Saturday, December 22, 2007

Two Tell-tale Signs in Hillsdale

Today, the day these photos were taken, is December 22, or in the haphazard typography of the above sign, 12 22.

(Note the grab-bag assortment of letters — yes, that "A" has a reverse accent over it; yes, that's an umlaut over the "U". Notice the careless spacing and word arrangement.)

The advertised fund-raising event was 11 days ago, but the sign, now a billboard for a local pizzeria, is unchanged. It is, in essence, cheap, ugly advertising on public property. Some 30,000 commuters see the sign each workday.

The school district still has no policy about such advertised fund-raisers or about where and how they are promoted. Despite the money they raise, they are clear commercial intrusions into our schools.

Contrast the above Wilson High sign and its ungainly "lollipop" design and its dated, neglected content, with the message and design of the nearby Rieke Elementary School sign.

What's the message, stated and aesthetic, of each? Which school has its priorities straight? Which school cares about and has thought about its "public face"?

You be the judge.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

One walk. Two moods

These photos were taken five minutes and 150 yards from each other. And yet how far apart are the images, the moods.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Scrabble Football

This morning in the unfathomable void between sleep and consciousness, I conjured up a bizarre game that conflated Scrabble and American football.

Tucked in the primal warmth of sheet and blanket, I had a bleary vision of defensive linemen designated as vowels, linebackers as consonants and safeties as wild-card blanks.

The objective of this fuzzy-minded game was to encourage gang tackling. Players involved in the tackle would “spell out” a two- or three-, or even four-letter word.

(I warned you this would be strange.)

At the end of the play, after the players untangle themselves, the defense huddles — quickly — to decide what combination of letters, worn on the players’ uniforms, makes a word with the most points.

Any word of from three to five points results in a five-yard “Scrabble penalty” against the offense. Five or above brings a 10-yard penalty. If the defense takes more than 30 seconds to confer or fails to form a word of at least three points, they are penalized five yards.

That’s pretty much it. The lifting fog of my semi-consciousness didn’t allow for anything more, which is probably a good thing.

Don’t ask what any of this means. It could be the utter whimsy of random synapse firings or the onset of some age-related dementia.

Then again it could simply result from an inner conflict that I am watching far too little football to qualify as a normal American male — and playing way too much Scrabble (notably with my mother-in-law).

It’s tough to do both at the same time, unless the defense consists of vowels and consonants and ….

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Human Rights and Inequity

“Do you think everyone should be paid equally?” the young man across the restaurant table asked me.

He had read my blog about how, four years ago, in one year the top 1 percent on America’s economic ladder received an increase in income that far exceeded the entire earnings of the lower 20 percent.

I had called the inequity an “outrage.”

“I don’t share your outrage,” he said.

There followed a long lunch-time conversation about executive compensation, compensation committees, compensation consultants, conflicts of interest, shareholder activism (or passivity), the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the nature of the free market, long-term vs. short-term investment returns, the destruction of the planet and the general question “How much is enough?“

At the end of our lunch, he still wasn’t outraged.

As is often the case, I carried the conversation around in my head for several hours. Bits and pieces still rattle around as I write this.

Among the ponderous chunks is his initial question: “Do you think everyone should be paid equally.” At the time I had answered “no,” but could feel a fuzziness in where this Q&A was headed. I have written here on The Red Electric about and talked with him about CEOs’ being compensated at 400 times the rate of the average worker. That contributed to my expression of outrage at injustice.

He wasn’t bothered by the inequity. “If workers don’t like it, they can quit.” Let the market determine what executives are paid, he said. But is the market rigged? I asked. Where does the free market — if it even exists — lead us?

Subsequently I called him for his consent to my writing this post about our private conversation. We agreed it is worth extending and sharing with you.

It seems to me we need to ask ourselves the question at the other extreme from “Should we all be paid equally?” Let's ask whether we should allow the market to produce a society in which the top 1 percent live in extreme excess and the remaining 99 percent live in utter poverty?

Where is the balance between the extreme posed by the questions?

The answer to the problem of inequality rests with how it is approached.

Our conversation led me to cite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted and proclaimed at the 1948 UN General Assembly. I couldn’t quote articles and subsections verbatim at lunch, but I can now as I have the declaration before me. The document is worth reading in its entirety. It isn’t long. It does suffer from language that today is seen as sexist — and I’ve altered the following to address the problem.

Several sections are directly relevant to our lunch-time discussion.


Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of (humanity).

Article 23 …(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring … an existence worthy of human dignity … (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his (or her) interests.

Article 24 Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25 (a) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of (the individual and the family), including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in (uncontrollable) circumstances

Article 26 Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

To return to the beginning: Should everyone be paid equally? No. Indeed many wouldn’t want the wealth that the very rich bestow upon themselves. Many believe that to be part of such excess hastens the destruction of the planet.

But should we all have our basic needs met, as listed in Article 25? Indeed we should, and if that means the wealthy few are forced to sell their yachts, their private jets, $1000 bottles of wine or chalets in Aspen, if that means that we are compensated more equitably, so be it.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Timeless Clock

I don’t have time to research it, but somewhere, no doubt, someone has written about what makes an object an icon.

I’m convinced this black clock fits the description although I’m not sure why. The question invites speculation.

For one thing, it looks form-fitting functional. The dial is no-nonsense and easy to read. The dial’s color is an off-white. In some light, it seems tinged with an antique yellow-green. The shiny black enamel is also all business, although I have seen novelty-store, iconoclastic versions whimsically dressed up.

The bells on the top are either pigtails or lofty ears. There’s no question they look like prone breasts although the nipple-linking silver handle intrudes on the comparison.

There’s also a Mickey Mouse aura about its face, proportions and ear-like bells. It’s as if when you look away the clock might yawn or wink.

I can hear its tick-tock, tick-tock ticking from across the room, a mechanical heartbeat.

In the first photo (above left), note that the clock was used to illustrate a recent Oregonian essay about time. Any number of clocks could have been chosen for the illustration, but the page designer chose this one, perhaps for its universal appeal.

I bought the clock last summer at Ikea for $6.99 not because I needed it, but simply because it seemed to exude the very essence of clock.

The bad news is that I can’t set it because the setting knob has fallen off.

Which makes it a clock free of time — a timeless clock.

An icon.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

My Mitt Romney moment

I was invited to a comparative religion class at a Beaverton high school last week to talk about the Quakers, their history and beliefs. In the previous weeks, a parade of religious speakers, as well as an agnostic and a humanist, had presented to the class.

After my planned remarks, I invited questions. Hands flew up.

To my surprise, many questions were blatantly political. Like it or not, this became my Mitt Romney moment. The students asked my views about abortion and evolution. Someone actually asked my political affiliation. And one young man, clearly testing my limits, asked whether I thought Hillary was no more than Bill's puppet. I declined to respond.

My visit to the high school was grassroots evidence that religion and politics are inseparable in this run-up to the primaries. These bright high school students have bought into the blending of the two. They are so accustomed to politicians talking about religion that they couldn't imagine my talking about religion without commenting on politics — and, when I didn’t, they tried to smoke me out.

I suggested that religion could transcend politics. Quakers believe that there is “that of God” in everyone. Democrats and Republicans need to take that to heart, I said, but even that sounded like a political statement.

My visit to the high school classroom left me with a firmer belief in the need for a separation of church and state. But that conviction too is suspect, eyed suspiciously through a religious lens in these frighteningly divisive times. Hordes of voters, including many of these students, have rejected any such separation, with little thought of the horrendous consequences.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

"Christian" pols mum about the shameless rich

Just how gilded and inequitable is this New Gilded Age?

An article by David Cay Johnston, which was buried in the business section of Saturday’s New York Times, lays it out.

“The increase in incomes of the top 1 percent of Americans from 2003 to 2005 exceeded the total income of the poorest 20 percent of Americans….”

Yes, the INCREASE for the top 1 percent exceeded the TOTAL INCOME for the bottom fifth.

Well, that’s bad, but it couldn’t have exceeded the total income of the poor by much.


The gains of the super rich exceeded the entire income of the poor by 37 percent, $524.8 billion to $383.4 billion.

Here’s another way of looking at what happened in those two years. Writes Johnston, “On average, incomes for the top 1 percent of households rose by $465,700 each, or 42.6 percent after adjusting for inflation. The incomes of the poorest fifth rose by $200, or 1.3 percent, and the middle fifth increased by $2,400 or 4.3 percent.”

And just who had the greatest need?

The motto of this oh-so Christian administration whose Decider-in-Chief calls himself a born again Christian, might as well be “Greed is good.”

When will the so-called Christian Republican candidates address this issue? Who among them dares put in the face of their super rich backers Christ’s teaching from Matthew: “...Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”?

(Could it be that at least some of Michael Huckabee's current political traction derives from his has daring to call the anti-tax, anti-government Club of Growth for what it is — in Huckabee's words, the "Club of Greed"?)

Meanwhile, right here at home, the Portland Development Commission is pouring a public-backed $3 million loan into the new “The Nines” luxury hotel over the downtown Macy’s because the hotel wasn’t up-scale enough to cater to the rich.

Airlines are squeezing coach passengers to make room for sleeper cabins for the rich. The yacht business is booming. And executives are paid 400 times what their workers make.

Where is the shame? Where is the outrage?

(By the way, I’m still waiting to see the Johnston story printed in The Oregonian. And why was the story on page three of the Times business section instead of on the front page?)

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