Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Master Your Money

Who does not have financial worries these days?  And there is plenty of blame to go around.  For starters, let’s blame Big Business, Wall Street, Government, the Global Economy, and International Corporations that deliberately avoid local hometown accountability.

But to be fair, let’s also blame ourselves?  Are we not also responsible for our own money management, uh, that is, mismanagement?  Were we not all too willing to buy into advertiser’s who told us things like “We deserve it,” “We owe it to ourselves,” so, “Buy now, pay later,” “Go ahead, splurge a little,” “Treat yourself to the best,” “Pamper yourself,”  “Indulge!”?  And we did.

Wasn’t it Benjamin Franklin, way back in the 1700’s that told us that “A penny saved is a penny earned”?  And did not Charles Dickens, back in the 1800’s, essentially say, “Earn a dollar, spend ninety-nine cents, result? Happiness!  However, earn ninety-nine cents and spend a dollar and one cent, result?  Misery!”  This last point by Dickens perhaps speaks directly to why many Americans today are in financial misery.

Thus, the first step we can take in mastering our money is to stop buying beyond our income, even if, or especially when, we get our jobs back and we start earning more money again.  Putting it simply, if we don’t have the money to pay for it now, let’s not buy it.  Let’s wait until we have the money.

We have become an “I want it now!” society.  We are like terrible two-year olds crying out, “I want it NOW!  NOW!  NOW!  NOW!  Give me, give me, give me; mine, mine, mine!”  We have forgotten the wise old discipline of saving for a rainy day.  We don’t know how to say “No” to something that is good in order to save and wait patiently for something that may even be better or best.

Perhaps too we have forgotten how to be gracious in giving.  Yes, when we had a job and a good income we gave, but perhaps it wasn’t because first and foremost we were being kind and generous; perhaps it was more because we benefitted by getting a nice tax write-off on our income-tax returns on April 15th.  That is, our motives, our hearts, may not have been in the right place.  We thought we were being kind and generous when we were simply being financially calculating.

Thus, the second step we can take in mastering our money is to learn the patience of saving again as well as to learn how to become truly gracious, generous and kind with our money for the right reason—because it is a good thing in and of itself to be a kind, generous, and giving person.

A third step is to take charge of our own money again at the most basic level by keeping a simple but accurate budget, keeping track of where, when, and how we actually spend the money we have.  Money management is not only for financial experts and special advisors.

In short, let’s go back to simple earthy wisdom: Debt is debt, let us avoid getting into debt if we don’t have to.  Two plus two is four, if we can’t afford it, we can do without it.  Let’s learn to be content living within our means.  Needs and wants are not the same; let’s buy and pay for what we need first, before we consider what we may want.  Most importantly, let us refuse to accept the lie that having more things means being happier. 

Let’s also use the ole American know-how and can-do spirit to find new and positive means to make an honest income.  The wisdom of our grandparents and great-grandparents has not changed: work hard and earn an honest day’s living, be frugal, pay your own way, spend wisely and don’t’ forget to save a little; and most significantly, learn to enjoy the simple things in life that come free—time with your children, a stroll through the park, watching a sunset, sharing stories around the dinner table or fire place—things that no money can ever buy.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tax-Cuts, Class War, and Wealthy Crybabies

“Greed is good!”

Really?  Is that the new American way?

I have to wonder; why are the top wealthiest Americans so worried about losing their tax-cuts.  “This is Class War!” they cry.  I have to respond: are you serious?  Is that what it comes down to?  Do you really feel that threatened by it?  With money comes power.  And with power comes influence, and with influence more access to ways and means.  I can’t help wondering, why are you (the top wealthiest Americans) so afraid of losing your precious tax-cuts?  How much money, power, and control must you have?  I can only imagine that your real answer is: as much as you can get and as much as you can keep!  You won’t budge an inch, will you?

I’m not poor.  Neither am I independently wealthy.  I do not belong to that top niche of wealthiest Americans.  So, I am biased.  I have little sympathy for the very wealthy who are fearful, feeling threatened by the possibility of losing their tax-cuts.  Why?  Because when I think about the super wealthy and their lifestyle, coupled with their means and ability to make, manage, and manipulate their money interests, I can’t imagine that losing their precious tax-cuts will really hurt them.  They’re not suffering now, nor will they suffer later, even if they do lose their tax-cuts.

As I see it, the very wealthy, never suffer; they don’t know how.  And besides, they’re too insulated and protected, able to shield themselves from economic downturns.  So it seems to me that the super rich have little idea and certainly no practical experience as to what real hardship means; they know very little as to what real economic sacrifice means.  For example, if they were to lose their tax-cuts, would this mean real hardship, actual sacrifice, on their part?  Will they suffer a loss of lifestyle, pleasures and comforts?  I think not.

And so they (the super wealthy) get little sympathy from me, especially when they want to transfer their fears onto the average, middle class American, so as to make it seem as if we’re the ones that will truly be hurt by the loss of their tax-cuts.  Although perhaps it’s true in this sense: the few powerful wealthy will always find a way to make up for their losses, usually by putting the expense right back on the shoulders of the average hard working middle class guy (class war?).

But here’s the thing: even with my own meager, non-wealthy, middleclass income and lifestyle, I know that I can survive well enough, with little change of lifestyle, if I were to lose the tax-cuts for my income bracket (which is not to be the case if the super wealthy would graciously release theirs).  So why do the top wealthiest Americans become such crybabies over the possibility of losing their tax-cuts?  They won’t suffer for it.  It’s really no great sacrifice for them.  (If it wouldn’t be for me, it can’t be for them.)  Are they in pain?  Are they hurting from this economy?  If so, exactly where does it hurt?  Are they eating less?  Are they traveling less?  Are they buying fewer luxury ticket items?  Are they downsizing in any way, form, or manner?  Is that what’s hurting our economy?  I don’t think so.

Bill Gates has it right.  He’s willing to pay his fair share of taxes, and he does.  Not only that, he’s also willing to give away much of his wealth to charity.  And he does.  Would that all of our wealthy Americans thought, felt, and acted as Bill Gates does.  There would be no question of allowing the Bush tax cuts to end for the wealthy few.

You Wealthiest of Americans, where is your American spirit and gratitude?  Where is your willingness to give back?  Where is your respect for, care of, and concern for those less fortunate than yourselves?  You have enough, more than enough.  Losing your tax cuts will NOT cause irreparable damage to your lifestyle, freedom, or fun.  You already have plenty of access to wealth, power, and influence.  You know this is true.  Come on then!  Stop the greed, and quit the fear mongering.  Be gracious, be real Americans in spirit and in character, give the little guy a break and freely give up your tax-cuts and let the little guy keep his.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Whose Conscience, which Voice?

[…continued from last posting]

One would think that the conscience of a people, a nation, would be a people’s religious convictions, their faith.  But if that is so, what do we say about the likes of the Floridian pastor (his name need not be mentioned) that threatened to burn the Koran (Qur’an) on the anniversary of September 11th?  Yes, he finally backed out of this threaten action.  Still, his voice was heard.  What kind of voice was it, the voice of faith, conscience, wisdom?  On all accounts NO!  But he’s a pastor.  He supposed to speak, teach, and preach faith values, principles, priorities, and truths.

We must be discerning.  We must distinguish among voices.  There is the voice of reason, faith, conscience, and wisdom.  There is also the voice of fear, hatred, contempt, arrogance, anger, and pride.  There are nervous voices, full of worry and concern, extremely anxious and therefore reactionary.  And there are secure voices, calm, steady, and peaceful, with great insight.

Those who are most discerning are the highly self-aware with penetrating honesty toward one’s self; yet, one doesn’t need a Ph.D. in psychoanalysis to hear the difference between constructive and destructive voices.  It’s in the tone, attitude, body-language, gestures, facial expression, and posturing.  It’s most especially discovered in the outcome, the results or effects of what one says (and does).

Jesus warned his followers, beware of wolves coming in sheep’s clothing; though they appear to be sheep on the outside they are actually ravenous wolves on the inside.  How can we tell?  We shall know them by their fruits, by what they produce, their outcomes (Matthew 17:15-16).  The fruit of the Spirit is peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, self-control (imagine that!), against these things there is no law, the Bible says (Galatians 5: 22-23).

Have you noticed that we no longer talk to each other anymore?  What we do now is shout at each other.  We get “in your face!”  We frown, spit, shun, condemn, and scream obscenities and absurdities.  When we do such things we are not listening to the voice of conscience.  And we are most certainly not paying heed to our faith convictions.  For example, when we Christians do such things, we are not listening to our avowed Lord, Jesus the Christ.  Indeed we are outright disobeying his command (“But I say unto you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”), Matthew 5:44. 

The most dangerous voice is the voice of self-righteousness.  This is the voice that presumes to be unquestionably above reproach, admitting of no mistake or error.  It is the voice that judges all others as tainted, inferior, and less-than, as compared to its own.  The self-righteous voice not only asserts itself as the only voice worth hearing but as the only voice that must be obeyed.  And when it is not, it presumes the right to inflict punishment on the disobedient as a consequence, when it has the means or power to do so.

Every religious denomination or sect, indeed every movement or cause, be it secular or religious, has its self-righteous adherents among them.  These are the ones that become the terrorists, or the ones who burn Bibles or Korans, or those who calmly blow-up innocent men, women, and children in the name of their self-righteous cause, faith, or belief.  All we need do is to look at their fruit to realize that they are indeed ravenous wolves, feeding on and devouring others to sustain their self-proclaimed superiority and authority.  They are right and everyone, absolutely everyone who questions them or disagrees with them, are in the wrong and will pay dearly for it.

To whom are you listening?  Who is your voice of conscience?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

When Conscience Speaks, Everyone Listens. NOT!

Most of us agree that we have a conscience.   Nevertheless, we’d also have to admit that we often ignore it when it suits us.  Who will deny having had that nagging inner voice that goes something like this: This is not right, I shouldn’t be doing this.  And who hasn’t said in reply, Well, I don’t care, I’m doing it anyway.  Or, whose inner voice hasn’t said, “I should take care of that”—because it’s the right thing to do and therefore I ought to do it—and, in response, hasn’t said something like: Maybe later, another time, besides why should I be the only responsible one here, someone else can take care of it; I’m out of here!  Indeed, we tend to view a nagging conscience as nothing but a nuisance.

But consider life without a conscience.  We even have a name for it—sociopathic.  When we think of sociopaths, we think of serial killers, psychopaths committing unspeakable atrocities against a line of individuals with no qualms.  They feel no guilt, are never sorry for the harm they’ve caused others, and feel no remorse about any heinous acts they’ve committed.  So which would you prefer, to have a nagging conscience, or to qualify for exclusive membership in a State Hospital’s psychopathic ward?

Thus, having a conscience is a good thing.  It holds us in check, nudges us in the right direction, and inspires us to do right, to become better people.  Yes, it can be annoying.  And, yes, we tend to ignore it, even silence it at critical decision-making points in our lives.  Nevertheless, it generally serves us well.  Most of us learned at an early age that when we ignore our conscience we often regret it in the end.  In short, we learn in principle that it pays to heed our conscience.

But when we say, “She has a strong conscience, but his is weak,” what do we mean?  In one sense the conscience has little power.  That is, the conscience is not the instrument that makes us do right, or has failed us when we do wrong.  The conscience is merely a voice.  It speaks to us, informs us, tells us what we ought or ought not to do, and perhaps even why, but nothing more: “That is right; this is wrong; I ought not, be doing this; I should be doing that.”  The voice could be muffled, outshouted, even silenced.  But, if and when it is given the opportunity to speak out, it does and will, and quite clearly too.  Thus, someone with a strong conscience is someone that has trained his/her spirit to listen for its voice so that his/her conscience is free to speak boldly, clearly, and directly to the mind and heart.  While someone with a weak conscience has developed a long standing habit of simply ignoring, muffling, or silencing its voice.  To be cartoonish about it, the one with a weak conscience reacts like this: “This is your Conscience speaking….”  “Say what!?  Who are you?  Get out of here!  I don’t have to listen to you.”

This is true; we don’t have to listen to our conscience.  So, if one’s conscience is simply a voice (I would add, a voice that is crying out in the wilderness, “Make way for the coming of the Lord”), where lies the actual decision-making power, the power that makes one do the good or the bad, the right or wrong?  It lies in the Will.  We are all free agents.  We have a will.  We choose.  I choose to heed or to ignore my conscience.  I choose to obey or rebel.  I choose to engage or disengage.  I will do this; I will not do that.  I will to believe or I will to disbelieve.  I will commit or I will not commit.  It is our will that is responsible for our actions, not our conscience.  Our conscience serves our will, and our will?  Well, it will do what it will, respecting or disregarding conscience accordingly.

So, here’s a question: If we as individuals have a conscience, is it possible for communities, societies, or even nations as a whole, to have a conscience as well?  If so, who or what serves as the voice-of-conscience for a nation?  Know where I’m heading with this?  [To be continued….]