Mask Strong



For those of you who object to people wearing masks in public or don’t see the need for me to do so, please understand the following:

I wear the mask when in public.  I don’t wear the mask to protect myself. I don’t wear the mask because I’m a sheep blindly following some secret agenda to enslave us all. I don’t wear the mask because I am blinded by fear, phobia or hypochondria .

I wear the mask in solidarity with all the doctors and nurses and healthcare providers, first responders, delivery people, store clerks and service providers of all kinds that every day put their health at risk just to provide the rest of us with the things we need to survive this crisis. I wear the mask because, while I know the odds of my transmitting the virus to you are extremely low, the cost to me in wearing the mask (minor personal discomfort and fogged sunglasses) —are  laughably nothing in comparison to the potential damage my spreading the virus could – even if remotely – have on you.  I wear the mask because I care about you, I care about others and I care about my nation.  I wear the mask to show that I am one with all of you who care about others, their communities and our nation.

If you don’t wear the mask I would suggest you’re either misinformed, misanthropic or, in some (hopefully few) cases actively malevolent. .  When you criticize me for wearing the mask rather than thanking me for at least caring about protecting you – even if you don’t think you need to protection – you are being rude.  When you criticize me for wearing a mask as not being needed, then you are misinformed according to every reputable health professional.  When you walk towards me not wearing a mask you’re acting like a misanthrope who doesn’t give a damn about me or my family.  When you protest the pandemic public policies without masks but with guns, implicitly threatening violence if your views do not prevail, you are malevolent. In none of these instances are you acting as a good neighbor, a good citizen, a good American.

Wearing the mask in a time of pandemic, in a time where every major healthcare expert tells us at best doing so will save lives and at worst is like chicken soup – it couldn’t hurt!—is the minimum we all can do to pull together for the common good. Wearing the mask is a simple statement of empathy and caring for our fellow Americans, a public statement that we are willing to share a common burden and make a little sacrifice for the general welfare.   Wearing the mask is the essence of patriotism.

So go ahead and protest quarantine restrictions and try to change government policies. That is your right. But wear the damn mask while doing so to show everybody that your protests and complaints aren’t all about you, that you care and want to protect everyone and not just yourself. Otherwise you just might be a misanthrope, if not malevolent.

The Wicked Servant



Scripture tell us:

Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.      

 At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.  But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him.

‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart. Matthew 18:23-35

The numbers tell us:

2.98 Trillion: number of dollars provided by the US Treasury through TARP and by the Federal Reserve to stabilize  Wall Street Banks.  (Wall Street Journal)

1.45 Trillion: number of dollars American corporations are sitting on and not investing. (Forbes)

1.2 Trillion: number of dollars the Federal Reserve provided Wall Street Banks in emergency loans through 2011. (Bloomberg)

942 Million: Total compensation paid to the top 56 executives of the 9 major banks receiving TARP funding in 2007. (CNN Money)

12.8 Million:  Average pay of top bank CEOs in 2011.  (Huffington Post)

8 Million:  Lowest CEO pay in 2012 out of the top 5 banks.  (Forbes)

0: Number of senior financial officers prosecuted for criminal activity related to the housing and stock market crashes since 2007. (Truth Out)

18: Number of years of accumulated wealth (1992-2010) wiped out for American families between 2007-2010. (New York Times)

59.1 thousand: Decline (40%) in median household wealth from 2007 to 2010. (New York Times)

2.2 million: number of homes  (out of 16 million households underwater) refinanced through 2012 by banks under the Home Affordable Refinance Program HARP.  (CBS News)

7.5 million: number of jobs lost in the Great Recession. (ABC News)

19.2 million: number of  home foreclosures since 2007.  (Realty Trac Inc.)

17 Trillion: Amount of wealth lost by American households during the Great Recession (AP)

Since 2007 the American financial industry has received trillions of dollars in government bailouts while presiding over the loss of trillions of dollars in American wealth, millions of American jobs and  the foreclosure of almost 20 million American homes.  


So who’s the wicked servant in American society today? 

And isn’t it time for their masters – We the People, to hold our errant servants accountable for their failure to extend to their debtors the same mercy that We the People extended to them?   

Perhaps the titans of finance have survived unscathed and will remain unaccountable for their actions precipitating the Great Recession. But perhaps, during this Lenten season, these same titans of finance should keep in mine the statement in Matthew coming shortly after the parable of the Wicked Servant:

“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Matthew 19:24

Note to Wall Street Titans: Eat healthy.  Exercise.  Get plenty of rest.  Given your actions the last few years, I wouldn’t be in any hurry to get to the next life if I were you.


Happy Mothers Day, American Moms!

Once again it is time for us, individually and as a society, to pay honor to the 82.5 million women out there who have done their biological part to part to perpetuate the species (and, particularly, the American portion of said species.)  Mothers around the country will be awakened Sunday morning to breakfast in bed, taken out to sumptuous buffets, received heartfelt cards and be showered with lavish presents.

(That the breakfast will most likely be burned and spilled, the buffet overcrowded and out of shrimp, the card the result of at least 30 intense seconds spent perusing the best schmaltz the Hallmark people could mass produce and the presents handmade by seven year olds with limited manual dexterity, of course, only makes the day all the more personal and sweet.)

Yes, we Americans really know how to show old Mom (note: mom’s do not like to be called old)  just how much we really, truly and deeply care about them.  That’s why America  ranks (big foam finger ready, patriots?) 42nd in maternal mortality rates! Thanks to our concerted effort we have fewer moms dying to become moms than in 130 other countries!   (So what if American moms have a 10 times greater risk of dying than Irish moms do?  DO the Irish take their mom’s to Home Town Buffet?  So there.)

Who cares if the latest Save The Children survey found that the US comes in 28th in the list of best countries to be a mother in, behind the likes of former Eastern European Communist states Latvia and Slovenia ?  Do the Slovenian kids give their moms T-shirts with family pictures on them?

And so what if the United States is one of the only countries in the world (along with Lesotho, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea plus the Aussies and the Kiwis) that doesn’t provide guaranteed paid maternity leave to new mothers?  It’s not all of our responsibilities to pay goldbricking women for being careless or foolish enough to get pregnant and produce the next generation, after all.  Yeah, the Swedes may give their moms up to 450 paid maternity days but do they give them Hallmark cards with cute kittens on them?  Written in English?  I think not.

Yes, moms, we love you so much it hurts. Of course, the hurt is yours, not ours. Yours and your babies.  We seem to let a lot of them die, too.

They say you put your money where you’re mouth. Well, there  is no day of the year that allows us as a nation to more clearly declare just how we feel than on Mothers Day.   So take the $126.90 we’ll spend on average on you moms out there  in lieu of universal pre and postnatal care and guaranteed paid maternity leave. Take it  with a mother’s smile.  Then get back to work Monday  because your not being paid to have kids, you know.  Oh, and next time you do have a kid, American moms, try not to die doing it. Okay?

You’re making the rest of us look bad.

In Nobody We Trust

This week’s Pew Research poll showing public satisfaction and trust with government are at all time lows should come as no surprise to anyone.   The American People’s  trust in their  government has been declining since JFK was blown away in Dallas .  As the chart above shows, one assassination, Vietnam War,  Nixon Watergate Scandal and a decade of 1970s Stagflation later public trust had plummeted from  near eighty percent  to the low twenties. Reagan restored some degree of trust, Bush I lost it, Clinton restored some then Bush II lost it.  (Note to Americans: Next time a guy named “Bush” is on the ballot, vote the other way.)

Two things have been driving this trust-deficit:  recurring  business cycles and increasing middle class anxiety.  While the public vents its frustration with the vagaries of their standard of living on Congress and government in genra, the   real  problems confronting America’s faith in its government (and, therefore itself) are far more systemic.  Which means, whatever the November midterm elections is going to have precious little impact on American’s trust in their government, no matter the outcome.

Look at the trust poll above.  Now look at the graph below with the  last 30 years with a rough overlay of economic recessions.

Trust in government always plummets with an economic downturn, as during the recessions of the early 1970s,  late 70s & early 80s, early 90s and today.  Then,  as recovery sets in, trust goes back up.  The Reagan boom saw trust go back up to a ten year high; the Clinton boom sent it even higher.  Americans seem to see the world through the narrow prism of their own pocketbooks.  (And, yes,  we ARE that simple and shallow.)  So, when times are good we trust government.  When they’re not we want to burn it to the ground.

The only other thing that spikes and depresses trust are major foreign policy events such as the 1st Gulf War and 9/11 (spike up) and the protracted Vietnam and Iraqi wars (trust down.)  How many congressmen are or are not reelected really has no impact on any of this.   Barring a major attack on America any time soon, the only thing that will bring a sustained return to trust will be economic recovery.

The second factor in all of this is the simple fact that, since the late 1960s, getting and staying in the broad middle class has become a progressively more tenuous proposition for an increasing number of people.  The pillars of the middle class have been growing incomes, secure home ownership, access to affordable healthcare and education and the promise of retirement.  All of these have come under growing pressure for the last generation.  This has made the middle class antsy.  Antsy people trust less.

Between the Second World War and the early 1970s the standard of living doubled in a generation.  It now takes 3 generations to replicate the gain.  Most Americans are living much better than in 1960or 1970–but it’s taking longer to see the gains of children over their parents.  Political Scientists call this “relative expectation,” the problem of people expecting improvement faster than government can provide it.  This leads, again, to middle class antsiness—like blue-collar support for George Wallace’s rebellion against “big government liberals.” (Read “government helping the poor and people of color and not blue collar whites who were starting to lose jobs not to affirmative action but to globalization.  Those textile jobs disappearing in the Southern US weren’t going to Watts or Harlem, they were going to Japan and Hong Kong.  Now they’re going to Vietnam and Bangladesh, exportation of low-end Chinese goods being SO early 21st century now.)

During really harsh economic times (like the Great Depression) relative expectation turns into “relative deprivation”—where the middle class, now desperate as it sees itself sliding back towards poverty, wants to find enemies to blame (and supports more radical political movements—aka fascist—that promise to restore the power of the Volk by making government more socially intrusive,  powerful—and authoritarian.) Thus the rise of the Fascists in the 1920s & 1930s.  We haven’t seen economies as bad as the 1930s in western democracies.  With each recession, though, more reactionary political movements form (e.g. the Wallace reaction to civil rights, the Militia movement reaction in the 1990s and even, one dare say, the Zonian reaction of this week, essentially criminalizing  being Hispanic while in the Grand Canyon State).

For most American households the Great Recession is far from over.  Even when it is in two or three years, most American households will probably find their buying power no greater than it was in 2007 which, adjusted for inflation, is not a whole lot better than it was in 1997 or even 1987.  Only this time Americans will not have an easy-credit gravy train to hitch on (those mortgages and credit cards becoming more elusive for the masses) which, in the long run, is a good thing. In the short run it’s going to hurt like hell.  And that means a prolonged visit by two really annoying relatives – Aunt Expectation and Uncle Deprivation.

So, for all of those who are hoping that a “Throw the Bums” out movement come November will make everything in America right as rain, lot’s of luck with that.  First, the bums rush ain’t gonna happen.  Congressional reelection rates have been averaging 90%-94% plus for several decades.  Even the 1994 Republican Revolution resulted in an incumbent defeat rate of less than 10%.  If, on the off chance, this November produces a changeover in the 10%-20% range (at the extreme – that’s 80 seats) it will hardly constitute a thorough housecleaning.

Second, even if we started over with a 100% new Congress (and imagine the fun with all those newbies on Capitol Hill—the lobbyists will think they’ve died and gone to paradise and their 77 legislative virgins) trust in government will not, Q.E.D., return.   Until the economy goes back up (meaning unemployment goes down and household economic security as measured by buying power and  mortgage viability goes up) trust stays low.  And until the middle class economic miracle of the 1940s-1950s get’s replicated again, trust never returns to the glory days of yesteryear.

Meanwhile, for those Progressives and Liberals hoping that things will tilt their way once the unpleasantness of the 2010 midterm is behind them, lot’s of luck with that, too.  The economic downturns of the 1970s & 1980s turned America from a center-left New Deal society to a Center-Right Reagan Revolution land.  Baring a quick turn around in the economy—or, worse, a further downturn—America becomes a plain old right society.   Which should give the GOP another grand decade or two of prominence before shifting demographics undercuts it.

Most pundits have fretted about the American left becoming like the European left.  They should be equally concerned if the decline in trust and middle class economic insecurity results in the American left becoming more like the European right.

Roasted Pork

Loyal reader LJdiver posted the following comment to my “Tea Partiers Unite” blog:

ljdiver Says: Here is the 2010 list of pork!

Consider your tax dollars well spent!

Intrigued, I followed the link.  According to the Citizens Against Government  Waste (America’s self-described #1 taxpayer watchdog) :

The Congressional Pig Book is CAGW’s annual compilation of the pork-barrel projects in the federal budget.  The 2010 Pig Book identified 9,129 projects at a cost of $16.5 billion in the 12 Appropriations Acts for fiscal 2009.  A “pork” project is a line-item in an appropriations bill that designates tax dollars for a specific purpose in circumvention of established budgetary procedures.  To qualify as pork, a project must meet one of seven criteria that were developed in 1991 by CAGW and the Congressional Porkbusters Coalition.

Now let’s see, the total Federal Budget for 2010 was $3.55 trillion .  That would make the pork percentage of the budget–lessee—divide $16.5 billion…carry the two…My gosh – how outrageous!  That means that–are you ready for this, outrage in hand–the percentage of pork in the Federal Budget is .0046478873 or, to round it , five-hundredths of one percent.  My Lord, if only we cut all that pork out we’d only have to find another trillion or two to balance the budget!

My point in all of this is not to justify government waste no matter how trivial it all amounts to in the big scheme of things.  Government can be more efficient, no doubt about it.  (As can Wall Street in handling what’s left of my 403(b) and me in handling my food to exercise ratio.)

I do have two beefs with the most vocal of the  anti-pork crowd, though.  First, given that, according to the CAGW figures,  my Nonfat milk has more fat in it that the Federal Budget  I’ve got to question why it’s worth spending so much time and effort on attacking government for the money it shouldn’t spend rather than attack it for not spending the money it does more effectively?  (Unless, of course, all these pork-attacks are a smoked pork screen to hide the real agenda of these “save the taxpayer” advocates which is to attack ALL government spending. In which case the argument being waged is purely ideological and not fiscal.)

Second, must one person’s pork is another person’s well-balanced meal.  I grabbed one of the CAWG’s “pork” items completely at random from the list. It’s $200,000 for:

KidsPeace, Altamonte Springs, KidsPeace Florida Therapeutic Foster Care Program (Juvenile Justice)

The earmark was sponsored by Florida Senator Bill Nelson.  Now, I can see where some might consider Therapeutic care for foster kids a big waste of time.  I mean, if anybody really cared about them they’d have real parents, wouldn’t they?  Are there no prisons?  Are there no workhouse for they likes of them?

You get my drift.

So LJDiver, I can’t really say I consider this piece of pork to be necessarily badly spent.  As for the list as a whole I repeat, $16.9 billion in pork is something to think about cutting.  But slaughtering a piglet that small just ain’t gonna feed the whole Deficit family.

The Golden (Door) Rule

I scratched my head last week when San Diego County’s Board of Five  (or you may know them by one of their other handles like “The Gang That Couldn’t Say No To Back Country Development,”  “The Cast of That Seventies Show Minus The Ethnic Guy Now All Grown Up And Republican,” or their street name, “Cinco Blancos”) said a close “nyet” to  the Merry Merriam Quite Contrarian ( to existing density, traffic flow, environmental impact and fire safety plans) Mountain proposal.  I mean, what’s another 2,700 rural houses after the last three decades of wilderness-conquering expansion?

Sure, the Merriam Mountain project violated the General Plan.  Sure it raised the hackles of the local yokels who thought that rural meant rural and not suburban on its way to mid-city urban.  When has that mattered a pallet of building materials in theis county? So when the 3:2 thumbs down came down, bringing the Mountain down with it, you could have knocked me over with an 18kt Golden Door Charm available from the Golden Door Boutique (a steal for only $780).

So you can imagine my surprise when I read that it wasn’t the locals that brought down the mountain. It wasn’t the General Plan or safety concerns that kept them from paving paradise.  The tipping point in the debate was the fact that the spa of spas of the hoity and the toity, owned by the Blackstone Group, the equity company of equity companies for the wellest heeled of the wellest heeled (You know the Blackstone Group—the place retired Bushes go to get really, really rich and not the paltry rich being an oilman or President of the United States makes you?)  was in a snit about so many common rabble moving in within a shiatsu massage of their hallowed grounds.

Whodda thunk it?

So now local grannies can stitch samplers for all our kitchen walls with the new San Diego Golden (Door) Rule:  “Mega-Equity Money Does On To Smaller Developer Money as Smaller Developer Money does on to  Neighborhood Interests.”

And that, class, concludes our Easter Weekend Moral Philosophy Session.

Like Rick Steves—With Bombs

So I can now add another entry to my list of  “Places The Luna Family Has Been That Have Later Been Bombed.”  Some people pick up little shot glass or thimble souvenirs to commemorate their travels.  The Luna Family?  We bring back memories of future terrorist sites.

I’m not kidding.

Back in August of 1999 when we first arrived in Russia, the Von Luna Family, ready to sing and frolic their way through the hills of the former Soviet Heartland (note: there are almost no hills in the former Soviet Heartland),  landed in Moscow.  (Second note: Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow makes Buffalo International Airport look like the Ritz…). We spent the next day, before training 300 miles east to Nizhny Novgorod where I’d be lecturing for the next year, seeing some of the Moscow sights.  After walking all around Red Square we stopped off—me, the wife, four daughters and grandma—at the glitzy Manezh Mall at the foot of the Red Square  to get out of the heat and get something to eat.  We dined downstairs at the food court, having our first dinner—and only bad meal–of our stay at a little Russian takeout.  We finished eating and walked back to our hotel, the Belgrad, out on the Garden Ring Road.  Walking up the pedestrian shopping street, the Arbat, we heard all these sirens going off.  Reaching the Ring Road we saw dozens of official vehicles, lights flashing, going by.  We got back up into our rooms and turned on the TV.

A bomb had just exploded in downtown Moscow.  By the Kremlin.  In the Manezh Mall.  In the food court. It went off about twenty minutes after we had left.  The next time I was in the mall—about a month later—I could see from the repair work where the bomb had gone off—about twenty feet from where we’d been sitting.  While we were blissfully enjoying a bad meal an explosive device had been ticking down a few yards away.  The blast injured dozens of people.

I didn’t take it personally.  I didn’t think whomever placed the bomb was gunning for one lowly American community college professor and his family.  A radical anti-consumerist group claimed responsibility for the blast the next day, claiming they were protesting the corrupting influence of Western consumerism on the Russian spirit.  A few days later bigger bombs ripped through three apartment complexes in three Russian cities killing almost three hundred people.  The Yeltsin government blamed Chechen terrorists for the apartment bombings as well, belatedly, for the Moscow mall blast.  The second Chechen War had begun.

Since then we can put pins in “look what just blew up” map for both the March, 2004 Madrid train station (we were there summer 2000) and the 2005 Edgware  Road Tube Station bombing (we stayed in London about three blocks from the station during the summer of 2004, using it daily.)

Now I can add Monday’s  terrorist bombing at the Moscow Lubyanka metro station.  My daughter and I passed through the station several times in 1999/2000 during one of our many forays into Moscow that year.   Detsky Mir (Children’s World) Moscow’s premier department store for kids—a truly wondrous place—is just off the station.  So is the infamous Lubyanka—the KGB’s notorious headquarters into whose bowels thousands of prisoners disappeared ‘nere to be seen again.

(I always found that juxtaposition:  a wonderful children’s department store across the street from a heinous secret police headquarters to particularly apropos in underscoring the contradictions that  are Russia.  That and the way  the GUM Mall—the ultimate symbol of western capitalist consumerism—is reflected in the polished granite of Lenin’s tomb. Or the fact that, in Nizhny, there was a big prison directly across the street from the University I taught at. )

So, if your planning a trip any time soon you might want to run your itinerary by me to see if we Lunas have been there.  If we have, there seems to me more than an outside chance that it might blow up…

Give Thanks

As traditional as pumpkin and leak  pie and turkey with jalapeno nigiri stuffing  , I serve up to you, faithful City Beat readers, my annual Thanksgiving blog.  Bon Appétit and have a happy day.

It is time, once again, for the traditional National day of Thanksgiving, left to us by our Pilgrim forbears . Of course the Pilgrims were a branch of the English Puritan movement, violent revolutionaries who triumphed in the English Civil War of the 1640s, overthrew their king, cut of his head and, under their leader Oliver Cromwell, established history’s first modern military dictatorship. Well, no-one is perfect. (The Puritans, as you may also recall, were also big on authoritarian Democracy, meaning the community could chose its leaders but, once doing so, no-one had the right to dissent, for to dissent was to put oneself in Rebellion against the will of the community, which was a big no no — hence the Cromwell dictatorship. (I’m sure that little historical fact, even more than the turkey and pumpkin pie, makes the Puritan holiday all the more special for the Anne Coulters of America!)

Beyond such historical musings, of all our national days of celebration and solemnity this day stands out because it gives us all a moment to pause and consider the fact that none of us–even in this age of rugged individualist capitalism and ubermensch conservatism–are completely the masters of our own destiny. Each of us owes, in no small part, whatever we have to be thankful for to the divine provenance that guides us and to the community of our fellow men whom support us, without which we would be left to struggle alone as do the beasts of wood and glen.

There are numerous reasons for we as a nation to give thanks. There are, of course, Thanksgiving’s 3 F’s (family, food and football) and the big S (shopping!) to be thankful for. Now, purists, please, least you bemoan the commercialization of Thanksgiving, do know that, as a holiday, it only really took off once it became firmly associated by the rising retail department stores of turn of the 20th century America with Christmas shopping, so the After-Thanksgiving sale is legitimately just as much a part of the tradition as the Turkey and Pilgrims in funny buckle hats (which they never really wore – nor did they eat turkey—you want a traditional Thanksgiving slap Bambi on that platter–but enough icon popping.) There are worse things than living in a country with a McDonalds or Starbucks on every corner, and one of those is living in a country too poor to afford a McDonalds or Starbucks on any corner.

Here are a few other less jocular notions you might reflect on while cataloging your list of things to give thanks for over the past year:

If your child is not one of the ten million American children—almost one in five– living in poverty, give thanks. If you are one of America’s 2 million millionaires, give thanks. If you are one of America’s 228 billionaires, give a lot of thanks.

If you are not one of the 40 million Americans, including over two million with severe disabilities, who have no health insurance, give thanks. If you are one of the 45 million Americans still covered by a pension plan, give thanks.

If you were not one of the 50 million Americans downsized over the last twenty years, give thanks. If you are a CEO with an average compensation of over $10 million dollars–250 times the average pay of your corporate worker–give thanks. If your are part of the 30% of American workers able to save for future, give thanks. If you are not one of the 30% of American workers barely making enough to get by on, give thanks.

If you are one of the 50,000 families with estates large enough to have to pay federal estate taxes last year (only 2% of all estates) give thanks. Paying taxes on wealth beats all heck out of simply being poor. If you are in the top 5% households that own 59% of all our Nation’s wealth, give thanks. If you are in the top 1% of households that own almost 40% of our National wealth, just give a big old mess of thanks. You own 200 times as much as all of the people in the bottom 40% of households combined.

And, finally, if you are not one of the two million Americans in military uniform, or hundreds of thousands wearing a police badge or firefighting gear, give thanks for the valor and sense of duty of those who are.

  Last but not least, if by the end of the Obama administration I can deduct at least a few of these thankful items off the list,  then we can all give an extra helping of thanks.

Are You Listening, Mr. Prager?


One of the fascinating aspects of blogging to me is the way discussion threads can pick up and continue months (or more than a year, in this case) after the original post and thread were generated.  Such is the case with my post from March, 2009, taking AM talk jock Dennis Prager to task for stating that racism played no role in the incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent during  WWII.  I’ve had two recent comments to the post (which already has received more comments than most posts to my humble blog typically do) in as many months.  The latest  comment came in last week:  I’ve included it below.

As it turns out, Mr. P was on the radio again today as it happens, stating that anti-Hispanic racism in America, in his experience, simply doesn’t exist.  My only conclusion is that his experience with American Hispanics is limited, at best.  True story:  years ago when we moved into our new house my wife called the Chula Vista Penny’s to see about having a salesperson come out to the house to give us a bid on draperies we needed installed.  The clerk asked her what her  name was:  Jeanne Luna.  The clerk was silent for a moment, then proceeded to tell my wife how expensive window treatments could be and asked several times did she think she could actually afford them.  The clerk refused to make an appointment to send someone out to our house at that point, telling my wife to call back when she had thought about it more.   My wife was puzzled by the treatment until she connected the dots.  Last name “Luna.”  Calling from the Southbay.  Lightbulb goes on.  The clerk thought my wife must have been a Latina. (What else could a person in San Diego named “Luna” be?  Oh, that’s right.  Italian, in this case.)  Therefore she must be poor.  (What else would a Latina be?  Oh, that’s right, maybe middle class.)  My wife got really steamed, not at being confused with being Latina but with the treatment she got—or any person would have gotten–for being presumed to be a Latina.  She called the Penny’s manager, described the situation and got a vigorous apology and an offer of compensation for her treatment—discount coupons.  She thanked him but declined.  Penny’s lost our business that day.  That, Mr. Prager, was anti-Hispanic racism in practice.  Perhaps if Dennis’ last name was Martinez he would have a broader depth of experience on this matter.  But I digress.)

My point in my post was not that Prager was wrong in his macro-assertion that the US is one of the least racist countries in human history.  Indeed, given the amount of racial diversity in America, the  ability of this country to surmount its racial divisions is perhaps unmatched by any other society in the modern age.  My beef was (and is) that, in denying the role of racism in the treatment of Japanese Americans,  Prager basically was saying (and keeps saying) that there is no real racism in America at all.  That  argument does a gross injustice to those who have experienced real racism in American history, who continue to experience the consequences of racism today, and who have struggled and sacrificed  past and present to eliminate racism from American society.  JB, who posted her comment below, apparently agrees:

To accurately participate in this dialogue, I must tell you a story — a true story:
My father, a very young white male, marched out of Indiana and into Europe in August of 1944 — in October of 1944, he was surrounded in the Vosges Mountains of Eastern France. Trapped for almost a week, they had run out of ALL supplies and their situation was desperate. Several prior unsuccessful attempts at rescue had failed when the men of the 442nd “Go For Broke” Regiment were sent in to rescue them. These men refused to give up until they had successfully rescued my father and 210 other men — it took almost a week of vicious fighting, some of it hand-to-hand, in bitter winter weather —- their casualties (KIA and wounded) would surpass the number of men they rescued. They accomplished what two other units of “white” soldiers had not been able to achieve —– why —- because they refused to give-up until their mission was completed —- because as one veteran told me: “They were fellow American soldiers and we were their last hope” Another 442nd Veteran told me that as they walked up into the mountains to rescue my Dad, they passed other soldiers walking down from the mountain who told them: “Don’t go up there — you will get killed” But, they marched on and because of their stoic dedication and bravery, my sister and I were able to know and love our Dad —- we still carry memories of him in our hearts —- memories that would not have been but for the bravery of the 442nd. The enormity of the gift that these men gave to our family still resonates some 65 years later. The moral of this story is this: Many of the men of the 442nd that rescued my Dad came from the concentration camps that you are discussing — yes — concentration camps — let’s call them what they were — it is important to do that — let’s not sanitize the word — they walked out of those camps to serve the very country that had turned it’s back on them. Shame. Shame. Shame on us and thank God for them. Today, these same men speak very little of their experiences — (they are dedicated to remembering those friends they left behind laying under the marble crosses in the Military Cemeteries in Europe) — these men came home, reclaimed their families from the afore-mentioned concentration camps, surveyed what little property and businesses they had left, and set about rebuilding their lives — over the past 65 years, their contributions to this country have continued as they have served all of us as lawyers, doctors, businessmen, farmers, teachers, artists, and, politicians and, above all esle, loyal American citizens —- the latter the title is the one that they covet above all else — they raised families without a hint or moment of bitterness — their stories left untold until just recently — stories that are difficult to tell and even more difficult to absorb —- such gallant men — so gentle — so honorable —- could we have done the same — would we have served so well? Let’s not devalue their contributions to this nation by sanitizing the words we use to discuss their situation — they were racially discriminated against — Period —— but, as a community they can teach us all a lesson in humility and loyalty — that is, for those of us willing to listen ——- Are you listening, Mr. Nolan —– Mr. Prager ???

I thank JB for her personal story.  And I must ask, are you listening, Mr. Prager?  Or the Pragerites who commented on this post?

Doing the Half-Latella


I was delighted that no less a figure than Lani “Tax This!” Lutar herself took the time to respond to my humble (and, as in this case, bumbled) blog. The Dean of San Diego Tax Dissers (that’s right, Dick Ryder’s only a deputy dean) wrote a comment on my blog about the SDCTA municipal pension plan report–401k(illed)–in her usual elegant, intelligent and reasoned prose. (And I am very sincere in this. The LL C(ool)EO of San Diego fiscal frugality is always elegant, intelligent and reasoned. Which really just annoys the heck out of me! I mean, who wants to argue with someone who is always so darn elegant, intelligent and reasoned! Now kitschy Bob Kittle—arguing with him was absolutely guilt-free enjoyment! Miss you, big guy. Arguing with LL is just uncool—especially when she’s right and I’m plain wrong. Or, at least, partially wrong.) I copy her response in its entirety below to save you time, dear reader:

Dear Professor Luna:

Thank you for highlighting our report in your blog. We welcome dialogue and debate on public pensions at any time, especially with those that disagree with our viewpoint.

Please allow me to clarify a few inaccurate statements in your post.

“The only thing the report lacks is empirical proof of its basic thesis: that pension costs are driving tax increases in specific instances.”

If you read my quote in Calpensions ( I clearly communicate that pensions are not the only factor contributing to sales tax increase proposals. In both our press release and the pension report, we “link” pension costs and efforts to increase taxes. This is an observation—and nowhere in either document does it state that pension costs alone cause tax increases.

I will concede that we were comfortable highlighting the link between pension costs and tax increases because of fact-based knowledge from time series analysis we conducted in recent years for the cities with the highest pensions costs including El Cajon, La Mesa, National City and Chula Vista (all available on our website). We should’ve communicated this historical background more clearly within our report.

You also note our report is long on recommendations.

Actually, we have only two simple recommendations:
1. Cities should stop picking up the employees’ share of pension contributions.
2. Retirement benefit formulas should be reduced for new hires.

We never state anywhere in the report that defined benefit plans should be replaced with defined contribution plans (401k). And please stop putting words in our mouth: We do not claim that vested retirement benefits should be taken away from municipal workers.

You can argue that asking employees to contribute to their defined benefit plan is a backdoor way of asking for a pay cut. That is true. However, let me point you to page 26 and 28 of our report which debunks your notion that the only way public employees can contribute to their pension plans is via a 401k.

The purpose of our report is to shed light on the generous benefits and significant costs of public pensions provided to municipal employees. When pension costs alone consume 10% or more of a city’s general fund, everyone – city workers included – should be concerned about sustainability and solvency. An insolvent city or city on the brink of bankruptcy hurts communities and public workers.

Another important point you miss is that the majority of public workers contribute little to nothing toward their pensions and their retirement pay is boosted as a result of this practice. Rather than earning a $67,500 annual pension from a 3% @ age 60 formula in the example of a city administrator with 30 years of service, the employee would get an 8% increase in annual pension payments – or $72,900 – because they’re contributing nothing toward their retirement. Yes, you’re reading this correctly. In a bizarre twist, the less an employee pays into their CalPERS plan, the greater the benefit they receive upon retirement. Now that is lunacy.


Lani Lutar
, President & CEO
, San Diego County Taxpayers Association

Good points, all. As to the point about empirical evidence in the report (or my allegation of lack thereof) I concede a split opinion. Lani concedes the report was not as explicit as it might have been in providing more detailed empirical support of the linkage between pension funds and taxes. I, in return, concede I should have written that the SDCTA was asserting that “pension costs are a causal factor” rather than “pension costs are the causal factor.” But demonstrating how causal a factor pension costs are in increasing taxes is not a minor matter. The SDCTA report calls on municipal employees to pay a price in increased pension costs. Not delineating how big an impact current pension plans have on municipal fiscal policy makes it more difficult to assess whether the pain thereby inflicted on the households of these employees is offset by likely gains to taxpayers, said gains being, I took and take it, the purpose of the SDCTA recommendations.

Lani also calls me to task for saying the report was “long on recommendations” when, if fact, it only had two. True dat. Mine is the guilt of fumbled rhetorical flourish. What I meant was that he report’s recommendations have significant—some might say profound—implications for municipal employees and the hiring of future, talented municipal workers. There might only be two of them but they have potential major significance.

More importantly, though, the LL points out I blew a big one in stating the goal of the report was to move municipal employees away from defined-benefit to defined-contribution plans. I confess I misread the report. I went back to it and read and reread it and cannot find the paragraph I was so certain the report contained stating that future municipal employees should be moved from their current defined benefits plan into 401k style plans. I got that wrong, plain and simple. The report calls for changing benefit calculation formulas and requiring employee contributions, but not for an abolition of the current defined benefit system. Lani is right. (As were getreal and CJ) . I was wrong. Mea and Culpa.

Or, in the immortal words of Emily Latella,  “Never mind.”

I still, however, stick by my principal, philosophical objection to the SDCTA report. I agree with Lani that there may well be inequities within the current pension plan, such as some workers paying less into the system getting more.  (I’m still trying to untie that now and figure out just how it works). I would argue, though, that is an unfairness between current employees within the same system and not, expo facto, an unfairness in comparison with employees outside of the system. A fundamental assumption underlying the SDCTA report is that the current pension plans for municipal employees are unfair or inequitable compared to workers in the private sector because most municipal employees contribute less than most private-sector employees to their retirement and get more in return. I must differ.

The claim that municipal employees do not currently contribute to their pensions is wrong. They are contributing to their retirement plans, no matter how much is or isn’t taken out of their base or take-home pay to fund their retirement plans. They are contributing simply by the fact that they are working for the city. Their labor is their contribution. Their retirement plan is part of their compensation package for said labor, just like their take-home pay and health benefits.

As I wrote in the original post, it is true most private-sector workers don’t have the advantage of such a benefit package. To call the municipal employee’s pensions “generous,” however, is a subjective, not objective, comparison.  One might instead argue that most private-sector employees have ungenerous pensions compared wih the fair and reasonable pensions municipal workers have. The fact that far more private-sector employees used to have similar defined-benefit pensions and the fact that an increasing number of private-sector employees are finding their current defined-contribution plans wholly inadequate to provide for the retirement security they worked for and expected to receive argues, in my opinion, toward this latter observation.

So, I retract my statement that the SDCTA report called for the replacement of current defined-benefit municipal pension plans with 401k-style plans. I stand, however, by the basic point of my piece: the fundamental philosophy underlying the SDCTA report rests on the assumption that it is unfair to taxpayers for municipal workers to have pension plans better than most private workers. And this assumption is incorrect.

“You get what you pay for”—pay municipal workers less and you’ll attract less talented workers, as our local police and fire departments have reported. Saving taxpayers money by cutting back municipal workers pension compensation may save short-term monies but could also cost more in long-term performance and efficiency. Or is it only Wall Street CEOs making gazillions of dollars who respond to the incentive of better pay?

Moreover, I stand by my argument that calling the pensions of municipal workers unfair or too generous compared with private-sector workers is a reversal of the real problem. I contend it is unfair that private-sector workers have seen the value of their pensions (not to mention paychecks) decline for the past generation and that eventually giving everyone in America a retirement the likes of municipal workers would be a national good. Which would be better for San Diego taxpayers—reducing other people’s pensions or increasing their own, after all?

I remain, however, flattered that Lani took the time to comment on my blog at all. Hope to hear from you again, LL C(ool)EO.