Tuesday, May 29, 2012

'Don't Know Much About History, Don't Know Much Biology...'

You know these great words as coming from one of the great songs ever by Sam Cooke officially known as '(What A) Wonderful World'It serves as the unmistakable background music to the scene in 'Animal House' where John Belushi as Bluto Blutarsky goes down the cafeteria line and stuffs his face and pockets with all sorts of 'free food' apparently as part of a meal plan which will serve as our object lesson of the day.

This time about how we all seem to think that we can consume as much government largess as we want and no one ever seems to have to pay for it directly.

We do.  And will.  One day. In the form of higher taxes, inflation, higher-than-normal interest rates, depreciated currency or 'all the above'. Perhaps soon in the future if the EU collapses and the euro is dismantled and all sorts of havoc is wreaked on the world economy just for starters.

Sam Cooke's great song should be amended for most Americans then to this, especially when it comes to the federal budget and public policy finance:

'Don't know much about economics.
Don't know much accounting.
Don't know much about a finance book.
Don't know what a calculator is for.'

As you read this, just keep the mental image in your mind of John Belushi going down the cafeteria line putting plate after plate of food on his tray in between squeezing enormous hamburgers into his mouth or slurping up green jello from the plate. You might want to click on the 'Wonderful World' link above to listen to as you read to keep your mood elevated.

We heard some simply astounding numbers about a recent surgery a friend of ours had recently and thought it would serve as a useful lesson for today.

We all know that knee and hip replacements have become almost as common-place as wisdom teeth extractions.  It is simply amazing to think that after a lifetime of wear-and-tear on these joints and excruciating pain in most cases that within the space of an hour or two, a skilled orthopedic surgeon can saw the bones above and below your kneecap, insert a new knee joint and then push the whole leg back together so that in a manner of weeks or months, a person can be playing golf or walking like normal people do.

God bless America and God bless American medicine and medical colleges!  We really do have one of the greatest medical systems the world has ever known in terms of medical advances and discoveries, wouldn't you have to agree?

We don't begrudge anyone wanting relief from pain and suffering.  If it can be relieved, more power to them.

However, do you know what the costs of these types of surgeries are nowadays?

$60,000 to $90,000.  Easily.

In the case of private insurance plans administered by businesses or individuals, there are certain percentages of the premium an employee pays each month for the right to have such coverage when they need it in the future.  They also pay a deductible for such a procedure which could be substantial in these cases.

So in a manner of speaking, you and your private corporate employer have 'pre-paid' or 'invested' in a way to pay for your knee or hip to be replaced 30 years in the future if you are covered by a 'private' health care insurance plan.

In this case, though, the entire procedure was covered by Medicare.  $90,000.  Not private insurance.

Medicare is not a 'true' insurance plan where money is taken from your paycheck in the form of payroll taxes (as it already is on a weekly or bi-weekly basis) and 'invested' by an insurance company in some form of interest or dividend-bearing account that will be there to take money out of in the future to pay for your knee replacement.

Medicare (CMS) takes your payroll taxes paid this month and then pays out cash benefits next month to Granny or Grandpa when their surgeon sends that $60k to $90k bill to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) formerly known as the dastardly 'HCFA'.

Since Medicare is fundamentally and technically bankrupt today, even that transfer of wealth from the younger working generation to the older generation is not enough to cover all these growing costs.

Hardly anyone will pay more in Medicare payroll taxes than they will receive in Medicare benefits unless they die before becoming eligible at age 65, die soon thereafter or live out their golden years in absolute picture-perfect health sans any major medical procedure. The fact is that roughly 85% of the Medicare Parts A and B programs are paid for by other taxpayers, not any particular individual enrolled in Medicare.

Couple these exorbitant surgical procedures with the fact that we are about to retire perhaps the most obese and unhealthy generations America has ever produced and you have a recipe for fiscal disaster when it comes to paying for the complications due to heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer in the next 20 years under Medicare as currently configured.

The mental image of John Belushi stuffing all sorts of food in his mouth is an apt analogy for where we as a nation have been in terms of doing whatever we want with our bodies in terms of diet or lack thereof...and then expecting someone else to pay for it all once on Medicare.

People who are currently eligible for Medicare should be taken care of, there is no question about that. They lived their lives under the assumption that Medicare as it was would be there for them in its present incarnation.

Plus, the obvious solution is to convert Medicare and Medicaid to provide true 'catastrophic coverage' to everyone in the nation to protect them against the humongous extended costs of a devastating head injury, cancer treatment, stroke or heart failure or similar long-term illness or situations.  Other coverage can be offered on a need-based basis or allow wealthier individuals the chance to buy-in on an income/wealth-related basis. Use the world's secondary and tertiary reinsurance markets to further diffuse the risk undertaken, perhaps even our old friend Warren Buffett's vast network of reinsurance companies.

The Medicare program has got to be reformed very soon to account for:

1) The vast differences in retirement income and wealth of millions of retirees.  There is no plausible, not-make-you-laugh-out-loud reason why Warren Buffett or Bill Gates should be subsidized by a $30,000/year blue collar worker for their SS or Medicare benefit.

2) The much-extended life expectancy of Americans due to much lower mortality rates among infants and much higher quality medical care and nutrition generally during life and in older age

3) The fact that more personal accountability for life decisions should be a part of Medicare than it is today.

If we solve the Medicare, and then the Medicaid problem, our fiscal budget problems start to dissolve almost overnight.  Holding the rates of growth in just these two programs to the expected rates of inflation in the next 8 years would reduce the amount of expected debt accumulation over the next 10 years by close to 50%.

No major other cuts necessary, no major tax hikes either (unless, of course the Bush/Obama Tax Cuts (Obama has already failed to veto their expiration once in 2010 so he now owns them as much as Bush ever did) are extended in which case we still have some major work to do to balance the budget in our lifetimes)

That is worth the effort, don't you agree?

Then we can all sing with Sam Cooke '(What a Truly) Wonderful World' America really can be when our budget deficits are slain and our medical programs are rationalized to meet the current economic realities we face.

Do You Want Better and Smarter People to Run for Public Office?
Support the Institute for the Public Trust Today

To learn more, visit InstitutePublicTrust.org

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Why Progressive Liberals Should All Be Fiscal Hawks

This chart from the Heritage Foundation is just about as self-explanatory as anything can be about the threats we face as a nation in our federal over-spending proclivities and irresponsible non-action in Congress and the White House to arrest the accumulation of more exorbitant debt.

62% of our federal budget is now being spent on entitlement programs. Not defense. Not 'feriegn aid' as it is known in the South. Not education. Not road construction.

Programs such as the following:

529 program or Coverdell
Social Security--Retirement & Survivors
Pell Grants
Unemployment Insurance
Veterans Benefits
G.I. Bill
Head Start
Social Security Disability
SSI--Supplemental Security Income
Welfare/Public Assistance
Government Subsidized Housing
Food Stamps

And you want to know the really weird thing?

Well over 50% of the American public doesn't think they have ever used or benefited from a US Federal Entitlement Program!

Well, someone is using those programs, aren't they?

Each year, another block in the chart above gets filled in with blue with another entitlement commitment such as by some provision of the Medicare Part D prescription benefit program passed under W or The Affordable Health Care Act passed under Obama.

If you are a progressive liberal, you should be far more concerned about this treacherous onslaught of more 'mandatory spending' than any fiscal conservative out there. (There is no guarantee that a 'social' conservative is a 'fiscal' conservative and vice versa so we are separating the two here today for this posting)

Why should a progressive liberal be concerned about these budget trends?

Because all of the 'discretionary' programs progressive liberals would love to see continued are being nibbled to death by ducks as each mandatory program such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicare continues to chew up more and more of scarce available resources at the local, state and federal level. 

'Fiscal' conservatives don't mind that attrition in discretionary programs as much.  They 'want' smaller, less intrusive government...supposedly. Unless it is in any defense program or some local road construction or agricultural support program that benefits their constituents.  Then it becomes a 'vital national program!

For the life of us, we can't figure out why progressive liberals are not all fiscal hawks.

Why? Because if they would just take a look at the federal budget details, they would soon see that:

1) Tons of money goes each year to support very wealthy people on entitlement programs. (Think of what happens when a Warren Buffett or a Bill Gates gets his monthly SS check in the mail and says out loud:  'What the heck is this paltry amount of money....a gift card to Best Buy or something?)

2) Humongous amounts of wasteful spending is still going to programs that were created either before World War II to solve the problems America faced after the First World War! Either that or current funds are spent by the hundreds of millions of dollars to support jobs in a congressional district that were established by some long-gone defense appropriations committee chairman who went on to the Great Beyond decades ago and his successors have successfully kept such unwanted and unnecessary programs going for no reason other than political incumbency protection.

3) Hundreds of millions of dollars get spent each year on federal programs that do not receive the proper oversight from congressional committees and have out-lived their usefulness and purpose. No one even knows if they are working or not to alleviate the pain and suffering they were intended to eradicate in the first place.

We recently had the chance to train a young woman about running for public office who said the following statement during her on-camera training sessions with a seasoned political reporter and myself: 'I am a liberal and supported Obama in 2008. But I am also a finance major and a spending fiscal conservative.  They are not mutually exclusive'

The political reporter and I almost fell off our chairs to the floor. We have simply never heard such rational reasonable talk in our 35+ years of being involved with the federal electoral process.

There is hope for America at least.

People need to take a strong hard look at this chart above and memorize it and then all sides; progressive liberals, fiscal conservatives and socially libertarian/fiscally conservative Independents need to band together to support like-minded candidates to run for Congress, the state houses and the local governments so we can put our house back in order.

The people who have been in office from all parties for the past 12 years at the very minimum have not done their jobs. Time to replace them all with some adults who will do their jobs.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The World of Economics and Politics According to 'Animal House'

(with humble and abject apologies to Robert Short and his great work and book that came out in 1965, The Gospel According to Peanuts’)

This is the first in an occasional series of insights into the complex inner-workings of our democratically-elected government at every level in America and how it impacts the free enterprise system from the perspectives of various characters in that political philosophy treasure trove of information, 'Animal House'.

‘Democracy is the worst form of government there is…except for every other’ as Sir Winston Churchill supposedly once said.

Well, if the actions of Congress and the past two presidents since 2000 are any indication of just how 'bad' democracy can be, then we have adequate empirical proof to be able to use 'Animal House' as an analogy, don't we?

We find that most everything in political life as it relates to our free enterprise system can be reduced to the mundane, funny and sometimes profane acts and quotes from this movie that seems to have captured the Zeitgeist of the Boomer Generation from beginning to end in its simple but insightful prognosticative transcript.

Looking back on the passage of time over the past 30 years since ‘Animal House’ came out to mixed reviews in 1978, it is fair to say that political life in America has more closely approximately ‘life’ and ‘philosophy’ in this one single movie more than art has imitated the real world of Congress and the state legislatures around the country.

Come along with us and see for yourself:

‘Grab a brew…don’t cost nothing!’ 

Isn’t this the prevailing attitude in America today in the 21st century?

We are ‘wandering freshman’ new to a college campus trying to figure out ‘who we are’ as a nation and society.  We are just looking for some way to ‘fit in’ aren’t we, not only as a nation but on the international stage?

Are we the 'John Wayne' version of rugged individualistic America that Ronald Reagan so ably channeled during his two presidential campaigns of 1980 and 1984, thereby ushering in the ‘Reagan Revolution’ that promised 3 things and 3 things only:

1) smaller government by devolving responsibility to the states in the New Federalism model
2) lower taxes by balancing the budget through spending restraint
3) a very strong national defense to deter and then defeat communism?

That was it.  We remember.  We were there for the entire campaign in 1984 as candidates for Congress and advisors to those who did run. We lived through the first 4 years of President Reagan’s term and worked on Capitol Hill for his  last 4.

These were the 3 legs to the stoolchair that Ronald Reagan and the Young Turk Republicans such as Newt Gingrich, Bob Walker, Vin Weber and Trent Lott stood upon.

Or are we the Bill Clinton version of America where we ‘feel each other’s pain’ and try to alleviate the suffering and heartache of all of our fellow neighbors and citizens?

It was Bill Clinton, you will remember, who declared with some gusto that ‘The Era of Big Government is Over!’

Oh, really?  You coulda fooled us here in 2007-2012 then, President Clinton, we gotta be honest.

(It was also Bill and Hillary Clinton who declared their intention and desire to see that ‘Abortion was Safe, Legal and RARE!’. Not a lot of progress on the ‘rare’ part of that dream when roughly the same number of abortions are performed each year in America now as in 1977, 1.3 million)

Fast forward to the Obama years and see if you can define which America stage we are now in.

It is most definitely NOT the John Wayne-era of American swagger and confidence amidst growing prosperity in the 1980’s, is it?

It is more 'most definitely' not the era of ‘small government’ that President Clinton declared as the American economy boomed during the internet boom during his watch and the budget was balanced with the help of Erskine Bowles negotiating in good faith the Republican Congress of grown-up 'Older Turks' like Newt Gingrich, John Kasich, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay.

No, to us, it appears as if the prevailing paradigm of thought in America today under President Obama is best exemplified by a video from his very own re-election website that has been a big hit on the internet, both pro-and-con, called simply ‘The Life of Julia’.

In it, the President’s image-makers and handlers seek to shape President Obama and his philosophy as being the Benevolent Benefactor of everyone in America who seeks and/or needs his beneficent help.

At every stage of life, ‘Julia’ is taken care of by President Obama’s policies: Headstart paid for by the government at age 3; more federal funding for what used to be the purview and responsibility of the states, public education through the 'Race to the Top' program; student loans guaranteed by the government at below-market rates of interest; and coverage under that dream of any government bureaucratic lover’s dream, all-encompassing health care coverage paid for by the federal government;

Isn’t this just almost exactly the same sentiment stated by Bluto Blutarsky in the Delta House in 1978 when he says bluntly but precisely:  ‘Grab a brew. Don’t cost nothing’?

Hardly anyone in college or post-collegiate America today seems to make the crucial connection anymore between: 1) someone getting a government benefit/check/subsidy/bailout and 2) someone paying for it in taxes!

Only about 1% of them even know what a FICA tax is!  They will learn soon enough, or at least as soon as they are one of the 50% of the college graduates who are lucky enough to find a job within the first year of graduation or so.

Paying taxes to pay for government services and programs is the way it always has been in civilized societies and that is the way it will always be in civilized democratic republics, ‘as long as we can keep them’ as Ben Franklin replied to Mrs. Powel after the Constitution was signed in August, 1787 in Philadelphia.

But when younger Americans see:
  1. The Fed ‘expanding its balance sheet’ (making up money out of thin air); 
  2. The federal government borrowing money from the Chinese and foreign sovereigns to the tune of almost $100 billion PER MONTH!!!! to pay for our lack of fiscal restraint, prudence and common-sense in Congress for the past decade now and running;
  3. The US corporate and individual income tax system that just doesn’t work very well anymore to collect revenue to pay for the essential services of government as delineated in the US Constitution we all say we ‘revere’
It is no wonder they think it is ok to just ‘grab a brew’ (government program and check) since it really does not cost them anything!’

Just yet, that is.

Wait til inflation hits and the dollar gets whacked hard one day.  It may not come tomorrow but if and when it does rear its ugly head, everyone including Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Barack Obama, George W. Bush and the GOP Congress from 2001-2007 will wish they had balanced the budgets and paid off the national debt when we had a chance to do so.

If we are now living in an America where the prevailing attitude and zeitgeist is this:
‘Don’t worry about anything, the federal government will take care of your needs (which in some cases we agree, poor people for example); your wants (not sure if we agree with most of them here) and/or your mistakes (as in Wall Street or Detroit running for bailouts for mistakes THEY made on their very own with their eyes and brains wide-open which we do not agree with at all)...
…then how do we get back to the ‘free enterprise/capitalist system based on self-reliance with a premium on hard work, risk and inventiveness?

That is a question that perhaps future clips from ‘Animal House’ will help disclose.

Do You Want Better and Smarter People to Run for Public Office?
Support the Institute for the Public Trust Today

To learn more, visit InstitutePublicTrust.org

Monday, May 7, 2012

What Do These Unemployment Figures Really Mean, Especially If You Are A Recent College Grad?

What do all of these convoluted unemployment data figures mean every month when they come out and every talking head on the tube starts yapping about them like they are some sort of expert or something?

If you are recent college grad facing an uncertain job market, it means one thing:

'Something ain't working right'.

If you are the incumbent President, you want the unemployment 'rate' to be trending downwards towards Election Day.  Especially in order to get them under the magical 8% mark.  No incumbent President has won the White House with unemployment over 8% on Election Day since FDR.

If you are against any incumbent President, you are sorta secretly 'pulling for' the unemployment rate to go up in the months before Election Day, aren't you?  Political people say they don't...but they do behind closed doors.

Democratic strategists such as James Carville were chortling 'It's the Economy, Stupid!' when Bush 41 was fighting a downward trending economy that led to Bill Clinton winning with only 43% of the popular vote.

But what do all these facts and figures mean, really, to the average citizen? Especially the average citizen who does not have a job currently or is working part-time or in a significantly diminished role or pay scale relative to what he/she was doing prior to 2008.

And sadly for the most recently graduated college classes of 2010, 2011 and now 2012.  You have just graduated into perhaps the worst job market for college grads since the 1930's that basically all of the politicians who have been in office for the past decade and many of the financiers on Wall Street and speculators in the real estate markets have produced for you.

Take a look at the chart below from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and see for yourself.   (If the chart below is somewhat unclear, go to the link above and see if it is any more clear.  Or go directly to the BLS website yourself and download the original documents)

The key numbers in any unemployment report are not just the unemployment 'rate' as you can see in the chart.  The key numbers are the absolute figures that estimate the number of American citizens who are actively working in the workforce this month versus last month; the number of people who are working part-time for slack economic or business reasons and the number of 'discouraged' workers who have stopped looking for work altogether on top of the 'marginally attached' to the work force people.

It is one thing to know what the percentage of unemployed people is each month.  But relative to 'what' precisely?

If the rate is 'trending down' solely because the numerator is going down due to people leaving the workforce, how can that be the sole repository of information to tell us exactly what is going on in the economy?

Tell us how many people are working and how many are not working.  If the absolute number of people actually working full-time goes up each month, then we will all feel better about this crummy economy, won't we?

(It is not going up steadily each month.  It is one step forward, 2 steps back, 2 steps to the side, one step forward over the past 3 years)

So, to take last month's figures to task, we can see that while the 'official' unemployment 'rate' has dipped to 8.1%, down from a high of 10% in October, 2009, the number of people who left the workforce (and hence are still presumably 'unemployed') between March and April of 2012 was an astounding 522,000 people.

What the heck is going on here?

According to the black-and-white numbers staring you in the face, the civilian labor force dropped 342,000 just last month.  169,000 fewer people were working in the workforce in April than in March.

103,000 just quit looking for work ('discouraged workers') between March and April because either there were no jobs to be found or, more importantly, they thought and believed there were no jobs to be found.  That is a crisis of confidence and that is one of the few things a President and our leaders in Congress can actually do that will stimulate an economy.

We don't have that confidence today, do we? Americans just need to see some glimmer of hope and then their 'animal spirits' of economic activity get turned on high gear and the economy will recover finally.

It just ain't happening today.

On top of the 'discouraged' workers category,  we have close to 7.5 million Americans working part-time just because that is all the work they can find right now.  That is close to 8.5 million Americans who are either discouraged or working part-time because they 'have to', not because they 'want to.'

Add that to the relative steady number of 12.5 million unemployed people and we have over 20 million Americans out of work or are tenuously hired for the time being.

In order to get to where most people start breathing a sigh of relief again, we probably need to be approaching what BLS economists and forecasters call the 'normalized' rate of unemployment in America which is typically between 5-6%.  

That still would mean around 9 million people would be unemployed at any time in the future when this statistical survey is made (these reports are built around very large statistical surveys; have you ever participated in one or reported to the BLS when you have been out of work?  Didn't think so)

So we 'only' have about 3 million jobs to create or about 500,000 per month over the next 6 months before Election Day to get back to where we were before this economic meltdown occurred in 2008.

It is quite a challenge.  The question in the upcoming election is who do you think has the ability and leadership qualities to restore the confidence to the business community and economic system, President Obama or Mitt Romney?

We all know that Congress and the US Senate almost needs to be completely replaced by some thoughtful adult statesmen and women who will take the task of running this nation's business seriously and not as some kind of joke or long-term employment program for themselves.

But the next President for the next four years has got to be able to lead us out of these economic doldrums.  Or else millions of American friends and citizens will face 4 more years of economic stagnation which might just be spiced up with some rampant inflation if we are not very careful.

Do You Want Better and Smarter People to Run for Public Office?
Support the Institute for the Public Trust Today

To learn more, visit InstitutePublicTrust.org

Friday, May 4, 2012

Marriage, Freedom and Liberty

There is a heated debate going on in North Carolina now about a proposed amendment to the North Carolina Constitution on the May 8 ballot that would ban all gay marriages and civil unions in the state.

The question behind all of the campaigning and arguing seems to boil down to these salient points: 'Is 'marriage' a religious word that deserves to protected by the civil government? Or is it a word and concept that is so ensconced in American life now that it 'just is what it is' and that is all there is to it?'

One wag with whom we correspond frequently sent this acute observation in last week:
'You're missing the point with the linguistic part of the word, 'marriage'.
There is a reason why the state got into the what-was-previously-the-religious business of 'marriage' in the first place.
The state got into the marriage business to both control and reward certain behaviors.   Before marriage laws, it was not uncommon for close relatives to wed and frequently they produced offspring that demanded a great deal of community support because they were 'not normal'.
So, the state came along and defined the degrees of relationship that may 'legally' marry.'

See?  Long-time readers had to know that there would just have to be a budget component to even this societal issue. 'Community support' means welfare paid for by taxpayers, make no mistake about it. 

This guy is from eastern Arkansas. He worked as a county clerk who issued licenses to 'normal' couples' and denied them to perhaps a few each month to those who were 'not'.

So he should know what he is talking about, right?

No matter what side of the debate you are on or fall on when you go to vote on May 8, the issue of a 'marriage protection' constitutional amendment does brings to mind the fundamental question of 'church and state' doesn't it?

Is this a matter of 'the state protecting a specific religious practice' or is it a case of a specific religion 'imposing its beliefs on the rest of society' through the legitimate legislative and constitutional process set up by the North Carolina state constitution?

If 'marriage' is inherently a religious word for a sacred vow and ceremony in the eyes of God taken in a church in front of an authorized religious figure such as a priest or preacher, where is the line between the two when the state, as in the state of North Carolina civil government, is in charge of deciding who is eligible to get a valid 'marriage' license in the first place as our Arkansan friend said?

One of the questions has to do with what would a {insert new word} be called outside of 'marriage' which has always been defined as between two religious heterosexual people.

What will we call the {insert new word} when an atheistic heterosexual couple who have no intention of ever exchanging religious vows in a church or ever living together under any Judeo-Christian, Hindu or Muslim pretext of spirituality whatsoever get {insert new word}?

Will they be considered 'married' under the new amendment if they get {insert new word} in the Justice of the Peace office in Mayberry? Why should they be considered 'married' in the religious sense of the word if they have zero intention of honoring or following any religious practice ever at all?

It won't be called a 'civil union'. The amendment makes that very clear.

We have typically chosen to bring to the fore a lot of information on a wide range of issue and let you make your own decisions as citizens. There is a lot going on in this campaign that we thought we would bring to the front of your brain so you can cogitate on it some today.

First, here is an explanation written by Charlotte attorney and widely and well-respected authority on North Carolina Constitutional law, Russell Robinson who is against The Marriage Protection Amendment. Russell is a 'big brain' when it comes to constitutional issues in North Carolina. Go into any law office in North Carolina and you will see rows of his books on the shelves. 

Here is a detailed explanation from Lynn Buzzard et. al. from the Campbell University School of Law which doesn't endorse The Marriage Protection Amendment per se but certainly lays out the reasons why it should be passed.

Both are well-written, researched and well-argued, pretty much in a civil discourse way as it should be.

(Congratulations on being 'civil'! It used to be 'expected'. Nowadays, it is such as 'surprise' that we feel we should give both Mr. Robinson and Professor Buzzard et.al. a Nobel Peace Prize for Peace!)

We suggest you read both of these carefully and come to your own conclusions about how to vote on this amendment on May 8 if you live in the state of North Carolina.

We have been assiduously asking and re-asking and re-re-asking people on both sides of the debate about the details and 'unintended consequences and ramifications' of this amendment should it pass.

You know there are going to be some. There always are.

Here are some things we think we are hearing from advocates of the Marriage Protection Amendment: 

1) This amendment will not disallow anyone from entering into legal contracts to live together and share assets in North Carolina. Gay couples will still be able to do so if the amendment passes even the advocates of the amendment say.

2) This amendment will make non-heterosexual, non-Christian couples 'jump through 3 extra hoops' to do so such as sign joint powers of attorney, living wills and other legal documents before the {insert new word} is recognized by the state of North Carolina as being 'legal' and 'enforceable'.

So, in essence, the question really isn't about whether two gay people can live together and share assets in the state of North Carolina in the event of one partner dying and leaving his/her assets to the survivor. Even the proponents of the amendment admit as much.

It comes down to a pure and simple question of whether a gay couple can use the word 'marriage' and be recognized legally as a couple in North Carolina.

Isn't that a religious issue that needs to be settled in every church and denomination across the state and nation?

Let's think on this for a moment or two.

'Marriage' is a term derived from the New Testament Greek word 'gameo' which literally means to 'bind' or 'unite'. Koine Greek had the advantage of being able to be differentiate words into about 40 different meanings based on context, time, condition and tense unlike English which is limited in many ways from being as nuanced.

When viewed in strictly legal or contract terms, it means one thing: a legal agreement to stay together and share all assets and legal privileges.

When used in context of making solemn vows in a church ceremony, viewed in the eyes of Holy God, however, the word 'marriage' takes on an entirely different, far more serious and committed connotation. 'Til Death Do You Part', 'So Help Me God!' and all that.

The Judeo-Christian heritage is special for many reasons but especially for this one that not too many people fully appreciate: It was about 3000 years ago that the Hebrews adopted the concept of monogamy through religious ceremonies where a man married one woman instead of having a harem of women serving as multiple concubines to the King or any wealthy man.

Women, for the first time in recorded history, were able to directly inherit wealth and assets from their husbands upon death. The Bible even instructed surviving brothers to marry the widow if not married themselves.

Think about that for a moment if you want to bring some more Biblical concepts into civil law.

You can read all about it in Thomas Cahill's very excellent book, 'The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels' 

Which brings us to the Founders, once again.

Did they found this nation to be a theocracy, one where one faith dominated all others?

Nope. Plain and simple, they clearly stated that everyone should have the freedom of religion in the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights. They were protecting the rights of the lowly Baptists and Methodists in the 18th century from the dominance of the higher Episcopalians who prevented them from holding office in Virginia and Massachusetts.

Their sentiments were quite evident: No one had the right to tell anyone else what to believe or what not to believe or 'to abridge their freedom to do either'.

Religion is mentioned twice in the US Constitution. 1 as the 'freedom of' clause in the First Amendment. The second is in the 'no religious test' clause of Article VI for anyone to hold public office. That is it. 

There was certainly the sense that faith and religion was essential to the self-governance that free democratic republics required to function effectively. James Madison, who was trained in Presbyterian theology at Princeton when they were putting out Presbyterian ministers by the bushel in the 18th century, said many times that the new republic would not survive unless the people remained predominately religious and Christian in thought, spirit and action.

But, they didn't write it into law or in the Constitution, even though they could have. They recognized from the very beginning that in a free society, the population would be ever-changing, diverse and dynamic and that meant a diversity of religious thought that needed to be tolerated by everyone if we were going to live together in peace and respect for one another.

We believe the single guiding principle of every one of the 55 or so gentlemen who gathered in Philadelphia to grind out this US Constitution at some time during the summer of 1787 could be summed up in 2 words:

Freedom and liberty. Plain and simple.

'For all people', as Thomas Jefferson penned in the Declaration of Independence. Not just the people we agree with or with whom we work, live or go to church with. Everyone who lives in America.

'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness'.  

And which Abraham Lincoln confirmed in his Gettysburg Address when he said in his opening sentence: '...our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal'. 

So we need to protect the 'religious' significance of marriage while also protecting the rights of every citizen to be 'free' and 'equal' in our civil society.

If a gay couple, has to jump through the '3 extra hoops' mentioned above, why not make every couple sign the same documents at the county courthouse if we are going to be truly 'equal' in the implementation of this new amendment?

And leave the religious significance of the word 'marriage' to reside in the churches and house of worship where it hopefully can be preserved and protected with a lot of work and prayer such that the divorce rate plummets dramatically from the stratospheric heights it has reached in modern America. 

The Founders would be astounded by many things in modern America but doesn't it stand to reason that they would be saddened by the number of divorces this nation experiences each and every year?

Maybe we need to keep talking and debating about how to protect the institution of marriage after this referendum is over and keep thinking about how we can keep marriages intact and not dissolved or in the process of dissolution. Keeping the divorce rate even among Christians down to around the zero level would have magnificent impacts on the numbers of women who wind up living in poverty and the number of children who need welfare support just to bring in one other budget component for the time being.

Maybe there is another word we can start using for the civil ceremony that everyone can and should use in our pluralistic democratic republic.

There is the sacred religious context of marriage and the profane civil context of legal unions that we need to more clearly define it would seem.

Every non-religious or non-heterosexual person enjoys the same right as any other religious and/or heterosexual American citizen, as Jefferson and Lincoln pointed out, to live as freely and as happily as they so choose to do, don't they?

As long as anything anyone does not impinge on the freedom or rights of other people, isn't that what America is at its core in all things?