Archive for June, 2012

Toward a post-Congressional America

Would the following posting in your local newspaper concern you?

“Come to the convention center this Thursday night to hear which laws your police department will no longer enforce.”

Instinct would say some usurpation has taken place. Too much power has centralized in the hands of too few.

Exactly which laws will be ignored is not necessarily the point. The primary point is the ignoring of this first principle: The ordinances of a statutorily-established, fairly-elected rulemaking body shall be universally enforced.

If the above scenario transpired, surely the foundation of our democracy would shudder. Certainly outrage would spill to the streets. “Dereliction of duty!” Breach of responsibility!” “Rogue lawlessness!”

Call it what you want, but it happened in Washington, D.C., two weeks ago. The president announced his administration would no longer enforce a significant piece of federal immigration law.

I’m not making a value judgment on the president’s particular position on immigration. That’s for another column.

I am making a judgment on his procedure, a heavy-handed one that reminds us of the rare parliamentary tool (“cloture”) that his allies used to pass Obamacare in 2010.

Then, many Massachusetts voters – and many Americans in general – thought the legislation was stalled after the shocking election of a Republican senator from the traditionally liberal state. It obviously was not.

Now, by fiat, the president is rendering Congress virtually useless on an issue of significant national concern. His brazenness is unprecedented.

The timing of the president’s announcement, not unlike the timing of his new position on gay marriage, reeks of campaign politics, making the proposition all the more unpalatable.

I understand that “transformation” travels faster by direct edict. Policy movement by discourse and debate is messy and unpredictable.

I understand Congress has seen better days. Its approval ratings are 20% or lower. The Wall Street Journal reports that many incumbents aren’t even uttering the word “Congress” in their re-election advertisements (opting for more innocuous phrases like “leading the fight in Washington”).

Perhaps there were more compromise and accomplishment in less polarizing times.

But to destabilize the balance of power in the aforementioned manner is an affront to our heritage. In addition, the president’s disregarding of Congressional information requests in the “Fast & Furious” case shows further disdain for the people’s representatives.

The legislative process is our best protector from elitists who, claiming to know our best interest, consolidate power to the point where it is impossible to wrestle back.

The other side will say the president’s predecessor stepped beyond Congressionally set limits with advanced terrorist interrogation or wiretapping.

However, those examples of executive power were used in uncharted national security territory and don’t compare with the current blatant disregard of long-standing law.

The logical extension of the president’s actions is the eventual superfluousness of the legislative branch. Given that Congress cannot enforce its own laws, the body would be reduced to a mere suggestion-giving entity.

Preferable to such tyranny is a parliamentary model where a weak executive prime minister does the bidding of the legislative body.

While clearly not ideal compared to the carefully measured power levers our founders gave us, I would gladly take it over an all-powerful executive who determines winners and losers by political affect.

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star in the Texas hill country. Follow him at www.kwt.info.

Summer summarized

Hardly a bummer, summer officially sauntered in this week. Blessing to educators, bane to stay-at-home moms of elementary-aged children, summer arguably makes more memories than all the other seasons combined.

My family’s summer can be summarized this way: Vacation Bible School (VBS), swimming, camp, repeat. All three are requisites of the season.

Sometimes they mate, such as when my three-year-old announced he wanted to go to “TBS”, a hybrid of VBS and the New Braunfels sports camp, T Bar M, which his older brothers attend.

***

Nothing spells summer quite like VBS. What memories. The plump preacher conducting “sword drills” in the auditorium. Nehemiah 3:17? I got it! No sweat.

Except there was sweat on those humid Nashville mornings. Which made the yellow coolers of McDonald’s orange drink all the more thirst-quenching.

VBS is where I first learned the meaning of JOY (Jesus first – Others second – You third), an acronym only recently challenged by the great Christian Web site: I Am Second.org.

My kids will attend three VBSes this summer. My oldest has already used that fact as an excuse to skip church. Sounds like I need to sign him up for a fourth.

***

We weren’t members, but someone invited us. It was a private pool tucked in the trees of a manicured south Nashville neighborhood.

Mom’s car must have been in the shop, because we took Dad’s extra work truck, a 1976 Ford. No AC, no power steering, no power brakes, no fun. The flatbed had wooden sides that barricaded the indiscriminately dumped trash Dad cleared from behind shopping centers.

Evidently, swimming was a non-negotiable on that particular day because mom agreed to wrestle-drive the light blue beast.

Our eventual arrival transformed the look of the private club parking lot. I’m sure we made the cosmopolitans rethink their commitment to diversity. I didn’t notice. I simply swam, hungered and indulged at the snack bar.

It was there that I learned a scientific fact: Nothing satisfies post-swimming hunger like a sandwich, an ice cream sandwich.

My kids will also learn some things at the Boerne city pool this summer. Someone will teach my three-year-old that the game is called Marco “Polo”, not Marco “Pillow”. It’s not going to be me.

***

Since Mom was a public school teacher, she could borrow an Apple IIe computer for the summer. Our family rarely roughed it beyond a Motel 6, so the beige box became my means to adventure. I headed out on the trail, the Oregon Trail.

An educational computer game, Oregon Trail intended to teach children the realities of 19th century pioneer life. It mainly taught me worst-case scenarios:

Your kids could starve because you can’t hunt worth a darn. Your wife may drown while fording a river. A wheel could come off your wagon. You could die of dysentery. Oh, crap.

But Oregon Trail also got me ready for camp and the non-virtual adventures that come with it. The tallest waterfall south of Niagara, Fall Creek Falls in east Tennessee, served as the centerpiece of my camp thrills. The falls were fatal to go over but a rush to swim under.

The threat of danger is largely the point of adventure. Every summer needs some, notwithstanding the messages on elementary school marquees. It’s how memories are made.

 

The American Dream redefined

You’ve probably heard the story about how Father’s Day came to be. For those unaware, it’s fairly simple.

A bunch of dudes were sitting around about a month after the first Mother’s Day. One of them finally pipes up, “Hey, wait a minute!”

Yes, we fathers are slow, but we’re catching on, as one study by The National Center for Fathering shows.

At the end of each decade, the Center gauges the involvement of fathers. Here are the highlights from the most recent survey:

• 54% of fathers walked or took their child to school in 2009, up from 38% in 1999.
• 35% attended class events at their child’s school in 2009, up from 28% in 1999.
• 77% attended parent-teacher conferences in 2009, up from 69% in 1999.
• 37% met with other dads for support at least once a month in 2009, up from 17% in 1999.

A 2010 Scientific American Mind journal article notes that in 1965, fathers spent 2.6 hours per week caring for their children. By 2000, the number had grown to 6.5 hours.

More mothers in the workforce surely drives some of these increases. But increased paternal interest and involvement likely plays a part, too.

Almost certainly, my generation of fathers has gotten its hands dirtier than our dads did. Most of my friends share diaper, feeding, bathing and middle-of-the-night duties with their wives.

These positive trends will hopefully stymie the social ills and economic costs of fatherlessness in America.

The social impact of missing fathers is well-documented. Plenty of studies have shown that kids without fathers in their homes are more likely to abuse (alcohol, drugs, sex, food, people, property) and be abused (physically, sexually).

In 2008, the National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI) went a step further. It commissioned researchers at the University of Virginia and DePaul University to study the economic impact of father-absent homes.

They dug into the costs of statistics like: “40% of single-mother families live in poverty while less than 10% of father-present families do,” and found that the federal government spends $99.8 billion per year supporting fatherless homes.

The study reminds us of what we pay when things go wrong. Thankfully, many things are going right.

Perhaps the best news on the current state of fatherhood in America comes from another NFI study. In a Fathering Attitudes Survey, 76% of men agreed with this statement:

“In general, you are a better father than your own father was to you.”

The American Dream is generally defined as each generation’s giving to its successor a better life than it had. The concept is usually couched in material or monetary terms. But here we have the dream being passed in relational, almost spiritual, terms.

The statement is not necessarily a slight on the men who raised us. It’s simply a recognition that we are learning from past mistakes and intentionally trying to connect with our children more deeply, more fully.

Had I been asked, I would have agreed with the survey statement. Likewise, my father was better to me than his dad was to him.

This Father’s Day, I pray my sons will one day agree with the statement, and their sons after them. That’s an American Dream worth passing, a legacy worth leaving.

 
 
Kevin Thompson is a weekly opinion columnist for The Boerne Star in the Texas hill country. Follow him at http://www.kwt.info.

Financial tips for grads

From my post as a local bank lender, I have reviewed many personal financial situations. Credit reports, financial statements, tax returns, paycheck stubs. The good, the bad, the “What were you thinking?”

Since it’s the time of year for me to give unsolicited advice to people who aren’t listening, here’s a message on money.

Be very careful who you marry. This may seem like an odd way to start a financial advice column, but nothing destroys wealth like divorce.

A corollary: Nothing will get you through financial setbacks like a solid marriage. Make patience a top virtue of your marital choice and you’ll be well on your way.

Live below your means. Overextension is a scourge of our time. Keep margin in your schedule and in your finances. Don’t spend every dollar you make. Save some, invest some, give some.

When you give, give generously. The more it hurts, the more it helps – most of all you. Generous people prosper. It’s a spiritual law like “You reap what you sow.”

Be a producer first and a consumer second, not the other way around. It’s the only sustainable way to live. Some of your elders in Washington are still trying to figure this one out.

Keep it simple. Only do things financially that you understand. At some point, some relative will invite you to invest in something that will sound too good to be true. It will be.

Underestimate the value of things, especially if you own them. Something is worth only what someone else is willing to pay for it right then. Your Xbox is worth $50, not $300.

Don’t talk about how much or how little you paid for things. That’s annoying.

The value of what you own (your assets) minus what you owe (your liabilities) equals your net worth. The more positive the number, the better.

But it’s not necessarily your assets that give you financial stability; it’s the recurring cash flow generated by the assets. Many assets don’t generate any cash flow.

Pay your bills on time – no – early.

If you get in a bind, communicate with your creditors. For lenders, the worst news is not bad news; it’s no news. The bank doesn’t want your Honda Civic back. Explain the situation and ask for a mutually acceptable plan of action. Then do what you say you’re going to do.

Keep your image consciousness in check. We all have some. It drives what we drive. But if your car payment equals your rent payment, it’s not in check.

Never have an auto loan over $10,000. Just don’t.

Don’t take out more student loans than the average starting annual salary of someone in your chosen profession. In other words, don’t go to SMU for a social work degree. (See http://wp.me/pEqWm-aG for more thoughts on student loans.)

Plan and track every dollar you spend. You’ll never grasp your total financial picture unless you grasp the picture’s tiniest components. iPad app or spiral notebook, the method matters not. The habit does, especially in an era of easily forgettable electronic payments.

Sometimes you’ll take a job because you’re passionate about it. Other times you’ll just need the experience. Both reasons are valid.

Beware a high salary that locks you into a situation that doesn’t inspire you. Expenses will quickly rise to fill income and will be hard to undo. Many miserable people are paid quite well.

Finally and most importantly, store up for yourselves treasures in a higher economy, one not subject to recession, layoffs, fraud or theft.

Kevin Thompson is vice president of Texas Heritage Bank and a weekly opinion columnist for The Boerne Star in the Texas hill country. Follow him at http://www.kwt.info.


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