Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween: EEEEvil or Happy American Tradition?

Every year I debate my husband on the merits of Halloween.  He says it's a destructive excuse to get drunk, and teaches kids to beg.  I say it's family fun and brings communities together.

And I don't think the truth lies "somewhere in the middle:"  Halloween is definitely a positive thing.

From an financial standpoint alone, it's a shot in the arm to a tired economy--administered painlessly.  Seventy percent of Americans report they'll give out candy; half of the populace says they'll even decorate their home or yard, according to an annual survey by the National Retail Federation.  The 148 million of us who celebrate Halloween will spend $5.8 billion this year, with families cheerfully parting with an average $23 for costumes, $20 for candy and $19 for decorations.

Even supposedly selfish trick-or-treating can be for the good.  The owner of a candy company called into the radio show and said he lets kids trade in their less desirable loot, gives them their choice of what he makes, and then donates the take to our soldiers overseas.  A neighborhood where I live asks trick-or-treaters to bring canned goods for the local food bank.  Myriad parents trailing their eager little ones--including me when my kids were younger--take the opportunity to re-connect with neighbors, building community cohesion.

Those stories about nefarious householders lacing candy with poison and razor blades?  Never happened. At least two national articles this season cite the study proving it, arguing for less parental fear and more joy in the holiday.

Maybe in the 1940s things got nasty, with mean teens inventing the "trick or treat" theme, but by the '50s, the term became a single syllable little kids intone with a smile, as willing homeowners offer their individually-wrapped sweets.

Critics say Halloween has pagan beginnings, and the truth is, nobody really knows its origins.  Some claim it derived from the Roman festival for Pamona, a goddess of fruits and seeds; others insist it was a different Roman fest, "Feralia." Some trace it to a Celtic holiday, Samhain, that noted the coming of the darker part of the year, and was occasion to honor dead relatives.  In the 800s, Pope Boniface IV decreed November 1 as a day to honor martyrs, All Hallows Day, hence, All Hallows Eve.

In any case, there was no Halloween in America until the 1800s, when Irish immigrants started coming en masse, and it wasn't much at that.  Celebration only picked up speed in the 20th Century, and then only in its latter half, when boomer kids enjoyed little parties and neighbors started leaving their porch lights on and carving pumpkins into faces.

What would school classrooms look like in the fall without the Halloween decor of jack-o-lanterns and black cats?  Even the scarier symbols of skeletons and ghosts don't faze kids--most elementary schools have to warn them not to wear gory costumes, because otherwise fifth-grade boys want to.

Costumes are a creative, positive aspect of the holiday.  Making or buying them becomes a parent-and-child bonding activity.  It teaches kids that reality may be different from appearances, a subtle but useful lesson. And it gives kids an opportunity to indulge their imaginations, to become characters or change their looks beyond their normal selves.

This year, the top children's costume is--the same as the last six years--princess.  Next is Spider-Man, followed by witch (not Christine O'Donnell), pirate, Disney Princess, and "super-hero."  Doesn't sound so scary to me.

I had a great time surfing the web to find internet meme costumes.  Sad Keano is a tough one to duplicate, unless you're not planning on moving off a bench for the whole evening.  The Double Rainbow guy, however, is a possibility (see photo above).  My favorite is The Panda (you can't say no to Panda) because it's do-able and the cheese commercials are so hilarious.  Apparently there's a list of costumes people least want to see--with Sarah Palin the winner.  Personally, I think I'd be most frightened if Nancy Pelosi came to my door seeking a handout.

In any case, it's a beautiful day here in the Northwest. I'm going to go carve our pumpkin, look through our bags of costumes, and put our little packs of m-and-ms out on a tray.  If that's not your style, that's just fine--nobody has to celebrate, and any way you choose (or not) to acknowledge Halloween, from church harvest parties to herding the little ones to candy-proffering merchants at the mall, fits into the American tradition.  And of course, if you're a real curmudgeon, you can just turn off the porch light and go to bed.

Friday, October 29, 2010

"Excess" Money: The Super-Rich Don't Need It, right?

(Update as of Nov. 4: Voters in Washington State share the view in this post. Initiative 1098 was rejected, 66-34%.)

I just heard it again on my favorite talk radio show. A caller was denouncing a wealthy guy, somebody who he thought had made "corporate millions."  He thought it was just fine that the top tax rates should go up, because, "he's got plenty left, anyway."

People like this caller--and our President--think there's some magical level of income beyond which, you've got no worries.  That number seems to be $200,000 yearly.  Here in the state of Washington, we've got a ballot proposition (1098) that would impose an income tax, the state's first ever, "only on the super-rich."  That would mean any person earning $200,000 (double that for a couple) has to pay 5% of income up to $500,000 and NINE percent on anything over that.

Heck, the people making such astronomical incomes don't need it, right?  They should "pay their fair share," shouldn't they?

Is it fair that only those who do well--who tend to use that money to hire others and buy things--should have a state income tax while everyone else has none?

Well, that won't be the issue anyway in a couple years when the state legislature "needs" to extend the existing tax to a wider base.  The tax will soon hit the "rich" making more than $100,000.  Anyone can live on that, right?  Does anyone need more than $100,000 to live comfortably in Washington State?

People who make more than $100,000 should "pay their fair share," shouldn't they?

Actually, I know some really nice houses and apartments and cars that can be paid for with an income of $50,000.  You can certainly live comfortably in Washington State on $50,000.  Earners of that amount may not be filthy, but if you ask many people, they're rich.  Why, my daughter graduated college and got a teaching job, and makes $27,000 a year.  $50,000 would be a great salary.

On the other hand, even my daughter could live perfectly well without getting new clothes or eating in restaurants, couldn't she?

Where's the cut off where people "don't need" the money they earn?  Truth is, if "excess" money ends up going to taxes, rather than paying other people (for help or luxuries or whatever), why bother working so hard?  The little secret is that really successful people have the drive to work hard (those aspiring for success do, too).  But significant taxes make them direct some of that energy to keeping what they earn.

If you're a business person who through expertise and dedication has grown your company so that finally you're seeing some success, and you're looking to expand and relocate, will it be more or less attractive to move to Washington with this new tax?  And when it's expanded down the income scale, will you be more or less likely to attract good workers?

There's a book by the founder of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, called "Delivering Happiness."  It actually topped best-seller lists.  All tourists to the Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas get one, free.  It describes Hsieh's business life, and the development of his online shoe site's "culture." The company's a happy place, all right, and looks like a fun place to work, with perks and games and live-and-let-live style. 

The part of the book that caught my attention was the point at which the expanding company deliberated where to relocate from San Francisco. They had a handful of choices, but ultimately moved to the state without an income tax.  The book said the choice of Vegas was made because "we thought it would make our existing employees happiest."  Yeah, I'd be happy too, going from a state where everybody pays some state tax, and you pay 9.3% of any income over $40,000, to a state where there's no income tax at all.

But hey, how come the Nevada super rich aren't paying their fair share?  They don't need more than $100,000 to live, especially given Las Vegas' real estate bust.  It's really cheap to live there now.  Here's the deal, though--Nevada wants to keep the businesses, like Zappos, who chose to move there.  And there's no better way to gain allegiance than to let workers keep the money they earn.  That's the real way to employee happiness--give people control over their earnings, over their lives.

States need money. But better they get it from residents' volitional decisions--like buying gas, buying liquor, even buying candy.  We in Washington have ballot issues on those too.  Fees for services make sense, too, because people can control where they go and how much of each thing they buy.

But the chutzpah of a government deciding that somebody making $190,000 isn't "super rich" but somebody earning $10,000 more is--discourages initiative and positions the most productive people--who are also the greatest resources--as undeserving, greedy and untrustworthy.

Doesn't everybody aspire to financial success?  For the hardworking and fortunate few who achieve it, should the reward be for government to take it away?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Searching for Bright Light

Maples in my courtyard with blue sky, as I finish this post.
I often relate to the title of my blog, "searching for bright light." This morning, most of the neighborhood where I live was bathed in luscious autumn golden sunshine, but my particular block was enshrouded in the thickest of gray fog.

As we move to the time of year when sunrise occurs here long after the alarm rings, I become disheartened.  I have a craving for strong sunlight; I need its warmth and benevolence on my face. Is it just photophilia, an enjoyment and appreciation for brightness, or is there a deeper basis for my need?

When the 33 miners emerged from the Chilean mine in which they were entombed for 69 days, the world cheered not just their liberation from claustrophobic encasement. After all, the men had the run of long tunnels; Edison Pena, a triathlete, jogged 6 miles daily there for exercise.  The men's emergence, in sunglasses to guard their eyes from overexposure, symbolized the transition from despair to hope, from deathly interment to the nurturing sunlight of freedom.  Many said it was a rebirth, a complete emotional and spiritual overhaul, not just because they avoided death but because they emerged to the "brilliance" of insight.

Was it coincidence that yesterday I was reading Proverbs 4:18: "The path of the righteous is like the glow of sunlight, growing brighter until high noon, but the way of the wicked is like darkness, they know not upon what they stumble."  I'd been searching for a different reference, but that verse leaped out.

As Jews, we are to greet the day with boundless enthusiasm, opening our eyes with "modeh ani, lifanecha, melech chai vikayam...," Hebrew for "I thank You, right here before You, living King forever!"  The blessing continues to express gratitude for the faithfulness with which God gives us another day, another chance.

My enthusiasm takes a hit when I have to arise in total darkness.  And my mood sags in overcast and rain.  Seasonal affective disorder--depression from lack of sunshine--is so rampant here in the Northwest that soon after I moved here, I went to a busy store called "The Indoor Sun Shoppe" and bought the bright sun-simulator that sits about a foot away from me here on my desk. A friend gave me an alarm clock with a lamp that gradually brightens in the hour before the set time.

Happiness and insight metaphors always correspond to sunshine and light. "Never saw the sun shining so bright, never saw things going so right," are lyrics of a song two of my kids frequently sing, called, 'natch, "Blue Skies."  The Beatles' "Good Day, Sunshine" begins, "I need to laugh, and when the sun is out, I've got something I can laugh about."  The classic "You Are my Sunshine" croons, "You make me happy when skies are gray...please don't take my sunshine away!"

Do you ever see catalogs like Crate and Barrel or Pottery Barn showing furniture vignettes without sunlight pouring in?  And the pinnacle of God's Ten Plagues was to inflict on the Egyptians isolating, penetrating darkness.  Sunshine=good. Darkness=bad.  The Lone Ranger wore a white hat and rode a white horse, despite the constant dust and dirt of the trail (which is probablyhow his outfit got gray).  Darth Vader just couldn't be so evil dressed in pastels.  And if you ever saw the delightful film "The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit" (1998) you'll remember that when each of the five lovable schlubs who jointly bought the completely white ensemble puts it on, he's transformed into a better, more elegant, more respectable man.  The power of light to bring out the good.

Well, as I've written about my yearning for sunshine, the fog has dissipated and a cerulean sky contrasts with the red and orange maple in my courtyard.  'Scuse me as I step onto the patio for some life-giving Vitamin D and inspiration.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Does Your Perception of God Determine Your Politics?

The cover story of USA Today about ten days ago was "How America Sees God," and certainly if so august a journal elevates this to its main front-page feature, it must be factual and important.

The piece was basically a publicist's dream, touting America's Four Gods: What We Say About God--and What that Says about Us, a new book by two sociologists at Baylor University.  The authors, Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, have often mined Baylor's annual religion surveys, packaging the idea that how one sees God determines one's political and social positions. I actually read the survey from their 2006 report, which asks everything from belief science will find Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, to whether God is "a 'He,'" to agreement that "The U.S. must establish democratic order in the Middle East."

The survey shows a bias in its Christian-centric construction (as a Jew, I was confused by some terms and would be at a loss to answer some queries).  In 2005, Gallup contacted 3,702 potential participants, and got a 46% response rate. Once the results were in, the professors interpreted the material--by deciding that views of God fall into (only) one of four types, "Authoritative," "Benevolent," "Distant" or "Critical."  The first two include an active, engaged God; the latter two, a God who started it all, but now doesn't interfere.

According to the USA Today summary, the 24% of Americans whose God is "Distant" think since creating the world, He stands back and watches. The 21% whose God is dubbed "Critical" also think God "rarely acts on earth," but might judge in the afterlife.  This is the deity of "ethnic minorities, the poor and the exploited," says the article, mainly because their lives are so hard (and therefore God must be "critical").

The "Benevolent" God of 22% of the respondents see Him as mostly a "positive influence on the world."  These folk don't blame God for tragedies, but credit Him for the good stuff in life.  The final 28% of respondents see an "Authoritative" and judgmental God, who, while loving, "can become angry and is capable of meting out punishment to the unfaithful," such as natural disasters or illness.

Basically, Froese and Bader take James David Barber's four constructs describing Presidential character, and apply them to Americans' views of God.  Barber sees some presidents' personalities as active (like the Authoritative and Benevolent God) and others as passive (like the Distant and Critical God).  At the same time, some presidents have a "positive" affect (corresponding to the Benevolent and Distant God) and others a "negative" perspective (Authoritative and Critical God).  Barber uses these to categorize Presidents (or candidates) to predict how they'll perform in office.

Presidents like Thomas Jefferson, F.D. Roosevelt and John Kennedy are "active-positive" presidents, adaptive and self-confident.  John Adams, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon are "active-negatives" who compulsively but joylessly achieve.  James Madison, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are "passive-positives" whose need to be loved makes them compliant and reactive, while George Washington, Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower exemplify the "passive-negative" withdrawn style that acts out of principle.  Just as you'd expect, the best bet for president is active-positive, then passive-positive.  Active-negatives were termed "dangerous" choices by Barber.

So, who are USA Today's poster boys?  Glenn Beck is their Authoritative God icon (who prefers the "dangerous" active-negative God), with his "warnings about losing God's favor."  Their Benevolent God guy?  Why, Barack Obama.

And how does this play out in political views?  "People with an Authoritative God are about three times more likely to say homosexuality is a choice, not an inborn trait...affecting their views on gay rights, particularly marriage and adoption."  (Notice that reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman uses the word "rights" rather than "issues.") Yep, active-negative, all right.

Glenn Beck's Authoritative God, book author Bader says, likely caused tragedies like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, "directly punishing us for a society's sinful ways."  The Benevolent God fans, though, are relentlessly upbeat, and "focus on a fireman who escaped, or the people who rebuild homes..."

Says the newspaper piece, "When President Obama says he is driven to live out his Christian faith in public service, or political satirist Stephen Colbert mentions God while testifying to Congress in favor of changing immigration laws," they're expressing a deity author Froese says "cares for all people, weeps at all conflicts and will comfort all."  (How active! How positive!) But Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck represent those who "divide the world by good and evil," whose actively negative God "appeal(s) to people who are worried, concerned and scared."

I think I'll take care and comfort over worried and scared.  And active optimism over active negativity.

By the way, the Distant God (who's passive-positive, like Bill Clinton) gets good press too.  Quoted is Rabbi Jamie Korngold, since Distant is "the dominant view of Jews."  She says Distant appeals to her because "that gives me more personal responsibility. There's no one that can fix things if I mess them up. God's not telling me what I should do."  (Notwithstanding those pesky commandments in the Torah.)

So, Froese and Bader offer a paradigm where two views of God appear to be pessimistic, and two appear to be optimistic.  Two reflect the active vitality of self-determination, and two reflect passive powerlessness and resignation.  Authoritative and Critical views of God correlate with conservative (bad) political views; Benevolent and Distant views of God correlate with liberal/progressive (good) political views.  Surprise!

The research assumes--without evidence--that like one's character, shaped in childhood, views of and feelings about God are well-defined character traits, not subject to change.  That people don't hold conflicting and sometimes confused thoughts at the same time. That such variables as mood, weather and public or personal events don't influence connection or inspiration.

I'd speculate that even the most faithful have doubts, various levels of clarity, and frequent revision in their religious perspectives.  And those perspectives are a complex amalgam of views on all sorts of spiritually-related subjects--not a single concrete block of simple beliefs.  Similarly, political views cover a range of topics--and views on any given subject can change.  (Can a conservative be a tree-hugger or condone first-trimester abortion?  Can a liberal favor second-amendment rights or oppose the death tax?) And how does God-perception predict the political views of the third of the electorate self-identifying as "independent?"

Just look at Barack Obama's polling--the country was overwhelmingly supportive in January, 2008, when his approval rating was 69%; Gallup's ratings for this month (Oct. 2010) show his disapproval rate higher than his approval, 48-46%.  Does that mean the electorate changed its views of God?

Could it be that these academics have a political agenda?  Oh no, the pristine halls of ivy are populated only by seekers of truth, who would never overlay personal perspectives on research outcomes.  Maybe they're just hoping to copy James David Barber's literary success.  And perhaps if God is truly Benevolent, they will.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Living the Virtual Life, buying Virtual Goods

Help me here. What is it about "virtual goods"--imaginary own-ables in online community or commercial fake-world games--that leads Americans to shell out a projected $1.6 billion this year in our jobless economy?

The "I don't care about money" stance of Mark Zuckerberg as portrayed in the film Social Network has long ago been swept aside as Facebook hosts and profits from the virtual barnyard antics of FarmVille (75 million monthly active users) and a raft of other digital cosmos in which players pay real dollars for non-existent items that can get them ahead in play.  The lucrative commerce flourishing in the background behind FB profiles and friending has caused the crafty website to invent and promote its own monetary substitute, called Credits.  Facebook skims 30% off all transactions that use this virtual currency.

I read this in a NY Times blog reprinted in the actual, physical newspaper, cover price $2.00. I used scissors in my flesh-and-blood hand to cut out the article.  Just call me Stegosaurus.

One of the most popular virtual world games through Facebook is Sorority Life, explained in a post on eHow, "How to Play Facebook Sorority Life."  I could hear the syrupy everything's-a-question intonation of my newly-graduated daughter's cohort as I read the steps to success--picking your "glam" wardrobe to trot and have critiqued on the catwalk, throwing parties, shopping and picking catfights:

"Need money fast? Challenge a sister to a 'fight' and see if your skill levels are high enough to take her down. Winning a fight uses up your Stamina points, but gives you money and an increase in your Influence points, which works to make your fights and your socializing more successful."

Zynga's Mafia Wars has players forming groups of criminals who do "jobs" to get ahead, rob each other, and in one of several cities (Bangkok) can escalate (with enough energy, cash, health and stamina) to the highest level, Assassin. Actually, players can put a hit on others anyway...I was sucked into watching a half-dozen YouTube videos purporting to teach players sneaky means to increase their levels, some with 23,000 views and long threads of comments.  One blog that described Zynga's attempts to stop users from exploiting free points found even the techy author surprised at the amount of passion evoked by the glitch: " does help me understand that the science and psychology behind these games is very real. They are addictive money extraction machines."

Which brings me back to reality: Aren't we in a big recession?  The 9.6% unemployment rate should theoretically mean less cash to spend on tangible necessities, much less made-up stuff like fertilizer for friends' FarmVille crops. 

Virtual goods certainly make sense from game-makers' and sponsoring corporations' point of views--they get real money in trade for game advancement which costs them nothing.  This spring, 7-Eleven stores offered Farmville, YoVille and Mafia Wars points with certain fast-food purchases like Slurpees and iced coffee, points that would have cost players about $3 as virtual goods.  In June, Green Giant gave away FarmVille Farm Cash with purchases of its fresh produce.  Business-wise, it's a win-win.

But not such a boon for the players who, once addicted, are exploited.  Lured by ever-greater rewards for playing longer and, pyramid scheme-like, involving more players, victims of game addiction can become so embroiled in their virtual identities that they lose their jobs, marriages, and may even take their lives. A Korean case where parents' gaming caused them to neglect their 3-month-old baby, leading to the infant's death by starvation, received international attention.  Even Oprah-spinoff Dr. Phil has plenty on his website about game addiction, and offers a quiz to help viewers decide if they've got it.  Of course, real addicts won't be watching Dr. Phil.

Game addiction has escalated such that residential treatment facilities are cropping up, the first here in the Great Northwest.  A Nova Scotia psychologist has set up a website (with workbooks for sale) with resources for parents and adult addicts.

I'm biased on this topic. While compulsion to keep playing these games may have a physiological basis (providing dopamine highs), I have little sympathy for wasting the limited, precious moments we have on earth to embrace and appreciate the real world.  People harvesting from cartoon farms or evoking gun-barrel drawings by clicking mafia options are losing their souls to something ultimately worthless.  Even watching TV with family, while not directly engaging each other, at least involves some shared presence, some common experience.  Devoting attention--any at all!--to a virtual world simply pulls the individual away from life, from people who quickly understand they're second-priority.  Gamers know this, and like other true addicts, dismiss or rationalize it because they are compelled by the game.

Maybe it's not a physiological addiction. Maybe it's just a competitive drive gone wild.  But aggression and the need to compete are considered male characteristics, and women equal men in their devotion to online virtual-world games; one report says women spend even more time at them (averaging 29 hours per week, to men's 25).

Perhaps each gender is receiving differing types of fulfillment from its involvement, but in any case, the real and important things in life suffer.  I contend that even moderate time at  computer games could be better spent in reality-based pursuits.  Support for my view is that every self-test for game addiction I've seen includes a question about guilt over time spent online.

But when you combine lost time with lost money, you get a real problem. Virtual goods may bolster game-makers' profits, but what do they do for the purchaser, who has nothing to show for it beside a higher score?  You may say it's an investment in pleasure; we spend lots of money on vacations and concert tickets and fine wines and Disneyland, and when they're gone, they're gone, too.  But each of those experiences is real.

When your tombstone is laid, the vacations and concerts and dinners with delicious wine may add up to "he was a great family man."  But the hours spent in FarmVille or as El Cacique only compile to narcissism, mental and emotional masturbation, usually at the expense of those who long for you.

Maybe I just don't get it; if not, enlighten me. Otherwise, I'd rather pursue a virtuous life than a virtual one.