Monday, April 28, 2014

Pension Gold


The very generous pension plans enjoyed by so-called public service employees are bringing municipalities and even states to the verge of bankruptcy all over the country. The State of Connecticut has recently provided an extreme example of the generosity of these pensions.

The Democrat Governor, Dannell Malloy, has just nominated two lawyers to serve as judges at a salary of $154000. However, both men are 66 years of age and will be eligible to retire in four years and receive a full pension of 66% of their pay for the rest of their lives. In other words, their pensions for serving just four years on the bench will be about $100000 per year, or over $8300 per month.

If we do a little math, we will find that it takes about $2.5 million earning 4% interest to provide income of $100000 per year. No wonder public service workers don’t want to give up their defined benefit plans. No wonder they vehemently oppose any effort to replace them with 401k type plans.

If the judges were to contribute 7% of their pay each year to a 401k type plan, they would put away about $10780 each year for the next four years. By the time they retired, their retirement contribution, including 4% interest, would amount to about $47600, a fraction of the $2,500,000 that the State’s defined benefit plan would be worth.  

Who is going to make up the difference for these lucky lawyers? Of course, it will be the taxpayers none of whom enjoys a pension anywhere near as generous as the State’s judges enjoy. Who has created a system that would allow a judge to retire on $100000 per year after only four years of service?

Why, for example, would the Bridgeport legislative delegation vote almost unanimously to approve these appointments? Do they really think judicial pensions like these are in the best interests of their constituents? Could it be that they are just waiting for the opportunity to just jump on the gravy train themselves?

It is time for the people of Connecticut to give a big thumbs down to this system of welfare for the well-to-do,

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Sunday Blackout

            Easter Sunday
Today I got up and opened my Yahoo home page and was surprised to find no mention of Easter. It's not as if there was a lot of pressing or important news items crowding it out. The lead article was about the football draft and Easter wasn't even trending. Then, I went out into my driveway to pick up the Sunday paper. Again, the front page was devoid of any mention of Easter, and even a look inside failed to turn up any mention of the great Christian feast. It's enough to make one a conspiracy theorist.

Anyway, please pardon me if I reflect a little on Easter and its meaning to over a billion Christians all over the World.

The Catholic Church uses many different readings on Easter. The Saturday Vigil Mass has seven readings from the Old Testament: St. Paul's famous letter to the Romans--"Christ raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over Him;" and St. Mark's account of the empty tomb. In the afternoon Mass there is the account of the risen Lord's appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

The morning Mass, however, begins with a reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Peter is preaching. Remember how prominently Peter appeared in the readings during Holy Week. Last Sunday he told Jesus that he would follow Him to prison, even to death. But his Lord predicted that Peter would deny Him three times before the cock crows. Peter's subsequent denial is one of the few things reported in all four gospels. It is virtually impossible to doubt the historical basis of Peter's denial.

Today it's a different Peter. He gives as good an account of the life and work of Jesus as you will find anywhere. Then he bears witness to the Resurrection,

            This man God raised on the third day and granted
            that He be us,...
            who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead.

Finally, he makes the claim "that everyone who believes in Him will receive forgiveness of sins through His name."

However, it's easy to imagine that Peter might have felt differently after the death of Jesus. He didn't know how the story was going to come out. What was there to believe? As St. John says in today's gospel, "they did not yet understand the Scripture that He had to rise from the dead." Not only had his Lord been brutally tortured and killed, but Peter had also turned his back on Jesus. He especially could have no hope of a resurrection or new day.  Wouldn't Peter think that his own sin, his own lack of faith, could never be forgiven?

Then Mary Magdalene comes rushing in on the first Easter Sunday morning to tell them that the tomb is empty. Fearing that the Lord's body had been stolen Peter and John race to the tomb only to find the burial cloths neatly rolled up with no evidence of foul play. In the gospel St. John tells us that "he saw and believed." St. Luke tells us that Peter was "amazed."  

Is this why Christians come together on Easter Sunday? Is it to peer inside the empty tomb? The empty tomb itself means nothing. As St. Mark said last night, "He has been raised; he is not here." It's His appearances that matter. Over the next fifty days we'll hear about all of His appearances. He'll appear to Mary Magdalene in the garden; to the disciples on the road to Emmaus; to the Apostles in the upper room; to doubting Thomas; to the fishermen in Galilee; and to countless other witnesses. Finally, His Holy Spirit will come upon them at Pentecost..

As we listen to these witnesses we'll have to examine our own belief. After all, St. Paul said that "if Christ is not risen, our faith is in vain." In other words if Christ is not risen, there will be no resurrection for us. However, maybe some of us feel like we're in the same position as Peter. Maybe doubts have crept in, maybe we're too secure, or maybe something has caused us to deny our Lord and turn our backs on Him.

The only way to rekindle our faith is to act differently. We have to realize that like the Apostles we are called to be witnesses of the Risen Christ. St. Paul calls us the "yeast" that leavens the dough. In our own little way each of us is called to bring Christ to each other. Last week during the reading of the Passion, our Lord said to Peter;

            Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded
            to sift all of you like wheat,
            but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail;
            and once you have turned back,
            you must strengthen your brothers.

The Albanian nun who became Mother Teresa did not wait for someone else to pick up that little deserted child in the street and bathe his sores. She saw the Risen Christ in him and in all the others she helped. Did the young Polish priest who became John Paul II ever imagine when he took his first vows that he would bring the Risen Christ to more people than all the previous Popes put together?

The word "Easter" comes from a Germanic goddess of spring. Latin peoples use the word pasqua from the Jewish pasch or Passover. When the Germanic peoples were converted the Church wisely associated the word for Springtime with the feast of the Risen Lord. All around us new life is springing from the dead of winter. And so, as St. Paul says,

            let us celebrate the feast,
            not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness,
            but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.


Reading 1.Acts 10:34a, 37-43
Reading II. Colossians 3: 1-4 or
1 Corinthians 5: 6b-8
Gospel. John 20: 1-9 (Easter).

Monday, April 14, 2014

Who's on First?


The baseball season is underway  and an incident came up the other day that I would like to discuss. The New York Yankees were playing at home against the Baltimore Orioles. The score was tied, 3-3, when the Yankees came to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning.

After the lead off hitter opened the inning with a double, Yankee Manager Joe Gerardi employed a bit of traditional baseball strategy. He asked the next batter, Derek Jeter, to sacrifice bunt in order to advance the runner to third base. The thinking is that with a runner on third base with only one out, it doesn’t require a base hit for him to score the lead run. Gerardi had his two best hitters coming up next and hoped that one of them would be able to drive in the go-ahead run.

As it turned out, the strategy failed. The next batter popped up for the second out. Now, a hit would be needed to score the runner from third. That didn’t happen and Baltimore got out of the inning without any damage. You could say that it was just bad luck but I would like to argue that the strategy employed had a low percentage of success. 

Outs are valuable in baseball. For a team to give up an out just to advance a runner one base is not a winning move. Gerardi had a man on second with no outs with his three best hitters coming to the plate. There was a very good chance that one of them could have delivered a hit to score the runner, especially since Yankee Stadium is generally regarded as hitter friendly. Also, even though Derek Jeter is advanced in years, he is still a master at hitting to right. Hitting to the right side of the infield would have advanced the runner even if it didn’t turn out to be a hit.

To add insult to injury in the next inning Baltimore manager Buck Showalter found himself in a similar situation. The score was still tied and his leadoff hitter also opened with a double. Showalter did not employ the old-fashioned strategy but elected to let his two, three, and four hitters swing away. They delivered three straight singles to give the Orioles a two run lead that was enough to win the game.

I know that this sounds like second guessing and that on another occasion things might have turned out differently. There might also have been other reasons for Gerardi to ask Jeter to sacrifice but as a general principle I would say that the percentages were against Gerardi. I believe that it is better to have a runner on second with no outs than a runner on third with one out. In fact, I wonder if the whole idea of sacrificing an out to advance a runner one base is ever a good idea.

What do you think?

Let me end this sports page with a little trivia quiz. Can you name the nine players who have won back-to-back Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards? Here is a hint. The nine played different positions. That is, on the list there is a catcher, first baseman, second baseman, shortstop, third basemen, and three outfielders. There is even a pitcher from the days when pitchers were eligible for the MVP award.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Syrian Martyr


Today a friend sent me the news that Father Frans van der Lugt, a 75 year old Jesuit priest from the Netherlands, who had spent most of his life teaching and ministering to Christians and Moslems alike in Syria, was brutally beaten and shot to death outside the Jesuit residence in Homs on April 7. Homs, a center of rebel activity, has been besieged by government forces for the past year. The remaining population of the city is suffering from hunger and fear.

Father Frans had refused to leave the city because he wanted to stay on and minister to the Syrian Christian community that he had come to call his own. The Christian community had existed in Syria almost from the beginning and had survived more than 1000 years of Moslem rule. There is nothing in the Koran that would allow or require faithful Moslems to murder innocent Christian believers.

Now there are less than 100 Christians left in Homs. As yet there is no news on the murderers of Fr, Frans but I suspect that the rebels were responsible. The rebels have claimed that the Christians in Syria support the Assad regime, and just as in Libya and Egypt, the so-called “Arab Spring” has led to the wholesale persecution of Christians by Moslem fanatics.

The lead article on the front page of the Wall St. Journal today did not mention Fr. Frans but did discuss a rift in the Obama administration on aid to rebels in Syria. Apparently, Secretary of State John Kerry is pushing for aid to the rebels while the President’s military advisors are reluctant to get involved in what could turn out to be another long-term commitment in the Middle East. Aid to the rebels would either involve direct military involvement or training of rebel fighters.

Advocates of involvement insist that aid would only go to moderate rebels. One wonders how we can tell the difference between moderate rebels and extremist killers. Also, we should consider the possibility that once moderate rebels are fully trained and armed, they might no longer act like moderates. Isn’t it amazing that we want to disarm our own population but think nothing of providing Moslem militants with the latest sophisticated weapons?

If recent history is any guide, moderates in places like Libya and Egypt were quickly overwhelmed by more extremist and violent elements. Today, Libya is still in chaos, and the Arab Spring in Egypt has resulted in military rule. In each case the ones who have suffered the most have been the Christians.

The death of Fr. Frans on April 7 has so far not appeared on the mainstream American media. A Google search will help but here is a link to a news source. I was educated by Jesuits priests more than 50 years ago at Fordham University in the Bronx. Most were dedicated scholars and teachers but I do believe that a handful were in the mold of Fr. Frans who must have been in training when I was in college. Shortly before he died he said that he had come to love the people of Syria who had done so much for him.

Fr. Frans died a martyr’s death. We are not all called to be martyrs. But the small percentage of priests and religious that continue to suffer martyrdom today should make people think twice before they vilify the Catholic Church and its priests because of the 2% who violated their vows iback in the 60s and 70s when Fr. Frans took up his cross to serve in the Holy Land.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Marijuana and Cancer

The widespread use of marijuana and its growing social acceptability has now led to a political movement to legalize its use all over the country. Colorado has recently legalized marijuana and politicians have been quick to see the possibilities of tax revenues from legalized pot sales. In a recent Wall Street Journal interview a former street dealer boasted of his plans to become the Philip Morris of the new industry. Coincidentally, as marijuana use has become acceptable, cigarette smoking has become socially deplorable.

When I was a child we were warned not to smoke cigarettes. It wasn’t about cancer. This was years before the U.S. Surgeon General’s report warning of the dangers of smoking.  We were told that smoking would stunt our growth. I don’t recall that either my friends or I really believed it or paid too much attention. It was just another attempt on the part of adults to scare us into good behavior.

After all, our favorite celebrities and athletes were not only smokers but they were also featured on innumerable ads in print or on the radio. These were the days before TV. More than ads there was the incessant and glamorous smoking that we saw in the movies we attended every Saturday afternoon. Humphrey Bogart, a chain smoker who would eventually die of lung cancer, smoked constantly in his films. Smoking was part of his mystique as he played the suave and savvy saloon owner in Casablanca. In one of the most famous scenes in film history Paul Henreid lit up two cigarettes at the same time before handing one over to Bette Davis to seal their love. She herself would often blow smoke into the faces of her lovers.

Cigarettes were glamorous and exotic and favorite brands had glamorous and exotic names. “Camels” had the air of the Orient. Chesterfield and Pall Mall smacked of British elegance. Lucky Strike and Old Gold conjured up images of wealth and fortune.
Our favorite athletes smoked between innings at the ballpark and were featured in a barrage of ads aimed at their young worshippers. They were men and it was a manly thing to do. The ad campaign built around the rugged “Marlboro Man” topped them all.

For some strange reason that I still don’t understand I never smoked. I was never an anti-smoking fanatic and could appreciate the pleasure people got from lighting up, especially after a good meal. Nevertheless, as the scientific evidence mounted it was hard for me to understand why people, including many doctors and nurses, would continue to smoke.

I have neither smoked marijuana either but it in my opinion pot is at the same stage as cigarettes when I was a child. Smoking pot was thought to be so dangerous that it was illegal to use or sell it. Nevertheless, millions of people refused to believe that it was dangerous or argued that the good effects far outweighed the bad. Then, over the past 50 years as cigarette smoking became viewed as a disgusting habit, pot smoking attained popularity among the celebrities of a new generation. Today, popular entertainers openly flaunt its use on national television. Merely mentioning pot on late night shows will elicit raucous applause. They have spearheaded a cultural revolution that has made opposition to marijuana seem pig-headed and obsolete.

I wonder though if marijuana might turn out to be as dangerous as cigarette smoking. I’m not talking about being “stoned” or losing brain capacity, but about the possibility that marijuana smoking could be just as serious a cancer-causing agent as cigarettes. At this point in time, there have been hardly any long-term scientific studies since marijuana was illegal. Just consider these points that showed up on a quick web search.

“Many of the carcinogens and co-carcinogens present in tobacco smoke are also present in smoke from marijuana.”

“Marijuana smoking does cause inflammation and cell damage, and it has been associated with pre-cancerous changes in lung tissue.”

“Marijuana has been shown to cause immune system dysfunction, possibly predisposing individuals to cancer.”

One study conducted in Sweden of about 50000 young men eligible for military service concluded,

“Our findings do raise concern about the potential long-term lung cancer risk associated with marijuana use in adolescence and young adulthood—a time of pronounced lung development—especially given the possibility that such marijuana smoking may occur during a ‘critical period’ of lung cancer susceptibility to carcinogens in marijuana smoke.”

I’m sure that other studies will follow but I wonder if the current Surgeon General of the United States is interested in the subject. I have never heard the subject discussed by the media. In the past year, my local newspaper has run many stories and editorials on the value of medical marijuana but nothing about cancer risks. They and other media outlets routinely criticize the tobacco industry but are silent when it comes to marijuana. “Doonesbury,” a popular political newspaper cartoon features a despicable character in the form of a cigarette who plumps for the tobacco industry. The author of the strip has so far failed to create an equally despicable symbol of the growing marijuana industry.

I'm not calling for a new war on marijuana but I do think that it's time for today's celebrities to desist from glorifying their pot smoking. They may find that like the celebrities and athletes of old, they were just blowing smoke in our faces.