; don’t charitable contributions benefit them, too? How about the 41 states with income taxes (whose residents can deduct from their federal income taxes)?

I agree with Mr. Cantor. Let’s eliminate all the special interest deductions and loopholes from the income tax codes (for both individuals and businesses). Here is how we can identify the special interests: if there is a lobbying organization or any group funneling money to politicians or who fund issue advertising that favor a credit or deduction, that is a special interest and it goes. Bye-bye mortgage interest deductions, ethanol subsidies, agricultural subsidies, education credits and the deduction for charitable contributions. And many, many, more.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

STEIGER COUNTER: Exploring the sights, cuisine of Vietnam, Korea

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 5/29/11

TERRE HAUTE — Last month I traveled to Vietnam and Korea on ISU business. We were fortunate that our travel schedule permitted time to explore the environs around our hotels, a chance to experience Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), and Seoul, on foot.

Walking in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is not like walking in New York, Chicago, or even Terre Haute. At 6 a.m., Hanoi comes alive. As the train rolled into the nearby station, the scooters begin moving. At times, it seems the entire population is in motion, mostly on scooters. There isn’t much traffic control in Hanoi and the scooter drivers don’t pay attention to it anyway, including driving on the sidewalks. Pedestrians beware! Hanoi is a traffic libertarian’s dream.

A student from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City would find Terre Haute “familiar.” The French influence was once very strong in Vietnam. No more. Despite our difficulty deciphering signs (few were in English), we did quickly figure out that the ornate French buildings were government and Communist party buildings. The Vigo County courthouse, other than its colors, will look familiar to our future Vietnamese students.

Both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are on rivers. Ho Chi Minh City had a busy waterfront and the Saigon River is a major transportation artery. We negotiated an hour-long river tour on a rickety, leaky, wheezy engined boat (plus a refreshment) for about $10. On one side of the river was a modern city with one of the most beautiful new skyscrapers I’ve ever seen. The other side of the river was “struggling.” We turned up a creek and it was like transporting back to a “simpler” time. Within sight of a modern city were people living with no plumbing, maybe a generator, and eating what they caught from the river. Sound familiar?

Our first stop in Hanoi was at the U.S. Embassy where embassy officials, among other suggestions, warned us off eating at the street cafes and to avoid fresh, uncooked vegetables, lest we tempt dire gastronomic reactions. When I visit another country, I don’t want to eat where tourists eat. I’d rather eat where the “locals” eat for a more “authentic” cuisine (not made for tourists). So, I ask hotel staff to recommend places for me, but always with a qualifier, “where do you eat?” The assumption being they’d eat their local “authentic” cuisine.

Just around the corner from our hotel, we found this Vietnamese restaurant complete with a bar and a white table cloth dining room, but we chose the outdoor patio dining, complete with child-size plastic chairs and tables. (Somehow I doubt the embassy would have approved.) I’m just over six feet and 200-plus pounds and I could hear some snickers as I sat on my kindergarten-sized chair. No one spoke English, menus were in Vietnamese and without pictures. We pointed to what other patrons were having and enjoyed a nice Vietnamese dinner complete with ice for our beer. We didn’t intend to become “regulars” there, but the other restaurants were Chinese, Indian, or KFC (common in Vietnam). It was even harder to find a Vietnamese restaurant (U.S. embassy approved, anyway) in Ho Chi Minh City. There you can eat in a German bierhaus, Thai, Chinese, Indian, even a place that had cheeseburgers, and KFC.

In graduate school I had several Korean friends who introduced me to many spicy and pungent foods. In Seoul we found Japanese, Chinese, and Indian restaurants, Dunkin Donuts, and Outback Steakhouses. Some colleagues took us to lunch at an upscale Korean buffet complete with spaghetti, broccoli cheese soup, New York cheesecake, sushi, and a Korean cold salad of baby octopus and cucumbers. Our quest for biminbap was achieved when our colleague in Seoul took us to a small second-floor walkup Korean restaurant.

What will Vietnamese students think of Terre Haute’s cuisine? If one asked me for a recommendation of a good restaurant, but one where I eat, presumably for authentic American (Terre Haute) cuisine, do I say La Isla? “American food” is from all over the globe. Sure American food is a big steak and a potato, a hamburger, and chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes. Yet, so is the Chinese buffet, the pizzeria, Pino’s, and The Saratoga. What about the Umi Grill?

I erred in thinking that local Vietnamese and Koreans would show an ethnic allegiance to their cuisine. I don’t. So why should I expect them to.

Monday, April 25, 2011

THE STEIGER REPORT: Imagine being able to designate where your taxes go

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 4/24/2011

TERRE HAUTE — Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn that permitting individuals to divert $500 of their income taxes ($1,000 for a couple) to a Christian State Tuition Organization was legal.

You read that correctly, tax money going to a Christian State Tuition Organization (individuals can contribute money to such an organization which in turn then supports the tuition of students attending Christian schools). No, this essay is not about “What about Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu State Tuition Organizations?”

Neither is this essay about what appears to be an obvious violation of the establishment clause of the Constitution. That could be the case. The Supremes didn’t address that. Instead, they ruled that the taxpayers who brought the suit did not have standing to do so. They punted the whole question of the establishment clause but probably made it very hard for anyone else to challenge such arrangements as “taxpayers.” Perhaps when Arizona refuses to recognize a Wiccan State Tuition Organization tax credit and a Wiccan brings suit, the Supremes will be forced to address the more obvious problem with the arrangement.

And neither is this essay about the ongoing march of the Roberts court to narrow access of citizens (unless they have property rights) to the courts for constitutional grievances.

This essay is about something completely different. It is about the radical idea of letting we taxpayers designate where our personal tax monies go in our respective state budgets.

Think about it. Empower taxpayers to designate each year the proportional distribution of our taxes to the state budget. Instead of trusting our ridiculous politicians to be statesmen or to balance interests, we could relieve them of that burden (and power). If politicians believe we can navigate complicated things like a retirement investment portfolio, mutual funds, and Medicare Part D (and our tax forms) why not let us designate how much each of our personal dollars goes to education, public safety, road repair, poor relief, and parks and recreation?

If we extend this to the federal level we, the taxpayers, could directly decide how much of our personal taxes go for corn subsidies, sugar subsidies, oil company subsidies, or for research, environmental protection, food and drug safety, education, Medicare and Medicaid.

Admit it, this is a great idea. The more concentrated is the power to make these decisions, the easier it is for special interests to influence (or buy) our money! Some expensive tickets and a ride on fancy corporate jets seem enough to buy the votes of many legislators, but try buying the favors of 100 million taxpayers.

No doubt special interests would run all kinds of campaigns to woo we controllers of the purse strings, but they would have to do it in the open, and while it may appear sleazy for our legislators to be seen in the company of lobbyists, the same would not be true for we individual taxpayers, since it is OUR money, not theirs.

Few dispute the upside of large group decision-making (some call it the market). There are probably about 100 million taxpayers; who are we to say they are wrong if they decided to defund corporate welfare but fund earned benefits like Social Security and Medicare?

Screw the polls. Politicians read them self-servingly anyway, and they seem to read elections even worse. Look at the overreach of the Democrats following 2008 and now we are seeing the overreach of the Republicans in 2010. Give us, the voters and taxpayers, the power to fund or defund, not indirectly through rigged elections but directly through control of our personal taxes. Talk about local control!

The fact is that not nearly as many people vote as could, but I bet if people could designate how their tax monies were to be spent, we’d see virtually 100 percent participation in that.

Both conservatives and liberals rally to the call of “power to the people.” The politicians in charge may change, but are we satisfied with the results? If we could designate how our individual tax monies are spent, we would have no one but ourselves to blame. To a large extent, the politicians would be irrelevant (and wouldn’t that be a good thing?) and instead, our neighbors become much more relevant. (All the more reason to get to know them!)

I imagine the day when I can decide: more money for lower tuition at our colleges and universities or more money for another weapons system that the Pentagon doesn’t want?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Societal acceptance of same-sex marriage will take time

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 7/8/2006

The debate over same-sex marriage is again burning brightly but I suspect with little duration. Just one of a range of issues designed mostly as fodder for the mid-term elections this fall, none of which are pressing issues, especially in war time when our elected officials should be focused on that, nevertheless are put front and center because of their importance to a key political base. Hence, an orgy of political pornography is before us.

The debate over same sex marriage does, however, raise interesting questions and is an opportunity to reflect upon our values, traditions, and beliefs.

Consider this: Is marriage a private or public matter? Matters of the heart are usually considered the most private of matters. But love as the basis for marriage is extremely modern and the institution of marriage is much, much older. Indeed, arranged marriages are still, and have been, the most common worldwide for most of human history. That is because marriage was (and arguably still is) about more than just the happiness of the couple involved.

What is the state’s interest in who marries who? Notice I wrote the “state’s interest”? Religious groups have interests in who marries who. I believe it was Paul, in II Corinthians, who wrote, “be not yoked with unbelievers” referring to who should be marrying who. (Notice the use of a yoke to refer to marriage.)

Does the state have an interest in who marries who? What does the state do in relation to marriage? Marriage is a contract. The ceremony that so many follow today has its roots in antiquity where a public declaration in front of one’s community was the initiation of the contract and others in the community effectively enforced it. Today, the state backs up the contract. Marriage is far easier to get into than to get out of. Myself, I think marriage should be harder to enter into (and the divorce rate would fall as a result). The state’s interest in who marries who can be seen at times of dissolution — divorce and death. The state’s interest is not in the quality of the marriage or how people treat one another, mostly the state is interested in the orderly transmission of property. So, in that sense, what difference does it make if the property holders are of the same-sex or not?

Of course, the state is also interested in regulating sexual behavior. Yup, that most private area of our life, sex, the state has an interest in regulating. Of course, in today’s modern American society, there are relatively few trials for sodomy, adultery is not a crime but can be costly when it is the basis for the dissolution of a state recognized marriage. The state frowns on sex between anyone but married folks and then sets conditions under which one can be married. Recently we saw an attempt in the Indiana legislature to define “unauthorized parentage.” It didn’t get far, but the impetus to equate the state’s interests with moral/religious interests may be increasing.

In the not too distant past, some states forbade the marriage of blacks and whites (that didn’t stop kids from being born but effectively did stop the transmission of property from white fathers to their mixed race children).

Before DNA testing, children born out of wedlock had a tenuous, if any, claim to the property of their fathers. Again, the regulation of one man — one wife, assured the generational transfer of property only to the legally recognized children of the couple, even if father was a prolific progenitor.

Mainstream Judeo-Christian religions are not likely to embrace same-sex marriages any time soon. No one follows the rules of both the New and Old Testament fully. Strike that, perhaps the Amish are our best examples, but most of us gave up on the plain and simple life long ago. Divorce is prohibited in the New Testament, but even the Catholic Church has found a way around that with annulments.

But prejudice against homosexuality is long and deeply seated in the Judeo-Christian world. It is encoded in religious text and it will take a long time, a generation or so, before same-sex marriages are accepted in mainstream Christianity.

So similar to the situation with Catholics; divorced Catholics must settle for a non-Catholic or civil ceremony. The state could recognize same-sex marriages while mainstream religions do not. Doing so, would, however, demonstrate a further loss of political power for organized religion in our secular democracy.

Violent Islamic reaction reveals deeper conflicts

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 2/19/2006

The violent responses of Muslims around the world to the publication of cartoon Muhammads by a Danish newspaper appear to bring into high relief the different worldviews of the Islamic East and the Christian West.

Consider the following religious text: “Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

This is not the sacred text from which outraged Muslims base their righteous indignation on. This is one of Judeo-Christendom’s Ten Commandments. With such a clear and unmistakable statement, one might think we would understand. Yet last week, Rolling Stone magazine put Kanye West on its front cover dressed as Jesus Christ.

The Koran is not nearly as clear in its prohibitions against images of Allah or Muhammad. Chapter 42, verse 11 of the Koran does say “Allah is the originator of the heavens and the earth [there is] nothing like a likeness of Him.” It would seem this would be more open to interpretation than the commandment.

The point here is that it is not religion that makes the difference in worldviews. It is how people use religion to justify actions and legitimize earthbound practices. And there are both Islamic and Christian fundamentalists.

Before we paint Islamic people as crazy or evil, which we are so apt to do when we don’t understand others’ actions, we in the U.S. should keep in mind that we respond with ferocity to blasphemy ourselves. Look at the heat generated by the TV show “The Book of Daniel.” Recall the outrage when an artist produced “Piss Christ.” “The Last Temptation of Christ” wasn’t screened in Terre Haute.

No, I don’t think anyone threatened death to the blasphemers or burned an embassy, but boycotts and letter-writing campaigns were organized. In the West, our outrage at blasphemy is usually expressed through angry speech, not violence. There are exceptions. Bombing abortion clinics and assassinating abortion providers are violent overreactions and most of us condemn such actions regardless of religion, including and especially our government.

The different responses, angry letters of protest to NBC or the NEA in the West on one hand, or riots and fatwahs in the Islamic East on the other, are not because of religious differences. The differences have to do with the separation of church and state and then the protection of freedom of speech from government repression. These institutional arrangements then create (and protect) spaces for expressive freedom.

The societies in the Islamic East are governed, in general, by authoritarian regimes. Dissent in those countries is dangerous. There is little separation of church and state. Hence, politics is religious and religion is politics. Even in the United States, there is no free speech in religion; religion is about doctrine and obedience, even here in the expression-heavy U.S.

Think of the threats by some Catholic bishops to deny some Catholic politicians the sacraments. But when political speech is not free, political speech becomes “religious.” This is the problem in the Islamic East. It is not just a lack of free speech, it is also a lack of sufficient separation between church and state.

People riot over cartoons when their lives are such that they cannot freely express themselves about the things that really make a difference in their lives. Repressive rulers who mix religion and politics know this. What makes peoples’ lives harsh is the repression and lack of freedom that only benefit despotic leaders and royal families. It is simply harder to criticize leaders of the state who are either religious leaders or anointed by religious leaders.

Those countries where the rioting and violence have occurred in response to the Danish cartoons are not countries where people regularly exercise their right to protest. That the government doesn’t crack down on the lawlessness just shows how the leaders use such trivial matters as a distraction from what really ails the masses in the Islamic East.

When people can’t take to the streets to protest the policies of the religiously sanctioned leaders, that frustration expresses itself by overreacting to blasphemous cartoons. The real insult is the poverty and inequality that characterizes the societies in the Islamic East. The despots know the simmering anger of their subjects. The despots need to channel that anger toward blasphemous cartoons and away from themselves.

Much info still in the closet on sexual activity

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 7/28/2007


Seven rhymes with heaven.

Many consider seven a lucky number.

Seven is the average number of females U.S. males between the ages of 20 and 59 have had sex with, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Seven and four, the average number of males U.S. females between the ages of 20 and 59 have had sex with, were about all that the media reported last month when this report was released. I thought I’d share my own take on these numbers.

First off, obtaining information like this is very difficult. The report discussed a new methodology that the scientists at the CDC felt improved the chances of accurate and truthful recall (truthful you wonder? Would men possibly exaggerate such things? Would women perhaps not want to report everything?) Indeed, these are difficulties in such research. And we are talking about sexual intercourse, no mistake about that given how the questions were worded.

Good news for the traditionalists, the double standard regarding sex appears to be alive and well. The wage gap may be narrowing, the education gap may be running in opposite directions these days, even the time spent on housework may be narrowing, but men still have an almost 100-percent advantage in terms of the number of sex partners. Or do they?

The CDC data breaks the data down by age cohorts. This data was collected in 1999-2002. So, the age cohorts consist of those born between 1941-1950, 1951-1960, 1961-1970, and 1970-1980. The biggest gap is among the oldest cohort, those born between 1941-1950. Those men actually were a bit above average, just a tenth of a percent, but the women of the same age were down an entire sex partner. So, something is going on, though the double standard appears alive and well, it, too could be narrowing. Women could be achieving equality in this most sensitive of arenas as well.

To me, it looks like the trend is up for both sexes in terms of the lifetime number of sex partners. Men born between 1951 and 1960 already have the exact same average as men born between 1941 and 1950. The 40-somethings (at the time the data was collected) still have 10 years to add to their score. Thirty-somethings, (born between 1961-1970) average almost one additional sex partner than the 40 and 50-somethings, with 20 years left. The youngest guys, are at just over five sex partners with 30 years left. So, by the time the 20-somethings reach their fifties, the average number of sex partners is likely to be higher.

Women, though, are catching up. The overall average for women was 3.7 sex partners. The 20-something cohort is already there, with 30 years to go. Women in their 30s have exceeded the overall average by a full sex partner. Indeed, the youngest cohort of men have reached 79 percent of the male average while the young women are already 100 percent of the female average. The 30-something cohort of men have exceeded the overall male average by 12 percent but the same cohort of women have exceeded the overall female average by 24 percent.

The report shows that 30.4 percent of the 50-something men reported having 15 or more female sex partners. Only 6.9 percent of the same-aged females did. And 30.4 percent of the 30-something men already report having had 15 or more female sex partners, with 11.3 percent of the same-aged females reporting 15 or more male sex partners. The proportion of 50-something men compared to 50-something women who have had 15 or more sex partners is 4.4 times larger. However, comparing 30-somethings, men’s advantage drops to just 2.7.

Women are becoming more like men — not a good thing for the traditionalists among us. And 16.9 percent of the 50-something men had sex for the first time before they were 15 compared to 6.4 percent of 50-something women. Among the youngest cohort, the 20-somethings, 21.6 percent of men had their first sexual experience before 15 compared to 18.7 percent of women.

What does it all mean? There is too much we don’t know. We don’t know the circumstances under which people are switching partners. We don’t know how many of the sex partners were wanted or not. We don’t know how much alcohol and drugs were involved with each sex partner. Until then, half of us can feel “below average” or “morally superior.”

Tax discussion challenges traditional positions

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 8/11/2007

TERRE HAUTE — Have the poles of the U.S. political spectrum reversed? I wonder because of recent statements from conservatives/Republicans criticizing regressive taxes.

This is not an essay on tax policy. It is about conservatives/Republicans making arguments based on what is perhaps the core value of the Democratic Party: fairness (Republicans are more about equality, but we’ll save exploring that for another essay).

In tax issues, conservatives/Republicans tend to favor flat taxes or user fees while liberals/Democrats prefer progressive taxes, that is, the amount paid is based upon one’s ability to pay. For most of U.S. history taxes have been flat or in the form of fees. In other words, taxes have tended to be regressive, where people with less income pay a larger proportion of their income in taxes compared to higher income groups. Among the most regressive of taxes are sales taxes and fees.

Roosevelt ushered in the progressive income tax, in which the rate of taxes paid increased as one’s income increased. This system has been detested by conservatives/Republicans for as long as it has been in existence. Beginning in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan, our taxes have become steadily more regressive.

So, if that is the historic pole of our conservative-liberal debate about taxes, why then did Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole object to the reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) for these reasons: “While I strongly support reauthorizing SCHIP, a massive — and highly regressive — tax increase on an already unstable product is a terribly irresponsible way to fund this important program.”

In opposing the same bill, Republican Sen. Jim Bunning echoes Dole: “And we all say we oppose regressive taxes. But what are we considering today? A highly regressive tax. In fact, this tax is among the most regressive types of taxes we could consider.”

In a statement given on Tax Day, 2007, Sen. Robert Bennett includes this strong statement about the regressive payroll tax (Social Security): “The payroll tax penalizes the working poor. It is an effective tax rate of 15 percent on the waitress who works at minimum wage because seven-and-a-half percent she has to pay and seven-and-a-half percent her employer pays that otherwise she would get in her paycheck. That is a very high regressive tax.”

It’s not just loquacious Republican senators concerned about regressive taxes either, the conservative blog Blue Crab Boulevard posts about the reauthorization of SCHIP: “Well, the House has just passed — pretty much along party lines — a bill that imposes regressive taxes on the poor and slashes money for the elderly to provide health care to the middle class.” Included in that blog is a link to more blogs on regressive taxes.

Even conservative/Republicans in our home state of Indiana are playing the regressive tax card in calling for the end of property taxes. From STOP Indiana (Stop Taxing Our Property): “Demand an immediate repeal or suspension of recent increases and a replacement of this regressive tax with a more equitable tax.”

Have the political poles reversed? If not, what might explain these conservatives/Republicans embracing one of the most liberal/Democratic values to make their arguments? Could it be that because SCHIP increased taxes on cigarettes that tobacco state senators Dole (North Carolina) and Bunning (Kentucky) object?

Tobacco is the “unstable product” Dole refers to. And Blue Crab Boulevard doesn’t like that federal money is diverted away from reimbursing HMOs in favor of directly reimbursing physicians to expand children’s health care coverage. Tobacco and HMOs are two unpopular entities to defend in public.

And Bob Bennett just doesn’t like taxes. In the next line following what I quoted above, he said: “While the payroll tax penalizes the working poor, the income tax discourages the productive rich. The more you produce, the more the government comes in and says, “We will take that away from you.’” In one line, he assails both regressive and progressive tax structures.

Bennett’s solution is to get rid of Social Security and adopt a flat tax. Maybe he doesn’t really get the regressive tax thing. Social Security ends up being a very good deal for lower-wage workers. And STOP Indiana and all those others who assail property taxes as regressive, well, that is highly debatable. Especially so when you consider that the poor own relatively little property to be taxed anyway.

Hmm, maybe the political poles aren’t reversing after all. Perhaps conservative/Republicans are just twisting since being voted out of power last November.

Many situations today have people wondering what can be done to help our political system

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 9/29/2007

TERRE HAUTE — With approval of the President and Congress at nearly historic lows, no doubt some wonder about our democracy. Indeed, desultory conclusions that democracy stinks but is better than any other system is hardly something likely to sustain our democratic way of life. And when you have political parties actually launching strategies to suppress votes, there is no doubt that ordinary, everyday people need to take steps to safeguard our precious democracy. In an age of big money politics, what can individuals do to strengthen our political institutions? Here are 10 simple steps they can do.

10 simple things you can do to improve politics

This is third in a series of five essays about simple things individuals can do to improve our social institutions. A social institution is a framework for solving societal problems. All societies must solve the same problems, but they do it differently. They must tie adult responsibility to children (marriage and family), socialize children into productive roles (education), solve the problem of order and leadership (politics), justify societal practices as “good” (religion), and produce and distribute needed goods and services (economy). My suggestions are not about changing our institutions as much as making the current ones, as currently defined, work a little better. Today’ s focus is on politics.

1. Get to know your neighbors. (Politics is coarse enough; at least knowing your neighbors makes the most local stuff more civil.) Public opinion polls show that Americans are fed up with the bickering and seeming inability to get anything done in Washington and our state capitals. Part of that phenomenon is due to the many, many wedge issues that have been used by our leaders to get elected. By getting to know people, you find that they don’t fit into neat categories. Yeah, your next door neighbor may be a Republican, but she might also be pro-choice, pro-environment, as well as pro-gun. Most people are NOT the activists of the parties who themselves line up so perfectly with their parties.

2. Get involved in the civic life of your community; school, church and local service groups are easy entry points. While these groups are not overtly political, they help in getting to know cross-sections of your community and make discussion easier and less nasty. Moreover, civic groups solve many community problems WITHOUT having to resort to the government. Making the government the solution to all community and social problems is little different than those states, totalitarian regimes come to mind, that in fact do solve, or claim sole responsibility to solve, all problems. Besides, having other institutional frameworks reduces the gathering power of our central, federal government.

3. Pick (at least) one local, state and national issue to follow and understand. Even if not involved, follow it in the newspapers, on the broadcast news, on the Internet. Only by being informed about issues can you really judge the positions and actions of our politicians. Also, if we don’t follow something, then we are left to judge, at the end of the political cycle, by who has the best ads, not necessarily who has or would be one to reflect our points of view on the issues we think important. To do that, you need to follow your issue and be informed about it.

4. Know who the following are: the mayor of your town (if you have one), city manager (if you have one), your city or county representative (councilman), your state representatives (with bicameral legislatures, you have a rep and a senator), your congressman, both of your senators, your governor, the president and vice president of the U.S., the speaker of the House, and the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Know who they are; they are among the most powerful people in our society and in your local world. There is no way to spin findings that Americans are more likely to know who celebrities are than the people who wield power over them on a daily basis. It is a measure of disengagement that threatens democracy as much, if not more, than all the money washing over politics today.

5. Vote in every election no matter what. Think about it. More people get upset at suggested changes to a schoolhouse indoctrination ritual, the Pledge of Allegiance, than get upset that eligible Americans don’t vote. There are reasonable explanations. Those who don’t vote tend not to have much at stake, meaning they are not property owners, maybe not parents, don’t have high-paying jobs. But that doesn’t explain everyone. Others give feeble explanations like “the system is corrupt, I don’t participate” or “the politicians are all the same, so what difference does it make?” Well, if you begin to follow just that one issue, then you’ll have the basis to make a difference. These excuses are more the excuses of people who don’t care to participate because they are disengaged. The more people who vote, the more the politicians have to actually pay attention to us.

6. Don’t be an ignorant voter. Pick one race that matters and make an informed choice about that one race if you do nothing else. For some of us, following politics is second nature. For many others, it is not. Don’ t base your choice on the media advertising that your candidate provides, but based on your own digging and decision making. Know why you are voting for who you vote for.

7. In the next year, attend one of the following: 1) a city council meeting; 2) a school board meeting; 3) a public forum with your state rep; 4) a public forum with your congressional representative. Few of us ever get to actually see our elected officials at work. Go watch them in their public roles. That will do more than any campaign ad, by either side, to give you a sense of both your candidates. but also what goes on in the process of democracy. Whether it inspires or sickens you, at least you know.

8. Articulate your interests, that is, on anything you take a stand on or support (issues-wise), be able to state why you hold to that position in terms of your own interests. If you oppose an increase in the minimum wage, be able to explain why doing so is contrary to your interests. In other words, how will it threaten you? Same if you are for something, how will it benefit you? In many cases, you won’t be able to find a reason, and you should begin then to separate out the issues that directly affect you and those where your interest lies in affecting others, but not necessarily yourself.

9. Be able to articulate the interests of the other side in a way the other side would not object to. Coupled with item 8, these two make for more civil politics. Being able to articulate the other side’s viewpoints doesn’t mean you have to accept them, but it shows taking the other side’s views seriously.

10. Know your values. Many issues are highly emotional, like abortion, stem cell research and capital punishment, to name a few. The highly emotional portion of our response to these types of issues has to do with a feeling of threat to values we hold dear. Responding to the values and not the fear should make for greater understanding as well as finding additional grounds to address these issues.

Could U.S. policies be promoting world poverty

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 6/15/2007

What do you get when you combine the following: a government funded study on the effectiveness of U.S. abstinence programs in stopping teenagers from having sex, a World Bank report on the importance of sex education in combating worldwide poverty, a Rand Corp. report dispelling common myths and criticisms about international family planning programs, and current U.S. policies regarding international family planning?

My conclusion is that U.S. policy promotes world poverty.

Fact 1: In April, a federal government-funded study on the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education was released. This was a longitudinal study of 2,000 teenagers over a five-year period. A longitudinal design is the only design that is going to deliver the data to adequately assess cause and effect of a program like this.

The findings? Abstinence-only programs are no better or worse than ones that provide information about contraception and “safe-sex” practices in terms of stopping teens from having sex. Condom use was the same in those who received abstinence-only education as those who received information about contraception. What this tells me is that kids do lots of talking and our media saturate the airwaves with information about condoms. That, however, cannot be said for the developing world.

Fact 2: A 2005 World Bank Report titled “Education and Development” focuses on the importance of educating women as an effective anti-poverty measure. And controlling fertility is a cornerstone to achieving that. According to the report: “Women with formal education are much more likely to use reliable family planning methods, delay marriage and childbearing, and have fewer and healthier babies than women with no formal education. It is estimated that one year of female schooling reduces fertility by 10 percent. The effect is particularly pronounced for secondary schooling.” Part of that education includes family planning education.

Fact 3: According to a Rand Corp. Policy Brief, reducing fertility contributes to economic development. As the proportion of dependent children in the population shrinks, the proportion of working age adults increases, which boosts productivity and investment savings. There is even a name for the phenomenon, the “demographic boost.” You don’t have to believe Rand. Despite the ethical and moral concerns, China and India have taken drastic means to reduce fertility in their countries. It has worked and they are rapidly developing (in case you haven’t noticed).

Fact 4. It costs very little to fund effective family planning programs. Domestically, the federal government spends less than $200 million on its abstinence-only programs. Family planning programs are a drop in the bucket compared to the costs of battling AIDS, for example. Nevertheless, U.S. policy since 1973 forbids U.S. money to be used for abortions. Republican administrations since Reagan have imposed a global gag rule on non-government organizations that provide family planning. They cannot even mention abortion to their clients, much less provide one.

In 1998, Congress prohibited use of U.S. monies for any organization that uses coercive methods, incentives, targets or quotas in their family planning practices. If the U.S. were a foreign country, would we qualify since we have incentives for kids called tax deductions and tax credits? Since 2002, one-third of all monies aimed at HIV/AIDS prevention must emphasize abstinence-until-marriage programs. This is contrary to the health professionals who advocate the “abstain,” be faithful, use a condom approach.

As we can see by our approach to our teens, the abstain-until-marriage programs are no more effective than conventional approaches, so what are we really doing?

Fact 5. Condoms are effective in reducing fertility and lowering the risk of contracting HIV. Currently, the U.S. has so many restrictions on the use of international monies that there is a shortage of contraceptives for distribution in developing countries. In 2006, a bill was introduced in Congress, the “Ensuring Access to Contraceptives Act.” It was reintroduced this year and awaits committee action.

Therefore, if family planning and contraception are effective in reducing fertility (married people need it, too, abstaining even after marriage isn’t realistic, even in our goofy political climate), and the U.S. is restricting funding for these programs which in turn are cornerstones in reducing world poverty, then U.S. policy promotes world poverty.

I’m not suggesting an intentional policy here to promote world poverty. This is an unanticipated outcome of our domestic political squabbling. Abstinence-only family planning and a refusal to fund abortions are rooted in specific moral and ethical universes. What moral/ethical universe finds even the unintentional promotion of poverty acceptable?

MVC needs to change format of women’s tournament

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 3/16/2006

Open Letter to Doug Elgin, Commissioner Missouri Valley Conference:

Congratulations on having four teams selected to the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. Several years ago you set out to make the conference more competitive by encouraging Valley teams to play harder non-conference schedules and that strategy has paid off with four teams selected for this year’s “Big Dance.” A fifth team, Missouri State, many argue should have been invited as well. Never mind the naysayers like CBS curmudgeon Billy Packer who was downright insulting of the Valley. His bosses are the ones who decided to telecast the Valley Championship game, suggesting that Billy’s time maybe has passed.

Now that you have accomplished putting the Missouri Valley back on the men’s basketball map, it is time to turn your attention to the women’s basketball situation. Last year, arguably the best team in the Valley was overlooked for the NCAA because they lost in the conference tournament, eventually won by 8th seed Illinois State, who entered the NCAA tournament a dismal, let’s see if I recall, 15th seed. Doesn’t say much for the conference when that is the only representative.

Missouri State went on to win the WNIT. That win, the second in a row by a Valley team, is an excellent testament to their quality and a good argument that Missouri State should have been given an at-large bid last year. But, an upstart Illinois State team, playing on its home court, won four straight to win the tournament. That was a great story for Illinois State but a bad one for the conference as a whole.

The same thing happened again this year. Indiana State, by far the class of the league, had to face Missouri State on their home court, with their incredible fans. Missouri State has lost at home only 12 times in nearly 400 games. What a surprise, Missouri State won. Hurray for them. Boo for the league because the lone Valley representative is awarded a lowly 13th seed, and Indiana State is overlooked.

When a conference tournament is rigged so heavily in favor of the “host” team, no one outside the conference is going to much respect the quality of the Valley teams. I didn’t do the research, but I bet you know: How many tournament hosts have won the title? Eight times, more than twice as often as any other team, Missouri State has been the host (Indiana State has never hosted the tournament) and has won seven titles. A cynic might quip, “The key to winning the Valley is to host the tournament.”

Yeah, I’m sour grapes because my Lady Sycamores aren’t the tournament champions. A number 1 seed, which they earned, is supposed to be an advantage. But I’d say a number 1 seed doesn’t outweigh the advantage of sleeping in one’s own bed, having friendly fans, hometown press, and being familiar with the lay of the land.

Indeed, Missouri State looked fresher in their fourth game than Indiana State did in its third. Being assured that your fans sit behind the visitors’ bench is a hell of an advantage and it had nothing to do with the outcomes of the games during the regular season … thus undoing what seeding is supposed to mean. The tournaments are supposed to wear you out; but they are also supposed to be played on neutral sites.

Missouri State played two other tournament teams, both at home, losing to Oklahoma and beating Tulsa. Indiana State played four NCAA tournament teams, beating two of them (one of them Missouri State at home), the other over Pepperdine played on a neutral court. Which is more impressive? Winning on one’s own court or on a neutral court?

It is time for you to spend some energy improving the Valley’s reputation in Women’s NCAA Division I Basketball. The SEC sent six teams to the women’s NCAA tournament. They moved their conference tournament to a neutral site 20 years ago. Your first step in raising the stature of Women’s Valley Basketball is by unrigging the tournament in favor of the host team; find a neutral site to play the semis and final game.

Otherwise, forget getting two bids when our tournament lacks legitimacy as it does now.

Don’t lose sight of purpose TV programming really serves

Previously published in Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 1/16/2006

Few things raise more of a ruckus than a disruption in television. Recently the Valley has struggled because one local cable company couldn’t negotiate the rights to carry an ABC affiliate resulting in missed football playoff games. A local station manager decided to exercise his discretion to not show a bad television series, “The Book of Daniel,” prompting a protest of e-mails, postings, and letters to the editor.

Television is a ubiquitous part of our daily culture. Common sense holds there to be strong media effects on the wider culture. Usually those effects are “bad.” We blame the media, especially television, for all kinds of things: increases in premarital sex, abortion, violence, obesity, “liberalism,” ADHD, the list could go on.

Rarer is to suggest positive things in our culture aided or caused by television. I don’t know if it still true, but the “Keep America Beautiful” ads, especially the one with the American Indian crying at the end of the commercial, was the most successful ad campaign of all, and unquestionably changed American’s views on and habits related to littering.

Despite conventional wisdom that television affects our behavior, the careful, precise measurement of those hypothesized effects are harder to establish. It is important to keep in mind when “thinking” about television that television exists for no other reason than to sell us things. The informational and entertainment values of television pale in comparison to its raison d’être, to sell stuff, which means to influence our behavior.

Some of us think we are pretty savvy. When the commercials come on, we switch over to another program. I like to head to C-SPAN and then back to “my story” in a few minutes. Ha! I have evaded the slickly produced message aimed at emptying my wallet. Of course, the show I am watching is nothing but an advertisement for clothing, cars, gadgets, décor, hair styles and more. I recall reading some years ago about how the sale of grandfather clocks went up when the TV Huxtables had one in their living room.

We can deceive ourselves into believing that we can flip the switch when the commercials come on, but the entire production is an advertisement. With everything on DVDs now, the shows themselves are advertisements for their own “treasuries.”

When we tune in to television, we are making the television industry money. The more who watch, the more ad rates rise. According to Nielsen, the average American watches more than 4.5 hours of TV daily, an all-time high. And the amount of time watching TV has continued to rise, never once in 56 years sliding back.

Crime dramas are quite common right now. Studies show people who watch more television and crime dramas in particular are more likely to overestimate the amount of crime in society. What is the result of a healthy fear of crime? Walling oneself up in their home; instead of attending a play downtown (too dangerous), people stay home and watch TV! I wonder how many dramatized murders there are on TV in a 24-hour period?

Despite the many watchdog groups, more and more of our time is taken up with watching sex and violence on TV. And the amount of televised violence and sex is up, up, up. Yet, violent crime, teen pregnancies, and abortions are down, down, down (in real life). The television industry and the watchdogs share, it seems, a symbiotic relationship.

Bad shows protested by the watchdogs generate “buzz” that leads to larger audiences and thus higher payoffs for the industry. At the same time, those shows provide fund-raising opportunities for the watchdogs. The activist groups, especially the ones stressing decency and morality, continue their campaigns despite little evidence that they have any lasting effect. Nevertheless, I’ll bet their coffers continue to swell.

Friends of mine about 10 years ago had their TV stolen in a burglary. Unlike most of us who would have run right out and bought another one, they didn’t. They felt withdrawal symptoms, but after a couple of days, discovered something. First, they actually talked to each other through the evening. They discovered that they had plenty of time for homework and doing chores around the house. They found ample time to do things they actually enjoyed more than watching the “junk” on TV.

Pick your favorite five TV shows, outside of news/weather. Watch ONLY those shows for the next two weeks. Turn off the noisy appliance in between. Send letters to the editor about your experience.

Covering the field — from consensus to conflict

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 4/22/2007

Ever wonder about the nature of society? Sociologists do, which means I do. In 750 words I’ll try to summarize better than 100 years of scholarship and provide an example to boot!

Defending the north end zone is the “consensus” model. Society forms around consensus on norms (expected behaviors) and values (standards to judge good and bad). Defending the south end zone is the “conflict” model. Society is forged out of the struggle of groups pursuing their interests; social power and authority are important aspects to understanding society.

I’m exaggerating the differences here, but in reality, they are much closer than I’m making them out to be. In short, the consensus model emphasizes “common” values and the conflict model emphasizes “whose” values. The consensus model emphasizes universal interests and the conflict model emphasizes specific interests.

The growing controversy over use of several million dollars of refinanced debt owed by the Vigo County School Corp. to purchase synthetic turf for Vigo County’s three high school football fields seems almost a scripted event to highlight these two models of society. Turf proponents emphasize the broadest possible values (consensus model) in arguing for the turf. Who could be against community pride, education, competitiveness, economic development, safety, and efficiency?

Turf opponents emphasize interests (conflict model). They look at the situation not in terms of whether something fits broad, common values, but in terms of who benefits and at whose expense. They frame the controversy in terms of one group benefiting at the expense of other groups, such as taxpayers versus taxspenders, athletes versus academics, and football versus other sports.

The consensus model adds its own “value” of order, that society should be orderly and harmonious and that dissension and conflict are “bad.” Furthermore, that which leads to disorder and disharmony is harmful. Similarly, the conflict model adds its own “value” of fairness. Despite accepting a view of society as basically “unfair” much of the conflict model’s subsequent analysis is about “fairness,” equity, or equality between competing interest groups.

Proponents of turf (consensus model) organize shows of support for the expenditure, enlisting as many people as possible to show broad support for the values they claim the expenditure reflects. Opponents of turf (conflict model), in a less orchestrated manner, point out the unfairness of the expenditure or demand further explanation/justification for the favoring of one interest group over others.

In turn the proponents criticize the opponents for being insulting, disrespectful, and for pitting groups against one another. To which the opponents respond with more examples of the narrow interests being served by the proponents and more examples of how the proponents would benefit at significant costs to the other groups. Eventually both sides are talking past one another.

Competing scientific models are judged in terms of how well they explain the data and their ability to predict future events. So, the proponents of turf will broaden the meaning of the expenditure. It will become an argument less about football but youth, athletics, education and community. They might argue that without organized sports, that the community would be worse off, that kids would be less supervised, and more likely to get into trouble. After all, a common response to idle youth is sports programs, whether summer tennis lessons or midnight basketball.

Opponents won’t deny these assertions. Instead they will provide more examples of the groups who are passed over. They will not debate the larger, grander notions of whether sports are good or bad; instead they will keep the focus on the expenditure for turf (maybe sports in general) and what that means to other groups. They might point out groups who cannot, other than indirectly, if at all, benefit from the turf.

For example, those unable for physical reasons to play football are not benefited; this would include those medically unable to play and girls. They may argue that if the taxpayers are going to provide such lavish support for the one group, that they must, for fairness sake, provide similar benefits to the excluded. As this drama unfolds, we’ll see which model predicts future events the best.

My students, at this point, often ask me, “… which one is correct, the consensus or conflict model of society?” The conflict model developed, in part, from criticism of the consensus model. Today, most sociologists agree, the conflict model can explain what the consensus model does and more. That, however, still doesn’t make one “right” and the other “wrong.”

Parents can make a major impact on children’s education

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 9/15/2007

This is second in a series of five essays about simple things individuals can do to improve our social institutions. A social institution is a framework for solving societal problems. All societies must solve the same problems, but they do it differently. They must tie adult responsibility to children (marriage and family), socialize children into productive roles (education), solve the problem of order and leadership (politics), justify societal practices as “good” (religion), and produce and distribute needed goods and services (economy). My suggestions are not about changing our institutions as much as making the current ones, as currently defined, work a little better. Today’s focus is on education.

Pick up any newspaper, check any news Web site, listen to any presidential candidate today and the subject of education comes up. Indeed, since the publication of “A Nation at Risk” by the Reagan Administration, there has been much attention, and some reforms, to education. But far less attention is given the role, and arguably, the more important role, that parents and adults who engage with kids outside the formal classroom and formal activities like scouting, sports, church, and others, play in educating our children. The ongoing debate today is about education policy. What can parents and individuals do to improve education in America? Here are 10 simple steps individuals, especially parents, can do.

1. Expand active learning beyond the classroom; make the world everything about learning. Young kids are pretty much natural learners. They are curious and eager to learn and experience their environments. Formal schooling and our hectic lives today manage to drum that natural curiosity and natural active learning out and we replace it with passive learning, which is boring and not easy to reverse. So, when you’re with your kids, whether your own, or others, turn activities into learning experiences. Let kids explore stores (with you in tow), stop and let them be fascinated by what has become common to you. Just this morning, I was driving out on a country road that was being repaved. The young Amish kids who were lined up on the side of the road were fascinated by the machinery. How many of your 10-year-olds would be captivated by such a sight? Why not?

2. Read to your kids; have them read to you. Reading is the primary academic skill. Without it, there is virtually no chance for academic success. Begin reading to your kids immediately. Not only will reading to them demonstrate that you value the skill, but later, they can read to you. Often this activity diminishes greatly once formal schooling begins, but there is no reason more complex books can’t be read, too. On long car trips, have kids read a long novel out loud for everyone’s enjoyment.

3. Make at least half of your purchases for birthdays, Christmas, all the ritual gift giving times, “educational” toys. This is easier for younger kids and will set a tone for the future. Educational toys are not boring. For young kids, flexible toys that let them use their imagination like clay, paints, and building blocks, are terrific. Later on, Legos, books, and puzzles develop problem solving skills which are the main thing that needs to be taught. Our schools are great at teaching facts, but not as good at teaching problem-solving skills. In junior high, buy your kid a computer program to learn a foreign language.

4. Talk to your kids; not at them, but with them. I’ve observed some parents talk more with their dogs and cats than they do with their young kids. Engage them in conversation, the earlier the better. Language skills are the most crucial skill we need in the U.S. Who would you rather your kids learn to communicate from? Skilled communicators like yourself or from their peers, with poor grammar and limited vocabularies?

5. Turn car trips into field trips, don’t plug in a tape for the kids to watch. A zooming car is super stimulation, but the kids need to be taught to observe. The old games of car bingo or car scavenger hunts are more brain-active than brain-passive activities such as listening to music or watching DVDs. The DVDs are often more for the convenience of the adults along, turning over their roles as teachers to entertainment technology. Point things out as you drive along. Most of us now live in suburbs and kids don’t ride bikes as much, so keeping them active in the car observing is a good way for them to learn their surroundings. And while I have no evidence for it, I’ll bet it makes better drivers of them, too.

6. Make kids do it themselves. Whether it be ordering from a menu, asking for something at a store, even if it is faster and easier to do it yourself, make your kids do it themselves. This begins teaching them independence as well as communicating to them that they have a voice and worth. Having others, whether they be waitstaff, teachers, clerks, whomever, listen to kids, communicates to kids that they are a person of worth. And the kids will feel a real sense of accomplishment when they do it themselves, which is what self-esteem should be based upon.

7. Be a partner, not an adversary, with kids’ teachers, coaches, etc. This means at the outset trusting that the teacher, coach, adult leader, knows what they are doing, and work from there. Whatever you think of the institution of education, the individuals in those institutions are not perfect replicas of it. Ask what you can do at home to help support what is going on in the classroom. You’ll find that it is a two way street; you can get support in the classroom for things you are trying to accomplish at home, too.

8. Telling kids is one thing; modeling the behavior is another (and more impressing). If you don’t want your kid to yell, don’t yell yourself. Young kids don’t have sophisticated moral reasoning, so the line “do what I say, not what I do” makes little sense to children. They are pretty black-and-white about things. That means, if you really value education, then you need to show it with your behavior. Be active in your kids’ formal education, go to open houses, show up for stuff at school. It also means if you want your kid to read, you need to read yourself. It doesn’t have to be heavy intellectual stuff, it can be trash novels or tabloids. What is important is the act of reading. Once they value reading, they’ll find the material they enjoy, which is virtually limitless and cheap to obtain. At the same time, if you want honest kids, don’t lie, especially in situations like when your kids answer the phone and the caller asks for you and you tell them to tell the person you are not home. What message is that sending?

9. Eat (at least) one meal a day together. During this meal, ask kids about their days and make them speak about it, but the same goes for you, too. Kids will emulate you. If in response to “How was your day, dear?” your answer is “Same old same old,” your kids will learn to do same. One the other hand, if you tell about your day, no matter how routine, something about it, they will do the same. Ask what they learned at school during dinner and don’t accept “nothing” as an acceptable answer

10. Let kids suffer the consequences of their actions. This is probably the hardest one for parents because we have developed the idea that good parents are ones whose kids are happy. But sometimes learning is about “suffering the consequences” of one’s actions. If your kid fails to do their homework, don’t defend her to their teachers. If he gets in trouble for behavior at school, by reflexively defending him, taking an attitude that “no one treats my kid that way,” kids learn they are above all rules, all laws. Sometimes the best lessons are about survival, adaptation, persistence and perseverance.

For years Americans have been concerned about the breaking down of social institutions

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 9/1/2007

To combat that degradation, try some common sense methods as a path to improvement.
By Thomas L. Steiger

TERRE HAUTE — To be an American is to worry that our social institutions are breaking down. Read newspapers from 100 years ago and you’ll find worry about the family, concern about the economy, and politics is always in a shambles. As a sociologist, I am frequently asked, what are the solutions to our broken social institutions? What policies should we follow? Institutions are not just about legislated behavior. Far more important is the behavior that occurs, over and over and over, just because it is “common sense.” In that vein, I offer this series of essays on improving our social institutions. These are not policy recommendations and these behaviors cannot be legislated. But by doing them, just as the drip, drip, drip of enough water drops on rock wears away the rock, it is similar with individual behaviors, they shape the institution.

Every other week for the next 10 weeks, I’ll focus on one institution and offer 10 simple things individuals can do to improve it. A social institution is a framework for solving societal problems. All societies must solve the same problems, but they do it differently. They must tie adult responsibility to children (marriage and family), socialize children into productive roles (education), solve the problem of order and leadership (politics), justify societal practices as “good” (religion), and produce and distribute needed goods and services (economy). My suggestions are not about changing our institutions as much as making the current ones, as currently defined, work a little better. Today I begin with marriage and the family.

10 simple things you can do to improve marriage and family

Americans today worry about marriage and the family. Many worry that the institution is breaking down, and with it, our society as well. While politicians and social critics discuss policies to strengthen and preserve the family, what can individuals do to strengthen the institution of marriage and the family? Here are 10 simple steps individuals can do.

1. Get married (but not too young). It should be obvious that if people want a strong institution of marriage that people must get married. If divorce is a threat to the institution of marriage, then wait to get married. People who get married in their teens are more likely to end up in a divorce than people who wait. There is not a magic age, but research shows that the probability of divorce of a first marriage after age 25 is half that of those who marry for the first time under 18. Romantic notions that love will overcome all obstacles are just that, romantic notions. Also, those who grow up in an intact family are less likely to get a divorce themselves after they marry. Statistics indicate that the divorce rate in 2006 is the lowest since 1970 in large part because people are delaying getting married until they are older.

2. Have children. The family’s major function in contemporary society is to tie adult responsibility to children, not population resupply. If you don’t have children, then your family can’t be responsible for any. Make them yourselves, outsource the birth, or adopt one, however you do it, become responsible for children. If it is just impossible to be a parent through birth or adoption, then become an “other” parent, a stand-in, co-parent with the children of friends or relatives.

3. Eat together. Eating is more than just nourishment for the body. It is a social ritual of great importance that our fast food culture has corroded. Eating together as a family is among the most common rituals individual families engage in. And rituals are important to the making of meaning, the creation of lasting bonds. Ideally, eating together should be at home, where the length of the ritual can be extended into the preparation and cleanup, thus creating more opportunities for establishing meaningful bonds among family members through repeated rituals.

4. Develop family traditions. While eating together is an important family ritual, traditions also make social life meaningful. Traditions help us find meaning; they provide comfort, participating in them creates a sense of belonging and acceptance in the social groups in which they occur. Family traditions help to distinguish family life from other social settings. Begin with traditions around major holidays and birthdays and maybe make up one or two specific to your family. Start early and don’t waiver from them; insist on them.

5. Take pictures. Family pictures help to prompt memories of family life. Home movies used to be a popular thing to do. I don’t know if they are as much today, but one tradition, especially when kids are young, should be to show these pictures and videos. With older kids, encourage them to take pictures and make picture histories of family outings. Scrapbooking is popular today; building in this activity with picture taking and family traditions can create emotionally charged artifacts that will create priceless family treasures. Should a family member die, for instance, a grandparent, having many pictures in different settings can help instill “memories” in later generations, which helps to charge just the idea of family with strong emotions.

6. Have family reunions. Families today are generally horizontally smaller (meaning fewer siblings) but due to longer life spans, vertically bigger (multi-generations). Americans are highly mobile and families become geographically separated. Organize family reunions every five years or so. Don’t wait for funerals and weddings to get reacquainted. Families are an important source of social capital, but need tending.

7. Instill the idea of obligation to family by requiring everyone to contribute to household chores. If it can be accomplished, everyone in the family should work together so everyone can see each other’s contribution. Having clean clothes isn’t enough; family members tend to take that for granted, but seeing Dad doing laundry, while Mom vacuums, and older brother cleans a toilet, while sister dusts, can make for a more appreciative family. Cross-training is a good idea too, otherwise everyone else’s job looks easier than one’s own.

8. Extend your family. Family members don’t have to be blood related or legally related. They can be chosen. Embrace close friends as family. Children can even refer to these chosen family members as aunt and uncle, cousins, etc. If possible, extend your family to those who either don’t have or are geographically separated from their families. This is a great way to know your neighbors. The results are more adults who feel some responsibility for more children, which is the major function of family.

9. No violence in the family. This includes spanking as well. In practice, spanking usually results from a frustrated parent, not one in full control of themselves at the time. If family is to be a safe haven, then it must be violence-free. The presence of violence in the family also leads to marital and family disruption.

10. Be parents, not friends, to your kids. Parents must guide children through a difficult maze today. In many ways, parenting “back in the day” was easier than today. Today’s culture emphasizes some things that are bad for children: instant gratification, short attention spans, superficiality over depth, extreme stimulation over calmness and serenity. Parents must recognize that emphasizing the short-term happiness of children can lead to impaired adults. To have functional, mature adults means sometimes having to put up with bouts of unhappy children in order to raise children who grow up to be very productive adults who in turn support their parents on Social Security.
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