A colleague made a comment during a work meeting many years ago that has stuck with me and impacted how I react to people. We were trying to figure out why someone behaved in an unpredictable manner. What was his motivation? Why did he surprise us with the action he took? Was he on our side or against us? As the unanswered questions piled up, my body temperature rose and my angst increased. I began to think of this person as "the enemy" and every thought I had was skewed to the negative.
Sitting next to me, my work colleague seemed relaxed and not bothered by the situation. I could not figure out why he was at ease. I let silence work its magic and waited for him to say something ... anything! Finally he spoke and his wisdom knocked me to the ground. He said: "we should assume positive intent".
"Positive intent"? I asked. "What does that mean?"
"If we don't know why he acted the way he did we should assume his intentions were good. His motivation pure. He was trying, in his way, to be supportive."
"Why do you believe positive intent is a good assumption?" I asked.
"In my experience, 9 times out of 10, people try to do the right thing. They might make a mistake, might misread or misunderstand the situation, but their rationale is often based on good not the bad."
"Positive intent." I said aloud and then softly inside my head a few times. "Okay," I said. "Let's not react and give this some time to see how it plays out."
My work colleague grinned, a little, and we moved on with our day.
Nearly a decade later I often find the assumption of "positive intent" is very useful in everyday situations and especially on social media. It's so easy to critique others, so easy to react to headlines rather than reading the full story, so easy to react to fiction rather than digging for facts. If only people would take a breath and assume the other person, in their own way, is motivated by good not evil, it might make things a tad better.
I was fortunate to spend two weeks interviewing staff, teachers and students at an incredible charter high school in east Austin for 'drop-outs'. It wasn't difficult to see sadness and desperation in students' eyes as they told story after story of hard lives and lost hopes. Yet, these difficult pasts were in the rear view as each student had somehow found a new path, renewed hope and learned it's ok to have a dream with a reasonable chance to fulfill it. It's an understatement to say heroes work at Austin Can Academy. They have my respect and I salute their passion and dedication. I don't often say wow ... but I was indeed blown away with the outcomes being achieved at "The Can". I hope you enjoy this story as much as I enjoyed telling it. Hit the link below:
I began a new adventure this year - writing stories for a magazine. EASTside is a new magazine in east Austin with in-depth stories about the people, community, businesses and happenings in east Austin. My initial story is about healthy, fresh and affordable food enabled by Sustainable Food Center. I met wonderful and interesting people along this journey, many quoted in the article. Give it a read and let me know what you think! Hit the link below.
I recently read excerpts of a Jack Kemp speech published in a book by Morton Kondrake and Fred Barnes titled "Jack Kemp, The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed America. The speech was delivered in 1990 yet remains relevant today. It make me think and reflect. Below are some excerpts:
"If we are to present the example of democratic capitalism and the rule of law to the rest of the world, we've got to make it work for the low-income people and distressed neighborhoods and communities right here in our own country. It is not only Eastern Europe looking to us for market oriented answers. It is also East Harlem, East St. Louis, and East LA." He said that leaving those left behind was not only a moral imperative but a winning political strategy. "Whether it's called bleeding heart conservatism, capitalism with a social conscience or populist conservatism - it's the right thing to do, their right time to do it, and we're the right people to help lead it."
He disputed the notion of "America as two cities, one rich and one poor, permanently divided into two classes. America is not divided immutably into two static classes. But it is separated or divided into two economies. One economy - our mainstream economy - is democratic capitalist, market-oriented, entrepreneurial and incentivized for working families whether in labor or management. But there is ... a second economy that is similar in respects to the Eastern Europe or Third World socialist economy. It is almost totally opposite to the way we are treated in our mainstream economy and it predominates in the pockets of poverty throughout urban and rural America. This economy denies entry to Black, Hispanic, and other minority men and women into the mainstream, almost as effectively as hiring notices 50 years ago that read 'No Blacks (or Hispanics or Irish or whatever) Need Apply."
If someone wanted to create poverty and make people dependent on government, he said he would do what liberal policy had done. Among other things, reward welfare and unemployment at a higher level than working and tax the entrepreneur who succeeds in the legal capitalistic system much higher than in the illicit underground economy. Also, reward people who stay in public housing more than those who move to private housing and home ownership. Reward the family that breaks up rather than the family that stays together. Encourage debt, borrowing and spending rather than saving, investing and risk-taking. And, "most of all ... weaken and in some cases destroy the link between effort and reward."
Then Kemp turned to what he called the "good news." Government policies "can change and ... good policy can lead to good results ... The poor don't want paternalism. They want opportunity. They don't want the servitude of welfare. They want to get jobs and private property. They don't want dependency. They want a new declaration of independence."
He reiterated his agenda: to encourage investment, cut the capital gains tax rate and eliminate it altogether in enterprise zones. The capital gains tax reduction, he said, wasn't intended to help the rich or secure old wealth, but "to free up or unlock old capital and old wealth to help new business, new risk takers, job creation and economic growth." He advocated resident management and purchase of public housing units, a policy pioneered in Britain by Margaret Thatcher. And he proposed housing vouchers to allow poor people to choose their own housing, plus "a new version to tax reform to remove low income families from the tax rolls and dramatically increase the after-tax income of welfare mothers and unemployed fathers who go to work."
In 1948, at the median income, he said "a family of four paid virtually no income tax and only $30 a year in direct Social security taxes. This year (1990) the same family's tax burden would be over $6,000. To be comparable to 1948, the personal exemption - the tax allowance for nurturing children - would have to be well over $6,000 today. Instead, it is only $2,000." The elements of his speech, taken together, constituted the most comprehensive antipoverty program - and the most compelling critique of existing policy - ever offered by a conservative American politician.
So, where are the Jack Kemp's of today? There might be one in Congress that can take the mantle, perhaps has earned the right to the Jack Kemp mantle. Someone who worked for Jack Kemp, looked up to him as a mentor and has spent considerable time evaluating tax reform and more recently anti-poverty programs. That person is Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House. I hope to hear him sound a lot more like Mr. Kemp in the coming months and years ahead. The balance of economic conservatism mixed with true, heartfelt and realistic programs to help people that want to work and get out of poverty, makes all the sense in the world to me.
What does a college football locker room have in common with the US Senate? Nothing you say? That's probably true. Or at least that's the view of most people. But, let's explore this just a bit deeper.
The college football locker room is a sanctuary of sorts. It's where 100 men (and maybe a few ladies) from all types of backgrounds come together to achieve a common goal - beat their opponent on the field of battle. To accomplish that goal the 100 players, coaches, ball boys, medical professionals, etc., have overcome significant obstacles to rally together as a team. Racial boundaries do not inhibit teaming, economic differences do not incite jealousies, religious views do not get in the way, and political leanings do not block the natural tendency of a sports team to come together on game day. The enemy is very clear - it's the opponent on the gridiron. It's not any member of the one hundred in the sanctuary, the college football locker room. Diversity is a strength of the One Hundred. Trust, teamwork and discipline are values learned and shared.
Now let's look at the US Senate. One hundred strong come together in the greatest place for debate in the free world, the United States Senate. This is a place where open, honest, transparent discussion is encouraged. It's a place where passionate, smart men and women enact laws at the behest of citizens. It's a place where the very best of our country demonstrate leadership through sound argument backed by facts and persuasion of their fellow man. Well, that's what it's supposed to be. But it's not really a sanctuary, at least not anymore. Too often our Senators spew vitriol at one another, treat each other as the enemy or worse, stand and talk as the cameras roll in an empty chamber. It's no longer a place to get things done, to enact laws, to listen to opposing views, to rally together and improve the lives of citizens. Sadly, diversity is not a strength, racial barriers do exist, economic differences do cause jealousies, and the political ends of left and right no longer debate, no longer compromise, and no longer listen to one another.
One Hundred come together in a college football locker room with extreme clarity on a common goal, work together to achieve it and demonstrate good values along the way. One Hundred come together in the US Senate and show us everyday how small people can be. It seems our children can learn a great deal more from a college football team than they can from our elected leaders.
This one is long overdue. The tax system in our country is complex, costly and places an undue burden on the average citizen. The 1% and perhaps the top 5% do not share this burden because they can hire professionals to navigate the 70K pages of our tax system and leverage available loopholes to minimize the tax owed. To say the system is unfair and advantages the rich is just too easy. It's not that I am against the rich, quite the opposite. Our country was founded on taking risk, working hard, being innovative and "going for it". It's a country whose culture was based on "earning it". Sadly that last sentence is written in past tense because we are shifting to a country where too many people have stopped going for it, stopped earning it and now just expect it. Sad.
Let's get back to taxes. First, a confession, I am no expert on this topic, just a guy with an opinion. Secondly, I researched various proposals from presidential campaigns, some have details while others offer platitudes. Then I had a few beers and thought long and hard about the best path forward. I like Rand Paul's proposal which he calls "The Fair and Flat Tax". But ... and it's an important but ... with a twist.
You see, Rand wants to blow up those 70K tax pages and start over. He does not want to "change" or "adapt" the existing tax model. He wants to blow it to smithereens! That sounds like a great first step. His proposal is a flat 14.5% tax on individual and business income and elimination of all deductions except mortgage and charity (I believe). He would eliminate payroll taxes too.
Many others have proposed a flat tax and they differ by one thing or another. I like Rand's idea of just starting over with a very simple method. It's fair, simple and does not leave room for shenanigans by expensive accountants and lawyers. I am not tied down to the 14.5% number. If it needs to be 15% ok fine.
Now let's get to the twist. The one thing I don't like about the "Fair and Flat Tax" is the rich pay the same rate as anyone making more than $50K - for a family of four (below $50K there is no tax which seems right). That I don't like. You see, the rich people that I know and read about don't really mind if they pay a bit more. They don't mind if the tax percentage is graduated or progressive to some degree. They just want it to be simple, straightforward, and predictable. So, let's make up a few numbers. How about income above $1M pays another 5% in taxes, or 19.5% above $1M. That doesn't sound so bad. How about income above $5M we tack on another 5%. And that's it. We can use these extra monies from the $1M and $5M steps to help fund social security or medicare or bridges and roads. Whatever is needed. The rich pay a bit more which they are ok doing and the poor and middle class get a bit of a break. Most important, we drastically simplify a wasteful and complex system that is confusing and unfair.
Phew. This political stuff isn't all that hard. We just need to listen to some smart people that have thought about our most critical issues a great deal and add a bit of a twist to get it right. Surely our reps in congress and the senate can discuss, compromise and negotiate these things. Right?
Is it really so hard to solve the immigration issue? Let's tally the opposing sides to begin the discussion ... er, debate. On the right we have conservatives that want to build a wall, deploy 20K troops and throw in some drones to protect the country. Some of that sounds reasonable until the zealots toss in a few grenades about sending 11M people home. The same 11M people that we asked to come here and do jobs we didn't want to do. The same 11M people that violated laws we had no intention of enforcing. Meaning, the laws might have been on the books but everyone knew they didn't mean anything. So why try to follow laws that have no teeth?
Ok, enough of the right. On the left we have liberals who do not want a wall and no troops on the border and heaven forbid drones that invade someone's privacy. The most liberal loons on the left want to retain the 11M and reward them with free benefits and full citizenship without going through the process to "earn it". No test for the 11M. No fine for the 11M. No requirements other than you are already here and we want your vote. There it is, the real reason to retain the 11M. The liberal left wants a new block of voters and they know an offer is required to get that vote.
So, let's pretend we are Senators or Congressmen or someone influential that knows how to negotiate a deal. A credible deal that balances views from the left, from the right and from the 11M immigrants already here in the US. What if we invested in safety measures that protected our country. Yes, the wall and some troops, and perhaps a drone or two to protect our southern border. How about we enforce the laws on the books so that we and future immigrants truly understand we are serious about our rules. That way there is no confusion, no excuses, and no exceptions. We are a country of laws that actually are enforced. Wow, that's a new one. Then, we provide a green card to the 11M already here. Yep, we open our arms and welcome them with something permanent. Something they can count on, believe in and make a long term plan for their family. But no path to citizenship, at least not a direct path. Get in line with all the other people who are going through the process legitimately and wait your turn. What about a fine? Come on be serious. Why should they pay a fine for violating a law we encouraged them to ignore? Get a grip. It would probably cost us more money to collect the fines than the amount we would receive anyway.
Now, let's tally the results. The right gets the safety protection they crave. The left gets retention of the 11M and the immigrants already here get some sense of normalcy and a chance, a real chance for a better life. Last but not least, US citizens get to believe in the claim we are a country of laws ... that have teeth and are actually enforced ... finally. Phew! It seems everybody wins.
Political deal making isn't really that hard. Maybe we can try tax reform next. Hmmm ... I'll get a beer and be right back!
It has become commonplace for politicians to back up their claims with words like "common sense". Think about it for a minute or better yet read the paper or watch the news. You will undoubtedly read or hear the President or one of the numerous campaigns use these words. What happens next is the really interesting part. No one challenges the words "common sense". It's like checkmate in chess. The opponent or the press or the interviewer seldom take issue with a policy or claim wrapped in "common sense" language. The words "common sense" are better than a stiff arm in football.
Another example is the word "fair" or "fairness". This is typically used in discussions around tax policy. For example, "the rich must pay their fair share". Well, ok that makes sense. But what is fair? What number is the right one? And more importantly, who decides what is fair? Who picks the number? And who ensures the "fair" number actually happens? It should not be surprising the super rich get around paying their "fair share" because they hire armies of accountants, lawyers and politicians. The game is rigged ... but that's a different blog.
Our politics are more about words and speeches and rhetoric these days than action. For some reason we have allowed politicians to win or lose an election, a policy debate, just about everything based on speeches wrapped in "common sense" and "fairness" language, without ever doing anything to move the country forward. It almost seems they don't really intend to do anything ... except win elections. Politicians are very good at that.
Senator Ben Sasse from Nebraska took the floor recently for his maiden address to the United States Senate. To my great surprise he called every Senator out and shamed them for not doing their job. Wow! It heartens me to hear some truth in the Capitol, especially from a freshman Senator. Rather than writing more of my opinions on this topic, I'll let you read a WSJ article with excerpts from Ben Sasse's speech. Well done Senator, you are off to a terrific start!
I replied to a Facebook post by a friend the other day. Now and then someone asks a good question or begins a discussion on a juicy topic and I'll join the crowd to offer an opinion. I always think about my reply before my fingers are allowed to tickle the keys. Years of experience and lessons from long e-mail chains taught me that. Sometimes the dialogue on FB is interesting and I learn a thing or two and hope I impart a jewel of wisdom once in a while.
The other day a friend started a topic about college education and attached an article suggesting the Government pick up the tab since costs are too high and only the very rich can afford a degree. Good topic. I read a few replies as I thought about my feelings. I opted to go with a bit of history and opined that I put myself through college through hard work, grants and loans that were paid back long ago. I did not envy the "rich kids" and wondered if perhaps I appreciated my degree more than those that didn't have to earn their way. I sat back and waited for more views. Then it hit like a 5 iron to the head. Boom! I was accused of 'stereotyping' because I didn't think rich kids worked for it. Wow. Of course that's not what I said but it doesn't matter. Someone attacked me rather than opining about the topic and I was angry for being attacked and felt foolish for being honest and opening myself up to strangers.
I let the anger drive my behavior and dug into the person who attacked me. I found out he went to Texas A&M and knew he would be such an easy target as I readied my salvo. Fortunately my head got back in the game and stopped the madness before I sunk down to his level. Instead I waited it out and someone else replied to my post with a thoughtful opinion. We were back in discussion mode, Aggie be damned! (Apologies to Aggie's but when you live in Austin ...)
The FB back and fro reminds me of the upcoming presidential election and how too often candidates attack each other rather than the issues. Or worse, reporters who ask set-up questions with an angle to put the candidate on the defensive and off message. I am tired of "gotcha" questions and personal attacks and will be on the lookout for that behavior on FB and during the campaigns. When I see it, I'll call it out and move on. No need to stoop down to a lower level. I'll stay on issue rather than the person and so will my vote.
I like to read and write stories that dig deep into characters and how they respond to challenges.