Of Products and Assets and Families

W.J. Astore

When I was a college professor, whether civilian or military, I was told unironically that I was part of a “family.” I had an Air Force “family.” I had a Penn College “family.” But when these institutions wanted me to do something, often something I really didn’t want to do, the “family” talk went out the window and I was reminded I was an “employee” in the civilian world and “just another f*cking officer” in the military world. None of this surprised me because I never bought any of that “family” crap. I only have one family, thank you very much, and they are related to me by blood or by marriage. My “family” is not my boss, not my employer.

Management loves to talk about employees as if they’re “family” when they really think of us as “assets” or “products” or even simply “the cost of doing business” (and the quickest way to reduce cost is often to get rid of “family” members).

It’s especially telling to hear corporate/management talk in the sports world. Sam Kennedy, who’s the president of the Red Sox, talks openly about putting the best “product” on the baseball diamond. He doesn’t see his players as people, he reduces them to “assets” that are basically interchangeable. Winning only matters in the sense that it produces profit while elevating the value of the “product.”

Of course, this is nothing new. In Slap Shot (1977), an amusingly vulgar and perceptive movie about a minor-league hockey team starring Paul Newman as an aging player, we learn that the team is owned by a wealthy woman who decides to liquidate the team rather than sell it because it’s more valuable that way as a tax write-off. The players, the fans, all the employees, mean nothing to this absentee owner. All that matters is money.

Paul Newman as player-coach Reg Dunlop in “Slap Shot,” one of the finest movies about sports in America

And of course any Red Sox fan can cite “the curse of the Bambino,” when a century ago the owner of the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees to raise money (for a theater production, if memory serves).

Capitalism reduces everything to products, assets, profit margins, and the like. I don’t know about you, but this is not how I think of my real family.

43 thoughts on “Of Products and Assets and Families

  1. Yes.., that Red Sox Owner sold the Theatre production rights to I believe if memory holds true “No No Nanette!” I just saw a Pic. on a FB Site showing the 1905 World Series. I doubt if any of Todays Players would of wanted to play in the conditions in that Photo… There were 2X4 & Plywood Dugouts! Ramshackle Seating for Fans, and a not so well manicured Field think “Sandlot.” Hell the Kids in Little League have better accommodations these days lol But.., the Pt. I’m making those “Players” played for the love of the Game! I was as Lou Gehrig said the “Luckiest man in the World” because I worked in a Brotherhood. The best Job in the World a Firefighter. ” From the womb to the tomb” we care for each other. Unfortunately its not that way in most Career Fields. Best Sports Movie right there imho “Slap Shot”

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  2. That’s OK. Politicians talk about “community” in the same way. As in, the community is all in together to support the thing I am proposing.

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  3. Bill, when I emigrated to the US in 1974 I started working for a family owned precast/prestressed concrete company in Tacoma, WA. With about 50-employees, it was owned and run by two brothers, Tom and Arthur. And they truly run the company like every employee was one of their family. They both arrived at work every day at 6:30am, and were present on the factory floor until the last worker went home at 7:00pm at night.

    They knew every employee, whether it be a vice-president of Engineering, or a lowly laborer, by their first name. They had first hand knowledge of everything that was going on in factory. We had no need for big time wasting staff “meetings”. Oh, and no computers or smart phones. All our drawings were done skillfully with pen and ink on drafting paper. All engineering done with at first slide rule, then later with those new fangled hand calculators. And we did some complex projects. Like the Seattle Worlds Fair monorail.

    We had no Human Resources Manager. I always found that title dehumanizing. Surely your workers are more than just “resources”! Tom delt with every employee negotiating his/her pay. And that pay was sufficient for a family with only one wage earner. We had no 50-page employee handbook written by an attorney. If you wanted some vacation time off you just asked Tom for that. You did not earn 0.025-hrs vacation for every 1.0-hrs you worked. None of that rubbish. Every worker was treated like a human being. You earned your vacation.

    Arthur’s wife visited with every wife in the maternity hospital, and knew all the wife’s and kids names. If you were hospitalized they made sure your finances and family were cared for. If you needed a motorcycle loan Tom co-signed it for you. We had annual picnics. And a baseball team. At the Xmas party awards were given out to the best workers chosen by their peers. These awards were highly sort after and cherished. And every family got a Xmas box full of groceries, and toys for their kids.

    Every worker was proud of their contribution and worked their very best for the Company. Knowing that if they didn’t put out they were gone! Tom and Arthur had no need for a Union.

    Then as Tom and Arthur became too old to work anymore they turned the management of the company over to their sons. And it all went to shit. All downhill when Jim and Karl didn’t even bother to drive their Cadillacs to work many days. And the company was sold to a big conglomerate with absentee managers in Chicago.

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    1. Sounds like free-market capitalism at its best. No government bureaucrat standing over their shoulders. I’m guessing they won’t make a movie about it.

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      1. And ALEX every one of us working for that family owned company initially had a defined-benefit retirement plan. A Employer-sponsored retirement where your benefits were computed using a formula that considered factors such as length of employment and salary history. The company was responsible for managing the plan’s investments and risk – and most workers pension were for all intents and purposes predeterminant and guaranteed.

        Now companies have washed their hands of this responsibility and adopted the fraudulent 401K plan where your retirement amount is 100% dependent on ripoff financial Management Companies and the stock market casino. You don’t want to know how much Merrill Lynch screwed me and my wife out of 2-mths before we retired in 2008!

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        1. I understand, Dennis. Companies have gone from defined-benefit plans to defined-contribution plans. Companies don’t want to be in the retirement business. I think that’s understandable. The other route is self-directed IRAs. Unfortunately our government keeps IRA contributions to a paltry minimum while they spend trillions on the programs they come up with. Is that right? Absolutely not. But I have only one measly vote. That’s why we should elect politicians who create conditions that are favorable to business, small or large. Instead look at what we’ve got. Politicians who treat the economy like some kind of pinata which they break open and reward their followers. Disgusting if you ask me.

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          1. Yes you are right – but its just indicative of these big companies being lazy and shirking their responsibilities of providing for their employees. And of course squeezing their employees. When their 401K goes upside down – don’t look at me! it was Merrill Lynch! (And of course when those blood sucking Financial Investment firms lose half you retirement – do their managers lose anything – they don’t! Is that right?)

            And back in the day the companies could proudly point to the successes of their defined-benefit plan – and use that as a selling point to prospective employees. Giving companies an incentive to do a good job in this area to attract the best employees. After all who wants to go to work for a company whose retirement plan benefit has made no money in the last few years?

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    2. This reminds me of a book, Dennis: “You had a job for life: story of a company town,” about a paper mill in Graviton, NH, with owners much like the ones you noted. Then came in the 1970s, new owners, absentee owners, a conglomerate that insisted on soaring profits the mill couldn’t produce, followed by closure and sell-off.

      The author is Jamie Sayen. Small businesses used to be a gold mine for owners and workers; now, when they still exist, they are often owned by much bigger entities that care only for cutting costs, which usually means screwing workers. They’re certainly not going to cut executive pay!

      We have a rapacious version of capitalism that is driven only by profit, that has no stake in ethics or the health of communities.

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    3. My experience re WJA’s essay is working for ABC/Disney and having the CEO at the time, multi-millionaire Mike Eisner, writing letters to the employees addressed: Dear Cast Member (as in a Disney production). It was so absurd I wrote him back and posted my letter around the workplace. Needless to say, there was no response. Such letters from the boss serve only to massage the ego of the boss.

      As for benefits, we had them all as union members. We had hourly pay bonuses if we had to work after midnight, even more if after 2am and also if we had to be back at work in less than 12 hours. Upon leaving the company after 23 years, I had 7 weeks of paid vacation per year. All of this was dismantled as the union was reduced to a shadow that had to accept what the company offered. Defined benefit pensions disappeared. Company health plan coverage after retirement disappeared, even permanent jobs disappeared so that today most are daily hires. Yes, we need you this week. We will be in touch about next week.

      Regarding your workplace environment, there’s simply no way that a huge company can have that. The best one can hope for is a good boss and in that regard, one boss I was lucky to have was, though the son of an alcoholic father and from a poor family in the coal mining south of Illinois, was the finest human being I’ve ever known, the most unlikely thing to find in a boss. This taught me never to dismiss any individual based on appearance or first impression. The modern American disease is denouncing an entire group of people, not knowing even one member of that group. We’re in a civil war of prejudices.

      Regarding your comment on staff meetings. I once worked in a small group of 6 employees. We each saw every one of the others every day and could easily bring up any issue, yet the boss insisted on “shop meetings” each month that were ridiculous, doing nothing but show he was the boss with the power to call us to a meeting. I’ve noted in life that attaining power does not necessarily, or even ordinarily, eliminate insecurity.

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        1. @CLIF9710 Excellent comment CLIF. The other thing that happened when the sons took over, we started the “them vs us” culture. Those “clueless” Engineers upstairs dictating to us “smart” workers downstairs on the factory floor how everything should be done. A divisive work environment. So one day we had said to the workers, who were by now unionized… OK you tell us how the blueprints should be done with all that great knowledge and hands-on experience you have. And you know what they said….That’s not our job! That’s your job!

          And the battle intensified. Time to bring in the “team building” experts, consultants with MBA’s, for many big sensitivity training meetings! With the unresolvable 4-way interaction between the salaried Engineering staff, the hourly unionized workers, the 4-man (and 2-ladies LOL) Human Resources Department, and the Union attorney’s ringing up the number of billable hours. Tom and Arthur would have been rolling in their graves!

          Another thing I learned to my surprise, I shouldn’t of been, on top of all this was the games being played on the shop floor between the “ranks” of the workers. Whereby the older workers, being fearful of being replaced, deliberately held back teaching the new kids stuff they needed to do their job properly. If those kids were taught how to read the blueprints that would be threatening to their superiors! Holy Cow! I have often wondered if this goes on at Toyota, or in those huge Chinese factories.

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          1. I hear you. There were cases where I could do a simple job that was obvious but not exactly in my line of work. Coworkers would tell me specifically not to the thing because it wasn’t in my job description. And woe to the engineer (us) who might move a ladder (stagehands tool, different union) to get to an equipment box up on the wall. Those stagehands could be downright mean. Unions are not the be all and end all and in the 50’s some of them grew powerful enough to show everyone why.

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            1. And the long suffering Quality Control staff, being salaried, dare not tell a worker that he/she had done something wrong. Explaining why the last 50-yards of the Chevrolet assembly line was the dealer fixing all the screw ups!

              And the Union instigated the different colored hard hats. A blue hat would not touch a red hats job. And a red hat would be chewed out for interfering with a white hats work. When Soichiro Honda started his famous motorcycle factory he insisted that all people wear the same coveralls, and hats. And that any person could stop the assembly line if he/she saw something wrong.

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  4. Newman’s team is folding because the local steel mill is drastically reducing the work force and the fans are bored with the game anyway. So Newman decides to emphasize the violent aspects of the sport – he turns the team into a bunch of goons. Toward the end he gives that up and they win the last game after one of their players performs a striptease during a game and the other team protests, again violently, and is disqualified. Newman and the team then move to another location as the Chiefs fold. Not sure what all this really has to do with free-market capitalism. More like hockey players behaving badly.

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  5. Free-market capitalism doesn’t negate other motivations the owners may have. They may very well look at their employees as family. Or they may not. Often it’s just the luck of the draw and that may change over time. Free-market capitalism simply deals with how assets are acquired, managed, and sold. By free exchange among willing parties. The alternative is some form of gangsterism or government control, in which a small elite governs everything based on their skill at manipulating voters and then coercing the people involved in the businesses, usually by taking their money (fines) or putting them in prison. So which is preferable? I know how I would vote.

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    1. I know in America there’s socialism for the richest and dog-eat-dog capitalism for the poorest. Not ideal.

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      1. I’m not sure what socialism for the richest means. If it means the richest capture markets they typically do that by buying government and changing the rules to benefit them. The news media sells people on the idea that government can solve all their problems so that process gets voter support. I guess that turns into socialism for the richest. And the more rules the government makes the more the richest get entrenched and the more they eliminate competition. Which tells me that we should be careful about expanding government regulations. Unfortunately especially now environmental regulations have the effect of destroying smaller businesses and the big companies sidestep such regulations by outsourcing their production to China. Just wait till they regulate everybody’s CO2 production.

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        1. Alex, explain to me:

          Why were the FCC, FAA, ICC, SEC and the rest of the many regulatory agencies of government created? Was there a public interest in their creation?

          That champion of the free market, Ronald Reagan, started choosing as agency heads outspoken opponents of the mission of the agency they headed. He accused government of being a problem for the people, then set about to stop it being a problem to business, immobilizing it, agency by agency, to do the job it was given to regulate business because of what “free market” business had done in the past.

          You group by dislike, “the media” and “the government” yet business is just business, profit-making that is only to the good. You appear to see each company as a free agent working hard for profit thereby producing benefits for all without using the money obtained to assert any interest that might be contrary to the interest of the people. The media get together as a group to mislead. The government is a group that mis-leads. Businesses are the independent producers of wealth, looking only to the profit of each company, the only really respectable hard-working group in the country, “free” enterprise not organized against the people.

          Consider that “the media” is business. Consider that the government is a disguised puppet of business, that the inability of government to act for the people comes because it is lobby controlled, an agent of business working for business.

          You asked about a definition for socialism for the richest. As with state socialism, it means the few but part of the all, deciding for all, and with SFTR the few and the many are in the same condition of wealth. All the wealthy benefit, leaving the mass of Americans outside the tent. Socialism, ideally, is truly all the people regardless of wealth drawing from their common wealth to benefit all, not putting any above the rest.

          Looking at the wealthy apart from everyone else, socialism for the richest is working exactly as it should, something for everyone, nobody left behind in the group of the haves. We see the 1% gaining and the 99% falling ever further behind. The system is working perfectly for those that control it for their benefit as the country deteriorates beneath them.

          But the foundation of wealth comes undeniably from the hundreds of millions including all of us here on BV who buy the stuff that brings profits. Obamacare is the very definition of socialism for the richest. Take care of profit, then let a bit leak through as token benefits for the American people as a whole.

          BTW: “Free market” capitalism has lately evolved. No re-investment of capital into plant and employment, but the mere buying back of a company’s own stock by the company is the rage. No product is created, no future prospects for production are involved, so it isn’t even good old capitalist speculation that some market is going to pop. It is simply driving up stock price by direct manipulation of the market for that stock and it has a tradition as old as the stock market (see Mark Hanna and J.P. Morgan and so many others), but never done in this blatant way. Could this be a bad idea? Has it been debated in Congress? Not that I know of. The greatest beneficiaries are those holding the most stock of a company buying back, quite often if not always the managers of the company, the very people who decide on buying back the stock.

          Buy-backs are entirely the creation of a “free-market” which directs me right back to my opening question about the creation of government agencies.

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          1. And CLIF tribalism plays a big part. The workers on the factory floor strutting around….You guys upstairs would be nothing without us doing all the work! And the Engineers scratching their heads wondering what the workers would do without the estimators, Engineers, draftsmen, purchasing agents and accountants.

            As as you so astutely said above… The modern American disease is denouncing an entire group of people, not knowing even one member of that group. A civil war of prejudices. You hit the nail on the head!

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          2. I think lettered agencies were useful at the beginning. Unfortunately as they become bigger they shift to where a primary goal is to expand their scope (“mission creep”) or they tighten their requirements at the expense of state governments or the public themselves. The agencies become their own first purpose, apart from any lofty goals they may have had at the beginning. An example is the FDA and infant formula, which has been in short supply due to a major plant being shut down by the FDA. The free market solution to the shortage might be to import formula from Europe. Unfortunately the FDA forbids such imports from Europe. Not because there in anything wrong with the formula (European babies aren’t getting sick after all). It’s because the FDA has labeling requirements (I believe it’s 15 items a label must contain) and European standards for labels are slightly different. So for the FDA it’s more important that their label requirements are strictly met than it is to ensure that the product Americans use is safe (the original goal). So American mothers have to do without the formula. Is that a proper use of government authority? I don’t think so.

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          3. By the way there’s a whole field called “public choice” theory that explores how agencies shift to mostly be concerned about their own power and growth, at the expense of the public.

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  6. And you know when I visit the precast/prestressed concrete plant nowadays as a retiree – what do I see?

    I see 8-kids with their noses stuck in their computer monitors, with their earphones on listening to music, managing the exact same projects we used to manage with 3-people and an office gal! And we did it better!

    And half of those have kids never been out onto the factory floor – they don’t have a clue, and would not know a bucket of concrete from a rebar! You don’t want to get dirty! (I asked a youngster if I could have a pencil and paper because I wanted to show him the proper way to do something. They did not have a pencil. And said I needed to run a piece of paper out of that big computer printer over there!)

    OK boomer!

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    1. The plant will go out of business, the customers will get their cement from someplace else, and the youngsters will go into politics, be elected legislators, and will tell tens of millions of people how to run their businesses. Sheesh.

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  7. I watched that kid trying to submit a request for a Progress Payment. A task I used to do in 10-minutes – licking the end of my pencil.

    Now on the computer – (13)#5 rebar. (3) bolts. 0.85hr hammer rental allocation. 13.725cuyd concrete. (2) ink refills for the printer…etc etc etc. His spreadsheet takes him 2-days…. and he comes up with the same number I did! And of course the customer then has his 3-kids argue back – No – its 0.75hr hammer rental and 12.423cuyds concrete! I mean, who cares! You still end up with the same ending billing. Jeez!

    And we wonder why the F35 costs so much!

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  8. And while I am ranting about products, assets, profit margins, and the like – we watch those Engineering firms on the California High Speed Rail project walk into a meeting with their design for a simple overpass being computer print outs 2′-0″ thick! Thousands of lines of code. Garbage in – garbage out (I read that the F35 software may never be fully debugged in the airplanes service life – Kelly Johnson is rolling in his grave.)

    Back in the day this overpass design would be at most (30) 81/2 x 11 sheets done by hand in pencil – photocopied for the meeting by the office lady the night before.

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    1. I don’t think the California rail project people know what they’re doing. They just want a bullet train like they think everybody else has. And then they waste a ton of taxpayer money. It’s the same story with legislators and the F-35. They want oh and ah new technology instead of attainable changes. And so the costs skyrocket. So to speak.

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  9. Alex, by itself the California HSR was a project that figured out on paper from an Engineering perspective.

    What is killing it is the systemic American challenges of building anything big with public money in the US at the moment. Bureaucracy, red tape, funding issues, ridiculous permitting requirements and law suits, mostly over land use, overwhelmed it. BTW the latest talk is that it will be completed as originally envisaged by 2030. 10-years from now our kids and grandkids will be using it. But their ridership will never ever pay it off!

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  10. On the matter of “Family” after 2000 years of praying “your kingdom come, your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven,” from the Pope on down, no Christian Sect highlights this Vision of Christ Jesus, ‘And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven?’ None! Nada!

    They ignore Christ’s teaching in all it’s implications, ‘hardly ever will a rich man enter the kingdom of heaven, and it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than it is for a rich man to enter heaven.

    They have to ignore and dismiss it because that would require the Population to change themselves to change the Oligarchic Plutocracy system of the rich getting richer and everyone else having do with less.
    In Christ’s Vision there would not be the extremes of rich and poor. Our COMMON Human needs must be met 1st and then the wealth would come, the Promised Land.

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    1. I was touched by the fireworks closing the Beijing Winter Olympics when one single firework spelled ONE FAMILY and the next firework spelled ONE WORLD.

      Practising Christ’s vision would eliminate separate $Billionaire Families in competition, but One Human Family enriched in every way.
      The hard core reality is no matter how much Faith any one has, this world will not be transformed by the snap of the fingers. It could take Generations once we get off the Path to Destruction.

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  11. Ray the hard core reality is that 2,000+ years of practicing Christ’s vision has not eliminated $Billionaire Families in competition, nor enabled One Human Family enriched in every way? At least I don’t see that it has. What are we going to have to do differently to make this happen? And how many more generations do you think we will have to wait for this to happen?

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    1. Eisenhower warned us in the most earthly terms in his 1953 CROSS OF IRON speech on assuming the Presidency, and the Dangers this World is now facing in his 1961 MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX WARNING on leaving the Presidency.

      Dennis, in those 2000 years, Christianity has done many good works improving the Human Condition, and tolerated evil works by it’s silence just going along with the system.

      Obviously Dennis, in those 2000 years, the Church was not always practising Christianity otherwise this World would be more United than increasingly more divided as we can see happening these Days, leading to what by the self-proclaimed World Leader, the US?

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  12. Yes Ray, interesting that you proffer that the world would be more united if Christianity had been practiced for lets say to be generous 1,000-years. 1,000-years is still a long time even for a God to be making little progress. Maybe what we see is as good as its going to get eh? At any rate, the way we are going with climate change, man, whom you say God created in his own image, may be on a path to extinction before eliminating $Billionaire Families in competition and enabled One Human Family enriched in every way?

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  13. Ray my friend, at 1:20 in this wonderful John Lennon song I see the lyrics……imagine there is no religion too.

    And, you know, I was wondering about what the 1.41-billion Chinese, 146-million Russians and 2.0-billion Muslims think about the concept of your personal faith in one spirit, and the Christian Christ being the one to change and unite the World? And you maybe can’t blame them for being skeptical eh? Where would they find examples of Christians being uniters? Or any religions being uniters for that matter? Certainly not in America where even the many Christian sects are so divisive. Northern Ireland maybe?

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  14. The way I always understood these lyrics Ray is that Lennon in his travels all around the World as a musician had seen the divisiveness of all the Worlds religions first hand and realized that with all these religions there could never be peace. Maybe you understand what he was saying differently.

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    1. Too bad only this one line appeals to your anti-religion bias. There is so much more in Imagine than you imagine.
      I see it describes the kingdom of heaven as I imagine Christ’s kingdom would be if it was established on earth.
      The Christ Spirit I put MY Faith in has a problem with the Religious Establishment then and now.

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  15. Considering the high incidence of family dysfunction, domestic violence and divorce maybe the institution use of “family” is sight on the mark.

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