Mike Kueber's Blog

June 23, 2011

Privacy and office etiquette

Filed under: Business — Mike Kueber @ 3:20 am
Tags: , , ,

Since retiring from USAA more than two years ago, I have enjoyed a respite from corporate life.  However, during a recent visit to my ancestral homeland in North Dakota, I stumbled into a heated argument with my brother Kelly over privacy and office etiquette.

The argument started when my brother Greg and I were discussing privacy.  Seems he is offended when visiting relatives ask him how many cows he has and how much a calf sells for.  In his mind, that is comparable to asking Kelly, who works for an airplane manufacturer in Grand Forks, what his hourly wage is – no one’s business!

I told Greg that employees at USAA have a good idea of what each employee makes based on his title because pay ranges for all job titles (except executives) are widely known, but Greg was not persuaded.  He didn’t want casually curious relatives to know what his cattle operation was grossing, and he didn’t like them asking.

During this conversation about salary ranges of corporate employees being widely known, Kelly mentioned that he and his fellow employees were routinely told not to discuss their annual raises because such information would cause jealousy and disgruntlement.  USAA provided similar guidance to its employees when I worked there, but I disagreed on principle and told Kelly why.  In my opinion, an employee should know how an employer valued his services as compared to other employees.  If the employer is giving me a smaller raise than that of the slacker sitting next to me I want to know.  Furthermore, a 3% raise is good if the average raise is 2%, but it is not good if the average raise is 4%.

Kelly disagreed – all he wants to know is that his raise is 3%.  He doesn’t care how much of a raise his co-workers receive.  Kelly went on to endorse the management argument that knowledge of comparative raises will cause the under-achievers to be bitter and disgruntled.  He rejected my counter-argument that under-achievers should be put notice that they are being paid as under-achievers, which might cause them to elevate their performance.

Because the argument got heated, Kelly and I dug in our heels and quit listening.  If Kelly had been open-minded, I suspect he would have conceded that an employee should want to know how his raise compared to the company average.  If I had been open-minded, I would have conceded that this knowledge will result in a percentage of disgruntled employees who would have worked better in blissful ignorance.

June 22, 2011

Sunday Book Review #35 – American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips

Because I had such a good experience in listening to a book (The Da Vinci Code) during my drive to and from St. Louis in May, I decided to try listening to another book during my June drive to and from North Dakota.  Because The Da Vinci Code is a riveting book of fiction, I wondered if political nonfiction would be as spellbinding.

Much to my surprise, I found that listening to American Theocracy, a 2006 book by Kevin Phillips, was almost as mesmerizing.  Phillips is famous for writing one of the most famous political books of the 20th century – The Emerging Republican Majority – in 1969.  At that time, he coined the term “sunbelt” and presciently predicted that it would provide a core of support that would make the Republicans the majority party for a generation.

As the title to American Theocracy suggests, Phillips is now disenchanted with the Republican Party, but the focus of the book is not the salvation of the Republican Party, but rather the salvation of America.  According to Phillips, there are three great dangers to American pre-eminence:

  1. The Religious Right.  This group has taken over the Republican Party and is attempting to force America to act in accordance to with biblical teachings instead of in accordance with reason – e.g., climate change, stem-cell research, and evolution.  Phillips thinks it is ironic that Protestants in the early 60s were concerned that President Kennedy would take direction from the Pope, but in the 2000s they urge Democrats to take direction from the Pope, especially on the issue of abortion.  Phillips especially takes issue with American Exceptionalism, which he believes prompts hubris-laced policies.
  2. Mideastern oil.  According to Phillips, American dependence on Mideastern oil has caused America to have extensive, yet vulnerable national security interests throughout the world.  He believes that the war in Iraq was more a part of our oil strategy and less our concern for WMDs.  More importantly, Phillips shows that many great world powers have faded because they failed to move away from a fading energy resource (e.g., Great Britain and coal).  Instead of trying to defend our lifeline to the Mideast, Phillips suggests we should be working like India and China to develop alternative lifelines.
  3. Debt and an economy based on finance.  Throughout the book, Phillips compares America’s current challenges with the decline of four great world powers – Rome, Spain, the Netherlands, and Great Britain.  One of their shared traits was that, as their power matured, they shifted from producing things to becoming what Phillips called “rentiers” – i.e., people who survived on unearned income.  Declining powers also took on
    huge levels of debt.  Obviously, there is a danger of America going down that same path.  Phillips points out that the FIRE sector in America (finance, insurance, and real estate) has passed and is pulling away from the manufacturing sector even though the government is aggressively inflating the manufacturing numbers by
    including things like flipping burgers.

The spellbinding experience of listening to American Theocracy during my trip to and from North Dakota was enhanced by occasionally listening to talk radio – e.g., Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck.  This is the first time that I have listened to them at any length, and it was interesting.  Rush is bombastic, Sean is earnest, and Glenn is not as kooky as he seems on TV.  They often cover the same issues of the day, with the same sound bites and even same types of sponsors (gold sales, tax problems, and hard-drive backup systems).  Although they criticize the
echo chamber of the Washington/NYC elite, I suspect that their messages are equally echo chambers.

I found it ironic that Rush, Sean, Glenn, and others continually warn about the advances of evil secular forces in America while Kevin Phillips thinks America is dangerously close to becoming a theocracy.  As I switched back and forth from Phillips to the talk shows, I had to wonder if they were describing the same America.

June 13, 2011

June hiatus/sojourn

Filed under: Entertainment — Mike Kueber @ 9:09 pm
Tags: , ,

I’m leaving tomorrow for my annual trip to North Dakota for Aneta’s annual Turkey Bar-B-Que, so my blog will be on hiatus for a week or so.

June 11, 2011

Sunday Book Review #34 – Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong is a former nun from Great Britain who gained fame in 1993 from her book titled A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  That book focused on the commonalities of those religions, and this book continues in that vein by describing the prominence that all religions give to compassion.

Armstrong won a TED award in 2007 and used the award to create and propagate a Charter for Compassion that began with, “The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical, and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.”

Her current book – Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life – is a self-help guide to becoming more compassionate.  Armstrong quickly clarifies that her use of the term compassion is not the same as pity or an uncritical, sentimental benevolence.  Rather, she means “to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to feel her pain as though it were our own, and to enter generously into his point of view.” [Did you notice that Armstrong decided to split the gender references in the previous sentence – one for the girls and another for the guys?  She has a reputation for being politically correct, and another example of this is her usage of BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) year-numbering system because it is more inclusive than the Christian BC and AD system.]

Armstrong further defined, “That is why compassion is aptly summed up in the Golden Rule, which asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstances whatsoever, to inflict pain on anybody else.  Compassion can be defined,
therefore, as an attitude of principled, consistent altruism

I was attracted to this book because I have always known that, for whatever reason, I feel very little compassion.  Unlike Bill Clinton, I do not feel your pain.  And Armstrong’s reference to altruism is especially apt because I have done a lot of reading in past months on the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who often disparages altruism.  In fact, more than a year ago I posted an entry to my blog that contrasted Ayn Rand’s self-esteem with Mitt Romney’s altruism.

Although I accept Ayn Rand’s admonition that a person should never live for the sake of another person, nor ask another person to live for theirs, I also agree with Mitt Romney that people’s lives are better if they believe in a purpose greater than themselves – such as our family, community, or country.

Armstrong explains the Rand/Romney dichotomy by declaring that Randian egotism “was bequeathed to us by reptiles that struggled out of the primal slime some 500 million years ago.  Wholly intent on personal survival, these creatures were motivated by mechanisms that neuroscientists have called the ‘Four Fs’: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and – for want of a more basic word – reproduction.”

Although these neurological impulses, which are located in the hypothalamus at the base of the “old brain,” are powerful, they can be overcome, according to Armstrong, by our “new brain” neocortex, which provides us with “the reasoning powers that enable us to reflect on the world and ourselves, and to stand back from these instinctive, primitive passions.”

What are Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life:

  1. Learn about compassion – “Instead of being a library of disparate texts composed over a millennium [like the Bible], the Qur’an was created in a mere twenty-three years and must be seen as a homogeneous whole.”
  2. Look at your own world – “As we seek to create a more compassionate world, we too must think outside the box, reconsider major categories of our time, and find new ways of dealing with today’s challenges.”
  3. Compassion for yourself – “It is essential to be aware of our misdeeds and take responsibility for them.  But we should also realize that the rage, fear, hatred, and greed that make us behave badly derive from the brain we inherited from our reptilian ancestors.”
  4. Empathy – “But when the old brain is co-opted by the new, the result can be disastrous.  Reason was an ambiguous tool, because, as we have seen throughout history, it can be used to find a logically sound rationale for actions that violate our humanity.”
  5. Mindfulness – “Yet we should also take careful note of how unhappy these primitive emotions make us.”
  6. Action – “Try to catch yourself before you make the brilliantly wounding remark, asking yourself how you would like to be on the receiving end of such sarcasm.”
  7. How little we know – “[Notwithstanding science and technology,] unknowing remains an essential part of the human condition.”
  8. How should we speak to one another – “when making an effort to understand something strange and alien to you, it is important to assume that the speaker share the same human nature as yourself and that, even though your belief systems may differ, you both have the same idea of what constitutes truth.”
  9. Concern for everybody – “[All religious traditions] have at least one strand that insists that we cannot confine our compassion to our own group: we must also reach out in some way to the stranger and the foreigner – even to the enemy.”
  10. Knowledge – “When we are about to criticize another nation or religious tradition, we should get into the habit of catching ourselves and asking whether our country may have been responsible for a similar abuse in the past.”
  11. Recognition – “Reaching out generously to embrace the pain of another yields an ekstasis, because in such a moment we are leaving our egotistic selves behind.”
  12. Love your enemies – “Try to wish for your enemy’s well-being and happiness; try to develop a sense of responsibility for your enemy’s pain.  This is the supreme test of compassion.”

Throughout the book, Armstrong quotes from a variety of philosophers and religious leaders – Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, the Buddha, Confucius, Mother Teresa, Socrates, and Aristotle.  One of the most frequently quoted is Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “We must ourselves become the change that we wish to see in the world.”  Sound familiar?  It reminds me of President Obama’s famous campaign slogan, “We are the change that we seek,” and I wonder why Obama is given credit for coining the phrase.  Just wondering.

Another interesting tidbit in the book – Armstrong noted that between 800 to 200 BC (called the Axial Age by German philosopher Karl Jaspers) a religious revolution occurred in four distinct regions of the world:

  1. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism on the Indian sub-continent;
  2. Confucianism and Daoism in China;
  3. Monotheism in the Middle East; and
  4. Philosophical rationalism in Greece.

Armstrong says that Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are latter-day flowerings and concludes that “we have never surpassed the insights of the Axial Age.”  Furthermore, all of these traditions “agree that compassion is natural to human beings, that it is the fulfillment of human nature, and that in calling us to set ego aside in a consistently empathetic consideration of others, it can introduce us to a dimension of existence that transcends our normal self-bound state.

Whereas a cynic might suggest that the Axial Age supports the theory that if God hadn’t created man, man would have created God, Armstrong argues that “the fact that this ideal surfaced in all these faiths independently suggests that it reflects something essential to the structure of our humanity.

That makes sense to me.


June 9, 2011

The clothes we wear

Filed under: Culture — Mike Kueber @ 8:48 pm
Tags: , , , ,

As I was doing my daily bike ride this morning, I passed by an apartment complex just outside of UTSA and saw a young male student walking to school.  He looked Middle Eastern or Indian, partly because of his facial features, but mostly because of his clothes.  He was wearing a long, flowing, off-white robe or tunic along with pants and a small, circular thing on top of his head.  My cosmopolitan friends would be able say much more about this person, based on his clothing, but my expertise in this subject is almost non-existent.  I’m from the Alan Jackson School of Foreign Policy – in his most popular song, he sings that he has a hard time distinguishing between Iran and Iraq.

Seeing this young man, I thought it must be hard for him to fit in.  But the more I thought about it, I wondered if “fit in” was the same thing as “blend in,” and, if so, is that what America expects of its immigrants?  Historically, I think it does.

America has thought of itself as a melting pot for immigrants since the 1780s, and although this concept has been challenged since the 1970s by multiculturalism proponents, it remains a bedrock value in America.  Lady Liberty to the contrary, Americans have a long tradition of treating immigrants who refuse to blend in as second-class citizens.

As a European-American born in America, I have the luxury of easily blending in to most situations, but I also have some experience in feeling ostracized.  When I was in college in North Dakota in the early 70s, I was enrolled in Army ROTC and one of our obligations was to wear an Army uniform one day a week.  At that time, service in the Army was not as esteemed as it is today, especially on the college campuses.  Paradoxically, those in the Army were considered to be pawns for the materialistic establishment, while those who ridiculed the military were considered to be conscientious and moral.  Because I was insecure and under the influence of the prevailing campus thinking, on uniform day I would often take back routes to classes and change out of my uniform as soon as possible.

I hope the young man in the tunic/robe isn’t as insecure as I was.  I hope he feels proud of what his clothing reflects about him.  And I hope he feels free to get into the melting pot whenever he wants.

Should Congressman Weiner resign?

The political talk shows are debating whether Congressman Anthony Weiner should resign.  Conservative Sean Hannity (FOX) thinks he should, while liberal Rachel Maddow (MSNBC) says that conservatives have a double standard for liberals based on their tolerance for the sexual philandering conducted by Louisiana Senator David Vitter.

Because I wasn’t familiar with Vitter’s situation, I had to look it up.  According to Wikipedia, he was a Louisiana congressman in 2002 who decided against running for governor when there were rumors of his involvement with prostitutes.  Vitter decided against running
for governor so that he and his wife could deal with marital problems.  Two years later, in 2004, he was elected to the Senate and the prostitute problem was apparently not an issue, but it reared its ugly head in 2007, when a criminal prosecution against the “D.C. Madam” revealed that Vitter was a customer between 1999 and 2001.  Shortly thereafter, the “Canal Street Madam” claimed that Vitter had been her customer in the 1990s.  Vitter responded with a press conference (with his wife) during which he asked the public for forgiveness.  He has since been re-elected.

Based on that history, I think Rachel Maddow is wrong in suggesting that Vitter’s case in analogous to Congressman Weiner’s.  In a sense, Vitter’s case is worse because he not only violated his marriage, he violated the law.  But his case is less serious because his transgressions occurred many years ago and he didn’t lie to the public about it.

Weiner’s case is actually more similar to the sex scandals of NY Governor Elliot Spitzer and President Bill Clinton.  Spitzer’s scandal involved current activity with a prostitute, and it led to his immediate resignation.  By contrast, President Clinton’s scandal involved a White House intern, and he loudly lied to the public about it.  Although he was impeached, he refused to resign and served out his term.

I think Spitzer did the right thing in resigning.  His continued public service as governor would have been severely compromised, and he placed the public interest above his own.

But I also understand President Clinton’s decision to stay on the job.  Although he violated his marriage and probably violated the law, he concluded that his transgressions were unrelated to his job performance and didn’t preclude him from continuing to lead the country.  Based on his job-approval rating at the end of his 2nd term, I think he was correct.

Vitter’s case was actually the least scandalous because it happened several years ago and he was not a chief executive like Spitzer and Clinton.

Congressman Weiner is not a chief executive, either, which makes it more likely that he can continue to effectively do his legislative job.  Furthermore, he didn’t break any law.  So, I think the decision to stay or go is up to him.  Because he’s a career politician, he will probably stay on the job unless he can figure out something better to do with his life.

June 7, 2011

Gerrymandering in the 23rd Congressional District

As I previously blogged, the Republicans in Austin have gerrymandered the 23rd congressional District such that, whereas a majority of the district voters in 2008 voted for President Obama, a majority of the voters in the reconfigured district voted for John McCain in 2008.  That suggests that the district’s Republican congressman, Quico Canseco, will be able to hold on to his seat in 2012 if he can hold on to all of the John McCain voters.  That shouldn’t be difficult because, in hindsight, McCain was not a strong candidate, while Obama was.

You might recall that in my campaign, I complained that Quico was running for Congress in the 23rd District even though he lived in the 21st District of Lamar Smith.  More significantly, Quico had lived most of his life in another district in Laredo.  He was a classic carpetbagger.

Well, as a typical political insider, Quico has taken maximum advantage of gerrymandering.  According to a map of the most recent redistricting, Quico has not only annexed additional conservative McCain voters, but also annexed the gated development that he lives in.  District 23 now contains a narrow strip of territory – the Canseco corridor – that drops from Loop 1604 for a mile or so down Vance Jackson Road until it reaches the Canseco abode near Wurzbach.  It is a classic corridor to nowhere.

I think gerrymandering is an ugly American tradition to achieve partisan political advantage.  I think gerrymandering a narrow corridor in your district so that your house can be included is an example of narcissism that people see too often in politicians.  A recent poll of Texans revealed their opposition to political gerrymandering, but it is not a big enough issue to force politicians to do the right thing.

To make matters worse for me personally, the boundary for District 23 bulges away from me on three sides so that I now find myself in Charlie Gonzalez’s 20th District, one of the most liberal in the state.

I can only hope that the courts revise the boundary, but the court’s focus will not be on cynical, stupid aspects of the boundaries, but rather on violations of the Voting Rights Act.

If you want to know what congressional district you will be in, go to the Texas Legislative Council website, select Plan C141, and then click the “find” tab and enter your address.



The Secure Communities program

Yesterday Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick reversed his position on the federal Secure Communities program.  He is the third liberal governor (Quinn of Illinois and Cuomo of New York) to decline to provide fingerprints of arrestees to the federal government so that illegal immigrants can be identified and deported.  The governors argue that the program shouldn’t be used to deport all illegal immigrants, but rather should be applied to only those immigrants who have prior convictions for serious violence.    They claim that the broader application of
Secure Communities damages the working relationship between law enforcement and Hispanics.

Part of the debate is focused on whether participation in the program is mandatory.  Clearly the federal government could make this mandatory by merely threatening to withhold federal funding for various pork that goes to the local agencies.  Although I generally oppose heavy-handed federal threats like that, it is more appropriate here because the federal government would not be sticking its nose into state and local government business, but rather would be attempting to enlist their support for a federal government responsibility.




June 6, 2011

Open-container laws – a primer

In cars

Ever since moving to Texas in 1987, I have been fascinated by open-container laws.  Life in Texas seemed so refreshingly open after spending my first 22 years in straight-laced North Dakota, where a person would go to a liquor store to buy alcohol.  And don’t even consider looking for alcohol on a Sunday.  By contrast, Texas allowed you to buy beer at a grocery store and even on Sunday if you waited until noon.  For a libertarian like me, Texas was heaven on earth.

But then big government stuck their nose into our affairs and said that states would be denied their highway money if they continued to allow open containers in cars.  This law was called the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), and it was passed by Congress in 1998.
I still remember hearing a senator from my home state of North Dakota reporting to his incredulous voters that he could legally drive from
Washington, D.C. to Texas with beer in his car.  My first thought was, “So what?”  My second thought was, “What’s it to you?”

Because Texas was unwilling to buck the federal government and lose all that highway money (actually the money would be redirected toward an alcohol-awareness campaign), Texas capitulated and made open containers illegal.  Fortunately, TEA-21 expired in 2003, and open-containers laws are in retreat.  Currently one state (Mississippi) allows a driver and passengers to have an open container and eight others (Arkansas,
Connecticut, Delaware, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia) allow passengers to have an open container.

Driving while under the influence is America’s problem; not driving while drinking.

Come on Texas; what are you waiting for?

On the streets

I had never experienced open-containers on public streets until I traveled to Progresso, a Mexican border town in the Valley.  The experience was wonderful – I loved to shop the markets while drinking a frozen strawberry margarita.  Of course, that aspect of the trip made it seem all the more exotic.

Then a few years ago, I made my first trip to New Orleans and discovered that hurricanes and frozen margaritas were allowed on the streets there, too.  Once again, the experience was wonderful and it left me with the sense of having visiting an exotic location.

A couple of weeks ago in St. Louis, my son Mikey was telling me about a trip that he took to Memphis, and he reported that he had a great time on Beale Street, partly because he was able to walk around with a drink.  That sounded so interesting that I almost detoured to Memphis on my way back to San Antonio, and I am much more likely to visit there in the future.

For future reference, I decided to find out whether there are any other cities like Memphis or New Orleans.  According to Wikipedia, all but seven states prohibit open-containers on streets – the lucky seven are Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.  Unfortunately, nearly all of the cities in those states outlaw open-containers.  But there are a few exceptions – in addition to Memphis and New Orleans, there is Las Vegas, NV; Butte, MT; Power & Light District of Kansas City, MO; the Savannah Historic District in Savanna, GA; and the Main Street Shopping District of Fredericksburg, TX.

Come on, San Antonio; what are you waiting for?

A progressive conservative

When I ran for Congress in 2008, I claimed to be a progressive conservative.  I used that term to distinguish myself from the people that I characterized as Neanderthal conservatives – i.e., those who wanted to return to America’s romanticized past.  I asserted that conservative principles could help guide us into the future, but that we didn’t want to return to the past.

During my door-to-door campaigning, I was surprised at how many people were confused by the term, “progressive conservative.”  To them, progressive was the equivalent of liberal, and it was an oxymoron to be a progressive conservative.

Eventually, I gave up on explaining how a conservative could be progressive, and I eventually revised my campaign brochure to read, “pragmatic conservative.”  Early this week, however, I finally read someone who described a political philosophy as “progressive conservative.”

William McKenzie, an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News, authored a column in which he claimed to be looking for a Republican presidential candidate who was a progressive conservative (i.e., “limited but responsible government”), as opposed to someone who believes in minimalist government.

As McKenzie explained, progressive conservatives believe “fiscal discipline, local states and communities resolving their particular challenges, the federal government protecting the civil rights of each individual, America’s presense in world affairs, and stewardship of the natural world.”  By contrast, adherents to minimalist government “believe in fiscal discipline, but take a dim view of government’s ability to solve problems, particularly national challenges.  They, too, largely believe in individual rights and environmental responsibility, but they are not
so willing for government to enforce those rights or uphold those ecological standards
.”  I couldn’t have said it so well.

McKenzie went on to warn that Republican presidential candidates feel the necessity to win the support of minimalist voters for purposed of the primaries, but ultimately they will need to win the support of right-central voters – i.e., progressive conservatives.  He suggested that we give a gander at former Utah governor Jon Huntsman.  “He’s not only a fiscal hawk; he’s a proven internationalist, having served under Obama and an international trade official under George W. Bush.  He supports civil unions for gays and lesbians.  And, as governor, he had a decent environmental record.

Although I am attracted to the Romney candidacy, I am going to give Huntsman a gander.  

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