Thursday, February 28, 2013

What is fair?

This is a speech that I gave at my Toastmaster's group recently. Not sure if it reads the same as I delivered it but thought it was worth sharing and hopefully provoking some thoughts. Bear in mind that I originally began writing this last October or November (though I finished it only within the last couple of weeks) so it is somewhat dated but still worthwhile, I thought. I'd be interested in any feedback.

What is fair?

In the wake of our recent election cycle, there were many calls heard for more fairness in our democratic system. On one side, people argued that those who earned more money should be taxed more in order to give back to society what they have reaped from it so that things would be more fair. On the other side, people suggested that the idea of taxing one small sub-group more was inherently unfair and that fairness was that taxes be fairly applied to everyone. Certainly both arguments merit further discussion but, on its face, the idea of “fairness” is, indeed, a fair one. After all, everyone wants things to be fair in competition and in life. For example, the parity that exists in today’s National Football League and many other sports is something that resonates with most people. Fans are more drawn to the games if they feel that any team can win any given contest. Of course, the one exception to this idea of parity are the fans of those teams that might be more "fair" than the rest of the teams. 

Indeed, the idea of fairness is not a new ideal – it has served as the springboard for countless political initiatives and ideologies along with numerous social experiments to find some sort of resolution to the inequality that seems to plague us. And by us, I mean humanity, not some specific sub-set thereof.

I daresay that we are hard-wired to seek out equality where we can to bring a sense of fairness where we can. We do not like seeing people treated unfairly for whatever reason. We want a harmony to exist whereby everyone is the same – or at least we can feel that we are all the same.

However, the reality is that we are not. We are not equal and never have been equal. The ugly truth is that we are all terribly unequal and that the system, such as it is, is not “fair” no matter how it may be defined. No, the truth is that some people are smarter than others. Some people are better-looking than others. Some people are richer than others. Some people speak better than others. Some people are more artistic than others. Some people are more mechanically inclined than others. Some people are healthier than others. Some people have more hair than others (though I’d really like to see some fairness put in place for this issue!). Yes, I am sure that it is a surprise to everyone here that there are differences between us and make us all very unequal and it is impossible to create a “fair” system for all of us because of these inequities.

Really, is it even possible to create a “fair” system for everyone? And how do we define a “fair” system? One based upon the job title one holds? Their education? How much hair they have on the top of their heads? Their skin color? What type of homes people should own? How much money they make or pay in taxes? At its best, “fair” is a very subjective term, is contextually based, and should never be used as an absolute. Unfortunately, it is within the political realm that it is most often used as an absolute and that is a problem because it creates the false impression that fairness can be achieved. As an absolute, however, it cannot.

This does not, however, mean that we should not try to create a system that can serve to better benefit everyone. Indeed, the key is not that we should be working to make everything “fair” for everyone but should instead strive to create a system whereby everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. And the key words in that last sentence are “equal opportunity”. If you truly want a more “fair” society, then give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed. And the only way to ensure that happens is to give everyone the same start at the beginning and let them take advantage of what they can.

It all begins at school. The US offers a free education to all children regardless of any other circumstance and this is a major part of what has allowed America to succeed in the fashion it has throughout its short history. Education has been the origin of the path to a better life for Americans and it should be treasured for the knowledge that a good education imparts is the beginning of bettering oneself and attaining the equality that we all seek. Yet, far too often, we take education for granted. We fail to see that equality and fairness can only begin in our schools and the knowledge that they impart to each new generation. Indeed, children are the ones who can offer the best examples of fairness and equality because they are the ones who are unrelentingly honest and recognize where things should be equal and where it is impossible to impose equality. It is those same children who seek to do better and, given equal chances for learning, can achieve and succeed on what the preceding generations have done. Schools should be the centerpieces of society from which the hoped for “fairness” and equality can have a hope of being nurtured and grown into reality.

Give the children a chance to seek a fair life with some equality where they are judged not by the factors that separate us today but on their own skills, knowledge and accomplishments. Provide them with schools that are set not to lowered standards to ensure everyone is treated “fairly” with no winners or losers but with schools that will challenge them to do their best and give them a “fair” shake at a future in a life that is not always fair and equal.

We are not all equal and life is not fair – that is an unfortunate reality of life. But that does not mean that we should not seek to provide the opportunity for the next generation to achieve and succeed so that they may be better than the labels of “fair” and “equal” given them today which, in the real and future world, may not always be applicable.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The politics of friendship

Ah, yes, the politics of friendship. Or, put another way, the idea that politics defines your friendship. At least for some people. I try not to allow it to affect my friendships; though, to be fair, I have never been above riding someone about their political views. But I would like to think I have never defined my friendships based on political views.

However, it is something that has become a glaring issue in my opinion. I have friends and family members who define their friendships based on their political views and wanting to associate only with politically like-minded individuals. I don't get it and, quite frankly, find it to be a very disturbing concern. Everyone has political views (particularly in the US) and there is a strong vein of politics that permeates American lives because of our history. Further, I am sure that the sense of polarization that is so prevalent today is nothing new and has existed throughout the short history of the US. However, that should still not pose the issue that it does with so many non-political friends and associates of mine.

A short thirty years ago (during the heyday of Reagan), there was a lot of political vitriol between the two political parties in the US, the Republicans and Democrats. Yet, at the end of the day, I remember the stories of the two main leaders of their respective parties (Reagan and Tip O'Neil of the Democrats who was the then-Speaker of the House) getting together to have drinks and engage in friendly conversation. These were the same two men who would put forth great criticisms of each other and their respective views on the issues of the day but they also realized that it was as much political theatre and did not allow it to keep them from being able to interact on other levels for the benefit of each other and the country as a whole. Today, however, the two parties batter each other to a degree that comes close to rivaling the demonization that preceded the genocidal massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. And that occurs just on the political level. However, what has followed today is a similar level of demonization on a non-political level by adherents of the various parties.

I have friends and family who will not speak to each other because they hold different political views. Some of them are on the political right and only watch Fox News because it is "fair and balanced" and read the National Review while anything else represents only the political left (those damn liberals!). Some are on the political left and only watch MSNBC and read Mother Jones while abhorring Fox News for being biased (stupid retarded conservatives!). And they will only associate with people who hold similar viewpoints while lambasting those who hold divergent opinions without ever truly attempting to understand them, let alone trying to find a middle ground. The result, of course, is a stark inability to find common ground on a personal level that could be used to help create a framework to help move them (and the country as a whole) forward. This deliberate limitation is amazing and completely idiotic to me. Why would people choose to limit themselves from learning from or about others? I have never understood this and the politicization of these relationships makes it even more difficult to fathom.

Of course, I see this because I tend to adhere to a more moderate set of views that crosses over into both major party platforms so I am not beholden to one or the others. I also prefer to learn as much as I can and do not limit myself to a single source of information - though I also am aware of the various biases that creep up in what passes for "news reporting" today. But the idea that I would allow my political views to dictate my friendships (none of which are "political") is abhorrent to me. And this is in spite of the fact that my degree is in Political Science and I have a fairly well-grounded knowledge base on a number of subjects.

I simply want to take some of these people (who will openly admit to such selective "friendships") and throttle them while asking them what the heck they are thinking in doing such a thing! Maybe I am just an anachronistic relic of an earlier age or an optimist? I hope not. I'd be curious for the feedback of others on this.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Law of Unintended Consequences

There was a great deal of fuss over President Obama's health care plan when it was passed last year. Much of the debate was on how it would be paid for and who would be covered and whether private insurance would be phased out. What was not discussed were things like cutting the hours of part-time workers to ensure that they do not trigger certain provisions in the health care law. Yet that is what the state of Virginia is currently looking into and, while it does its research, is cutting the hours of its part-time work force to ensure that it does not trigger anything.

So, while the law was intended to help provide health coverage for all citizens, it is now inadvertently creating a situation whereby people are unable to earn their normal paychecks for fear it may end up costing them or the state more money. I am sure that many proponents of the legislation will argue that this was either unforeseen or the fault of the state of Virginia (though I find it hard to believe that Virginia is the only state that is currently working to figure it out) but that does little to help those workers who are now being punished by circumstances beyond their control. And, considering the glacial pace at which government typically works, I cannot imagine they will be having a solution anytime soon.

So, the intent was to help the underprivileged or underserved and yet the unintended consequence is actually harming them. This is one reason why all legislation should be carefully considered rather than rammed through regardless of possible (unforeseen) consequences. Somehow, I doubt that those who pass these laws (and are unaffected by them) will do anything to remedy the situation - at least not anytime soon.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Good social media usage

In my last post, I referenced what I consider some of the downsides to social media in general and Twitter in particular - namely, being flamed and trolled as well as the inability to fully articulate complex or controversial subjects. However, that is not to say that social media is useless or not worth using.

Earlier this week, I noticed that a national corporation whose offices are on my way to work was flying a very tattered and torn American flag. Frankly, it was disgraceful display as it was hanging almost upside down and torn to pieces. I'm sure it was there for a while (something that was subsequently pointed out by others) but it seems like no one had said or done anything about it. I intended to go over to the office myself later in the day to tell them to fix it but then thought, why not see if they have a Twitter account? So, I looked them up and discovered they did. I tweeted to them asking them to please take the flag down as it was a disgrace. Within 30 minutes, I received a response (via Twitter) asking for clarification of the offending location and the flag was taken down shortly thereafter.

I am deliberately not stating the company here but I did later send them an email to express my appreciation for their prompt response to the issue. Prior to Twitter, it may have stayed there even longer which would have tarnished its image locally as I know I was not the only person to observe it but, with just a few minutes and an online connection, the issue was resolved. And, instead of publicly embarrassing the company by sending pictures viral (which is another scenario made possible by the advent of social media), it was handled promptly, professionally and with minimal embarrassment.

I guess we can chalk one up in the win column.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

More gun-related thoughts

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote up a post on the raging debate on guns and gun control. Part of my diatribe at the time concerned how both sides of the debate stake out extreme positions and neither side is willing to listen to the other. Over the intervening few weeks, this has not changed. If anything, both sides have grown more vocal on the issue. And, as I have pointed out previously multiple times on this blog on another controversial issue - racism - neither side is immune to being guilty of arrogance, ignorance or outright stupidity in their handling of the issue.

Last week, I responded via Twitter to a comment made by a New York Times journalist who commented that "responsible" gun owners support new gun control legislation. My response was something along the lines of "it seems that 'responsible' is a subjective term when it comes to your views on gun control". The journalist did not respond back but a few of his other followers did. While I tried to rationally clarify my point on "responsible" gun owners, they spent their time stating that I was an idiot, a gun-lover, a redneck, a hillbilly and worse. (I will simply state here that I am none of those things.) In other words, I got "trolled".

Granted, trying to engage in a serious debate on Twitter probably isn't the smartest move because of the inherent limitations of that medium but I found it curious that people who are arguing for gun control should be so full of vitriol and, in hindsight, I hope that they are not gun owners themselves because they were terribly angry at me for what I felt were very reasonable comments. To me, it seems similar to my issues with Democrats when it comes to their claims about diversity and minorities - they believe in it so long as those diverse minorities support them, otherwise they are race traitors (for lack of a better general term). But there is a perception that those who support gun control are the more peaceful people but this seems to be a farce based on those comments.

This is not to say that the opposite does not occur with those who support the right to own guns trolling and antagonizing those who oppose them but they are rightly called out for it when it occurs. However, it seems that the criticism for such actions is one-sided. Just because gun control advocates are perpetrated as being more peaceful and reasonable does not hold it to be true. Now it is time to hold gun control advocates to the same level of criticism as proponents when they act like idiots.

I am ever the eternal optimist...