Archive: Sep 2008

The $700 billion bailout for “financial institutions” requested by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson amounts to $6,300 per household. Fortunately, we will not have to pay it off this year, but the amount with interest will be spread across several years.

            Many expert economists question whether the bailout will solve the economy’s problem. An even larger share, believe the bailout should not be approved without a variety of constraints on how the money is spent. Many also question the degree of urgency and the need to act right away.

            Not surprisingly, Secretary Paulson claims the sky is falling and he needs the $700 billion this week. Two years ago he made $37 million a year as CEO of a now-vulnerable investment bank. Then President Bush asked him to head the nation’s Treasury Department.

            On the other hand, some economists argue that the economy would be better off  without unregulated investment banking, and that real estate values would settle down faster without a bailout of the type demanded. After all, investment banking has become a collection of unregulated casinos that keep coming up with new games investors can play.

            In a political system such as ours that asks individuals to stand on their own and pay for their own welfare, shouldn’t corporations be allowed to fail if they take huge risks without insurance or collateral?

            For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the economy really has to be bailed out by the government. In a democracy like ours shouldn’t the people rather than Congress be asked to pull out their check books and pay for the bailout? They are asked to pay for our society’s social charity, why not economic charity?

            Individual Americans already write checks for charity for about $230 billion a year according to Giving USA. And according to the Independent Sector, last year American volunteers gave 8.1 billion hours of free labor worth $162 billion dollars  through formal organizations. On the basis of the American Time Use, I estimate that that Americans volunteered an additional $345 billion worth of free informal community service. Compare this huge value of charitable donations to last year’s United States Federal budget allocation of $294 billion for unemployment and welfare.

            Americans could do the same for the Investment Banking  industry if they thought it was important enough. Why should the  American people be given the option to be charitable to their fellow human beings, but forced to be charitable to the financial sector? Why should charity to businesses be determined by Congress and lobbyists but charity to the people left largely to private donations?

            Rather than buying assets of failing banks at inflated prices, the economy would be better served by loans to small as well as large businesses, and to home owners facing foreclosure as well as to businesses facing bankruptcy.

            Then the public should be asked to double their charitable donations this year and write checks to funds for ailing businesses. People should be given the choice as to which type of business receives their donation. This would be true economic democracy.

            The Bush administration’s enacted concept of democracy continues to be freedom for economic institutions with little regard to freedom for individuals. What is your conception of how democracy should deal with financial institutions?


Governor Sarah Palin, in her acceptance speech for Vice Presidential Republican Candidate, fired the following political shot at Senator Obama: “I guess being the mayor of a small town is similar to being a community organizer, except that a mayor has actual responsibilities.”

            The media, especially Internet bloggers, loved the quote because it was a surprise attack on Senator Obama, in the tradition of borderline dirty politics. In the same speech she likened herself to a pit bull.

            With her vicious remark denigrating community service, she “shot herself in the foot” because a major theme of the RNC was service. Hundreds of Republican delegates waved placards saying nothing but “SERVICE.”

            In his own acceptance speech, John McCain loudly stated “We believe in a strong defense, work, faith, service, a culture of life, personal responsibility, the rule of law, and judges who dispense justice impartially and don’t legislate from the bench. We believe in the values of families, neighborhoods and communities.”

            While most people only heard the impassioned plea for impartial judges, he actually included community and service in the same sentence. Community service is a Republican priority but very low on the list of priorities. Sara Palin only used the word “service” once when she referred military service.

            George H. W. Bush in his 1988 inaugural address placed community service as one of his highest priorities with his catchy phrase “a thousand points of light.” He explicitly stated that these points of light were community organizations and he promised to go to all members of his government and the entire public to try to get them to participate in these community organizations. Twenty years later he is still setting a wonderful example, but his party’s latest candidates have mostly forgotten his message.

            Why does community service deserve a higher priority among Republicans? Well, duh, it is the only way to keep a society functioning if you cut taxes and cut government spending. 

            The United States already depends mightily upon community volunteers and the more we trim government services the more we need volunteer services. The Current Population Survey of the U.S. Census found that in 2007 one in four (26%) of Americans 16 and older volunteered with one or more organizations.

            Sixty-one million Americans gave 8.1 billion hours of time to their communities. For those who volunteered, they each worked an average of 133 hours per year or 22 minutes per day. Volunteers made a most impressive contribution to their country; they deserve applause, not sneers.

            Each year the Independent Sector estimates the economic value of the free hours put in by community volunteers. For 2007 they concluded that volunteer hours were worth on average $19.50, which adds up to a total economic value of $162 billion in free labor. If volunteering for sports and churches is dropped from this total, then we can say that volunteers contributed $90 billion of their time to community organizations last year.

            The Bureau of Labor Statistic’s American Time Use Survey also found that Americans volunteered an additional 19.8 billion free hours for their communities without going through an organization. Using the same hourly rate and adjustment factor, the total value of informal community service last year was $206 billion. Adding together both types of community service or volunteering, we get a total of $296 billion in free community service.

            Why is this so significant? If American adults were to have to pay to get that work done in their communities, it would cost every tax payer about $2,600 more in taxes per year. The average household would pay $5,570 more per year in taxes.

            Look at this another way. Community volunteers every year are giving each tax-paying household a free rebate of $2,672.

            Suppose in the interest of reducing the size of government, more cuts were made in services for vulnerable groups such as hurricane victims, the elderly, the disabled, and the very poor. Such a policy would make the need for community volunteers even greater than now. But community volunteers are not going to come to the aid of those who need help, unless their free time and effort are appreciated.

            The Republican Vice-Presidential Candidate got political mileage by putting down the work of “community organizers,” but at great expense to the well-being of society. Barack Obama in the 1980s worked for several years as a “community organizer” in the equivalent of a ghetto in Chicago’s south side. He worked more than full time at such a low salary that he essentially was giving most of his time free to the community. In that sense he was a community volunteer.

            Most community volunteers work for private, non-profit organizations like food shelves, nursing homes, and hospitals. But the governmental sector can play a role too. The Peace Corps and AmeriCorps are two very successful examples of government sponsored programs that coordinate the services of community organizers. Such organizers typically receive so little pay that they are for the most part community volunteers.

            From his experience in working in the “trenches” of urban Chicago, Barack Obama dreamt up similar service corps that could solve social problems at a very low cost. Combining his ideas with those of Joe Biden, they drafted the “Plan for Universal Voluntary Citizen Service.”

            The Obama-Biden plan would not only expand AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, but would integrate service-learning into schools and universities. Ways would be explored to engage diverse groups including retirees and disadvantaged youth in community service programs. The price tag would be low but the social and economic benefits far reaching.

            Do you want a national leader who denigrates volunteering or one who knows how to capitalize on volunteers?

Randy Pausch, a young, brilliant professor dying of cancer, gave his last lecture and it came to be one of the most watched Internet videos of all time. Not only that, his little book of 206 pages, The Last Lecture (Hyperion, 2008), remains a best seller. A handsome family man with wonderful speaking skills and an academic superstar, he captured a place in the hearts of millions of Americans.

            The main purpose of his last lecture seems to be to energize others to affirm life by relentlessly pursuing their dreams. In essence, achievement becomes the ultimate end. Furthermore, achieving in Pausch’s mind is all about one’s self. To be fair, he does put great value in his family and he does mention “enabling the dreams of others” to be a valid aim.

            As a whole his philosophy is good old-fashioned American individualism, blinded to the value of community or society for their own sake. All major spiritual traditions and most ethical systems argue for replacing self-centeredness with heavy doses of altruism and caring for others, but he chose to largely block them out.

            Pioneering psychologist Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning states that “it doesn’t really matter what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us.” Building on both the literature on psychology and bioethics, Stephen Post and Jill Neimark, in best-selling Why Good Things Happen to Good People, catalog the empirically established benefits of non-individualistic traits such compassion, listing, loyalty, forgiveness, and “doing good”.

            Sociologists also argue for a collectivistic outlook. In 1985 Robert Bellah and colleagues published the classic book, Habits of the Heart, in which they said that “Clearly, the meaning of one’s life for most Americans is to become one’s own person, almost to give birth to oneself.” Sociologists Pearl and Samuel Oliner, in Toward a Caring Society, make a strong case for the opposite of the self-centered society. They argue that in a compassionate society, care permeates all major social institutions, especially families, education, government, religion, law enforcement, courts, and business.

            People do not have to choose between individualism and a live of caring about others as their principle life’s purpose. Compassion can exist side by side with individualism, says sociologist Robert Wuthnow in Acts of Compassion.

            Professors Morsch and Nelson in The Power of Serving Others argue that service as a personal philosophy offers the greatest chances for contentment and an enriched life. In whose classroom would you rather have your child sit, one who says dream and achieve or one where the message is together we build, grow, and enjoy?

            The dream and achieve doctrine of Pausch has its limits. If you are not born a dream child (good looking, athletic, brilliant, or reared in a loving family), would not some of your dreams be delusions? And to whom should one compare oneself for a valid assessment of having achieved enough? Today I happened to read Steve Jobs’ accidentally released obituary. (As of today Steve Jobs is still very much alive.) Jobs’ list of accomplishments makes Pausch’s resume look sparse at best even though he was a very productive professor of computer science at Carnegie-Mellon.

            Individualism offers few benchmarks for knowing that you have done enough to feel truly fulfilled. The practice of collectivist or service philosophies offers community feedback as well as your own feelings of satisfaction from having helped others.

            The Last Lecture has inspired many to consider their vulnerability and to live their passing moments with greater presence and enjoyment. The author has provided a great service to these readers and viewers. Let us hope that they do not take away the hidden message that this practice and the aim of self-centered achievement are the answers to the puzzle of life’s purpose. In my opinion, the best path to that puzzle is each day to reflect on the most meaningful things you can do for others or the world.


           What do you think is the best way to repond when one becomes aware of life’s vulnerability, such as learning that you have a short time to live? What thoughts can provide the most comfort? Please share your personal thoughts and experiences by clicking on “comments.” below. You will have to create a sign-in, but it won’t take long.