Sunday, June 19, 2011

Post No. 166c: We Try Harder; Do We Really?


© 2009 and 2011, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

In what areas is the United States still No. 1? Was it ever? Or was this exalted status something we told ourselves to boost our sense of pride and accomplishment?

Just this week, CNN reported that the U.S. is No. 38 in terms of the life expectancy of its citizens, far behind many nations which are poorer, and spend far less on health care.

In a previous post about the mark made by political thought giant Irving Kristol, columnist David Brooks wrote something which struck us:

“He [Kristol] was unabashedly neoconservative. But he also stood apart, and directed his skeptical gaze even on his own positions, and even on the things to which he was most loyal… ‘There are no benefits without costs in human affairs,’ he once wrote. And so there is no idea so true and no movement so pure that it doesn’t require scrutiny. There was no position in this fallen world without flaws.”

A question might be raised as to whether it would be a good thing for us, as a Nation, to acknowledge that others have surpassed us in certain areas, or are nipping at our heels. There’s lots of rhetoric these days about our “great nation” and how this is the most powerful nation in the history of humankind.

But resting on one’s laurels has its problems, as does continuing to do things the same way, simply because they worked in the past, or through rigid adherence to a particular philosophy.

The Father of one of our friends claims that golfer Tiger Woods can cruise now in his career, “since he has already made his money.” But whether it is Tiger Woods, or legendary basketball star Larry Bird, the existence of talent without continuing effort, and a desire to excel, yields few championship trophies.

In order for the Road Runner to have existed all of these years, he had to outrun Wile E. Coyote everyday, and come up with new ways to “out-coyote” him.

His survival is dependent upon his speed and agility.

A couple of years ago we watched C-Span2 Book TV's coverage of the 2009 National Book Festival, founded by former First Lady Laura Bush in 2001. That such a festival was only started recently might come as a surprise to many, but may reflect something about us.

Many of us consider a good education and the ability to read as givens. Yet, the percentage of functionally illiterate citizens in America would probably shock most.

At least those of us who can read.

A friend of ours spent some time teaching courses at a community college. He often tells the story of a student who, while taking a math test, summoned him. He told her that he could not assist her.

She noted that the issue was not a math issue, but a word issue. When he looked at the problem, she pointed to the word “suspension,” and said she did not know its meaning. Without knowing its meaning, it was impossible for her to perform the calculation necessary.

In response to this revelation, our friend decided that even in his math classes, his students would learn 10 new words each day. After announcing his new policy to his night class and the reasons for the change, a student approached him after class, and said that he was one of the people about whom the instructor had spoken.

When our friend inquired as to what the student meant, the student related an amazing story. He said that although he was not very proud of it, he got kicked out of high school one month before graduation, and did not learn to read prior to that time.

Imagine an educational system where a student can be promoted for 12 years, and still not manage to read. And consider the fact that no one single factor, teacher, school, or system can be singled out for this travesty. They all had to work in concert with one another.

One of our other friends has been in collegiate and professional athletics for years. He has always contended that he’d rather have a bunch of C grade players who hustled and gave their best, than a team of A grade players who didn’t.

After listening to the introductory speakers during the opening ceremonies for National Book Festival, it occurred to us that we have a long way to go in getting the most out of our human resources, and that acknowledging that many of our current systems are perhaps not the best in the world, might be a good starting point.

For some reason, this line of thinking made us re-visit one of the longest running marketing slogans around, that for Avis Rent a Car, the number two agency behind number one Hertz. “We try harder.”

We did not know who started this campaign, but we had a suspicion, and looked it up. And yes, it turned out to be another Bill Bernbach masterpiece.

Its beauty is in its simplicity.

It’s neither un-American, nor un-patriotic to question our standing in the world, and investigate whether what we’ve been doing is really in the long-term, national, collective interest.

Societal responsibility is not dramatically different from personal responsibility. A nation can’t complain about its standing in the world, if it hasn’t done all that it can do to excel, and use its human resources to the fullest extent possible. That includes equipping all of its citizens with competitive tools, and ensuring that they are ready for the fight.

And that’s just plain Common Sense.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Post 166b: Article of Interest: School District Halts Sale of Flavored Milk



The following article appeared in the June 14, 2011 electronic edition of the Los Angeles Times.


L.A. Schools Halt Sale of Chocolate, Strawberry-Flavored Milk on Campuses

"The L.A. Unified School District Board of Education on Tuesday voted to stop providing chocolate or strawberry-flavored milk in school cafeterias as of July 1.

"The move makes L.A. the largest school system in the nation to pull flavored milks out of schools and is part of a larger push to make the food served at school more nutritious. L.A. Unified earlier banned sodas sales at schools.

"The district's new superintendent, John Deasy, said plain milk is a healthier option. Parents and some activists have long wanted the district to stop serving flavored milk, which has more sugar than plain milk."

To view the remainder of the article, click here.

What do you think of the school district's effort? Is it a responsible thing to do?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Post No. 166a: Something for Embattled Rep. Oscar Meyer to Consider


© 2009 and 2011, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

During recent weeks, the court of public opinion questioned the judgment of numerous prominent individuals.

In the case of several politicians, the talking heads debated whether they should resign. Most recently, many have taken a bite at Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democrat from New York. Weiner claims that instead of resigning, he will take a leave of absence.

We asked ourselves whether there is a principle potentially applicable to all such cases when the resignation issue arises.

Some urged resignation, others “staying the course.” Some characterized it as a “personal decision,” and still others said it should be left to the voters.

Pundits will debate for years whether Bill Clinton should have resigned before commencement of impeachment proceedings, and the long-term ramifications of his decision not to do so.

Alaska’s Gov. Palin resigned before anyone suggested that she do so, and she still caught flak for that. Nevada Sen. John Ensign hung on for the ride, and only recently announced that he would not seek re-election.

In each instance, many spoke of the judgment of the politicians involved (before and after the revelations of their questioned conduct), and whether their actions bear, in any way, on their ability to make “good judgments” while in office and on behalf of those who placed faith and trust in them.

In the recent cases of Nevada Sen. John Ensign, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Gov. Sarah Palin, and now Rep. Weiner, we listened to all of the views, and still did not have a concrete position. We debated the gravity of the conduct, whether the person still had something to offer to society, and whether his or her constituency might actually be the loser should they resign.

We thought about how society defines “judgment,” or more appropriately perhaps, “good judgment.” Whether it is situational and transient in nature, or permanent, and black and white.

A couple of years ago, a friend sent us the following, purportedly a question used as part of a job application, which made us think further about “judgment:”

“You’re driving down a winding, rain-slicked road on a dangerous, stormy night. You pass a bus stop where 3 people are waiting for the bus. One is an elderly woman who appears to be very ill. The 2nd is someone you recognize as a friend who once saved your life. The 3rd is someone who you, in hindsight, recognize you should have married years before. (They later revealed that given the opportunity, they would be now open to your entreaties.)”

“You have room in your sports car for only one other person. Which one would you offer a ride?”

Before sharing the answer of the successful applicant, we have another short story which might bear on whether politicians should resign after embarrassing conduct, which calls into question their judgment.

A regular reader found herself in dire straits a couple of years ago. Most of her life, she had the very best of everything: food, wine, education, exposure, homes, travel, and friends. However, during the last several years she found herself estranged from her family and struggling to make ends meet.

During an exchange at the time, she confided that she was initially confused as to what she should do in terms of her relationship with her minor son, and then she offered this:

“I’ve been flying in private planes since the age of 7. In thinking about my predicament, I recalled something said at the beginning of every flight. ‘Adults flying with minor children should put on their oxygen masks first, before trying to assist their children.’ I realized that I had to get my personal act together first before being able to assist, or be involved with, anyone else.”

It seemed like such a simple concept, and Common Sense. The more we thought about it, the more applicable it seemed to disgraced elected officials in the court of public opinion. At least it is something they should consider.

Back to our job applicant, you could justifiably pick up the elderly lady since her condition is the most precarious. Or you could pay back the friend who saved your life. Or you could pick up your mate and live happily ever after.

Our friend claims that the successful candidate, out of 200 who applied, indicated that you should give the car keys to the old friend and let him or her take the sick woman to the hospital, while you sit with the love of your life awaiting the bus.

One of the Senior Fellows here at the Institute suggested the driver run over the elderly woman, put her out of her misery, fulfill any unrequited desires with the love of your life, and then drive off with the friend who saved your life for some strawberry margaritas at Pancho’s on the Strand.

We haven’t advanced the discussion of what constitutes “good judgment,” have we? Hmmm, we imagine that it is open to debate.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Post No. 166: What the Ku Klux Klan Has to Say about Our Dependence on Foreign Oil


© 2011, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

Earlier this week, a Saudi prince called for lower oil prices. Some of you might be surprised at what his statement revealed about how the Middle East views us, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

There are two stories upon which we often reflect in thinking about “group dynamics,” one involving relatively large groups and the other about small groups.

The first involves black folks. During the early 1970s, the top R&B/urban music station in Atlanta had a very popular black DJ, who used a large number of recorded exchanges between fictional characters to send messages to his listeners.

The one which struck us most forcefully was the purported conversation between 2 Ku Klux Klan members saying that to accomplish their goals, they need not waste their time, energy and bullets, since they could simply “place their guns on the shelves; because those _____ are going to kill themselves.” The DJ was trying to get his fans to appreciate the damage to the black community brought on by, what sociologists and urban specialists refer to as, “black on black crime.”

The second story reveals how in some instances, members of a group may have good intentions and the same ultimate goal, but disagree about how to go about achieving that goal. A well-educated, sharp, upper middle class couple we know had a child who suffered from a congenital condition which caused the child to self-inflict injury.

When the child was young, the parents disagreed about the course of treatment to address the condition. The disagreements continued over the years as the child grew older, and the child’s self-destructive behavior became more intense.

Once the child approached puberty, and grew stronger physically, the parents could no longer handle the child themselves, and were forced to have the child restrained initially, and ultimately confined to an institution. Shortly thereafter, the parents divorced (significantly because of the disagreements regarding the treatment), and the child no longer had the benefit, if any there were, of a parental support team to battle his unfortunate condition.

To this day, the parents argue about the “correct” approach to treatment.

Getting back to the Saudi prince, whose grandfather was the founding king of modern day Saudi Arabia, Al-Waleed bin Talal said Sunday that he prefers that oil prices decline so that western industrialized nations do not accelerate efforts to become energy independent. According to an article on CNN.com:

"’We don't want the West to go and find alternatives, because, clearly, the higher the price of oil goes, the more they have incentives to go and find alternatives,’ said Talal, who is listed by Forbes as the 26th richest man in the world.”

Actually, it seems like a smart approach on the part of OPEC, if you're in the catbird seat.

We don’t know about you, but that a foreign nation or some other entity has us by the balls, and does not mince words while clearly expressing it to the world, should be disturbing to us all. What’s more interesting is the paucity of outrage on our part that someone would characterize our internal “group dynamics” in such a manner.

The reason that we really can’t complain is because it is the "truth," (which unfortunately, despite the claims of many Baby Boomers, shall not "set us free" from this addiction).

We have no one to blame but our collective selves.

And yet like the couple with the child, we argue and debate the manner in which we should “wean” ourselves off of foreign oil. And while debate is always good, at some point there has to be resolution, followed by action.

Imagine a team of doctors treating a heroin addicted patient, debating the treatment approach and trying their various, conflicting approaches as the rehab facility administration changes from time to time, while the patient continues to use heroin for 40 years.

Is the current state of affairs a function of our governance model? Payments by Big Oil to our politicians? The American consumer’s love affair with driving and the individual freedom which goes along with driving one’s own vehicle? Is there a class issue associated with urban mass transit?

We don’t know. We doubt that anyone really knows. But we do know that we can’t keep delaying finding solutions to problems while engaged in doctrinal debates for very much longer.

It will be the death of us, by more forces than just oil.

Perhaps the Common Sense and Compassion Party formed this year by one of regular followers, the Independent Cuss, has the “right idea.” According to their Party Platform:

“We believe that neither should one kill the goose which lays the golden eggs out of spite (the ideological left), nor should one kill his neighbor and feed him to the goose as an artificial growth hormone for increased egg production (the ideological right).

Where does it all end?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Post No. 165: BREAKING NEWS: President Obama Seen Cavorting with Someone other Than the First Lady



Today, we received an e-mail from the New York Times indicating that the House of Representatives had rejected an effort to increase the federal debt limit. The article was entitled, “Pressing Obama, House Bars Rise in Debt Ceiling.”

Many welcomed the event, and argued that it was a repudiation of the President’s efforts to transform our nation into a socialist state during a period of global economic stagnation, brought on solely by his Administration’s economic policies.

Apparently the President didn’t take the message very well, since he was seen cruising various D.C. bars.

According to Tim Teetotaler, at The Speakeasy in DuPont Circle, this was not the first time that the President visited his bar late at night. Confirming rumors, he said the President is typically accompanied by a female ostrich. The bartender went on to relate his first encounter with Obama.

On that occasion, the President said, "I'll have a beer; in fact the same brand of beer that was sent to the White House for the Harvard Professor – Cambridge Cop Beer Summit last year.” The bartender then turned to the ostrich, and asked, "What about you?"

"I'll have a beer too," said the ostrich, while the Secret Service detail surveyed the room, concerned about what observers might think about the President hanging out with a bird not native to America, and other than the American Bald Eagle.

The bartender claims that he served the pair and the tab was $6.40. The President turned to his trusted military aide carrying the “Nuclear Football,” and said, “Willy, reach into the side pocket of the satchel and pull out whatever money is there.”

Pursuant to the President’s instructions, the aide retrieved all of the money, which amounted to exactly $6.40.

The bartender claims that he next saw the President and the ostrich on the night when US forces successfully located and eliminated Osama bin Laden. The President ordered Champagne this time - a glass of 2010 Armand de Brignac.

The ostrich said she would have the same. After they completed their drinks, the bill amounted to $47.83. The President once again turned to Willy, asked to him to reach into the side pocket of the satchel, and pull out all the money. Willy, according to the bartender, pulled out exactly $47.83.

After the bin Laden mission, this became a regular, nightly routine, and whenever the bartender saw the two approaching, he simply asked, "The usual?" On each occasion, Willy took care of the tab by simply reaching into the pocket. Even when the price of the Champagne increased, the aide still pulled out the exact amount needed, even though he was not informed of the increase.

According to Teetotaler, last night following the House vote, a despondent President came in, and ordered Sauza Blue Reposado.

"Same for me," said the ostrich, with a subdued tone and a Southern drawl.

"That will be $29.20," said the bartender.

Once again the aide pulled out the exact change.

The bartender thought that since the President’s guard might be down, it might be a good time to address his curiosity about the President having just enough money in the pocket to match the amount of the bill.

"Excuse me, Mr. President, but may I ask perhaps an impertinent question?” “Sure,” replied the President.

“How does your aide manage to always come up with the exact change for your expenditures out of the side pocket of that satchel, every single time?"

“First of all, let it be clear that although the taxpayers pick up the tab for my drinks, they do not pay for the ostrich’s. But to get to the crux of your question, several years ago I was cleaning the attic with Michelle and the girls, and found an old Middle Eastern lamp. When I rubbed it, a Genie appeared and offered me four wishes, three of which I made in a family, group setting.”

“My first wish was that I be elected President when the nation was in a perilous state, so that I could prove how effective a smart guy could really be as President.”

“My second wish was that if I, or the nation, ever needed to pay for anything, I could just put my hand in the side pocket of the satchel carrying the Nuclear Football, and sufficient funds would be there."

"That's brilliant!" said the bartender. "Most people would wish for a specific amount of money, but you'll always be as rich as you want for as long as you live!"

"Well, so one would think,” said the President. “Whether it was a gallon of milk, a new home in Hyde Park, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or MediCare, the exact money was always there," said the President.

"That's fantastic!" said the bartender. "It’s clear why they call you 'The Anointed One.'”

“Not so fast my friend. My third wish was that I locate and eliminate Osama bid Laden during my first term.”

The bartender said, “Sir, obviously you are on a roll. But you’ve been more than generous in sharing with me things which are obviously personal in nature; consequently I would not dare ask about the fourth wish, which you did not share with your family.”

“But there's one thing I still don't understand. What's with the ostrich?"

According to the bartender, the President replied "I was afraid that you would ask that. My fourth wish was for a chick with long legs."

The bartender commiserating with the President, and trying to switch the subject said, “I heard about your defeat in the House earlier today. Obviously that is what drove to you to order this very potent tequila.”

The President responded, “That’s the least of my concerns. The House vote suggests that Rupert Murdoch finally got to the Genie, who cancelled my unlimited funds capabilities. But that’s just a political problem, which a sharp politician can handle.”

“I’m drinking tequila because I can’t figure out how to explain the ostrich to Michelle, and Bill Clinton has been absolutely no help at all.”

© 2011, the Institute for Applied Common Sense (Well sorta, some of this is in the public domain).

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