The Purpose of Life

God’s command to subdue the earth means for us to have mastery over it, all of it. But true mastery of anything cannot be accomplished without a thorough understanding of the thing to be mastered. With the authority to rule comes responsibility, the responsibility to rule well.


“He who dies first with the most toys wins!” Maybe you’ve heard this once-popular saying, maybe not. Maybe you laughed when you first heard it. If you’re old enough, maybe you saw it on a bumper sticker back in the 80s and laughed. If you did laugh, maybe you thought, “Well, hell, what else is there really?”

This saying is a quote originally attributed to the flamboyant millionaire, Malcolm Forbes. Forbes was an American entrep- reneur who was prominently known as the publisher of Forbes magazine, a business that he inherited from his wealthy father. He was also known as an avid promoter of free market, laissez faire capitalism. He was known too for an extravagant lifestyle, for throwing large, expensive parties for his wealthy friends, for travel and for his collections of homes, yachts, aircraft, art, motorcycles, and Fabergé eggs.

Forbes’ quote serves to sum up the attitude of people like him, people who tend to be more hedonistic. They see life in terms of opportunities for self-indulgence, for pleasure. Me first, they think, my family and friends next – all who serve me, care for me, comfort me, and those who pleasure me. To these types of people, everybody else is just a potential friend/ally or a potential adversary /competition. True hedonists like Forbes believe that this is the highest good and proper aim of human life. I whole- heartedly disagree. I’m a Christian. I am also a Democrat.

I taught a lesson to second graders today. The subject was biodiversity – a compound word, I taught my students – the first part, bio, meaning life, the second part, diversity, meaning many different kinds. The lesson wasn’t really about life; it was about learning to learn. It was about having an open mind, learning to think critically, learning how to compare and contrast. The lesson included an exercise:  comparing and contrasting two different life forms, animals and plants. Yes, second graders are smart enough for this kind of learning, and they’re able to grasp these ideas if the information is presented to them in ways to which they can relate.

I shared with my students how, when I was in school, it was believed that all solid matter was either animal, vegetable or mineral – it was believed that there were only two kingdoms of life: animal and vegetable. Today, I told them, scientists recognize six different kingdoms of life. Life on earth is truly diverse.

A hand went up. “Yes,” I said, recognizing the student.

“What is life, Opa?” I like it that the students in the class I visit on a regular basis call me Opa. It’s what my grandchildren call me.

I might have been thrown off by this question, a deeper question, one that most would not expect a second grader to ask. But I came prepared. I knew how smart, how inquisitive these students are. So I had thought about it ahead of time, I did some research.

“What do you think life is?” I asked the student.

“A gift,” he said, using a rising voice inflection suggesting a question rather than an answer. I surmise that this is something he had been told by a parent, a pastor or another teacher.

“Yes,” I said, “I believe that life is a gift too, one to be treasured, one to be used to good purpose. But that doesn’t truly answer the question scientifically, does it? Are there any other ideas?” I asked. None were offered, so I endeavored to explain.

“It turns out,” I began, “science now believes that solid matter is either organic or inorganic. Organic matter is that which contains compounds including the carbon element. Compound, remember, is a word that means something made up of more than one part, like the compound word, biodiversity. Solid matter that does not contain carbon compounds, like rocks, cannot be alive. But not all organic matter is alive either. All of it either is or once was alive though. Live organic matter has purpose, its primary purpose, is to survive long enough to reproduce, to create new organic material. Organic matter which is not now alive has a purpose too; it feeds organic matter, either directly or indirectly, which is now living. Think of compost, decaying organic matter which we use to feed our garden plants. Think of worms, insect larva, and scavenger birds feeding on the carcasses of dead squirrels and other small animals.

So,” I told my students, “the scientific definition of life is this: It is a transitory state of organic matter, a state in progress of change during which new organic matter is created. This,” I told my students, “is the cycle of life.”

While my students were thinking about this, processing it, I moved on to the exercise, the compare-and-contrast part of my lesson. We focused the rest of our time talking about the similarities and differences between plants and animals. And this, their answers, assured me that they understood how to think critically. I hope they will continue to think critically for their entire lives.

After returning home, I got to thinking about part of my lesson, that part having to do with life, specifically the part about the purpose of life. Is that all there is, I thought, surviving long enough to reproduce? For some forms of life, sure, but, no… surely not for higher forms of life, surely not for humans. I turned to the Study Bible online and found this explaining the famous passage in chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes: 19For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. 20 All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust21Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?

Hold on, didn’t God set man apart from the other animals, gave us dominion over all the earth? That makes us special, does it not? Yes.

The word dominion means to rule or power over.  God has sovereign power over His creation and has delegated the authority to mankind to have dominion over the plants and other animals (Genesis 1:26). King David reinforces this in Psalm 8:6: “You made [mankind] rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet.” So humanity was meant to “subdue” the earth (Genesis 1:28 to hold a position of command over it; we were placed in a superior role and we are to exercise control over the earth, its flora and fauna.

God’s command to subdue the earth means for us to have mastery over it, all of it. But true mastery of anything cannot be accomplished without a thorough understanding of the thing to be mastered. With the authority to rule comes responsibility, the responsibility to rule well. There is an inherent accountability in God’s command to subdue the earth. Therefore, we have a collective responsibility to learn all there is to know about the earth, its occupants, and our place in the cosmos. We have a collective responsibility to protect and defend the environment.

The word, subdue, doesn’t necessarily imply violence or mistreatment. It can also mean “to bring under cultivation.” It can mean “to love and take care of” and that is the meaning I believe is conveyed in God’s Word. Therefore, understanding its true meaning, we are to be stewards, good stewards, of God’s creation. We are to love ourselves, love our neighbors and all of creation. That is our purpose. That is our greater purpose. But, yes, in due course, we will perform our basic purposes as living organisms too: We will survive to reproduce. But we will also do these things: we will protect and nurture our young as all other higher animals do; we will toil to produce so that we might share with our issue and with our neighbors, especially those who struggle, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually; we will contribute to the common good; we will leave a legacy, and; in due course, we will return to the dust from whence we came, thus completing the life cycle.

Please feel free to comment on this posting.

Published in: on March 30, 2017 at 3:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

America, Are We Not Still Great?


National pride is a good thing. We all want to feel proud of our country. Donald Trump knows this, so his campaign for president is appealing to this desire. He has based his campaign on the idea that our country isn’t great anymore, that eight years of Obama in the White House and Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State are the reasons why. He promises, that he, and only he, can restore us to greatness again. His campaign motto is, Make America Great Again. Hillary Clinton’s campaign is countering this message with the idea that we are still a great nation but acknowledges that we do have problems. Her campaign promises that, by working together, we can address these problems — make progress toward a brighter future for all. Her campaign motto is, We Are Stronger Together.

In truth, most of us, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Greens and Independents alike, have awakened to the realization that we really aren’t as great a nation as we once thought we were. Only the reasons that we aren’t are not the same reasons that many die-hard Trump supporters believe. We don’t fall short of true greatness because our military is weak or our economy is not strong and expanding. It’s not because we are compassionate and tolerate millions of undocumented immigrants to remain and do work in our country that most of our citizens won’t do. It’s not because we allow LGBTQ persons equal protection and liberties under law. Neither do we fall short of true greatness because we have expanded access to health care for twenty-plus millions of our citizens. It’s certainly not true because we have an African American president. It is true, however, that we aren’t the greatest nation by many empirical measures.

According to the World Economic Forum‘s Global Competitiveness Report (2012-2013), the U.S. ranks as #1 on only 4 out of the 117 different factors that are rated, and each of these 4 factors reflects merely the sheer size, the hugeness, of the U.S. economy. These four factors might thus collectively be identified as the Hugeness components: “GDP,” “GDP as a Share of World GDP,” “Available Airline Seat Kilometers,” and “Domestic Market Size Index.” Other than Hugeness, the results for the U.S. are not at all outstanding. They are metrics of mediocracy.

Health Care shows the U.S. ranking as #34 on “Life Expectancy,” and as #41 on “Infant Mortality.” (And, of course, unlike the “Infant Mortality” rankings from UNICEF, this ranking is among 144 countries. Thus: some underdeveloped countries actually have higher life-expectancy than does the U.S.)

Education in the U.S. is also apparently mediocre. On “Quality of Primary Education,” we are #38. On “Primary Education Enrollment Rate,” we are #58. On “Quality of the Educational System,” we are #28. On “Quality of Math and Science Education,” we are #47. On “Quality of Scientific Research Institutions,” we are #6. On “PCT [Patent Cooperation Treaty] Patent Applications [per-capita],” we are #12. On “Firm-Level Technology Absorption” (which is an indicator of business-acceptance of inventions), we are #14.

Trust is likewise only moderately high in the U.S. We rank #10 on “Willingness to Delegate Authority,” #42 on “Cooperation in Labor-Employer Relations,” and #18 in “Degree of Customer Orientation” of firms.

Corruption seems to be a rather pervasive problem in the U.S. On “Diversion of Public Funds [due to corruption],” the U.S. ranks #34. On “Irregular Payments and Bribes” (which is perhaps an even better measure of lack of corruption) we are #42. On “Public Trust in Politicians,” we are #54. On “Judicial Independence,” we are #38. On “Favoritism in Decisions of Government Officials” (otherwise known as governmental “cronyism”), we are #59. On “Organized Crime,” we are #87. On “Ethical Behavior of Firms,” we are #29. On “Reliability of Police Services,” we are #30. On “Transparency of Governmental Policy Making,” we are #56. On “Efficiency of Legal Framework in Challenging Regulations,” we are #37. On “Efficiency of Legal Framework in Settling Disputes,” we are #35. On “Burden of Government Regulation,” we are #76. On “Wastefulness of Government Spending,” we are also #76. On “Property Rights” protection (the basic law-and-order measure), we are #42.

We fall short of true greatness, in my opinion, because: (1) we allow the greed of a few rich and powerful families to control our government; (2) we emphasize the acquisition of wealth over the equitable sharing of proceeds with those who labor; (3) we fail to prioritize for the funding of education, programs to alleviate suffering, and programs to lift struggling families out of poverty; (4) we protect industries that poison and pollute our environment, even subsidize their business practices, rather than promote sustainable technologies and practices; (5) we believe that “for-profit” solutions are superior to public solutions for healthcare, education, and incarceration; (6) we protect free-speech at the expense of truth. And we have allowed our basic freedoms under the Constitution to make us less well informed, less safe, less equal, less democratic, and more divided.

To improve on the measures cited above, we truly do need to come together. No one and neither major political party can alone fix what’s wrong. We don’t all have to think alike. That would be asking way too much. But we can at least stop politicizing every issue. We can at least stop with the exceptional, elitist and “hell-no” obstructionist attitudes and work to find common ground. No one, and no political party, is right all the time.

Please feel free to comment on this. I would enjoy discussing it with you, especially if you disagree with any of it.

Published in: on October 12, 2016 at 10:03 am  Comments (3)  

Dealing with Prejudice

“We must become bigger than we have been: more courageous, greater in spirit, larger in outlook. We must become members of a new race, overcoming petty prejudice, owing our ultimate allegiance not to nations but to our fellow men within the human community.”    ~ Haile Selassie

As a teacher of Geography (the study of man and his environ- ments), I endeavored early-on with each new class to teach my high school students the difference between race, national origin, and ethnicity. It was an easy lesson to teach, but it was not an easy lesson to learn for many of my students. They were prejudiced, as are we all, acculturated by regional, local and familiar traditions, beliefs and practices. And prejudices are difficult to overcome; they must be unlearned.

Why Prejudice

Beliefs, quite often, are based less on facts and more on feelings — feelings that we acquire early from family members’ attitudes, teachings, and from our own personal experiences. No one is born prejudiced. We are taught to be prejudiced. If, when we are young, we are told that we should not trust others who look and behave differently, all it takes is one negative experience with someone of a different race or ethnicity to cement that admonition psycho- logically. And, if that first encounter is with someone who was told the same thing, the encounter will surely be negative. All creatures, humans included, are suspicious by nature. “It’s eat or be eaten,” a defensive/survival mechanism.

Defining Race

So, what is race? There are different opinions. But to deal with the issue of racial prejudice, I believe we need to have a common understanding of what it is. Most of my students here in Texas, thought that to be Mexican was to be racially distinctive. It’s not. Mexican is a nationality or a national origin. When I was growing up soon after the end of WWII, anyone with almond shaped eyes, black hair and a distinctive tint to darker skin was a Jap until they proved otherwise. And to us, Japs (persons of Japanese national and or ethnic origin) were a separate race from us. To this day, in Singapore, which is a very diverse nation/city-state ethnically, people of different national origins and ethnicities, Chinese, Malay, Indian, are considered to be different races — this according to my daughter-in-law who is Singaporean and still lives there with my son and new granddaughter. She is not unlike most people I know in that she is very sensitive about the subject of race. However, she is very much not a racist. We have that in common.

According to LiveScience, “Race is associated with biology, whereas ethnicity is associated with culture. In biology, races are genetically distinct populations within the same species; they typically have relatively minor morphological and genetic differences. Although all humans belong to the same species (Homo sapiens), and even to the same sub-species (Homo sapiens sapiens), there are small genetic variations across the globe that engender diverse physical appearances, such as variations in skin color.”

For more on this and how this might have come into being, I would recommend the book, Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, in his 1775 treatise, The Natural Varieties of Mankind, proposed five major races: the Caucasoid race (including the Abyssinians, later designated as Ethiopid Mediterraneans), the Mongoloid race, the Ethiopian race (later termed Negroid), the American Indian race, and the Malayan race, but he did not propose any hierarchy among the races. He also noted in his treatise the graded transition in appearances from one group to adjacent groups and suggested that, “One variety of mankind does so sensibly pass into the other, that you cannot mark out the limits between them.”

Why Blumenbach was Wrong

The morphological differences between what we think of as races is not largely evident in our DNA. For example, according to LiveScience, recent genetic studies show that skin color may drastically change in just a few generations as a result of environmental influences. This substantiates my belief in environmental determinism, although the belief has been associated in the past with institutionalized racism and eugenics. There is even a popular evolutionary theory that early humans living in the northern climes of Europe grew progressively lighter-skinned over time. This is because, or so the theory goes, that lighter skin favored the absorption of greater amounts of vitamin D, this vitamin being necessary for the development/growth of stronger bones. Interestingly, the DNA of two humans chosen at random generally varies by less than 0.1 percent. This is less genetic variation than other types of hominids (such as chimpanzees and orangutans). So, it is my belief that we are all members of the same race, the human race.

It is truly unfortunate that we humans discriminate based on less than 0.1 percent on what differentiates us biologically, but we do. We have so much more in common than we have different. But this difference is what we can see, and human judgment is readily made based on sight, our dominant sense — our defensive instinct. You look different, therefore you are a threat.

The Reeducation Process

Racial and ethnic prejudice are forms of bigotry. Overcoming it in societies is not an easy thing to do — in fact, it has yet to be achieved anywhere to my knowledge. It may never be overcome because it resides within the individual heart. The U.S. and Singapore have made great strides in the past socially engineering to this end. But in both countries, bigotry remains a problem. People have to really want to live in harmony with others. Many do not and some never will.

In the U.S., the desegregation of the military by President Truman in 1948 and that of public schools in 1954 with the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. The Board of Education decision were huge steps in the right direction. Then came the Civil Rights Act in 1960 followed by President Johnson’ Affirmative Action Executive Order in 1965 . But a recent Government Accounting Office (GAO) study indicates that many school districts in the U.S. are every bit as much segregated as they were before 1960. School of Choice, which is most popular in Southern, more conservative states, legally redirects state tax dollars from integrated public schools to charter schools where families with the means to transport their children to and from school can have them attend classes wherein the students all look pretty much alike. This is an end-around to school desegregation.

Affirmative Action initiatives now, bowing to blow-backs claiming reverse discrimination against white America, have pretty much run their course. Discrimination against minorities, to include women, Muslims and LGBTQ persons, despite laws and executive orders at the national level are re-surging.

In my opinion, only in the federal government in the U.S., in particular, the military services where desegregation and the abolishment of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell pay dividends to maintaining order and increasing force effectiveness, is true progress against discrimination being made. In the federal government, rules can be enforced.

On the surface, Singapore seems like a perfectly egalitarian state where residents of all ages, religious creeds, and races peacefully coexist. I know, I have been there and have experienced the welcoming attitude of all three of its major ethnic groups. I have experienced too how ex-patriots from the U.S., Australia and other nations are welcomed and can integrate readily. This does not mean, however, that discrimination in Singapore doesn’t exist. It does, but Singaporeans cannot openly discriminate, this according to my daughter-in-law. Discrimination exists, it’s just not openly visible. But Singaporeans of all races/ethnicities (call it what you like) have equitable access to education and job opportunities. The country operates as a meritocracy where talent and determination is prized above race and connections. As a result, the country has a vigorous and very strong economy. It ranks as one of the world’s wealthiest nations on a per capita basis, and there is a very low crime rate.

Unlike in the U.S., were civil liberties permit open displays of bigotry (as Donald Trump’s current presidential campaign attests), Singapore’s government is quite different. Its restrictive legislature and strict laws such as the Sedition Act have all but silenced debates on matters of race, ethnicity, and religion. This makes it very difficult to accurately assess discrimination issues there. But, on the positive side, thanks to Singapore’s limited space and a growing population, it’s government has long since employed a public housing program which forces integration. People have to get along with each other. About 85% of Singaporeans today live in public housing estates . These estates, managed by the government, have an enforced ethnic quota. Maximum proportions are set for the residents from various ethnic groups in these blocks of apartments. This helps to “prevent the formation of racial enclaves and promotes ethnic integration,” this according to the government’s website. Sales of a new or resale apartment are not approved to a buyer from a particular ethnic group if it would lead to that group’s limit being exceeded.

Regardless of what we in the West, the U.S. in particular, might think about Singapore’s forced integration program, it has leveled the playing field for its diverse citizenry. People do not have the freedom to discriminate, not openly anyway.

So, comparing the state of efforts to combat discrimination in these two very different countries, what can we learn?

  1. Societies/organizations are stronger and more productive when citizens put aside their racial, ethnic, homophobic (what have you) prejudices.
  2. People will not willingly forsake the prejudicial feelings they have, the feelings and attitudes that they have developed from early childhood on.
  3. No matter what initiatives societies’ leaderships employ to ensure equity among its’ citizens, progress requires long-term commitment and resolve to counter socially-conservative measures to prevent change.
  4. Learning to be bigoted or not to be bigoted in whatever way must begin at an early age. Parents wanting their children to grow up without prejudicial attitudes against people of other races/ethnicities, beliefs or life-styles must take proactive measures.

If we, as a people – the whole of humanity which inhabits this earth, regardless of nationality, faith or ethnic group, are ever to know lasting peace and equity in prosperity, we must come together. We must persevere to combat the forces of evil within us so that the next generation might not just live better — but be better.

 Please feel free to comment/express your opinions regarding this post. I would enjoy reading and responding to them in open dialogue.
Published in: on September 13, 2016 at 11:23 am  Comments (1)  

Reading the Bible Literately Rather than Literally

“So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and man. Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”  Proverbs 3:4-6

Spoiler Alert: If your Christian faith depends on believing literally every book, chapter and verse of the Bible, you probably shouldn’t read this. Doing so might make you uncomfortable. It might even make you mad at me, and I don’t want to make anyone mad at me. However, if you don’t believe the world is just 6000 years old and that dinosaurs once coexisted with mankind, you are welcome — read on.

If you are reading this, you probably understand that the two words, literal and literate, while related, have very different meanings. If you don’t know this, by the time you finish this story, you should.

We have a beautiful and smart great granddaughter who is a second grader this year. She often spends afternoons, evenings and sometimes whole days and nights with us. We consider ourselves blessed to have her so often. When she is with us, we always ask her about school. We often help her with her homework and, even more often, we read with her. I’m amazed at how well she can read already, due in part, I think, because she loves to read and because she wants to please us. She has read all of the children’s books, over and over again, that we have here for her. So, now, she’s reading to us from a children’s book of Bible stories. So far she’s read the Creation Story and the Story of Noah and the Ark. After each she asked me, “Opa, is this really true?” Both times I told her that some people believe these stories are ‘literally’ true. Some people believe that they are not true at all. And some people, like me, I told her, believe that they are stories that are not literately true, but stories which tell greater truths from within. She’s still struggling to understand what I mean by this. But then, she’s only seven years old – excuse me – seven and three-quarters.

I suggested a reading session while dinner was being prepared the last time she spent the night with us. She said, “Okay, Opa. But this time I want to read from a ‘real’ Bible.”

“A ‘real’ Bible? Oh, you mean one like your Oma and I read from. Okay,” I said, and I picked up an old, small, ‘red letter’ Bible from the book section of our three-section wall unit. The books in it include a set of Funk and Wagnall encyclopedias that have not been disturbed since we discovered Google on our computers, our cell phones and iPads.

“That was my grandmother’s personal Bible,” we heard my wife say. She had been watching and listening to us from the kitchen. “Please be careful with it.”

“We will, Oma,” we said, almost in union.

I sat with my granddaughter on my lap in my recliner chair and carefully unzipped the precious little Bible. Looking for nothing in particular, I opened it to a book in the Old Testament section, I Samuel, and started reading out loud.

“Gee, those are strange sounding names, Opa.”

“Yes, honey. Most of these names are hard to pronounce, and we would have to read quite a bit from this book of the Bible before any of it would make much sense. Samuel, the author of this book, is telling us about God’s establishment of a political system in ancient Israel, one headed by a human king. The first king’s name was Saul.

Let’s turn to something more familiar, something from the New Testament. This is the part of the Bible that tells us about Jesus and his ministry.”

“I know that, Opa.”

To that, I could not help but crack a smile; Obviously, I thought, my granddaughter’s Sunday school teachers are doing a good job. I turned to the Gospel of Matthew, figuring that we could find something easier here, one of the Gospels, to read and to understand. Right off my granddaughter noticed the red letter text.

“Why are some of the words red, Opa, and some are not?”

“The publisher of this particular Bible decided to help us see what the original author claimed to be the actual words of Jesus, honey.”

“So, this Matthew guy actually heard Jesus say these words?”

“That’s what we believe, honey. Matthew was one of the original disciples, one of Jesus’ apostles.” And, with that, my granddaughter started reading before I could select an appropriate chapter and verse. She started reading from Chapter 5, verse 29: “And if thy right eye offends thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”

Oh, oh, I thought.

“And if thy right hand offends thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee…”

“Opa, does this mean I have to cut off my hand to go to heaven?”

“No, honey, I don’t believe that’s what Jesus was really saying, [if in fact He actually said these exact words. Some people might believe that whatever member of the body sins must be sacrificed. But people who know the Bible best tell us that Jesus was speaking metaphorically to stress how important it is that we not sin. Surely Jesus knew that sin originates from within, not by the body member used in the commission]. He was telling his disciples that they should obey God with all their hearts, souls and minds. He was saying that we can’t just love some neighbors and not others.”

I did not actually say the words in the previous paragraph that are offset by brackets. Had my granddaughter been a bit older, I might have. Likewise, we did not share the following dialogue which is offset by brackets.

[“What does metaphorically mean, Opa?”

“A metaphor is a figure of speech or a way of speaking in which a term or a phrase is used which it is not literally true. We sometimes use metaphors to suggest a resemblance. Like I might say, ‘I love you to the moon and back.’ The phrase, ‘to the moon and back,’ helps me express how I love you a whole lot. Speaking metaphorically means using metaphors.

A parable is a metaphorical story from within which a truth is revealed. The story doesn’t have to be literally true, and sometimes it’s even more effective if it isn’t.  Jesus, we know, used a lot of parables to reveal truths about the nature of God and the Kingdom of Heaven.”]

We did share the following dialogue…

“I’m glad I won’t have to cut my hand of to go to heaven, Opa. But, y’know, we have one neighbor that I really don’t like very much.”

“That’s okay, honey. It’s hard to like some people. God knows that. But loving people isn’t a matter of how we feel about them. Loving people is all about how we treat them.”

Again, had my granddaughter been older, we might have shared the following in dialogue. But we did not. With the following, I am editorializing to express my opinion, my belief about the Bible, how it came into being, and how we should interpret it.

[“Why do you say, ‘if in fact He actually said these words, Opa?’”

“We believe that Matthew, the tax collector, one of Jesus’ apostles, was the author of this book, but we have no way of proving this. It could have been some other Matthew who wrote it or someone wanting us to think the real Matthew wrote it so that we might more readily believe what is written. And, even if the original Matthew did write it, he would have written it sometime after Jesus spoke about this to his disciples. He could have remembered it perfectly, verbatim, or he could have used his own words. Without primary sources of evidence, it’s impossible for us to know. There is also the fact that, so far as we know, the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in the Greek language. It was then translated to Latin before being translated to English and other modern languages. Matthew, like Jesus, spoke a different language, one called Aramaic. Did the Apostle Matthew study and learn Greek? For what purpose? Or did he know the language all along? We do not know. But, if he did not already know it, how long did it take him to learn? How dim in his memory might have the exact words of Jesus been before he wrote them down?

It is possible, and I choose to believe this, that the book we now call The Gospel According to Matthew was actually written or revised from the real Matthew’s writings in 325 AD during the First Nicean Council. This council was called by the emperor Constantine I of Rome. According to historical accounts, Constantine was an unbaptized catechumen, or neophyte, but he presided over the opening session of the council and took part in the discussions. As emperor, he called for the council of Christian Bishops to solve a problem which was created in the Eastern Church by Arianism, a belief that Christ is not divine but a created being. Constantine, in my opinion, wanted a reconciled Christian faith to help unify his empire.

So, the story of this book of the Bible, The Gospel According to Matthew, and the whole Bible for that matter, is something of a mystery, a controversy among Christians like me. Christians like me endeavor to reconcile what we know to be true owing to science (knowledge and reason) with what we choose to believe from scripture and tradition. We accept that passages and whole chapters of the Bible incorporate pagan beliefs, myths and parables such as the creation story, Noah and the great flood, God’s tormenting of Job, Jonah being swallowed whole by a fish and surviving. But, we can still believe the truth contained within these stories, can we not? Yes, we can. Do I personally believe that Matthew and the rest of the Bible is the Inspired Word of God? Yes, but metaphorically speaking.

I am a United Methodist and we United Methodists have the Wesleyan quadrilateral to guide our understanding, our beliefs about God. We have Scripture, Tradition, Knowledge and Reason. Scripture, we believe, is primary. But United Methodists are not required to believe that the Bible is inerrant. I am one who doesn’t.

Basic literacy is one’s ability to read words and understand them literally. Functional literacy is being able to use one’s ability to read, understand the words in context and apply this understanding usefully in daily and professional life. This is a skill which people possess in varying degrees. There is also a kind of functional literacy called “rational” literacy. This is literacy that allows learning, growing in our understanding of the world and all of God’s creation. To learn, we must have an open mind, one that is open to unlearning. It’s the kind of literacy that scientists must have.”]

Now, for you my reader, I will tell you the truth. This exchange with my great granddaughter really happened. But it happened Friday afternoon. I am writing this three days later, on Monday morning. I don’t really remember the exact words that my granddaughter and I exchanged. I have exaggerated some and expanded our dialogue some too. I have done so to make this a better story, one that communicates a message. But I have endeavored to be truthful where I have done these things. Yes, I have editorialized to communicate my beliefs about the Bible. My story is not word-for-word, literally true. My belief is that the Bible is not word-for-word, literally true either. The Bible is not a science book. Neither is it a collection of its many authors’ affidavits. It is a truth book rather than a true book. There is a difference.

So, what should we make of the introductory passage from Proverbs…”Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight?” Does this mean that we should take everything we read in the Bible literally? Should we do whatever any preacher, prophet or king tells us to do? Cut off our own hand? No, I don’t believe so. When we lean on our own understandings we are using our abilities to see, hear, taste, touch, and reason. God gave us these abilities, so why shouldn’t we use them? Well, our own senses sometimes fail us. Our reasoning sometimes leads to wrong conclusions; we are fallible.

Those words, “lean not on your own understanding,” were written several thousand years ago, we believe by King Solomon, reputedly, the wisest man who ever lived. Why would he write them? Well, kings in those days had a habit of telling other people what to do, and sometimes punishing them, even killing them if they disobeyed. Most people couldn’t even read in those times, but they could hear what others read to them — a decree from the King. By telling people not to think, he made himself God’s chosen leader and supreme decision maker.  Brilliant — if not so wise for all times!

What then are we in this day and age to do with this? I say, an appropriate interpretation of that passage, which surely was inspired by God, might be: do not lean “only” on your own understanding. Leaning implies putting all or a significant amount of your weight on something which, if moved, might cause you to fall. So, if something confuses you — doesn’t make sense to you, ask others what they think, friends, pastors, other Bible scholars, linguists, philosophers – and not just people in your own like-thinking circle of acquaintances. Just know that all will not agree. Google it. And after all of this, take it to God directly. Pray about it. Acknowledge Him, trust Him, and He will make your paths straight. He will give you clarity. About that, I believe Solomon was right.

Please feel free to post a comment in response to this story. I would enjoy discussing it.

Published in: on September 5, 2016 at 12:26 pm  Comments (1)  

Democrat vs. Republican ~ Liberal vs. Conservative

This is an update of my original post (Dec 31, 2006) on this same subject.

As a former social studies teacher, I was often asked by my students what the real difference is between Democrats and Republicans. They seemed to sense that parents and other authority figures extol the virtues of one political party, the one to which they subscribe, and vilify the other. Accordingly, I attempted to teach the subject in as balanced a manner as possible.


All of what follows, save for my own observations, is readily available elsewhere on the Internet. However, I’ve never been able to find a good, unbiased source that compares and contrasts the two major political parties in the United States today. Accordingly, I have endeavoured to create one. Since my original posting, December 31, 2006, there have been significant changes within the Republican Party. It is owing to these changes that I have been prompted to do this update.

Political parties exist for the singular purpose of installing people to positions of power and influence in government. It is the same all over the world and has always been so. To do this they compete with the opposition for support of the electorate by inciting passion over issues of the time. Whether the issues have to do with the economy, national security, individual liberties, the environment, Constitutional interpretations, or matters of moral and social conscience, parties stake claim to various convictions then pretend, as necessary, that they have always been philosophically faithful to their positions. But this is done more often than not to simply gain support in terms of dollars and votes for their own candidates. Additionally, many people are attracted to particular parties over single wedge-issues like abortion or gun control and discount other party positions. So the association of any party over time with a particular political philosophy is problematic at best. Follow along and see if you don’t agree.

The Democratic Party, claiming a position on the left of the political theory continuum, has been labeled “liberal,” both by supporters and detractors alike. The name is derived from the Latin, liber, which means free. And until the end of the eighteenth century, it simply meant “worthy of a free man”. It is from this sense of the word that we speak of “liberal arts”, “liberal sciences”, “liberal occupations”, etc. Then, beginning in the early part of the nineteenth century, the term came to imply the qualities of intellect and behavior that were considered to be characteristic of those who occupied higher social positions, whether because of wealth, education, or family relationships. Thus, an intellectually independent, broad-minded, magnanimous, frank, open, and genial person was said to be liberal. The suffix, “ism,” added to descriptive words produces nouns that mean a belief, an ideology, or study, as to be immersed in. “Liberalism” then connotes a political system or tendency that is opposed to centralization and absolutism. However, the word liberal is generally used in a derogatory way today by those who subscribe to more conservative philosophies. For them, a liberal is someone who believes in big government and wasteful, giveaway social programs (background/definition).

Most who have political persuasions to the right on the political theory continuum label themselves, “conservative.” According to Webster, being conservative means a tendency to conserve or to hold back. But this understanding of the term does not necessarily apply to all who consider themselves to be Republicans today. Since the end of the Civil War in America, conservatives have tended toward resisting change and preserving established institutions. Thus, a conservative person would be one who would tend to be more moderate or cautious. But it was Republicans, as we all recall, who brought about the end to slavery in America though the Civil War years and the adoption of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments during Reconstruction – this was major social change (background/definition and History of the Republican Party)!

The Republican Party today attracts many different groups, including sportsmen and other gun owners who consider their right to bear arms to be under attack, business corporations (particularly defense, energy, and pharmaceutical industries) and wealthy individuals who benefit from limiting social programs, limiting regulations, and reduced taxes, as well as various fundamental or evangelical Christian groups who are lobbying for social change.

Although some will argue that this is not true, the Tea Party, which has never been a viable political party in it’s own right, and Libertarian politicians who once ran for office under the Libertarian Party banner, have now merged with the main stream Republican Party. This, in my opinion, has pulled the party to the ideological right and away from moderation, thus making it more difficult for lawmakers in the U.S. Congress to reach across-the-aisle accommodation on issues. While this merger has resulted in increased Republican representation in Congress, at the same time, it has made it more difficult for the Republican Party to field competitive candidates for President and Vice-president.

The Republican Party had its roots in opposition to slavery when, in 1854, former members of the Free Soil Party, the Whig Party, the American Party, and some Democrats came together in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would have allowed these territories to enter the Union as slave states. Party founders adopted the name “Republican” to indicate that it was the carrier of “republican” beliefs about civic virtue, and opposition to aristocracy and corruption (History of the Republican Party, Republican Party Today, and Reconstruction Period).

In western democracies the terms, “conservative” and “right-wing” are often used interchangeably, as near-synonyms. This is not always accurate, but it has more than incidental validity. The political opposition is referred to as the political left (although left-wing groups and individuals may have conservative social and/or cultural attitudes, they are not generally accepted, by self-identified conservatives, as being part of the same movement). On economic policy, conservatives and the right generally support the free market and side with business interests over rank-and-file workers and environmentalists. This is less true of conservatives in Europe and in places other than the United States. Attitudes on some moral issues, such as opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, and euthanasia, are often described as being either right-wing or conservative. Liberals, on the other hand, have traditionally drawn much of their support from labor unions, small farmers, civil servants, environmentalists, artisans, academics, philanthropists, immigrants and such – the “huddled masses”. Collectively, liberals pretty much agree today that government should be a force for social change, to improve the lot of the disadvantaged and to protect the individual rights of all Americans, regardless of their race, sex, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Liberals would tend to agree that all should have affordable access to quality education and health care (Right-wing, Left-wing).

The Democratic Party in the United States traces its roots back to the early 1790s, when various factions united in opposition to Alexander Hamilton’s fiscal policies, which included a strong central treasury and new taxes to pay-off the states’ debts. Back then it was called the Anti-Administration Party, its subscribers were called Anti-Federalists. For a time, this movement was added to other minor parties to form the Democratic-Republican Party under Thomas Jefferson. Yes, in some ways, if not in name only, the two major political parties of America were combined. Then, after the War of 1812, the party split over whether to build and maintain a strong military. Those favoring a strong military, especially a modern navy, came to be called the Old-Republicans. Then, during the administration of Andrew Jackson, the Democratic Party was reborn, appealing, as had Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party, to the largely agrarian society of the times and to the common man. At that time, the Old Republicans strongly favored states rights, while Jackson, even though he was a Southerner, put down the Nullification Crisis which threatened to divide the nation – North and South (History of the Democratic Party).

So, the distinction between liberal and conservative political philosophies and the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States, over time tends, to blur. Philosophies and allegiances have switched back and forth over the years. For example, after the Civil War, most whites in the South became Democrats (Southern Democrats), known then unofficially as the “White Man’s Party“. Then, following the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many of these Democrats switched over to support Republican candidates.

And so it goes; political parties come and go. Sometimes the names stay the same, but the philosophies and respective positions on issues change according to the winds of war and fortune. As I tell my students, it is impossible to separate politics from economics. It’s all about power and influence.

For the latest on what U.S. political parties and individual candidates believe, see At this site you may also test yourself and your beliefs to determine your closest party match.

For more on what I personally believe and how political parties have performed in recent years, see Americans’ Political Persuasions ~ Based More on Myth than Fact?

I invite your comments whether you agree or disagree with the content of this post.

Published in: on April 22, 2015 at 10:17 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Traditional Good of Innovation and the New Frightening Bad

Education required for the use of new technologies has always managed to stay ahead of the pace of innovation and adaptation. With the advent of the digital computer, however, all this is now changing, and it scares the bejesus out of me.

Anthropologists imagine a time in human history when fire had to be “stollen” from nature. Man had yet discovered how to make fire for himself. Accordingly, someone in the tribe or clan was entrusted with the important role of keeping the fire — flame or hot coals. This person held an important, even sacred, role in primitive societies, so it was not something practiced by many. To the extent, however, that this person held a special position beyond ritual, his job was obviated by the technological innovation of fire making — using friction or striking flint to iron so that sparks could ignite suitable tinder. This, like later inventions, the wheel, cutting tools, leveraged throwing weapons, weaving and pottery making, benefited societies at large. All had more as a result. When fire making technology came into practice, only the fire keeper was left without a ‘real’ job.


This tendency for innovation to benefit the greater part of societies has, for the most part, continued to this day. Examples of these technological innovations include: interchangeable parts, the steam engine, mass production, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, electrification and the automobile. Greater productivity has tended to create new jobs in greater numbers than those eliminated. This is because greater productivity, in the past, has driven costs down so that both supply and demand increased. This is not the norm today. Higher productivity today, owing to declining competition among suppliers due to mega mergers and the formation of corporate cartels/oligopolies, higher productivity results only in greater profits which are seldom shared with the actual workers.

Education required for the use of new technologies has always managed to stay ahead of the pace of innovation and adaptation. With the advent of the digital computer, however, all this is now changing, and it scares the bejesus out of me.

Innovation has long been thought to be the essence of economic growth. Think about it. Over the past two centuries, the world has reaped great benefit from the advent and incorporation of more and more general-purpose technologies: energy and manufacturing technologies, transportation technologies, medicine and pharmaceutical technologies, communication technologies, information storage and calculation technologies. But what happens when technology advances at a dizzying pace such as it is doing now? Education lags behind, even the ability of many to comprehend the use of new technologies, let alone do the programming and repair necessary, is beyond the average citizen.

When I was young, my grandfather could keep the family car humming along all by himself. He needed no computerized diagnostic equipment. All he need was in his toolbox, wrenches and screwdrivers and such. But, as it is today, I am challenged to even change my car’s oil and oil filter. When my computer or my smart phone goes on the blitz, only a few very highly trained technicians even know what’s wrong. Even they must resort to using other automated equipment and software to correct the problems. I am dead in the water until someone else with another machine and the knowledge to use it fixes my broken machine.

Until recently, this trend has not much concerned anybody, especially not corporate CEOs and government policymakers. The increased productivity has led to more and greater profits for those at the top, and those at the top make the rules. Economists and academics have been talking about this for years, a few have even been worried about it. But now some  forward thinking individuals in business are waking up, taking the longer view. They are concerned about competition and shrinking markets as average citizens’ disposable incomes shrink from declining, good paying work opportunities. Humans’ jobs are being taken over by machines.

Nearly half of the 1,344 CEOs surveyed by PricewaterhouseCoopers late last year identified rapid technological change as a potential threat to their organization’s growth prospects.”

One of the most disconcerting new technologies, in my opinion, is 3D printing. It has the potential to transform the competitive landscape of a wide array of businesses — businesses like manufacturing and construction. 3D printing could revolutionise industries beyond current imagination, provided of course that players within these industries embrace this new technology in an effective way. But will they all be able to do so and to what end? And how many workers in India, China and elsewhere will be displaced? What will this do to demand for goods and services?

These economic trends are not limited to just the United States, or even to the United States and it’s favoured trading partners. These trends are manifest in all but a few more enlightened nations — Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Germany, just to name a few, where corporations are more highly regulated and where fiscal policies benefit people before money interests. When considered in combination with growing and ageing populations, declining/more difficult-to-recover natural resources, and the consequences of global warming, manmade apocalyptic scenarios are easy to imagine.

Until the hungry beast of capitalism is either satiated or sufficiently constrained by enlightened regulation, the greater good, in my opinion, will just have to accept the consequences of greed.

Please feel free to post a comment in response to this. I would enjoy discussing this issue.

Published in: on April 14, 2015 at 9:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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Creationism ~ A Child’s Understanding of the Reason for Seasons

The creation by accident idea is so utterly unsatisfying to me, so beyond my ability to comprehend, that I need justification. Including God, putting Him at the forefront of creation, provides me with this justification – it answers the why.

HappyGirlMay 23, 2013 — I’m hard of hearing. So when I am driving and my little darling speaks to me from the back where she is properly restrained in her car seat, I’m not always able to understand her. Even though I have made this clear to her over and over again, she continues to ask questions while the world glides by. At just four years-old, she is more than just precocious. She’s very bright and very curious. She really wants to understand things. But then, I could be just a little bit biased in my assessment. I’m never surprised by the things she asks, but I’m not always prepared with an appropriate answer.

Sometimes I have to tell her that I just can’t understand her while I’m driving. When I can’t understand her, I tell her to remember her question and ask it again after we get where we are going. I said this to her recently following a question even though I clearly understood her. I used my poor hearing as an excuse to buy time for deciding how to answer. Her question had been: “Opa, why do we have seasons?”

Hmmmmm… I reasoned that she didn’t really want to know what causes us to experience the changing seasons in most places on earth. She was probably only wanting to know why she was having to wait so long for the outdoor pool to reopen at the apartment complex where she lives with her mother — why it couldn’t be warm year round. She really loves to play in the water. So I decided to help her understand why seasons are important rather than what causes them.

Sometimes my little darling forgets to ask her question again after we arrive at our destination, her little mind having moved on to other, more immediate matters. But not this time. “Opa, why do we have seasons?”

I unbuckled her seat belt and invited her to join me upfront. Holding her little hand in mine then, I began to explain, and she listened attentively.

“Honey,” I said, “when God created the world, He knew that his people would have to feed themselves. They would have to grow food — grains, fruits and vegetables. The plants these things come from all need soil, sunshine and water to grow. But it doesn’t always rain everywhere on earth enough or as often as plants need. So farmers have to use the water from rivers and streams which flow down from the melting snow and ice up in the mountains. This snow and ice piles up during the winter. Also during the winter, when the plants aren’t growing or producing fruit, the soil rests and regains the richness that plants will need for the next growing season. So, farmers prepare the soil and plant seeds in the springtime. Farmers tend the growing plants during the summer to make sure that weeds and certain insects don’t hurt the plants too much. Then, in the fall, when the plants are fully grown and the fruit is ripe, farmers harvest the food so that there will be plenty for everyone to eat through the winter and until it’s time for the next harvest.”

Clearly satisfied with my answer, my little darling said, “God sure is smart, isn’t He Opa?”

“Yes, honey,” I said, “God is smart — and good. He loves us.”

I didn’t tell my little darling that some people don’t believe that God had anything to do with the creation of the earth, life or with the intelligent design of the cycle of seasons for that matter. I didn’t tell her that some people think the fact that our earth, a rocky planet with a magnetic core that protects us from deadly solar radiation, is just a fortunate accident. These same people think the fact our planet orbits a sun that’s just the right size and just the right distance away so that water can exist in liquid form is just more good luck. They think that the earth’s twenty-three and a half degree tilt, which allows the sun’s direct energy to be received in varying amounts north and south of the equator throughout the year, just happened. They reason that the universe is so vast that these perfect conditions had to exist someplace.

Neither did I tell my little darling that, as a student and former teacher of earth sciences, I believe in evolution and the explanations that science provides for the  formation of the earth, the oceans, the continents, landforms, and the geography of soils and climates. I did not tell my little darling that I do not literally accept the Bible’s simplistic version of the creation story. But neither did I lie to her when I answered her question about seasons. This is because, though I have no reason to believe in God other than my desire to believe, I do believe. The creation by accident idea is so utterly unsatisfying to me, so beyond my ability to comprehend, that I need justification. Including God, putting Him at the forefront of creation, provides me with this justification — it answers the why.

Some people are not be able to let go of any part of Scripture, fearing that in doing so they will loose their faith entirely. This is an application of the Camel’s Nose falacy. That is fine for some people, but I can’t be so fundamental. I can’t ignore scientific truths. Neither can I have things two different ways at the same time.

My smart little darling will eventually learn all about the various scientific theories explaining the how of creation. By the time she is in high school, science will have undoubtedly discovered more about it . I very much doubt, however, that science will ever discover a testable hypothesis to answer the why question. So, until she is mature enough to grapple with the relative merits of creationist and scientific arguments, mature enough to reconcile in her own way the earth’s physical record with the Word of God, I want her to have the comfort of believing, as I do, in a loving creator. Better to believe in this than in an uncaring, statistical probability. Perhaps she will accept the existance of dinosaurs in the earth’s distant past and our relationship to other, now extinct, human species, as I have, without having to reject what is true in Scripture. The world, afterall, is a scary enough place in which to grow up. Not having an answer to the why makes it even more scary. And on what better foundation can one have to grow, both emotionally and spiritually, than on the why — God’s love?

Please feel free to leave a comment.

Published in: on May 23, 2013 at 12:16 pm  Comments (3)  

Prejudice in the United States Today ~ A Problem That We May Never Resolve

I believe that we fail to resolve issues involving race and other forms of prejudice in this country because we don’t want them resolved.

March 11, 2011 — It’s been almost five decades since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act outlawed major forms of discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender or ethnicity. Notwithstanding, there is still hate and bigotry in the United States. Of this there can be no doubt. No law can make people think or behave civilly, as the recent wave of anti-Islamic sentiment and protests against gays and lesbians at military funerals attest. But, from my experience and years of observation, most claims of racial prejudice in this country today have little to nothing to do with race. They have more to do with socio-economic disparities and ethnic differences. Except among racial supremacy groups, most of us believe that the biological differences of race, in a general sense, neither significantly advantage nor disadvantage one race over another.

Race — what an unfortunate term. It implies winners and losers.

I once made the statement during a church administrative board meeting that embracing diversity is not the same thing as promoting diversity. For that, some in the church labeled me racially prejudiced. Balderdash! I was simply attempting to discourage celebrating or elevating one ethnic group in what was then an ethnically diverse congregation at the expense of others.

In another venue at about the same time, I was attempting to teach the differences between nationality, ethnicity, culture, and race to my World Geography students. For my effort, I learned a few things myself.  One thing I learned is that, in the United States today, many people, or so it seems, don’t want to know the difference. Blurring the distinctions between nationality, ethnicity, culture and race is comforting for some. For others, ignoring the distinctions sustains and confirms their already-held biases.

Case in point, speaking of the different races, I used the example of Mestizo versus Mexican, explaining that Mestizo is a term traditionally used to identify people of mixed European and Native American ancestry. It is a racial term, one of which many Latinos are proud, distinguishing themselves from Indians who they consider to be lower-classed members of Mexican society. Whereas the term, Mexican, refers to a national origin. It’s what most Americans call other Americans who emigrated themselves or whose ancestors emigrated from Mexico or other Spanish-speaking countries. Some, those whose ancestors have always lived in what is today the southwestern part of the United States, are also called Mexicans. The term, Latino, is a broad cultural term, used to identify ethnicities that have the Spanish language in-common. Which is correct to use when referring to people of Spanish-American descendency? Generally, one is always safest sticking to the broader cultural term, Latino, that is, if one wants to avoid causing offense.

At that point, a question came up. One of my young men asked, “What are ethnicities, Mr. Garry?”

I explained to my class that an ethnic group is a population of human beings whose members naturally identify with each other on the basis of a real or a presumed common genealogy or ancestry. The term, culture, refers to the language, attitudes, beliefs, customs, traditions, arts and preferences that are shared by members of different ethnic groups. Culture can also refer to these kinds of things that are more broadly shared by multiple groups within a collective society. For example: Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a holiday that most, if not all, ethnic groups within the United States traditionally celebrate. Another example might be American-style football, a sport that appeals to Americans of all ethnic groups. The differences between ethnic groups tend to be divisive because we are most comfortable among others who are most like ourselves.

Things got a bit dicey in class when we moved on to a discussion of race, how we often confuse it with ethnicity or national origin and how the subject often elicits emotional responses. The term, race, refers to the concept of dividing people into populations or groups on the basis of various sets of genetically inherited, physical characteristics, which are usually quite easy for us to distinguish. Because we have a history of exploitation and competition between different groups in the United States, the white man against the black, the red, the yellow and the brown, different ethnic groups have been left with stigmas of guilt, shame and/or inferiority. However, hard we try to put the past behind us and move on, it seems that we may forever remain socially haunted and challenged to live up to our creed of “liberty and justice for all”.

When I was still in grammar school, and that was many years ago, a teacher once taught me that there were only five basic races or “subspecies” of human beings: Caucasian (White), Negro (Black), Mongoloid (Yellow), Malayan (Brown), and American Indian (Red). According to him, all other so-called races are just variations on these five races or mixed-race peoples. His view was based on a religious belief that the races were separately created by God. Notwithstanding, science had long before identified many more distinct races based on physical attributes.

Sir Thomas Huxley, in 1870, identified nine distinct races and he associated them with different geographic regions of origin.  The following year, Charles Darwin published his second great book, The Decent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Darwin believed that all mankind had originated from a common ancestor and argued that the various races were the result of different environmental conditions that have prevailed over time in the various regions of earth where the different races evolved. He also argued that the people of all races are essentially equal in both physical and intellectual potentials. Modern science, based on comparisons of DNA markers for people all over the earth seems to validate Darwin’s conclusions.

The Census Bureau of the United States has confounded the definition of race dramatically by listing multiple racial identities for the surveyed from which to self select, identities that include ethnicity and national origin. And to avoid offending people, they list, for example, the following as a distinct race: Black, African-American or Negro. They do not list Mulatto, Mestizo or mixed-race options. But they do provide space for people to enter their own terms.

“Well, we prefer the term, African-American, Mr. Garry,” one of my young ladies said politely.

“Yes, I know you do, and I understand,” I said, “just as the Census Bureau understands. They are being what’s called, politically correct. They’re being sensitive to others’ sensitivities. And that’s a good thing, but it ignores the difference between race and ethnicity and it creates a whole new set of problems.”

There are physical and biological differences between the Whites of Western Europe and Mediterranean Whites, peoples of the Southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. There are physical and biological differences between the Blacks that have descended from peoples of Western Africa and the Blacks of East Africa, or the Aboriginal Blacks of Australia. There are physical and biological differences between Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese peoples too. Referring to them simply as Asian people ignores these differences. So, shifting attention away from biological differences that are more than just skin deep to ethnic distinctions or national origins ignores the differences between races. Race and ethnicity are not the same thing.”

There was a noticeable hush in the classroom as students’ eyes were seeking to assess others’ reactions to this.

“Okay,” I said, “some of you are thinking that Mr. Garry is racially prejudiced, right.” Nobody answered, confirming my suspicion.

“Let’s talk about what you all want to talk about: prejudice. Can anybody tell me what prejudice means?”

I waited several moments. Finally, one of my young ladies bravely raised her hand and said, “People are prejudice when they say hateful things about people they don’t like.”

“Give me an example,” I said.

“Hmmmm… something like black people are stupid, or Mexicans are lazy.”

“Good, those are certainly stereotypes, good examples of prejudicial attitudes that some people have. But let me correct one thing that you said. The term, Mexican, refers to a nationality, citizens of Mexico. Most Mexicans today are Mestizo, people of mixed European and American Indian ancestry. Some Mexicans are Caucasian, some are American Indian, and some are Black. So it is inaccurate racially to refer to all Latinos as Mexican. Note that both of your examples are generalizations. We all know that neither is true. It is probably true, wouldn’t you agree, that some blacks are stupid and some Mestizos are lazy, just as some whites are stupid and some are lazy. But most Blacks are of normal intelligence just as most whites are of normal intelligence, and most Mestizos are every bit as hardworking and industrious as anyone else.

I gave my students textbook definitions.

Bias is a prejudice in a general sense, usually for having a preference to one particular point of view or ideological perspective. However, one is generally only said to be biased if one’s powers of judgment are influenced by the biases one holds. In other words, a biased person’s views are neither neutral nor objective, they are subjective. A bias could, for example, lead one to accept or deny the truth of a claim, not on the basis of the strength of the arguments in support of the claim themselves, but because of the extent to which the claim is compatible with one’s own preconceived ideas. We are all biased; it’s a human condition.

Prejudice is the process of “pre-judging” something or somebody. It implies coming to judgment on an issue before learning where the preponderance of evidence actually lies, or forming a judgment without direct experience. Holding a politically unpopular view is not in itself prejudice, and politically popular views are not necessarily free of prejudice. When applied in a social sense, prejudice generally refers to existing biases toward entire groups, often based on social stereotypes. At its extreme, prejudice results in groups being denied benefits and rights unjustly or, conversely, unfairly showing unwarranted favor towards others.

“Now,” I said, “if I say that I do not like hip-hop music and that I am pretty much disgusted with the current fashion trend many young African-American men are following, namely, wearing their pants down below their buttocks, have I communicated prejudice?”

Many of my students just stared at me, communicating either confusion or their disbelief that I would even talk about this in the classroom. Others, at least some, including a few African-Americans, shook their heads indicating that they understood.

“No, I am communicating a bias, a preference for other forms of music and a desire to see young people dress with what I consider to be – decorum (good taste). Likewise, when I say that I like enchiladas and fajitas but I do not care for soul food recipes that include offal, which are normally discarded cuts of meat such as pigs’ feet, chitterlings and tripe, I am also not guilty of prejudice. However, if I were to say that I believe the explosive growth of “Black Pride” in the United States following passage of the Civil Rights Act has benefitted people of color neither socially nor economically, I would not be speaking out of prejudice. I would simply be stating an opinion based on observation, an opinion about which many African-Americans would take offense.”

After a long hesitation, during which I wanted students to reflect on what I had just said, I opined, “I believe that we fail to resolve issues involving race and other forms of prejudice in this country because we don’t want them resolved. Like all people pretty much everywhere in the world, we are too concerned with exhibiting our ethnic distinctiveness and hanging onto to our preconceived notions about others. It’s almost as if who we think we are matters more to us than who we really are, and even more than getting along with our neighbors.

After class, I expected many calls from irate parents that evening. I was pleased when none were received.

I invite your comments whether you agree with me or not.








Published in: on March 11, 2011 at 4:32 pm  Comments (17)  

Jesus, Our Teacher ~ Let’s Go to the Kingdom Classroom

I told my class that a wise man, a minister in whom I put great stock, once said that the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, records man’s growing understanding of God, how it has improved over the millennia.

February 9, 2011 — Suffice to say, no matter how skilled the preacher, we all come away from worship services with different insights and different levels of comprehension from sermon messages. Sometimes, with hearts and minds preoccupied, we come away without the foggiest notion of what the sermon message was about. We’re only human.

Recognizing this, our adult Sunday school class had previously decided to begin a series of lessons over the sermons our pastors preached the previous week. On this particular Sunday morning, it was my turn to teach, facilitating discussion over the sermon that I had heard the previous Sunday, Pastor Marie Mitchell’s: Jesus, Our Teacher ~ Let’s Go to the Kingdom Classroom.

The previous lesson in this series resulted in some very interesting discussion and deeper understanding among many. I hoped for the same result on this morning.

By way of explanation, we normally have two different worship services at our church, a more contemporary, early service with our associate pastor preaching and a more traditional, late morning service with our senior pastor preaching. Some of us regularly attend the earlier service while others of us regularly attend the later service. The decision to discuss one of the previous Sunday’s sermons allows us to hear a sermon message that we may have missed.

After, administrative announcements, cares and concerns, and an opening prayer, I began my lesson saying, “As Christians, we universally recognize Jesus as the greatest teacher who ever lived. But do we know why He was so great? Was it because of what He taught or how He taught?”

I allowed time for class members to reflect on this, but it didn’t take long before one of the gentlemen in the class said, “It’s both, but mostly because of how He taught.” On this, there was general agreement.

“Thank you,” I said. “Of course, since Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, many have taught the same things: to love God with all our hearts and minds and to love one another as we love ourselves. But nobody has ever taught these things so well. Isn’t it a shame that we have not all learned as well as He taught?”

My rhetorical question didn’t get the chuckles I thought it might.

Then I asked how many had heard the same sermon that I had heard the previous week. Only two hands went up. “Great,” I said. “This will be a new lesson for most of you then.”

To the two who had raised their hands, I said, “For reasons that will become obvious to you as soon as I do this, I’m going to ask you not to share about the significance of what I am about to do.” Then, to the whole class I said, “I have a treat for you this morning. Yes, a real treat: ice-cream.”

While passing out plastic spoons and individual servings of ice-cream, including some no-sugar-added, frozen yogurt treats for those who might be on restricted sugar diets, I asked everyone to think about: (1) who was their most memorable teacher; (2) from this teacher, what they had learned, and; (3) what had made this teacher so memorable.

It took a few moments for the treats to be distributed and for the sharing about remembered teachers to begin. When the sharing did begin, it became obvious that the memories stirred emotions. The stories were heart-warming. Some of the favorite teachers were women, some men. Some were actually family members. All were remembered as being sincere, caring individuals who respected their students and were, in turn, themselves respected. They all loved what they did and they loved their students. Another common denominator was that the favorite teachers, regardless of the subject they taught, were very knowledgeable about what they taught. Also, they had the ability to connect with their students on a personal level.

Summarizing, I said, “Don’t you suppose that these great teachers’ characteristics were the same characteristics our Savior employed?

I asked my class, “How did Jesus teach?” Then I summarized responses — Jesus taught using aphorisms (great one-liners, short, pithy, memorable sayings provoking and inviting further insight). Examples: “If a blind person leads another blind person, they will both fall into a ditch, Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” and, “Leave the dead to bury the dead.” He also taught using parables (short stories that invite the student to see things in light of the story. Examples: the story of the Good Samaritan and the Foolish Farmer.

While finishing up our ice-cream, I asked for volunteers to read verses from the same scripture passages used for the Offertory Praise during last week’s worship, Psalm 139. If you have a Bible close, you might wish to read this passage yourself before continuing. It’s the song of David which begins: “You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.”

After the readings, I asked what images of God are made manifest by these passages.

I wrote member responses on the class whiteboard. They included: All knowing, All powerful, Judging, and Controlling. These things, I said, reflect our conventional knowledge about the nature of God – the things that have been known for ages about the God of Abraham, of Joseph, of Moses, and Isaiah. In these passages, David doesn’t tell us anything new about God, except, perhaps, about God’s personal relationship with us.

Then, in the same order of worship followed by our pastor the previous Sunday, I next shared what was taught during the Children’s Sermon: The Importance of Signs and Why We Should Obey Them. A poster showing various traffic signs was displayed. The signs included a stop sign, a railroad crossing, a speed limit sign. When the children were asked why these warning and caution signs are important and why we should obey them, a precocious little lad answered, “Cause if you don’t, you’ll get crashed!”

“Exactly, responded the pastor. “And (holding up a Bible), there are warnings signs in here too. We need to learn about them and obey them so we won’t get crashed.”

I told my class that a wise man, a minister in whom I put great stock, once said that the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, records man’s growing understanding of God, how it has improved over the millennia. This helped me to understand how my image of God as creator, a jealous and sometimes vengeful God, can be reconciled with the New Testament image of God as an accepting and forgiving Savior.

I then asked the class, “What did Jesus teach?” I listened to their responses then summarized — Jesus taught about God, the Kingdom of Heaven and how we should treat one another. I added, “Jesus taught an alternative wisdom, did he not? He taught his disciples to see things differently.”

Next, I asked class members to read verses from Matthew 5, verses 1 through 12, The Sermon on the Mount. Again, if you have ready access to a Bible, you might want to read these verses yourself before continuing with this posting.

After the readings, I asked my class, “What do the beatitudes tell us about Jesus’ alternative wisdom?” I listened to the responses, and then summarized using the following table adding a couple of my own insights .

Conventional Wisdom
Jesus’ Alternative Wisdom
God is punitive lawgiver and judge God is gracious
A person’s worth is determined by measuring up to social standards As a children of God, all persons have infinite worth
Sinners and outcasts are to be avoided and rejected Everyone is welcome around the table and in the kingdom of God
Identity comes from social tradition Identity comes from centering in the sacred, from relationship with God
Strive to be first The first shall be last…; those who exalt themselves will be emptied…
Preserve one’s own life above all The path of dying to self and being reborn leads to life abundant
The fruit of striving is reward The fruit centered on God is compassion

Before closing, I told everyone the reason for the ice-cream. I hoped it would help them remember the bottom line message of the sermon. Our pastor had finished her sermon with a parable, teaching us a basic truth about all of us being teachers and how it’s often more important how we teach than what we teach. This was her story:

A mother took her little boy to a restaurant. After their orders were served, the mother asked her son if he would like to return thanks. He smiled, folded his little hands and bowed his head.

“God is good, God is great. Thank you for our food,” the little boy prayed, “And I would be even more thankful if I could have some ice-cream for dessert. Amen!”

Along with the laughter from the other customers, a nearby woman remarked, “That’s what’s wrong with this country. Kids today don’t even know how to pray. Asking God for ice cream! Why, I never!”

The little boy burst into tears and asked his mother, “Did I do it wrong? Is God mad at me?”

Hearing this, an elderly gentleman approached the table. He winked at the little boy and said, “I happen to know that God thought that was a great prayer.”

“Really?” the little boy asked.

“Cross my heart,” the man replied. Then, in a theatrical whisper so that others could hear too, he added (indicating the woman whose remark had started this whole thing), “It’s too bad some people never ask God for ice cream. A little ice cream is good for the soul sometimes.”

Moved by all this, the waitress who had served the mother and the little boy brought a dish of ice-cream over to the table along with the check. “Here you go,” setting the dessert down in front of the little boy. “This is on the house.”

The little boy stared at dessert for a moment, and then he did something really special. He picked up his ice-cream and walked over to the critical woman’s table, placing the dessert in front of her. With a big smile he said, “Here, this is for you. Ice cream is good for the soul sometimes and my soul is good already.”

Whether we intend to be or not, we are all teachers. So, it behooves us to remember the alternative wisdom Jesus taught and how he taught. He taught with love and compassion.

I ended my lesson with some homework. I asked my fellow class members to think of an issue in their lives or in the world today. Then ask themselves: (1) What does conventional wisdom say about it? And (2) How does Jesus’ invitation to see differently affect your perspective and response to the issue?

I look forward to reading and responding to your comments.

Published in: on February 9, 2011 at 2:06 pm  Comments (2)  

Texas Conservatives Attempting to Rewrite History

“Ignorance is preferable to error, and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing than he who believes what is wrong — Thomas Jefferson (Notes on Virginia, 1782).”

It is a popular belief among conservatives, particularly the religious-right, that the mainline media, as well as academia, are liberally biased. Hmmm, perhaps… but I think it more likely that facts simply do not support conservative ideas. Conservative solution: revise the facts.

Although not yet final, the rules require a thirty-day period for citizens’ comments, the Texas State Board of Education, approved a social studies curriculum on a party-line vote last week that will put a conservative stamp on future editions of textbooks used in public schools. This was done, according to several independent sources, despite the fact that there were no historians, sociologists or economists serving on the board and none were consulted during deliberations. This, in my opinion as a certified and seasoned social studies teacher, is tantamount to rewriting history. This eliminates any pretense of independence for “independent” school districts in Texas, and this nails it for me. I had been thinking about whether to retire from my high school economics classroom at the end of this school year. I’m not just thinking about it anymore.

Approved curriculum changes include stressing the superiority of the American free-enterprise system rather than presenting advantages and disadvantages of different economic systems in the world and avoiding the word, capitalism in economics textbooks, which has a negative connotation for some as a form economic imperialism. Another change would require students to study “the unintended consequences” of Great Society legislation, affirmative action and Title IX legislation.

Although I have not been personally able to find any historical evidence to support the idea that American citizens of German and Italian national extraction were interned wholesale in the United States during World War II as were those of Japanese extraction, future Texas textbooks will imply this to counter the idea that the internment of Japanese was motivated by racism. This is teaching students what to think as opposed to teaching them how to think. It’s replacing facts with opinions. Other changes include questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light. 

The board, dominated by conservative members, claims that they are merely trying to correct what they see as a liberal bias in current textbooks. To that end, they made dozens of changes to a 120-page proposal submitted by a panel of Texas teachers, changes aimed at calling into question, among other things, concepts like the separation of church and state and the secular nature of the American Revolution.

One member of the board, David Bradley, a conservative from Beaumont who works in real estate was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I reject the notion by the left of a constitutional separation of church and state.” He is further quoted as saying, “I have $1,000 for the charity of your choice if you can find it in the Constitution.”

Well, sir, the words, “separation of church and state,” may not be literally found in the U.S. Constitution, but the notion most certainly is. From Article Six: “no religious test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” From the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

If the actual words from the Constitution aren’t sufficiently persuasive, perhaps you would be swayed by a primary source of evidence to support the founders’ intent, a letter written by the original author of the document, James Madison, to Baptist Churches in North Carolina, June 3, 1811:  “Having always regarded the practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government as essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, I could not have otherwise discharged my duty on the occasion which presented itself.”

Please write your $1,000 check out to the Texas Freedom Network, Mr. Bradley.

“We are adding balance,” said Dr. Don McLeroy, the leader of the conservative faction on the board, after the vote. “History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.”

Efforts by Hispanic board members to include more Latino figures as role models for the state’s large Hispanic population were consistently defeated, prompting one member, Mary Helen Berlanga, to storm out of a meeting late Thursday night, saying, “They can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don’t exist.”

“They are going overboard, they are not experts, they are not historians,” she said. “They are rewriting history, not only of Texas but of the United States and the world.”

The conservative members maintain that they are trying to correct what they see as a liberal bias among the teachers who proposed the curriculum. To that end, they made dozens of minor changes aimed at calling into question, among other things, concepts like the separation of church and state and the secular nature of the American Revolution.

Mavis B. Knight, a Democrat from Dallas, introduced an amendment requiring that students study the reasons “the founding fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring the government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion above all others.” It was defeated on a party-line vote. After the vote, Ms. Knight said, “The social conservatives have perverted accurate history to fulfill their own agenda.”

Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer from Richmond who is a strict constitutionalist and thinks the nation was founded on Christian beliefs, managed to cut Thomas Jefferson from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, replacing him with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone. (Jefferson is not well liked among conservatives on the board because he coined the term “separation of church and state.”)

Parents and other citizens of Texas who sincerely care about truth and the quality of education our kids receive, be concerned — be very concerned. When political and/or religious funda- mentalists, whether ultra-conservative or ultra-liberal, dictate what can be taught in our schools, our First Amendment freedoms are substantially diminished.

A document containing the extensive revisions adopted for social studies will be posted on the Texas Education Agency website and entered in the Texas register by mid-April. Once posted, the official 30-day public comment period will begin. At that time, comments with suggested changes to the document can be sent to In the mean time, don’t hesitate to let Ms. Gail Lowe at know what you think. For more information, visit the Texas Freedom Network at

“Ignorance is preferable to error, and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing than he who believes what is wrong — Thomas Jefferson (Notes on Virginia, 1782).”

Please feel free to post a comment, whether pro or con.

Published in: on March 16, 2010 at 12:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

Capitalism — The Good, The Bad and The Ugly ~ Teaching Students How to Think vs. Teaching Them What to Think

Sadly, when it gets to the point in Texas that teachers must teach the truth in “public” schools only as social conservatives in this state are privileged to know the truth, it will be time for me to retire or find something else to do until I do.

opaSeptember 7, 2009  —  From day-one in my high school economics classes, I assure my college-bound students that my goal is not to teach them what to think, but rather how to think. I tell them that, if we are to have the freedom and ability to make up our own minds about controversial subjects, we must be exposed to facts, theory and opinion from all sides — without prejudice. They, for the most part, seem to accept and respect this as a given.

Introducing the subject of an economics lesson to my high school seniors last week, Capitalism and Free Enterprise, I quoted an Anglican Priest, W. R. Inge, who said or wrote, “The enemies of freedom do not argue, they just shout and shoot.”

I gather what Reverend Inge was saying is that, for freedom to thrive, people must be willing to engage in “reasoned” argument – that when we refuse to consider others’ arguments or stop listening to facts and start making things up to distract others from real issues, we are obstructing the democratic process and are, therefore, enemies of freedom. Now, this I did not say to my classes, but we’ve seen a good deal of shouting taking place in town hall meetings all across the country this past month. Have we not? We’ve also seen individuals showing-up at these meetings with loaded weapons, weapons they insisted were not brought to intimidate people with whom they disagree. Awhhh… give a break!

Inge was a professor at Cambridge University and a prolific author who wrote scores of articles, lectures and sermons. He also wrote over 35 books but was best known for his works on Plotinus and neoplatonic philosophy, and on Christian mysticism. He was a believer in spiritual religion — faith based not upon coercive authority but on experience and individual inspiration. Obviously, he was a pragmatic person. I can’t find any reference to his political leanings though. If he had any, he probably kept them to himself because, as in the U. S., I assume religious leaders and educators in the U. K. are pretty much expected to be apolitical. But I’ll just bet that, if he ever did vote, he voted for candidates representing either the Social Democratic Party or the “old” Liberal Democratic Party of the U.K.

I shared none of my speculation about Inge’s politics with my students, if he had any politics. Teachers in Texas are expected to be apolitical too, especially if they lean at all to the left, don’t you know? But as I write this now, I’m struck by how I was teaching this lesson last week while some parents in Texas were calling school boards and principals to threaten keeping their students out of school if they were allowed to watch President Obama’s return-to-school address to students. Sadly, when it gets to the point in Texas that teachers must teach the truth in “public” schools only as social conservatives in this state are privileged to know the truth, it will be time for me to retire or to find something else to do until I do. With the Texas Education Agency (TEA) review committee, stacked as it is with like-thinking social conservatives to rewrite the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for social studies subjects according to right-wing, radical political philosophies and beliefs, that time may be upon me sooner than later.

No, my point in using Inge’s quote was not to indoctrinate my students with “liberal” ideas. It was to get my students to think beyond the limits of our textbook lesson on capitalism – to think on a higher level – to get them to understand why some living outside the developed world are reluctant to embrace western-style capitalism, why they view our system as just another form of imperialism, an economic form. Scholars of the Islamic faith and Southwest Asian history say that this is behind much of the hatred directed toward the U.S. and European countries — why some in the Islamic World have become so militant, choosing to shout and shoot rather than accept the possibility that they could be wrong.

After discussing current economic events, including the story that broke last week about the average annual compensation for CEOs of the twenty largest banks and financial institutions in the U.S. exceeding $13,700,000 each, we covered the characteristics and merits of capitalism. These CEOs, by the way, head-up the very businesses that received most of the tax-payer funded Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) money last year and this. The compensation of these CEOs is more than thirty-five times as much as our president makes and more than 400 times as much as the average tax-payer.

Although not included in our text book, it is true that the roots of capitalism can be traced back to the Golden Age of Islam and the Muslim Agricultural Revolution that took place between the 8th and 12th Centuries. Europe was still in transition from Feudalism to Mercantilism and would not begin to adopt “free market” concepts until after Adam Smith’s landmark book, The Wealth of Nations published in 1776. It is also true that capitalism, the American version of it, is based on the concept of economic freedom, the idea that we are free to pursue any business we choose anywhere in the country, or outside the country for that matter, that we choose to make whatever products and provide whatever services we wish – so long as our choices don’t harm others or at least aren’t illegal. It is also true that, in America, the concept of economic freedom implies that there should be a minimum of government restrictions on businesses, that we trust the market place to punish irresponsible behavior. But this tenet differs from other western market economies wherein governments have become more involved – more shared (socialized) since the end of WWII.

Some in America believe that economic freedom is a synonym for Free Enterprise, and that Free Enterprise is simply the English translation of Laissez-Faire (meaning no government involvement whatsoever). But, as we have learned from recent experience following the deregulation of financials in this country, Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand does need a measure of guidance and oversight by regulatory agencies, whether part of the government or not as is the case with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. This is because business under capitalism is driven by self-interest, another characteristic of capitalism, and sometimes this motivating force can lead to greed, excesses, and violation of the public trust.

At this point, I had my students watch a brief video interview of Bill Gates, the most successful capitalist of our time, by the editor of Time Magazine. Mr. Gates spoke of how capitalism has worked well, better than anyone could have imagined, simulating innovation and advances in all manner of products and services. But he also made quite clear that capitalism has worked best for the well-off, increasing dramatically in recent years the gulf between the wealthy and the poor – rich nations and poor nations. Without offering ideas for how to incentivize businesses to do more to alleviate poverty and suffering in the world, using their great potential for profit in altruistic ways, he postulated that they should and that, magically, somehow they will. In support of this great hope, he suggested that the young today have an innate desire to work for socially-responsible businesses and that this will temper corporate greed.

After viewing this video, one of my students suggested that Mr. Gate’s vision for the future of capitalism without government encouragement is overly optimistic. This led to a brief discussion on whether the federal government has the authority under the Constitution to limit excessive compensation. I settled the argument so that we could move on by pointing out that Congress enacted minimum wage, thereby establishing a floor for wages, under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. While people still argue for and against it for its positive and negative impacts on the economy, the law has been upheld by the Supreme Court. Therefore, there is no reason to disbelieve that Congress could not enact a law establishing a ceiling on salaries and other forms of corporate compensation.

Another characteristic of capitalism is that it includes the concept of voluntary exchange – the idea that buyers and sellers can freely and willingly engage in market transactions – that we don’t have to buy products and services offered by a particular business or made here in the U.S. Likewise, businesses are not prohibited from doing business in other countries, even exporting Americans’ jobs for foreign workers. We participate in transactions believing that both buyers and sellers are made better-off there from.

Capitalism, as envisioned by Adam Smith, cannot thrive where there is inadequate competition. When a particular industry becomes excessively concentrated as, for example, health insurance in the U.S. these days, the seller has an excessive advantage in the marketplace. Prices will outpace average inflation for all other goods and services.  That’s when, as our textbook points out, government as a regulator must step-in to somehow restore competition.

Finally, American-style capitalism depends on the concept of private property, to include “intellectual” property, as in copy rights and patents on new technologies. Unfortunately, other countries’ versions of capitalism, such as that which is practiced in China’s “mixed” economy, don’t recognize this as being so important, especially since most of the creative innovation still comes from the U.S. and other market-based economies.

The lesson concluded with the various roles played in capitalistic economies such as ours, the entrepreneur, the government and the consumer. As our textbook points out, when competition is adequate, the consumer is “sovereign,” or king in the economy. This is because the dollars we spend on goods and services act as if they were votes. The choices we make, expressed by the dollars we spend for what we buy and from whom we buy determine what gets produced. Were it not such a contentious political issue and if I could be free to express my personal opinion, I’d have pointed out that this is exactly why President Obama advocates a “public” option for health insurance in the legislative debate over health care reform. Americans these days, unless they are members of Congress or are well-off enough to shop for insurance independent of an employer, have no choice. Therefore, consumers are not sovereign in this particular market; corporations are.

With minimal government regulation and state and local governments’ support for business development, American-style capitalism has clearly made some in this country very rich. This economic formula has also led to miraculous advances in technologies that have improved our material lives and longevity. But there have been down-sides too. The gulf between the rich and the poor has grown and grown to the point that average citizens are worse-off today in terms of purchasing power. Americans’ take-home pay today buys thirty percent less than the average manufacturing wage after taxes did back in the 1970s. Also, with the elimination of most trade restrictions in American-style capitalism, many well-paying jobs have been off-shored to the developing world. So foreigners are benefiting from American-style capitalism right along with the wealthy in this country. So, capitalism is good. It’s also bad and it can be ugly, especially if you’re out of work, can’t afford health insurance, and you get sick. It all depends on your point of view or your political persuasion.

Please feel free to post a comment whether you agree or not.

Published in: on September 7, 2009 at 8:15 pm  Comments (9)  

Religious Education in Texas “Public” Schools ~ Here We Go Again

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is at it again, this time reviewing the U.S. History curriculum for Texas high school students with the goal of emphasizing what some claim were “Christian” ideals and beliefs that motivated our Founding Fathers.

opaScientists and educators alike were frustrated and disappointed all across the nation when, in March of this year (2009), the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) cast its final vote on state science standards. Despite 54 different groups issuing an appeal to Texas lawmakers, House Bill 4224 was passed by our state legislature which is largely comprised of social conservatives. The bill put the “strengths and weaknesses” argument against evolution back into the science education laws.

“The final vote was a triumph of ideology and politics over science,” said Dr. Eugenie Scott, according to a report in Dr. Scott is executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). “The board majority chose to satisfy creationist constituents and ignore the expertise of highly qualified Texas scientists and scientists across the country.”

House Bill 4224, and another “anti-evolution” bill, HB2800, which would have exempted institutions such as the Institute for Creation Research’s graduate school from Texas regulations governing degree-granting institutions, died on the Senate floor in June when the Texas legislature adjourned. But now the SBOE is at it again, reviewing the U.S. History curriculum for Texas high school students with the goal of emphasizing what some claim were “Christian” ideals and beliefs that motivated our Founding Fathers. ABC News on-line is currently featuring a story on this. You should check it out and read some of the comments people from all over the country are posting.

Why would the media, liberal-leaning or not, think the nation should be concerned or even interested in what Texas decides to teach to its high school students? Because Texas is the nation’s second-largest school system; it could very well influence the textbooks used by students in other parts of the country where there appears to be little or no lobbying for such religiously-oriented material. The debate about whether to teach religious-based social studies in Texas public schools has, according to ABC’s article, dominated a broader discussion about the state’s K-12 curriculum which is currently undergoing a review by state officials.

My personal view, and as a certified social studies teacher in Texas, I have a stake in this issue if not a say, is that the Religious-right in Texas seems to be more interesting in teaching students what to think (what they believe to be true) rather than how to think. But to get their message across, they would have to re-write history and that frightens me. The debate rages on among historians and pseudo-historians alike as to whether the Founders were Christian. Both Liberal revisionists and the Religious-right try to make the Founders fit their ideologies. But there is evidence in primary source historical documents only to support that, for the most part, the Founders were godly men. All could not respond, “Amen,” to the Apostle’s Creed. Yes, many had degrees in theology. But there were few institutions of higher learning in the colonies that were secular; most universities had presidents who were clergymen and most graduates went on to become Protestant ministers themselves.

A blogger who posted a comment this morning in response to ABC’s article, his “nom de plume” being, BubberDad, said that he was all for teaching religion in public schools. He said he thought it particularly important for students to understand what motivated people like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Obviously, BubberDad thinks he knows what he was talking about. So I responded:

“BubblerDad – It’s interesting that you should mention Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Franklin was a Deist, you know, and history isn’t quite clear about Jefferson’s faith. From his writings, he seemed to teater between Deism and Christianity. We do know, however, that he fathered five children with his slave/concubine, Sally Hemmings — not exactly puritan behavior, right? So let’s be careful here, let’s not be rewriting history the way we wish it had happened.”

With respect to primary sources to support our beliefs about history, the following from James Madison, the principle architect of our Constitution, expresses well my concerns about the Religious-right’s attempt to characterize the United States as being a “Christian” nation:

“Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians in exclusion of all other Sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute threepence only from his property for the support of any one establishment may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?”

James Madison – Memorial and Remonstrance Against
Religious Assessments, 1785

If the attitude and apparent political motivations of members of the Texas State Board of Education, to inject religious teachings and, in particular, “fundamentalist” Christian teachings, into science and history curriculums for Texas public schools is a concern to you, as it is to me, you might want to contact Governor Perry’s choice to chair this board, Ms. Gail Lowe. Her office phone number is (512) 556-6262. To address the board collectively on this or any other issue involving education in Texas, you may direct an e-mail to

I invite your comments.

Published in: on July 29, 2009 at 12:11 pm  Comments (3)  

The Problem with Socialism ~ More Viral Disinformation

“The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.”

Margaret Thatcher

opaThis will sound un-American to some, but, unlike the former Prime Minister of the UK, I think the real problem with socialism is that it has a bad rap here in the U.S.  Americans confuse socialism with communism.

Socialism refers to a broad set of economic theories about social organization, theories advocating public ownership and administration of critical sectors of the economy such as education, energy, public utilities, health care, and finance — theories which, when put into practice would ostensibly result in a society characterized by fairness and equity. These theories, and there are many variations on the theme, seek to slow or minimize the concentration of wealth within a small, privileged class of citizens as is the propensity for capitalism to do.  According to one government source, the top one percent of Americans enjoy thirty-three percent of the nation’s wealth while the bottom eighty percent have less than sixteen percent.  It is this kind of inequity that has historically caused revolutions. However, most socialist theories do not advocate massive “redistribution” of wealth. Quite the opposite; reward and compensation in countries like Sweden, Norway, France and Germany, countries that many Americans consider to be socialistic, are based on the value and amount of effort individuals expend in production. Interestingly, Norway, perhaps the most socialistic of the western democracies, boasts the largest number of millionaires per capita of any country in the world.

Communism, on the other hand, depending on how it is wrapped around the political system that adopts it, is a political ideology that promotes the establishment of an egalitarian, classless, stateless society and an economy based on common ownership of everything with centralized control of the means of production. Communism is totalitarian, either oligarchic or dictatorial, incorporating a branch of socialistic theory in the extreme, where it still survives (in North Korea). All other communist states, to include China, Vietnam and Cuba, are going through a process of reform — adopting market concepts to achieve mixed economies.

The confusion between socialism and communism is perhaps a lasting legacy of the Red Scare that took hold of America following the Second World War and the Cold War that lasted for decades. The Cold War is over now; we should put it behind us, I think, and move on.

I have a good friend who can’t quite seem to decide whether, because of his intellect and his understanding of Christian doctrine (love your neighbor as yourself), he should subscribe to and support liberal political philosophy or, because of his more conservative friends’ influence, subscribe to and support conservative political philosophy. He recently forwarded to me a copy of the viral disinformation email that follows asking for my opinion about it.  I suspect that it was one of his other friends who sent it to him. Anyway, I had seen it before myself, several times. Perhaps you have too; it’s been making the rounds in various forms for years.


An economics professor at Texas Tech said he had never failed a single student before but had, once, failed an entire class. The class had insisted that socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich… a great equalizer. The professor then said ok, we will have an experiment then on whether socialism makes for good economic policy.

All grades would be averaged and everyone would receive the same grade so no one would fail and no one would receive an A.  After the first test the grades were averaged and everyone got a B. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy.  But, as the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too; so they studied little.  The second test average was a D!  No one was happy. When the 3rd test rolled around the average was an F.

The scores never increased as bickering, blame, name calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else.  All failed, to their great surprise, and the professor told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great; but when government takes all the reward away; no one will try or want to succeed.

Could it be any simpler than that?


As a teacher of economics, I can’t say that I have never failed a student. Hard as I try to get the basics of economics across to some of my students (that it is a body of both knowledge and opinion with conflicting ideas and theories — a soft rather than a hard science), they just can’t or won’t get it.  According to John Maynard Keynes, “Economics is an easy subject at which few excel.” But people who don’t understand the nature of this “dismal” science persist in trying to simplify it — or so it seems. The above tale of the economics professor who would fail an entire class for not agreeing with his particular beliefs is a perfect example. If there ever was such a professor and I were his dean, I would fire him for not getting it either.

The problem with trying to justify economic or political points of view with analogies like this story (comparing wage and salary competition with competition for grades) is that they are overly simplistic. They are flawed — rife with logical fallacies of composition and causation. Students do not compete for grades in the same way that people in the workplace compete for pay or promotion. Neither does socialism, except in the most extreme applications of theory (and I can think of none in actual existence), equalize reward among all participants as the economics professor’s experiment did.  Sure, the Soviet Union’s brand of socialism (communism) failed, and a large part of the reason for its failure was diminished incentive.  But Soviet-style communism, Chinese-style communism, and Cuban-style communism (each is/was unique) do not equal socialism as reconciled today with market economies in Western Europe. In fact, all communist states, save for North Korea and Cuba, have incorporated elements of market forces to become mixed economies, and Cuba’s new president, Raul Castro, has indicated that he intends to start doing the same.

 The economies of the world’s other industrialized nations are flourishing. All are still small compared to ours, but they are coming on strong. In 2008, our real gross domestic product (GDP) (GDP adjusted for inflation) grew at just 1.4 percent. Sixty-six other countries outpaced us and they have been doing so for years.  The world average was 3.8 percent. So, in the years ahead, if we do not become more socially responsible by investing more in education, health care, energy and infrastructure, we may well be left behind. Call me a socialist if you wish, but that is how this economics teacher sees it.

I invite your comments whether you agree with me or not.

Published in: on April 4, 2009 at 9:09 pm  Comments (16)  

Pay for Good Grades in Texas ~ Will It Happen and, If So, Will It Work?

“The king will answer them saying, ‘I tell you with certainty, since you did it for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me’.”

Matthew 25:40 (International Standard Version)

opaI heard on the news the other day that one of our Texas state lawmakers, Joe Deshotel from Beaumont, filed a bill recently that would create a pilot program designed to pay cash to students at low-performing schools for good grades in core subjects. I was not surprised to read in the Ft. Worth Star Telegram that Representative Deshotel is a Democrat.

 According to the article, under Deshotel’s plan, freshmen could earn $50 for each “A,” $35 for each “B,” and $20 for each “C” in English, math, science or social studies. They would get half their money at the end of each grading period and the other half at graduation. They would also receive college and career counseling through the program. Funding would come from $6 billion in federal stimulus money the state is planning to use on education. The article did not include an estimate for the program’s cost – but it did initiate an interesting debate in our household. The issues discussed by my wife and me were: Would such a program work at all? Would it or could it be administered fairly? And what would the long-term effects be? Would students become dependent on near-term rewards, less able to postpone gratification as adults?

I admitted to my wife and I admit to you now that I don’t know the answers. But, as a teacher of economics for senior high students and as a parent of three grown sons, I am keenly aware of the critical need that young people have for near-term incentives. That’s why in the classroom I sometimes reward my students with small treats, Hersey kisses and various other small candies when they are able to answer review questions correctly. They seem to get a kick out of the competition for rewards — it makes it more like a game, and kids love games. If  they offer a second correct answer when nobody else’s hand goes up, I encourage them to share their second treat with another student so that nobody gets left out and so that nobody gets too much sugar. Controversial? Yes, but it really seems to stimulate interest and motivate students to participate.  And after seven years of teaching, no parent has ever objected. Praise may be enough for some, but certainly not enough for all, especially for those in class who are more academically challenged and seldom experience it.

Although my wife and I could have done so, we never offered our boys monetary rewards for good grades. Some of our friends did though and, as I think back about it, their kids always seemed to do well while ours, despite their intelligence and abilities, passed with mediocre grades and sometimes failed.  Hmmm…. we praised them when they did well, sure, and admonished them when they didn’t. But I suspect now that we’d have done far better as parents to give the pay for good grades idea a try. Many parents, especially in this economy, don’t have the means and so, don’t have a choice.

 There are pay-for-grades programs in place in Chicago, Baltimore, New York, Tucson, and Washington D.C. – I remember reading about Mayor Bloomberg initiating a pilot program with his own money a couple of years ago for kids from poor families in underperforming schools in New York. I’d be interested to know just how it and like-programs in other cities have been working — I haven’t heard, nor have I found conclusive study results. I’ve searched the Internet for answers finding studies and arguments both pro and con. The studies, however, all seem to have been planned and conducted to confirm biases already held.

According to an August 2008 USA TODAY article, a Harvard economist, Roland Fryer, who serves as the New York City Schools’ chief equality officer, came up with the idea two years ago while trying to figure out how to make school “tangible” for disadvantaged kids, kids who have few successful role models. “I just thought that giving them some short-term incentives to do what’s in their long-term best interests would be a good way to go. The two-year old New York City experiment pays students monthly to do their best on skills tests, and it has been making a difference. “While teachers talk about success,” Mr. Fryer said, “it’s not enough to tell a kid that, in the long term, hard work will pay off. We’re asking them to look down a path that they have probably never seen anyone go down … and then to have the wisdom and the fortitude to wait for their reward.”

Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College according to and article in the AP Texas News,, has said, “There is no strong research to show the incentives work, and some research shows such incentives can lead students to underperform,” said Barry Schwartz, who has spoken out against paying students for grades. “The downside to this is being ignored by those who support it,” he said, “which is that once kids become accustomed to this, they become dependent. They’ll want someone walking behind them the rest of their lives with an M&M to make sure they are rewarded for everything they do.”

So, okay, the pay-for-grades idea may be dumb. On the other hand, it might just be brilliant. Put five economists, or educators for that matter, in a room and they’ll come up with six different answers to a problem.

Spending our education stimulus money on higher teachers’ salaries won’t make much difference, I don’t think, at least in the near-term. Teach as hard as you can and as good as you can, the student who isn’t motivated to learn is still going to drop out. And sprucing up facilities with a fresh coat of paint or buying more computers won’t do much toward motivating the marginal students, the ones we’re losing in Texas by the groves. That’s where the real problem is. It isn’t with the middle class students whose families would pull them out of our public schools if only they were just a little bit more well-to-do. So please don’t anybody suggest the money should go to vouchers. Therefore, I think we ought to give the congressman’s proposal a fair try. It just feels like the Christian thing to do. His plan, after all, according to the Ft. Worth Star Telegram article, is a pilot program only, intended for high school freshman in underperforming schools so that we can gauge the worthiness of the idea. “If it does help cut down the dropout rate, which is unacceptably high in Texas,” said Deshotel, “then we can look at expanding it.”

Despite my reasoning, my guess is that the Republican-led congress in Austin won’t spend much time debating this.

Wha’da y’all think? I invite your comments, regardless of your politics.

Published in: on March 15, 2009 at 12:59 pm  Comments (6)  

The Swimming Pool Analogy ~ More Viral Disinformation

“Owners of capital will stimulate the working class to buy more and more of expensive goods, houses and technology, pushing them to take more and more expensive credits, until their debt becomes unbearable. The unpaid debt will lead to bankruptcy of banks which will have to be nationalized and the State will take the road which will eventually lead to communism.”

Das Kapital — Karl Marx, 1867

opaMarch 8, 2009 — My students and I discuss economically relevant news items at the beginning of each of my classes. I challenge them to claim their share of daily-assignment A’s, two for each student per grading period, for staying informed. Lately, however, it seems as though everything in the news is economically relevant — so this isn’t much of a challenge, except for the fact that most come prepared with the same most news-worthy items each day. Whoever gets their hand up first wins.

One story that everyone seemed to miss last week was that Russia’s Ambassador to the United States, Sergey Ivanovich Kislyak, predicted that our economy will fail completely during 2010. I shared this with my students from whom I was pleased to note that none seemed overly concerned about the ambassador’s opinion. After all, Russia, we all know, still isn’t overly fond of us, jealous perhaps – their own recent experiment with capitalism having all but failed following their financial crisis in 1998. Entrepreneurism, political corruption and crime rushed into the economic vacuum left behind by the failure of the Soviet Union’s command economy.

Offering something for discussion not gleaned from the legitimate media, thus avoiding the competiton for her daily assignment A, one of my advanced placement students brought a copy of the following to class, a much circulated email message, subject: “THIS SAYS IT ALL.” I read the message to my class including Karl Marx’s nineteenth century prediction about the future of capitalism, which seems to be hauntingly applicable to our current crisis.


 Shortly after class, an economics student approaches his economics professor and says, “I don’t understand this stimulus bill.  Can you explain it to me?”

The professor replied, “I don’t have any time to explain it at my office, but if you come over to my house on Saturday and help me with my weekend project, I’ll be glad to explain it to you.” The student agreed.

At the agreed-upon time, the student showed at the professor’s house.  The professor stated that the weekend project involved his backyard pool.

They both went out back to the pool, and the professor handed the student a bucket.  Demonstrating with his own bucket, the professor said, “First, go over to the deep end, and fill your bucket with as much water as you can.” The student did as he was instructed.

The professor then continued, “Follow me over to the shallow end, and then dump all the water from your bucket into it.” The student was naturally confused, but did as he was told.

The professor then explained they were going to do this many more times, and began walking back to the deep end of the pool.

The confused student asked, “Excuse me, but why are we doing this?”

The professor matter-of-factly stated that he was trying to make the shallow end much deeper.

The student didn’t think the economics professor was serious, but figured that he would find out the real story soon enough.

However, after the 6th trip between the shallow end and the deep end, the student began to become worried that his economics professor had gone mad.  The student finally replied, “All we’re doing is wasting valuable time and effort on unproductive pursuits.  Even worse, when this process is all over, everything will be at the same level it was before, so all you’ll really have accomplished is the destruction of what could have been truly productive action!”

The professor put down his bucket and replied with a smile, “Congratulations.  You now understand the stimulus bill.”


After reading this to the class, I asked my students what they thought of it. Nobody offered an opinion, not at first. But I was patient, giving them a chance to think about it. Finally, one brave young fellow raised his hand and offered this, “I think the explanation is too simple… so simple that the author must think everybody else is stupid.”

Another student said, “Yes, and if economics was that simple we’d all be getting A’s.” In response to this, most of the class started laughing including me.

“Remember, class,” I said, “the John Maynard Keynes quote: ‘Economics is an easy subject at which few excel’.”

Then, the student who had brought the email to class sheepishly asked why the story’s professor was so wrong using a swimming pool as a metaphor for our economy.

“Unlike the professor in the story,” I said, “I will take the time and at least try to explain. Yes, this lesson on the Economic Recovery and Investment Act of 2009 is flawed on many levels.

First, our economy is not at all like a fluid swimming pool. Wealth does not flow freely from the deep end to the shallow. Wealth tends to flow from the shallow end to the deep where much of it tends to stay. At the beginning of the Bush/Cheney years, 80 percent of the water [wealth] in this nation belonged to 20 percent of its citizens, or just 20 percent of the pool. Now nearly 90 percent of it is in the deep end with much of it cashed away in U.S. Treasury Bonds, foreign numbered bank accounts and other investments that impede circulation. This is because the rich have a much lower propensity to consume and a higher propensity to save. Recall our lessons on the aggregate expenditures model. And, be not confused, saving is not the same thing as investing (, which is what many monetarist/supply-side economists would have us all believe. By the way, there aren’t very many serious supply-side economists left.

Second, we don’t have a private backyard pool any more. Our nation’s pool is connected to those in the back yards of all other nations.

Third, and there is little controversy over this among most economists now, government spending under the law will not be wasteful/unproductive activity. Infrastructure projects that this country badly needs done will get done. This will make us more efficient and reduce future costs (true investment)… plus, wages paid to get this work done will be spent and money spent eventually becomes someone else’s income — over and over again. Much of it will save state and federal governments’ unemployment and health care costs.

Finally, much of the water moved (government spending) will be used to nurture education and do research on alternative energy sources making us even more efficient and competitive in the future.

Viral disinformation like this swimming pool analogy making the rounds lately, I think, are poor attempts by those who oppose the current administration’s efforts to deal with the recession. They raise doubts and promote fear for political purposes and, as such, are disingenuous. It’s sad because what we need just now in the private sector is a sense of unity and confidence. But informed individuals, or at least those who have open inquisitive minds, won’t be suckered-in by simplistic appeals like this. We know that the world is not flat, and we know that laissez faire  economics is anarchy. An economy without structure and rules is like a jungle wherein only the fittest survive.  I must admit, however, the Karl Marx quote, does come pretty close to explaining what has happened to us owing to deregulation of the financial sector. Let’s all hope his forecast isn’t correct too. If foreigners decide to stop lending us money, it could come to that, heaven forbid!”

Please feel free to respond to this posting below with a comment, whether or not you agree.

Published in: on March 8, 2009 at 3:20 pm  Comments (19)