Saturday, September 27, 2008

Equal is equal ... except when it's not

(Originally published 9/27/08)

Lilly Ledbetter had worked at the Gadsden, Ala., Goodyear plant for 19 years and was preparing for retirement in 1998. An anonymous colleague tipped her off in a note that that she had been underpaid by thousands of dollars a year compared to her male colleagues. Even her pension was affected.

A jury awarded Ledbetter more than $3.3 million in back pay and damages. But the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the award last year, ruling 5-4 that Ledbetter had filed her claim too late. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 typically gives workers 180 days from the time of the alleged discrimination to report it.

As dissenting justices pointed out, workers don’t typically have access to other employees’ paychecks for comparison.

Never mind that, the majority said. You’re still on the clock.

Democratic lawmakers howled. In legislation to fix the problem, lawmakers say the decision "significantly impairs statutory protections against discrimination" "contrary to the intent of Congress."

Republicans, including both of Alabama’s U.S. senators, are blocking the bill out of fear that the clarification would lead to lawsuits that would drag down the economy.

... Because greedy mortgage lenders haven’t done that already. But I digress.

Opponents give bloviating speeches about how they support equal pay for equal work. They wax warmly about their mothers, sisters and daughters and the good work they do in the economy. And then they go kill the legislation that would make things better -- and by better, I mean just equal –- for their mothers, sisters and daughters.

U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers voted against the bill when it passed Congress last year. Why? Here’s the full explanation his press secretary provided:

"I grew up in a blue collar family with a Mom who worked at a textile mill and Dad who served as a firefighter. I know firsthand the pains of working people, and of working women in particular. I certainly understand the intent of this legislation, but remain concerned it simply doesn’t strike the right balance."

Really? What is the right balance? What did Rogers do, if anything, to improve the bill? And was Rogers’ mother lucky enough to make equal pay for equal work at the textile mill? Or was she underpaid and discriminated against, too?

Rogers didn’t respond.

Of course, Republicans who believe so much in fairness could offer their own bill or amend the existing one. Maybe they’d like to block punitive damages. I wouldn’t like it – after all, punitive damages are meant to punish the wrongdoer for ... well, doing wrong. How are they not appropriate in a case wherein a corporation has knowingly, willfully and repeatedly violated the Constitution and discriminated against its employees?

But at least I would respect them for trying to make the bill into something they could support. Instead, they give us trite sound bites about how they support the principle but oppose a bill that would strengthen that principle.

There’s been a lot of talk this year about women’s progress in this country.

Yes, we have come a long way, baby. But Lilly Ledbetter’s appearance in the Senate on Tuesday was a stark reminder that we’ve still got a long way to go.

Editor’s note: Staff for U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers responded to my follow-up questions after this column’s print deadline. To read the response, read “Alabama’s lawmakers on the Fair Pay Restoration Act” here.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The culture of entitlement calls in its loan

(Originally published 9/20/08)

$300 billion in two weeks.

That’s what it has cost American taxpayers to expunge the recklessness and willful irresponsibility of corporate mortgage giants.

The latest failure, of megainsurer AIG, was remarkable for its size and its speed; after it floundered almost overnight, AIG on Wednesday became the fourth financial institution overtaken by Uncle Sam this year.

Wall Street was in freefall, and leadership was scarce. “No one knows what to do,” Senate Majority Leader Harry “Henny Penny” Reid lamented Wednesday. When a 410-point resurgence in Thursday trading failed to calm world markets, congressional leaders began drowning in bug-eyed panic.

Lawmakers emerged from hastily arranged evening meetings with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed chairman Ben Bernanke looking like bewildered youth. As administration officials outlined the great, great-granddaddy of all bailouts -– a gigantic government program to enable banks to get rid of “illiquid assets on financial institutions’ balance sheets,” Paulson said –- lawmakers became bobbleheads beside the podium. They would do exactly as they were told -– and on the double, too.

To put this in perspective, if we count the economic stimulus package from earlier this year, the U.S. government is now $400 million in the bailout tank for 2008.

By comparison, the plan Paulson outlined will enable the government to assume “illiquid assets” of at least $1 trillion – though the total could be twice that much.

One TRILLION dollars.

Hello, Austin Powers? Dr. Evil, line 1.

Republicans blame Democrats for failing to acknowledge the role of the individual in the mortgage mess. It is a willing, if unwise, borrower who assumes a loan he can’t repay. Democrats, in turn, blame Republicans for promoting a culture of deregulation that has allowed the financial services industry to prey on vulnerable Americans. After all, who doesn’t want a home?

They’re both right –- and wrong.

Republicans ignore the predatory nature of so many subprime lenders, which sought out such loans and happily wallowed in the rich interest rates they could charge before the loans inevitably ended in default.

Democrats neglect to mention that although they’ve been in power for two years, they’ve failed to institute whatever industry regulations they presumably believe could have stopped this mess.

Wait; I forgot. They didn’t know what to do.

Anyway, the reality is that this crisis began when Americans were seduced into this pervasive entitlement culture and began to allow greed to supplant personal responsibility. This is as true of the lenders as it is of the borrowers.

It’s what morphed capitalism into the grotesque, barely recognizable shell of itself that we now see. Is it any wonder the free market is on life support?

Analysts say that if it’s properly structured and executed, the government’s grandiose bailout deal might yet work out for the American taxpayer.

But even if we lose the money, we must determine to find in this tumultuous upheaval a renewed commitment to personal responsibility and self-reliance.

Because if the last two weeks are any indication, by the time this is all over, reliance on self may be all we have left.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Remembering 9/11 -- and how to never forget

(Originally published 9/13/08)

What were you doing on Sept. 11?

2008, not 2001.

How did you remember the worst terrorist attack on American soil?

Millions of Americans watched the observances from Ground Zero, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa. Others participated in services involving first responders in cities and towns, like ours, all across the country.

As Lincoln said at Gettysburg, this is altogether fitting and proper.

I watched news coverage from 9/11. I knew it would be unsettling, watching the anchors sort through the confusion. Watching in sheer disbelief as another plane careened across the sky and buried itself into the second tower. Watching two massive structures crumble to the ground. Watching people slowly realize what was happening.

Watching the world change.

I didn’t realize the physiological reaction I would have to reliving all this. Seven years on, my pulse was racing, my breathing more rapid. I was tense.

Amid the annual vows to “never forget,” I wondered: Do we truly remember –- not where we were, but how we felt?

I was seven months pregnant with our first child and teaching a 10th grade English class. I had just picked up a test when my phone rang. We turned on the television. As that second plane hit the WTC, I touched my belly and wondered what sort of world my child would inherit. My students asked what was happening; I had no answers. President Bush was 10 miles away, and he was a likely next target.

I turned and looked at my students. Twenty minutes before, their greatest concern had been passing a vocabulary test. These teenagers -– who, like all teens, constantly strove to be older -– suddenly looked like lost little children.

It is a psychological necessity to mentally distance one’s self from trauma. There is nothing shameful or unpatriotic about it. Survival requires it. It is one of the ways we cope with tragedy in our lives.

But moving on shouldn’t mean checking out.

Survival also requires adaptation. That is doubly true when the environment is a new one. Animals who cannot adapt their self-defense strategies to meet the needs of their environment can become prey for those that can.

And so it is with terrorism.

So how do we adapt?

As long as the enemy exists, we must never underestimate his capability. We cannot have, as 9/11 commission co-chairman Lee Hamilton so evocatively said, another "failure of imagination."

And we must consciously decide to remember the raw shock, the weight of our helplessness and then the steely resolve this nation shared in the days that followed.

Far from politicizing 9/11, it helps us to remain united as a nation -– whatever our philosophical differences -– and committed to the singular goal of protecting our country and our people from terrorism. As President Kennedy said: "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

May God comfort the families of those lost, and may He protect those of us who remain -– and remember.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Partisanship doesn't have to be poisonous

(Originally published 9/6/09)

John McCain accepted the Republican presidential nomination Thursday, delivering a safe, if staid, address to the party faithful convened in Minneapolis.

Pundits were split on the efficacy of the speech, but they agreed on one thing: The partisan tone struck at the Republican convention was over the top.

I don’t understand that analysis, especially since many of these same pundits condemning the GOP’s tone were the same ones who, barely a week ago, were decrying the Democratic Party for not being aggressive enough in attacking Republicans.

I watched about 80 percent of the presentations in prime time over the two weeks. Neither side had any difficulty leveling aggressively partisan charges against the other.

Of course, that didn’t stop the ticket-toppers of both parties from employing the buzz words of bipartisanship, “building coalitions” and “reaching across the aisle.”

But is partisanship necessarily a bad thing?

After all, we expect each party to believe its ideas are the best. Partisanship an inevitable product of our adversarial two-party system. It is much like dissent, which is sacrosanct under our political system.

The problem develops when partisanship and dissent morph into something else, something deeper.

Something uglier.

It happens when protesters, in a frenetic, almost possessed effort to dilute, disparage and diminish the message of their opponents, trample the free speech and expression rights of those opponents. It happens whenever someone receives –- and then forwards -– an e-mail that attacks the character of a person without considering the veracity of the claims contained therein.

John McCain repeatedly contended with the former as he tried on deliver his speech on Thursday. Barack Obama has been constantly victimized by the latter over the past year and a half.

Who determined that it is impossible to agreeably disagree with one’s opponents? Who made the decision that elections are now full-time affairs?

Who decided that partisanship has to be poisonous?

It’s no wonder our governments are failing us. If you don’t ever stop campaigning, you can never start governing.

McCain and Obama will use the next eight weeks to aggressively advance their ideas, as they should. But I’d love to see them demonstrate along the way that political opponents can cooperate on some ideas even while opposing each other on most others.

Public service is one issue where the candidates can start working on that “common ground.”

The Democratic candidates kicked around the idea of compulsory community service in one debate last summer. John McCain built his whole convention –- indeed, his entire candidacy -– around the idea of “serving a cause greater than your own self-interest.”

By virtue of their divergent life experiences, both men are in unique positions to talk about the value of public service and how that service can change America for the better. Surely both men would agree that whatever change needs to come to Washington, much more effective change can be made by individual citizens who mobilize with a determination to make a difference in their communities -– and, by extension, their country.

On Nov. 4, only one man can win the election. But America can be the real victor in the end.