Thursday, September 22, 2016

Debates posturing

I remember the genteel Presidential debates of the 1980’s and 90’s where the most drama was when a candidate came up with a snappy response that captured the zeitgeist of the moment. “There you go again…” said Ronald Reagan to President Carter, effectively nullifying the issues that his opponent kept bringing up while framing an opinion and judgement. Reagan also used humor in 1984 when he said: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience," referring to Vice President Mondale. The gipper was brilliant at negating an issue without being unpleasant. The Debate Commission has made the 2016 upcoming sessions irrelevant, however.

Wikipedia informs: “The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) sponsors and produces debates for the United States presidential and vice presidential candidates and undertakes research and educational activities relating to the debates. The organization, which is a nonprofit corporation controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties, has run each of the presidential debates held since 1988.”

The organization is equally controlled by longstanding prominent members of the established parties.  It’s partisan by its nature and its makeup. “In 2008, the Center for Public Integrity labeled the CPD a ‘secretive tax-exempt organization.’ CPI analyzed the 2004 financials of the CPD, and found that 93 percent of the contributions to the non-profit CPD came from just six donors, the names of all of which were blacked out on the donor list provided to the CPI.” It hasn’t improved with time.

The Presidential debates are when most voters focus on the candidates and the issues. It is absolutely appropriate that there be an established criteria for inclusion. You wouldn’t want 16 people on the stage (the way the GOP did during their primaries). The CPD in 2000 established a 15% threshold in the polls as the entry point. Seems fair. But it isn’t.

Candidates who do not receive major media coverage will find it very difficult to hit the legitimacy of 15%. More than that – their name should be on the polls that are used. Polls themselves would need to include every candidate. The Libertarian candidate in 2016, Gov. Gary Johnson who is on all 50 state ballots in November and has raised millions of dollars – was not listed on many of the polls or was a secondary question. The final five polls the CPD chose to use an average of did include Johnson, but hadn’t included him all along. CNN’s poll excluded all “millennials” – described by them as voters under 35. Not so fair.

According to Gallup a majority of voters identify not as Republican or Democrat, but as Independent. A majority of the polls used by the CPD over sampled Republicans and Democrats and under sampled Independents. To adequately poll requires time, resources and a balance that most organizations don’t have.

Beyond just popularity six major newspapers and dozens of elected leaders called for Johnson’s inclusion. It was not to be.

What would happen if a third-party candidate was on in the debates? We need to look no further back than 1992. Ross Perot was polling at 8%. Then President Bush (41) was assailing Bill Clinton about his lack of patriotism. The media was agog about the idea of flag burnings and the elder Bush was proclaiming what he’d do as leader of the free world to protect it.  The Democratic nominee went from talk show to talk show talking about his underwear preferences and playing saxophone. 

At the first debate Perot focused the nation on the issues he cared about: debt, deficit and the economy. The next six weeks the campaign changed to become a substantive comparison of three approaches to the economic challenges of the times. Perot’s poll numbers soared into the 30’s and then settled at about 19% for the election itself. The debates were good for discourse, good for policy and ultimately good for democracy as the President who was elected went by the mantra: “it’s the economy stupid.”

What is the CPD afraid of? Their mission states that they were founded to: “provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners” around Presidential elections. Clearly it’s not about fairness and its not about furthering the substantive discussion of issues facing the electorate.

Gary Johnson is a two-term Governor. He served as a Republican in a Democratic state. He was re-elected overwhelmingly. He previously ran for President in 2012 and was on 48 of the 50 state ballots. He and his running mate Bill Weld (another two-term Governor who as a Republican was re-elected in a Democratic state) have raised millions of dollars. The Libertarian Party has been an established political party for 45 years. Thousands of candidates stand for offices at every level of government and there are hundreds of elected officials.

Voters deserve to hear from Johnson. Has he run a perfect campaign? No. Has he misstated some things, forgotten some things, stumbled over some things? Yup. He’s owned every one of those mistakes (unlike other candidates). The bottom line is that he’s a serious candidate and the views that he represents will not be on the stage. That’s bad for America and bad for the world.

All is not lost. In today’s social media and high tech world it’s possible to remedy the CDP’s decision. Put Johnson in a soundproof studio – have him hear the questions and responses and then give him the same time to respond. The networks should then edit in his response for viewers. The debates are important - and not just for posturing.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Rigged Democracy

September 17th is Constitution and Citizenship Day. Thanks to a 2004 law every educational institution in the America must provide some programming on the history of the day. Having been educated long before the law went into effect, my schools didn’t have a focus on the day that the Constitution was created in 1787, some 11 years the Declaration of Independence. It would take another 11 years to fully ratify it. The Constitution replaced the Articles of the Confederation. It’s a pretty nifty piece of thinking and writing given that it still governs the United States 229 years later. As we move into the final heat of the 2016 Presidential election, the role of the constitution is more important than ever.

Article II clearly states the qualifications for the office: “No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty five years, and been fourteen Years a resident within the United States.”

That’s it. A candidate for the Presidency doesn’t have to be an expert in anything. He/she need not to have served in public office or done anything other than being born a citizen, be 35 years old and lived in the U.S. for 14 years of those years. That’s it.

The major party candidates seem to have made the 2016 race about why their opponent is unqualified for the office rather than what they stand for. It’s a strategy that has made cable television and internet publishers happy, nearly ruined the value of social media and it’s changed no minds of campaign loyalists.

This isn’t another lament of politics 2016 style. What’s troublesome is the recent narratives from each camp. In August during a particularly difficult time for the GOP standard bearer he announced that if he loses it’s because the system is rigged. “If the election is rigged, I would not be surprised,” he told The Washington Post in an interview.

Secretary Clinton says in speeches reported by The Washington Post that Trump is “'temperamentally unfit’ to lead the most powerful nation in the world. … Donald Trump’s ideas aren’t just different — they are dangerously incoherent. They’re not really ideas, just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds and outright lies.” President Obama, major GOP leaders and columnists all over have echoed the narrative that Trump can’t serve in the position he seeks.

I’ve previously written that Clinton’s attempt to nullify Trump with the same tactics that 16 other GOP hopefuls tried unsuccessfully to do is a risk. I’ve previously written that Donald Trump’s elementary school tactics are an embarrassment to the political process and to the country. I think all of this is bad form, bad politics and bad for the nation. But it’s Democracy and we’ve got what we’ve got until November 8, 2016. America will survive this election cycle.

What happens in January 2017? This will continue to be a divided country. With the candidates indicating that Armageddon is around the corner if their opponent is elected – there is little hope that anything could change. Being divided is tough enough – but not having faith in the electoral system or stating that the candidate is unfit is potentially devastating. It undermines the basic tenet that make democracy possible: faith in The System.

In 2000 when the conservative Supreme Court justices ruled for George W. Bush – then Vice President Al Gore fully endorsed him and asked his followers to support the new President. Gore didn’t say the system was unfair – though he could have. He didn’t say the decision was hypocritical – though he could have. He put the nation first and his concession speech was probably his best speech ever.  He said: “Our disappointment must be overcome by our love of country. … We put country before party.”

We celebrate the 229th anniversary of the writing of the Constitution. It is what makes America great. Let’s hope that Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton put country before party to keep democracy alive, vibrant and relevant to these Divided States.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

My 9-11

I’m an early riser. I get to the gym somewhere between 4:30am and 5:00 for my exercise routine. I’ve been doing it for a long time so it’s just part of my day. Fifteen years ago I lived in Los Angeles and I had finished my workout and went back to my house – the one I had bought just a few months before. My usual practice was to jump in the shower, make breakfast and start client work. It would not be an ordinary day.

It became clear to many that “The United States is under attack” after the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center. I don’t remember it being that clear – there was confusion as to whether it was a second plane or whether reports from the first plane were just getting through to authorities since they were so close together. After the plane crashed into the Pentagon the reporting indicated that more planes were headed to other seats of government – the White House and Congress. A full scale panic hit the airways.

I was living thousands of miles from the attacks. I had family in New York and outside of D.C.. Systems were down and it wasn’t easy to get information. By mid-afternoon California time, however, the daisy-chain of communications passed word that we were the fortunate – we didn’t have immediate family in harms way. In the days ahead I would learn of classmates and acquaintances who did perish – and so many friends who lost people close to them.

That night a production of a one-man play that I had produced was scheduled to go on at a local college. “The Versus of Ogden Nash” told the life story of the celebrated American poet and writer through his own words, letters and poems. It was performed by the plays author Peter Massey. We had received a number of wonderful reviews, had a sold out run in LA and at that time were now doing a touring version of the show. The immediate issue came up: Do we cancel?

  • The school we contracted with wanted the show to go on but gave us the option of canceling. We just had to decide quickly.
  • The students on campus had nothing to do as most other events were suspended.
  • The city of Los Angeles and the surrounding county put out suggestions that people should not travel unless absolutely necessary, but there was no outright ban.

We opted to do the show. Peter came out before the show started to speak with the audience. He said: “Thank you for being here. Thank you for letting us be here on this horrible day in our history. Why are we doing the show? This is a lighthearted look at Americana – and we are not inclined to laugh today. That’s ok. Live theatre allows us to feel and we want you to feel.” He went on to eloquently extol the necessity of live theatre in the face of terror.

The show hit its mark and nearly a quarter of the audience stayed to talk among themselves and with our team afterwards. We connected lives at a critical time and provided a way for the community to engage with each other. It gave me hope.
That optimism didn’t last.  

The surveillance state emerged in the last decade and a half to such prominence that what was once science fiction by George Orwell has become reality. Cameras capture American’s nearly every move. Our digital footprint from grocery purchases to paying tolls are all captured.

The concept of “innocent until proven guilty” is an anachronism as guilt is now assessed and then defendants must prove their innocence. There’s even an entire court system that is secret that is now in place to handle terrorist related charges. Defendants are not accorded attorneys and a minute number of warrants are denied. It’s largely classified and secret.

The country has been on a war footing for fifteen years, spending trillions of dollars even though Congress never technically authorized War. President Obama in the past 7 and a half years has bombed 40 countries. He continues to maintain a personal kill list – deciding who lives or dies – while having instituted a drone program that has assassinated thousands and had a far ranging impact on civilians.

The TSA was formed shortly after 9/11 to better secure the aviation system. By their own metrics they have failed at a rate of 96% of identifying outlawed items. Today Americans virtually undress and agree to have an x-ray type image taken of their body while rude workers paw through their belongings just to have the privilege of going from point a to point b. Traveling you’re assumed to be a threat.

The melting pot that makes America strong, vibrant and interesting is dissipating.  Immigration changes from Bush 43 through Obama have now resulted in record deportations.

America is a divided country. The anger and differences between political parties is as virulent as I’ve seen and experienced in my lifetime.

It didn’t have to be this way. And, in fact, it wasn’t. For the first weeks to a month after the attacks President Bush, Congress, religious leaders, secular leaders alike all calmed the nation. Retaliation was not the primary conversation. Healing and understanding and building bridges between our differences was. We spent time and energy being with each other and not fighting. The same thing we experienced in a microcosm after our performance was becoming part of the culture.

Then the wars started, the economy crashed and polarization has become the norm. As we mark fifteen years since the attacks that took 2,977 I mourn not only their passing, but the loss of the America we could have been.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Riding Danger

The old expression “it’s like riding a bike” refers to a task or project that once learned always stays with you. If you get the balance of centering your gravity on two wheels while pedaling and not falling down then no matter how long it’s been the idea is that you revert to that balance whenever you get back on a bike. I haven’t tested the concept. The last time I was on a bike that wasn’t stationary in a gym hearkens back to the early 1990’s. Since then no matter what city I’ve lived in I have become the one bicyclists love to hate. At the risk of becoming a social pariah among many – I hereby declare my wish that bikes get banned from the roadway and remain for recreational use.

I live in Boston. Founded in 1630 it’s one of the oldest cities in the United States. Many of the sidewalks are laid with brick – and often when they become too unsteady to walk on the brick is replaced…no concrete or asphalt here. The streets are narrow. I traded in my Honda Accord when I arrived for the more compact Civic just to be able to navigate. I’d probably be better served in a Fit but I doubt I’d fit in one of them. My point is that this city is a city of narrow streets, unstable walkways and a pedestrian class who see traffic signals as suggestions. It’s no place for bikes.

Cyclists have been killed and there are many accidents. According to the Boston Globe’s 2015 report 13 people have been killed while riding in the past five years. “Figures kept by Boston Emergency Medical Services show an average of about 520 fatal and nonfatal [bicycle] crashes annually in Boston from 2010 through 2014.”

Inevitably the blame game begins. Cyclists who are required to follow the same rules of the road as motorized vehicles often don’t. They weave and bob through traffic. They complain that drivers don’t pay attention, encroach on the bike lanes afforded to them and when parking drivers don’t look before opening their doors. As with most things there’s plenty of blame to go around. (There's also the issues that cyclists don't pay for the roads while drivers do.)

Jeff Jacoby a columnist for the Boston Globe wrote last year wrote: “Vehicles weigh thousands of pounds, operate at 300-plus horsepower, and are indispensable to the economic and social well-being of virtually every American community. Bicycles can be an enjoyable, even exhilarating, way to get around. So can horses, skis, and roller skates. Adding any of them to the flow of motorized traffic on roads that already tend to be too clogged, however, is irresponsible and dangerous.”

He continued: “According to the latest Census Bureau data, more than 122 million people commute each day by car, truck, or van. Fewer than 900,000 bike to work. Do the math: For every cyclist pedaling to or from work, there are 136 drivers. Add the passengers who commute by bus and streetcar, and that ratio is even more lopsided. When it comes to urban transportation, bike riders play a trifling role — literally less than a rounding error. Far more people walk to work.”

It’s not unique to Boston. When I was in Los Angeles this summer there was an ever increasing number of cyclists on the streets. California passed a law in 2014 requiring motorists to give bikes three feet of space.

South of LA in Long Beach they have taken a different approach. Bicycle lanes are physically separate from the road that cars used. The lanes are painted in a separate color and there are concrete barriers preventing the two from mixing. In the short time I was there it seemed to work and make sense. Old cities like Boston just don’t have the physical space to do that. Newer cities like Los Angeles are already overcrowded with vehicle traffic.

We may never forget the intuitiveness of riding a bike. But we should remember that city roads are for cars.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

What Ailes Us

My niece recently had her theatrical debut in a children’s production of “Oz.” And everything that just crossed your mind about what that production would be is absolutely true. She was, of course, brilliant and perfect and I’m proud that she’s continuing the family tradition of experiencing and thriving in the arts. The community theatre production’s tone was set when minutes into the show Toto escaped from the basket on stage and bolted for the door through the audience. It happened a couple of times much to the merriment of the cast and the audience. One of the show’s signature songs “Ding-Dong the witch is dead, the wicked witch” reminded me of what’s happened in the Summer of 2016 at Fox News.

Brian Seltzer of CNN reported: “Roger Ailes has resigned from Fox News amid sexual harassment allegations -- an ignoble end to his legendary, controversial twenty-year tenure running the country's dominant cable news channel.” He has now been replaced by a new management structure that largely keeps the editorial focus consistent. Some call is conservative, I call it anti-progressive. However you describe it – there is no doubt about its impact on the bottom line.

“The Pew Research Center's latest State of the News Media report issued in June 2016 estimated Fox News' 2015 profit at $1.5 billion, well ahead its closest rival Time Warner's (TWX) CNN, which Pew estimated to earn $381 million, and Comcast's (CMCSA) MSNBC, which Pew projected to earn $227 million.”

Fox News generates the lion’s share of profit for 21 Century Fox, the parent company. It is no surprise, then, that the company moved swiftly to isolate the allegations of sexual harassment and protect the golden egg. Equally as important in the month following the resignation Rupert Murdoch, patriarch of the Fox empire, himself “ran” the division.

Fox News has had more than a financial impact. It has changed U.S. politics and by extension America itself. The National Bureau of Economic Research (a private, non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to conducting economic research and to disseminating research findings among academics, public policy makers, and business professionals) did an analysis of Fox News. It looked at the impact from the founding of the channel in 1996 through 2000. They did so in 2006 – ten years ago.  The summary concluded: “Fox News convinced 3 to 8 percent of its viewers to vote Republican. We interpret the results in light of a simple model of voter learning about media bias and about politician quality. The Fox News effect could be a temporary learning effect for rational voters, or a permanent effect for voters subject to non-rational persuasion.”
It’s no surprise then that in its twenty years on the air that every major Republican candidate for President has some relationship with the channel. summarized another half dozen studies: “Fox News has had a significant effect on the political process and electoral outcomes in America.”

Pew Research in 2014 outlined the power the network has amassed. “It dominates the cable news ratings and wields substantial power in the world of conservative politics.”

The meshing of “news” and “opinion” is the signature achievement of the channel and what drives its popularity. Events are reported through a filter that presumes the conservative position is correct. Questions are framed to guests with that opinion integrated into them. Its so pervasive that its easy to miss it. That’s the legacy of the house that Roger built. And its what ails the country because it is far from fair and balanced.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Extreme Hiring

I’ve hired a lot of people in my career. I’ve made some whopper mistakes along the way. I’ve also given people the ability to grow and thrive in new situations. Accurately representing skills, experience and interests is really important when seeking new opportunities. It’s startling how lazy people are when seeking a new position. Whether it’s grammatical errors or addressing the cover note to the wrong company or citing a different position than was advertised – there’s a lot of room for improvement. Many of today’s applicants are not short of confidence, however. Resumes have become thesaurus-like with the wide range of kudos that people give themselves. The slapping of oneself on the back is very much in line with the Presidential election 2016.

Donald J. Trump is the obvious example of hubris. Whether it’s congratulating himself on his ratings, his crowds, his triumphs or his plans – they are framed around his own exceptionalism. So much so that it’s easy to dismiss everything he says.

Hilary Clinton is less obvious because the Trump shadow is so significant. Her campaign surrogates have taken the boasting to a new and different level. President Obama during the Democratic National Convention echoed what many others have said throughout the campaign and has been a social media meme: “There has never been any man or woman more qualified for this office than Hillary Clinton.”

Really? How do you determine who is the most qualified? Is it based on actual experience? Then maybe somebody like Richard Nixon who served for eight years as VP would top the list? Perhaps the determination can be made by number of years in public service. James Buchanan would win that with 30 ¼ years in public office before he became President. By that same measure Theodore Roosevelt would have to be low on the list with only 4 ½ years of service before taking the Presidency.

An independent analysis by Electoral-Vote has been done comparing the efficacy of Presidents based on their experience prior to winning the Oval Office. There is no correlation between the greatness or effectiveness of a President and the years of experience before taking office.

Vox a progressive policy and politics site investigated the claim. It comes to the same conclusion as the independent analysis: “Qualifications are a fine thing to have. But history suggests they’re far from the most important thing when it comes to effective presidential leadership.”

No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States. 
ARTICLE II, SECTION 1, CLAUSE 5 of the U.S. Constitution.

Both Donald J. Trump and Hilary Clinton meet the minimum standards of eligibility to hold the Office of the President. Then again, so do I and probably lots of you readers.

Secretary Clinton is absolutely qualified to be President. She has an impressive resume from her service as First Lady of Arkansas to her role in Healthcare in the 1990’s to representing New York as a Senator and then serving one term as Secretary of State. Compared to The Donald her experience in public office overshadows his tremendously. Gary Johnson, Libertarian candidate for President, has eight years as New Mexico’s Governor – more governing experience than either Clinton or Trump.

Having a diverse resume doesn’t make her “the most qualified person” to ever seek the office. It’s just not true. It’s not true on so many levels – not the least of which is that “qualified” hasn’t been defined. More importantly – it doesn’t need to be true. It’s like those hyped up resumes that fly across my desk – she doesn’t have to be “the most qualified person to ever seek the office” in order to hawk her credentials and compare them against Trump. 

It’s this type of exaggeration – the one that’s silly and not needed – that makes some people suspect of her honesty. Just like when I review a resume. If somebody is going to take liberties on that – what else are they hiding that’s more serious? For somebody like Secretary Clinton who has a trust deficiency in the public mind – you’d think the campaign would be very diligent in not overstating anything.

It used to be that some humility went a long way towards the public choosing a President. The 2016 campaign of Extreme Hiring has changed that, and we’re all the worse for it.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Reconcile Headlines

Every month I balance my checkbook to the penny. It’s old-fashioned, but I do it. It stems from a job I had early in my career where I was responsible to reconcile hundreds of bank accounts –a full time job for this conglomerate. On one of the largest accounts – where there were thousands of transactions and some $10 million flowed through the account I got the difference down to $0.50. I was ready to “write off” the difference because it was so small. But my boss wouldn’t let me and I had to start the whole process over. My arguments that the company was spending more in my time to find that $0.50 fell on deaf ears. It had to balance to zero – and I understand why. Every account I’ve dealt with since has fallen into that same level of rigor. The Pentagon would never hire me. It was revealed that $6.5 TRILLION – with a T – has gone missing.

The Pentagon has never balanced its books. I’ve written about this before. Apalling but #notnews. The new discovery is from the Department of Defense itself. It’s Inspector Generals report summarizes how bad the problem is:

Per the Fiscal Times: “The Defense Finance and Accounting Service, the behemoth Indianapolis-based agency that provides finance and accounting services for the Pentagon’s civilian and military members, could not provide adequate documentation for $6.5 trillion worth of year-end adjustments to Army general fund transactions and data.”

The article continues: “There’s nothing in the new IG’s report to suggest that anyone has misplaced or absconded with large sums of money. Rather, the agency has done an incompetent job of providing written authorization for every one of their transactions – so-called “journal vouchers” that provide serial numbers, transaction dates and the amount of the expenditure.”

This is not a new problem. Reuters published a scathing analysis in 2013 called “Unaccountable.” Part of the story reads: “For two decades, the U.S. military has been unable to submit to an audit, flouting federal law and concealing waste and fraud totaling billions of dollars. Linda Woodford spent the last 15 years of her career inserting phony numbers in the U.S. Department of Defense’s accounts.”

Congress, never one to be too rigorous on the Military Industrial Complex has even drawn a line in the sand demanding that the books be balanced by September 30, 2017. President Reagan tried that too to no success.

You’d think that $6.5 TRILLION dollars not being allocated would be a big deal. There are entire television networks dedicated to frothing over sums that are much smaller with much less impact. It’s a HUUUUGE amount of money. The military is woven into the fabric of the American economy. However the money is being spent it needs to be reported on. That’s one of the key tenets of democracy, transparency and common sense.

The real outrage, however, is in the public discourse. There isn’t any. Congress has held hearings on a wide range of nonsense issues has not turned up the heat on $6.5 TRILLION dollars not being accounted for.

This seems tailor made for cable TV, doesn’t it? Fox News should have dark music accompanying a fancy graphic with anchors warning about the threat to the republic’s safety since we don’t know where the money is. MSNBC personnel should be bouncing up and down pointing fingers at the hypocrisy of Republicans who claim to be fiscally conservative but can’t find $6.5 TRILLION dollars. CNN should have panel after panel repeatedly asking the same question of each other and shaking their heads: “where IS the money?” and then spending an hour speculating on where it might be.

The leading newspapers seem ripe for a deep delve into what happened. Wikileaks would continue its public service by shedding some light on missing documents.

A Google Search with the keywords “pentagon $6.5 trillion” revealed a number of online stories. None were from major media outlets. It’s not trending on social media. The report was released on the last Friday in July – hardly a high news day.

Do Americans care that $6.5 TRILLION dollars can’t be accounted for? I think so. I think most Americans would be flat out infuriated. I think most Americans would want to know what the candidates for President and other federal offices think.

The role of the media – the fifth estate – is to explore things like this. $6.5 TRILLION dollars. The Pentagon. Graft? Corruption? Maybe just incompetence? What a wonderful, juicy and important story that could be told at a time when Americans are engaged in multiple military conflicts around the globe. Let’s reconcile the headlines and get to the bottom of this story. Or at least let's get the story.