Monday, November 16, 2009

Culture of Death

A couple of months ago, the town of Farmville, VA, where I live, was shocked by the senseless murder of four people. In April 2007, 32 people were shot to death in the Virginia Tech Massacre. Ten years earlier the nation was rocked by the mass killing at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO.

Drive-by shootings, gang members killing rival gang members and innocent bystanders—the list of these senseless murders being perpetrated by young adults and often upon other young adults has grown to epidemic proportions. Everyone is asking the same question, why?

You hear the common refrains—ready access to guns, bullying, lack of self esteem, unrealized potential, child abuse, and the stress of a modern world filled with violence.

Now that Halloween is over—a formerly obscure holiday that now overshadows Thanksgiving and is second in retail sales only to Christmas—let me suggest that the problem can best be attributed to the growing culture of death in America.

The slow boil began decades ago and steadily we have been turning up the heat. In 1972, it became legal and even vogue to take the life of an innocent unborn child. In our own calloused way, we refer to aborted babies as fetuses, but of course those carried to full term are still called babies.

In 1999, Dr. Jack Kevorkian was sentenced to prison for assisting terminally-ill people in hastening their deaths. Contrast that to the voters in the states of Oregon and Washington approving legalized assisted killing. Consider that just this year several versions of proposed health care reform bills contained provisions for “end-of-life counseling.”

Most people are unaware that only a small percentage of World War II and Korean War combatants ever pulled the trigger of their guns or shot at their enemy. That figure went over 50% in Vietnam, and in recent conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan, as many as 90% of the veterans have actually shot their guns with the intent to kill their targets. This is not a normal human reaction and the military knows this. That is why they use video games to desensitize soldiers and condition them to instinctively react to their enemy by aiming their guns and pulling the trigger.

Other significant changes in the last 40-50 years include the actions of secular humanists who have successfully removed prayer from schools, taken Jesus Christ out of Christmas and turned Easter into a holiday about bunnies and colored eggs. All the while, America has turned a deaf ear and a blind eye to the increasing presence of the occult in our culture. The fun and frivolity of Halloween makes light of the fact that there are serious practitioners of the occult who actively promote the culture of death. The Harry Potter books about a student of witchcraft are worldwide best sellers and a new Twilight book series features heroes and heroines who are vampires.

When I was a kid, the pastors were decrying rock and roll as the devil’s music and we all laughed. Surely, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones weren’t seriously singing about having real “Sympathy for the Devil.” Back masking subliminal messages about taking drugs was just innocent play like the Paul-McCartney-is-dead spoof. Yes, I scoffed in the day, but as I look back and then look forward to what music and lyrics say today, the slippery slope indeed has become a precipitous cliff. The suspect in the Farmville murder was a musician in the growing genre of death core music where the lyricists obsess about death and murdering people. The weekend before the murders took place, the suspect and the victims had all driven together to Detroit to attend the Strictly for the Wicked concert.

Something else has changed in our culture that leaves a vacuum in the minds of young people into which the culture of death swoops in to take over. When I was a kid if I talked back to my parents or did not do what I was told, there were consequences. Those usually took the form of a spanking or a quick whack of the back of the hand. The pain was short lived and I was never “abused,” but I knew my boundaries and I had respect for my parents and elders in general. In an acute overreaction to horrific cases and all too often ignored child abuse, psychologists and schools have effectively purged society of all forms of corporal punishment. Children are removed from families and placed in foster care when there is a mere hint that a spanking took place. Classrooms are out of control, leaving many teachers playing amateur diagnosticians and collaborating with doctors to get students medicated into submission. At a local juvenile detention center an officer was recently hospitalized because he was not allowed to defend himself against his juvenile attacker. Maybe we should heed the warning in Proverbs 23:13 & 14, “Don’t fail to discipline your children. They won’t die if you spank them. Physical discipline may well save them from death.” (NLT)

Beyond removing discipline from our homes and schools, our culture has also made a mockery of parents and parenting. So-called non-traditional parents are held up as shining examples. The so-called non-traditional families are held up as role models. The role of the father as head of the household has been dismissed as a relic of a sexist stone age. This is most evident on television where fathers are mocked as bumbling idiots who depend on everyone else in the family for the most elemental decisions.

The culture of death has a firm grip on our society, but there is a way forward. It is time for the societal pendulum to swing back the other way. I do not favor more regulations. Ratings of movies, music, and video games have done nothing to reduce the violence among young people today. What we need is for parents to be parents. High standards, yes, dare I say moral values, are a good thing that should be reincorporated into family life. Corporal punishment in and of itself does not constitute abuse. In fact, a case can be made that too little discipline can be as bad for the psyche as excessive physical abuse. And parents shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that all they need to do is be their child’s friend. You are a parent and a parent cannot be a good friend and a good parent too. And, I don’t care what society says today, a married father and a mother still make the best parental unit. Whether you believe in intelligent design or the theory of evolution, a mother and father is the accepted definition of “parents” that has stood the test of time.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

When a Deal is Not a Deal

I am not a big fan of outrageous salaries. 99.99% of Americans will never get the opportunity to earn fat-cat paychecks of 8 or 9 figures (that’s $10 to $100 million a year or more), and at first blush, some of these compensation packages seem downright un-American.

However, this is America is it not? This is the land of opportunity where anybody who works hard and is fortunate and honest can achieve their highest aspirations whether it be President of the United States or just plain old filthy rich. Last time I checked being rich and successful is not in and of itself illegal or even un-American.

I must admit I have found myself even pondering the notion that I could run a major bank, or a telecommunications firm, or an insurance company. Yeah, two years at $10 million or more ought to do it. Then I could retire without a care or worry in the world.

But, do I really want to be responsible for thousands of employees and millions of customers, or answer to the stockholders and regulators, or fend off con artists and groupies, or work 18 hour days without a day off, or feel like everyone around you only likes you for your money? No, the money sounds nice, but that is where the appeal ends.

So, what is it with America’s fascination with corporate salaries? Why is it that we all feel that nobody in business should be making that kind of money? And it is big money. According to the AFL-CIO, Americas 100 highest paid CEOs start at over $17 million per year and top out at more than $133 million per year. By any measure, those are outlandish compensation packages even if much of the pay is based on performance and paid in stock options.

But, there should be equal outrage at the top-20 highest paid baseball players whose 2007 salaries, according to ESPN, range from almost $14 million per year to $26 million per year. Ninety eight players in MLB made $8 million or more in 2007, and to my knowledge none of them could even hit a baseball 4 out of 10 times at bat.

The liberal pundits also should be talking about the top-20 NFL players who earn from $12 million to nearly $28 million per year for throwing, catching or running with a pig skin. Will any professional athlete ever discover the cure to cancer, or invent the next piece of technology that will make life better for people all over the world, or create jobs that bring people out of poverty and into prosperity? Probably not.

But, America wanted “change” in Washington, DC, and now we have it. We have dozens of newly created Presidential appointed positions called “czars.” Well paid czars I might add. In a strange twist of irony, one of these new positions is called the “pay czar.” Under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), pay czar Kenneth Feinberg has explicit legal authority to cut the salaries of, even “claw back” payments already paid out to, executives at seven companies: American International Group, Bank of America Corp, Citigroup, General Motors, Chrysler, GMAC, and Chrysler Financial. Even more striking is the power the pay czar claims to have to cut and/or claw back the pay of executives at any company that received federal bailout money under TARP.

No matter how much I dislike ridiculously high salaries, it seems to me to be abhorrent that any government official would take it upon themselves to unilaterally decide whose paycheck is too big or what an individual ought to earn. I agree that nobody should get an exorbitant paycheck for running a business into bankruptcy, but the decision to hire and fire or to cut a CEO’s pay and by how much is appropriately within the purview of that company’s Board of Directors, not the government.

Some say that because a company received federal bailout money, it is appropriate for government to decide what the CEO gets paid. Really? Next I suppose we will be hearing that government should set the wages for the workers too, or set production levels and the price of the products. This is the slippery slope some people warned us about when we started all this government bailout spending.

It would be different if the companies who took assistance from the federal government were told ahead of time that the government may come back and retroactively set salaries and even take back money already paid out to executives. But, that was not part of the deal. George W. Bush supported TARP because he felt that the financial industry was too important to the rest of the economy to let the big financial institutions fail, but he did not want nor intend to dictate how those businesses were to be operated. President Obama, on the other hand, wants to control businesses and make day-to-day decisions for corporate offices and officers. Reading this writing on the wall is probably why Goldman Sachs and Bank of America wanted to pay back the TARP money last spring and why Obama would not let them pay back the money “early.” President Obama wanted control and nothing controls like the purse strings.

It used to be in America that a deal was a deal. People could be taken at their word and that contracts meant something. In the case of the TARP, there are only provisions for the government to control the salaries of executives at seven companies (American International Group, Bank of America Corp, Citigroup, General Motors, Chrysler, GMAC, and Chrysler Financial). But, this Administration has assumed authority to go beyond those seven companies and has even “fired” one CEO. They have exerted authority where they have none. They have changed the terms of the deal unilaterally. They are making value judgments about business practices about which they have little experience or knowledge.

I will not defend what certainly appear to be excessive salaries for CEOs who run companies into the ground and then step into the government trough with all four feet. Somehow though I am equally offended at the notion of some bureaucrat deciding on a whim what constitutes fair compensation and taking back salaries and bonuses after the fact. In my view, the recent actions of the Obama Administration are indeed as unscrupulous as the very CEOs they wish to demonize.