Thursday, December 30, 2010

Happy New Rears!

New Year’s feels like the movie “Groundhog Day.” (Bill Murray’s character would wake up and have to relive the day over and over and over again.) New Year’s is much like that. We’ll all make the same resolutions – lose weight, better work-life balance, get out of debt, blah, blah, blah.

The Gregorian calendar changeover from one year to the next has become the secular time to reflect on the year past and plan on the year to come. For Christians Advent is the start of the liturgical year. The Jewish tradition reflects from Rosh Hashanah through the High Holy Days culminating in the New Year at Yom Kippur, is the day of atonement.

I’m a cradle-to- grave (eventually)Episcopalian and currently am active with an Anglo-Catholic parish that celebrates weekly with ancient liturgy in a welcoming inclusive environment. I particularly relish our major liturgical periods of Advent and Easter. I’ve always admired the Jewish tradition of Yom Kippur. I’m not much for fasting – a key component of Yom Kippur as well as Lent. Given my (weekly) resolution to lose weight I perhaps should look into fasting! It’s really remarkable to spend 25 hours praying; atoning for the year past and make vows and oaths for the year to come. The December 31 to January 1 change-over in the U.S. is more about Auld Lang Syne, champagne and a mechanical ball drop than atonement.

The celebration of the secular New Year is the oldest of all holidays. It was first observed in ancient Babylon about 4000 years ago. The tradition of the New Year's Resolutions goes all the way back to 153 B.C. Janus, a mythical king of early Rome was placed at the head of the calendar. With two faces, Janus could look back on past events and forward to the future. Janus became the ancient symbol for resolutions and many Romans looked for forgiveness from their enemies and also exchanged gifts before the beginning of each year.
Retailers would love to revive that Roman tradition: more gifts! We may just have to settle for after-Christmas sales and pre-Valentine’s Day buying opportunities. As the calendar turns, so change merchandising plans, something new and fresh always on the horizon.

2011 will start much as 2010 ends. California is under water: literally and figuratively. The Federal Government continues to operate without a budget but instead authorizes spending at prior year levels...which guarantees a $1.5 trillion deficit without anybody actually agreeing to it. The United States is engaged in two wars that are killing thousands of soldiers and civilians. Unemployment is steady at around 10%, though some experts believe it’s nearly double that. Foreclosures are rising. Mighty depressing, eh? I’ve got it backwards…I’ve delivered the hang-over before the party has started. My bad.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, I do hope that the New Year is bright and fresh. My “status” a year ago was “Good Riddance 2009.” I didn’t really think that 2010 could be worse, but it was. Buh-bye 2010, you’ve really been awful. So let’s try this again! May all of our 2011’s be full of promise, prosperity and peace for all.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas 2010

Picture it: the 1970’s. We lived in Connecticut. My parents had a Yankee Barn custom built and the living room had a soaring ceiling – easily more than 20’. To a small kid twenty feet was as high as the sky itself. Our tradition was piling into the Volvo and going off to a Christmas tree farm. The three kids would race around and my father would size up various options. We’d bring our own rusty saw and take turns cutting it down. We weren’t alone. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, Americans buy 37.1 million real Christmas trees each year; 25 percent of them are from the nation's 5,000 choose-and-cut farms.

This particular year Dad realized that it was very destructive to knock down a tree for a few weeks. It was getting expensive too. So why not spend a little more and get a living tree and use it year to year. Sure the first year it’d be a little smaller, but each year it’d grow bigger and bigger. Clearly going with a living tree was economically sound and it’d be fun to have it in the yard during the rest of the year. Christmas all year long!

Dad placed the 2 foot tree in the traditional spot. 18 feet or more of vast empty air above it. There were maybe a half-dozen branches. This would not do said my mother (on behalf of all of us). Not one to easily give up, Dad raced to the basement and brought up his red stool and placed the tree on top of it so the tree now reached 3 feet. Within hours a 16 footer replaced our little shrub and Christmas was saved. Not one to be defeated and looking to future years Dad went out and tried to dig a hole in the frozen ground. Hmmm…maybe Spring? I think the shrub was dead by Valentine’s Day.

More than 35 years have passed since our Charlie Brown Christmas Tree – but it’s one of those defining stories that live on with affection. Dad’s eyes twinkled every year when one of us would travel down memory lane.

It’s been years since I’ve decorated for Christmas – always traveling and the cost seemed to become prohibitive for the few days that I was able to enjoy the efforts. This year I’ve decked the halls, the walls and the living room. There sits a living Christmas tree.

The Living Christmas Tree company delivers a live potted tree and then picks it up. Families can adopt a tree and have it back year after year. The cost is a bit more than the corner tree lot but there’s no hassle of needles in the car, scratches on the roof, etc. It’s certainly a nod to Dad, but it’s also incredibly environmental.

Anyone who knows me wouldn’t describe me as an environmentalist. I’m not much for granola. Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” conveniently left out vast amounts of context not to mention contradictory scientific facts. I’m also not all that sure about the Global Warming phenomenon. The science isn’t settled, despite my progressive friends passions and wishes.  Hundreds of Nobel Prize winning scientists have alternate points of view. I just don’t know. But not knowing doesn’t mean not caring and it doesn’t mean not doing anything.

Taking care of our planet makes sense – whether it’s to preserve resources or to slow global warming – it doesn’t actually much matter. I’m an early and ongoing supporter of Catalog Choice where you can eliminate unwanted mailings. There are more than a million people who have saved tons of paper and trees. I use cloth bags at the grocery – not because Los Angeles banned plastic bags (which it just did) – but because I get points from my grocer that turns into cash. I know that the plastic bag I used for 6 minutes to bring stuff into the house would live for generations and that just makes no sense whatsoever. I get nearly all my bills electronically and pay them the same way – using electricity but saving on paper and transportation through the mailing system. We can all do similar small things that make a difference without breaking much of a sweat.

There are things that I don’t do. I looked at getting a hybrid car and opted not to. There’s some cost savings in the gas which is great. But the carbon impact of a hybrid is actually more than a regular car with the two engines, batteries that decompose as slowly as plastic bags not to mention the carbon footprint of having to have the cars delivered from halfway around the world on ship. Yes, hybrid cards make some difference on some environmental points, but they have a negative impact in other ways. It’s just one example of where the ecological issues are not as simple as we would like them to be.

The simplest thing I have is my living Christmas Tree! I have not cut down and killed a tree in the celebrating of the Birth of Christ. Using cloth bags and limiting my mail pales in comparison. It’s not often that I get to be on the cutting edge of environmentalism. Dad: I know you’re smiling – turns out you were ahead of your time once again. Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sugar & Spice & Everything Nice?

We celebrate one fat man during these few December weeks each year. He’s big. He’s jolly. The commercialized St. Nick celebrates his girth and is rewarded globally with cookies and whole milk that help fuel his travels. Lucky for him he’s exempt from the encroaching limitations on our food intake.

I’ve struggled with weight for as long as I can remember. There are nutritional, emotional, physiological and emotional issues wrapped up in the struggle. I’m not alone. Nearly 30% of Americans are obese and the trend is moving upward. There are many causes that the CDC identifies, but the bottom line is ultimately simple input/output. If more calories are input than output then the pounds come on. I’ve spent decades trying to disprove this theory. Maybe Santa will let me be the exception this year?

The impact of obesity is tremendous on us individually and as a society. There are health issues that cost both in quality of life as well as economic matters that raise significant public policy questions. We should discuss those and come up with innovative solutions – including educating ourselves and kids with basic nutritional facts (like how input/output actually works). We could use some of the great American innovation and creativity to balance the temptations that exist year round. Instead of dialogue and education, politicians have answered with increased regulations.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg led the now nationwide charge. He required restaurants to cut out trans fat, made restaurant chains post calorie counts on their menus and now is trying to reduce salt by 25% in all foods.  Not to be outdone, Congress just passed a “Food Safety Bill.” With a name like that nobody should oppose it – because, really, who’s not in favor of food safety? The bill authorizes 4,000 new inspectors and thousands of new regulations. There is substantial consolidation of farms in the US with the majority corporately owned and operated. The few “family” farmers will be disproportionately impacted by these regulations. The bill enhances authority of the FDA to immediately close down businesses on “reason to believe” rather than the more strenuous existing “credible evidence” requirement. So if an inspector who has less than 40 hours of training thinks there’s a contamination they can shut down an entire business or industry without any substantive evidence. The result is likely to be a boon to administrators and regulators, more costs and fewer farmers with increased costs to the consumer with no noticeable change in food quality.

Los Angeles has now banned Fast Food restaurants. In 2008 the City Council put a moratorium on new outlets in the South Central part of the city, the poorest part of the City. Now no new fast food eatery can open with half a mile of another one in this part of the city. 800,000 residents are impacted.  This constituency which has severe economic limits on it now has lost choice. Los Angeles Unified Schools just this week authorized accepting corporate advertising to help underwrite the costs of sports, arts and other programs. Ironic that a potential source of funding for these programs has been outlawed.

New York is leaving no stone unturned and has banned Bake Sales. California is next with that ban and Congress has included a nationwide ban on sugary delights at schools as part of the “Food Safety Bill” as well. Coming up next: TSA-style check of lunch boxes? I pity the kid who smuggles in a ding-dong by accident. They’ll go on some watch-list no doubt…or maybe they’ll be sentenced to a cafeteria that only serves brussels sprout. I predict a huge black market for cookies and brownies.

Prohibition doesn’t work. It didn’t work in the 1920’s with booze. It hasn’t worked in the past 30 years with pot, cocaine or other drugs. A far better solution is to let the marketplace sort this out. If people are more apt to buy sugary convections instead of fruit – let them! If kids are eating too many cookies then let’s figure out how to have the Wii replaced with real baseball and football games. If there is such a public policy concern and we can’t educate or provide alternative solutions then tax the offending items and create an economic disincentive. From a no-tax Libertarian such a tax is more preferable to prohibition, closing businesses and massive regulation.

The fear is always that if the market is left to its own devices, especially with food, then the most horrific and nasty items will become ingredients to help out the bottom line. I’m not an anarchist. Obviously some level of regulation and oversight is needed to keep balance and integrity of the food supply. If a company engages in shenanigans they will be exposed by a vigilant media, blogosphere, regulatory environment and will suffer the consequence of the market by being put out of business.

We cannot legislate against risk. We cannot legislate behavior some don’t like. Santa can eat his cookies next week without fear of prosecution. I haven’t read the full “Food Safety” Bill though, so who knows.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Open the Spout

I read Liz Smith regularly. That’s about as close to celebrating our gossip culture as I come. Liz is now recuperating from a fall but keeps her gossip coming as she enters her 88th year. If she ever ends her column I won't replace her with TMZ. I’m the exception as the majority of Americans enjoy a good bit of gossip based on the huge interest in celebrity lives and goings on. It’s largely harmless.

Escapism is fine for subjects of entertainment, celebrity and fashion which are themselves less impactful than issues of war and economics. Gossip and rumor can be effectively used to grow specific types of businesses, especially clubs and restaurants that rely on the “hot” factor. Rumor and gossip can be very detrimental to the business world. There are competitive reasons and basic good management that dictates what information should be shared and what shouldn’t. I’m a great believer and practitioner of transparency where it’s appropriate. Insuring that employees know key pieces of information about their company generally yields a more engaged and effective staff who can then be focused on the job at hand.

Government has good reason to keep some information secret as well, but should be extremely judicious about what is secret. The essential function of public policy of governments is for the public interest which can only be served if that same public is informed of what is being done in its name. This week’s brouhaha with the latest Wikileaks disclosure of Classified Embassy Cables and listing of Key US interest sites has brought to the forefront the issue. Wikileaks isn’t the problem. The site is a mechanism for releasing data – the current equivalent of the newspaper a generation ago.

The Washington Post earlier this year ran a groundbreaking and fascinating series called Top Secret America that was the result of two years of investigative journalism that showed there is an entire economy and infrastructure around all things Classified. Many parts of this series are chilling – from the vast dollars and human resources that are allocated to covert activities to the thousands of government funded companies and agencies that often perform identical tasks with little to no accountability. I don’t recall anybody calling for the execution of the Post’s writers and editors as they are for Julian Assange.

Wikileaks has consumed the vast majority of the focus this week though there was another release of information that is far more revealing and will have much more of an impact on everyday Americans in the near and long term. The release of what diplomats really think of their counterparts has caused embarrassment and has required huge efforts by Secretary of State Clinton, but pale in comparison to the news from The Federal Reserve.

Congress almost passed the “Audit the Fed” bill sponsored by Representative Ron Paul for the past dozen or so years. Instead they folded in some of the conditions into the recently enacted Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. The result is that the U.S. Central Bank disclosed 21,000 transactions involving $3.3 trillion dollars.

The transactions show that millionaires and billionaires got financial aid directly from the Fed. It lists major U.S. corporations that got low-to-no-interest loans. In addition to the direct aid, banks worldwide tapped into the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending programs more than 4,200 times for a total of $3.8 trillion.

Going through the vast array of transactions one is struck that the Fed has transformed from being an obscure operation that set interest rates and handles monetary policy to its own policy making organization.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has justified these actions by referring to the authority for the Fed to be a “lender of last resort.” Further, the Fed states that all of the loans are fully collateralized and that when repaid there may even be a profit.

It will be good news if there are few losses on the Fed’s actions. There’s a greater issue than whether the bailouts were justified (or legal)…though those are valid and important discussions that are not happening. The point is that the Fed is comprised of appointed individuals who have single-handedly injected trillions of dollars into the Global Economy without any oversight from Congress. The legislative and executive branches of government have epic political battles over funding. Just this week there was an agreement to extend unemployment benefits and continue certain tax breaks. It was a major battle of wills and politics. Without getting into the merits of that legislation, the point is that it was discussed and debated and is relatively paltry economically compared to what the Fed has been up to.

We know what the Fed has done only thanks to an Act of Congress – and a watered down one at that which took years to get passed. It’s time for Wikileaks to take on the Fed and open the spout.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Survey Says

Richard Dawson hosted the original “Family Feud” in the 1970’s where one family battled another. Each family had to guess the answers based on national surveys that were done on a range of subjects. There have been a myriad of variations on the show since, but it symbolizes for me the reliance that we have on getting people’s opinions.

Today’s ubiquity of surveys and polls is thanks to the web’s technology that allows nearly any site to query the visitor on a range of subjects. Do you want it to snow today? What hair style should this person have? Do you want to ever pay a penny in taxes or would you prefer to just get a check for being you?

In retail business, tracking what the consumer wants is a vital function of continuing operations. Stocking the shelves with products that people won’t buy is a sure fire way to destroying the business and guaranteeing unemployment.

Politics has always been driven by what the people think. Every election is the ultimate poll result. Recent Presidents are particularly poll savvy…often adapting their stated policies and beliefs to better meet what the polls indicate.

The military is one part of society where you don’t expect survey’s to play much of a role. From what I understand their function is largely to take orders, not to opine. How many push-ups do you want to do today? Are you in favor of cleaning the latrine? Please choose from the following locations where you would like to be deployed…

It’s ironic, then, that the Defense Department surveyed the military on their opinions about “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” This policy was implemented by President Clinton when he reversed course on his stated beliefs to respond to the poll results of the time. The results of the survey were officially released this week – 70% of the military don’t much think it’ll matter whether the policy is eliminated or not. The most interested statistic to me is that 80% of the surveys went unanswered. Nearly 500,000 were sent out and just under 100,000 were returned. It’s safe to assume that those who didn’t return the survey did so because they don’t care (and thus support the elimination of the policy). The total responses then sit at to 94% (470,000 out of 500,000 surveys). 78% of the American public support eliminating the policy. A federal judge has ruled against the policy and called for its immediate repeal. Some think the Commander in Chief could issue an order to his military putting the policy on hold while Congress and the courts figure it out. However it happens, I know that DADT will be gone at some point.
As I wait for the demise of the policy, I reflect again on its creation and implementation. I voted for President Clinton in 1992. I raised money for him and gave his campaign money. He was the first candidate for President who courted GLBT voters – he spoke authentically and passionately about fairness and the need to remove the military’s policy that allowed the random discharge of military members who identified as GLBT.
A firestorm erupted as President Clinton off-handedly reinforced in an early press conference his belief that the policy should change. Six months later Bill Clinton not only reversed course but signed legislation that Congress passed that codified into law the DADT policy.

It remains unfathomable to me that on a matter of basic humanity and equality that President Clinton had so eloquently championed for so long that polls could change his belief’s so radically. The result has been expensive in dollars and lives to the military and to the country. As a result of the President’s lack of honor to his word and his willingness for political expediency to trade people’s lives and livelihood based on popular opinion, I explored other political avenues and was introduced to the Libertarian Party. The LP is most easily defined as Socially Progressive and Fiscally Prudent. And yes, we have our share of nut-jobs and crazies – just as the Democrats and Republicans do.

Currently about 1% of the vote goes to Libertarian candidates. It’s interesting because when Americans are polled on various policies (social issues, taxes, size of government) 70 to 80% of the population support Libertarian policies that are detailed in the Party Platform. The party has only been able to convert a very small percentage of policy supporters to actual votes. So what did the party do about it a few months ago? They sent a survey to the members asking about new tag-lines. Bzzzr and a big red X!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Unwrapping Thanks

'Tis that time of the year. Gratitude is unwrapped as the turkey is basted. I don’t mean to suggest that the expressions of appreciation are anything other than genuine – it’s just curious to me that it takes a National Holiday to remind us to be generous with our gratitude.

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, though it is also celebrated in Canada, Netherlands, Grenada (in appreciation for the U.S. invasion of 1983) and Liberia. Each country has its own day, but the general originating premise (except Grenada) was the same: giving thanks for a bountiful harvest. The feast with the Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621 may not have been the first celebration, but is certainly the most famous.

Today the tradition involves vast quantities of food and drink. Friends and family gather to share the experience, be with one another and connect. Football will be played nearly non-stop throughout the day from amateur to the NFL. The day after Thanksgiving has become the official launch of the Holiday buying season – with millions of people shuffling off to the mall to begin the gift giving ritual that the commercial holiday season demands. Mixed in with all of these traditions is when we individually take a moment to be Giving of our Thanks. It’s a particularly American mixture.

I lived in London during my junior year in college. The school put forward great effort by renting a restaurant and serving sliced turkey and some fixings. It was an underwhelming meal after a lifetime of extraordinary meals on the day. My sister was taking a high school term in London simultaneously and we were able to gather for part of the day. Corny as it sounds the essence of the holiday came alive for me then and I’m always reminded of it in each of the subsequent Thanksgivings. We were together – our shared familial bond and just being together mattered more than the meal itself.

For many years I hosted an “orphans” Thanksgiving, providing hospitality, food and drink to others who may not have been able to travel to be with core family members. Time passed and other traditions took precedent. Whether I’ve been with friends, family or on my own the day has been a time to take a deep breath, reflect on the joys and gifts that I have and express my gratitude for having them.

This year’s different yet again. I’ve travelled after many years of avoiding the maze. It’s been another year of unemployment, nearly two full years now. The job prospect most interesting and exciting that I’ve been working on for 5 months went away last week. I’ve been embroiled in legal disputes for much of the year. Then there’s the pending foreclosure. Most significantly, though, it’ll be the first Thanksgiving that we’ll have without Dad (who died in August).

Thanksgiving was always hard for my parents given that Dad's father was killed on a Thanksgiving weekend just a year into his marriage that left my Grandmother hospitalized for months. Considering all of the losses past and present it would be easy to go to Vegas, order Pizza and let the day just whizz on by.

Instead, in my quiet meditations and prayers I’ve been giving thanks for each of the losses. Totally counter-intuitive. Giving thanks is not the same as understanding. I don’t know why after a lifetime of effective professional accomplishment I am stymied in that arena. I don’t know why the financial security that I built has had to be decimated. I don’t know why Dad had to struggle for over 5 years after his stroke before being at peace. I don’t understand any of those things – and many others. But I’m trying to be grateful for them.

One of the last things that Dad wrote (via dictation) in the weeks just before he died: “I've come to see my stroke as a grace, a John-of-the-Cross invitation, to enter into, experience and re-experience my life in becoming a person in various communities. Without the stroke, I wonder if I would have, could have reached such richness. Regardless, I am filled with gratitude. Here, I think the Spanish word "gracias" is significantly richer than the English "thank you" because the stem is related to both grace and gratitude. Thus when I say "gracias," I am expressing thanks and gratitude to the loving power that gives me the grace of life and the invitation to grow as a person in a community, thus seamlessly weaving the finite and the infinite.

My gratitude is not the equivalent of happiness or satisfaction with the losses in my life. Instead I’m trying to emulate Dad. I like to think having gratitude for that which I’ve lost is the deepest essence of faith. Having faith is what I’m particularly thankful for this year.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Presumed Guilty

I want to be safe and secure. We all do. It’s one of the most fundamental characteristics that we share. When we travel we particularly want to protect ourselves. AAA predicts that more than 42 million of us will travel 50 miles or more next week for the Thanksgiving holiday...close to 20% of all Americans. Nearly all will arrive and depart safely whether going to Grandmother’s house by air, rail or car. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has established new rules where air passengers will be randomly selected to undergo a full-body electronic scan that shows the screener a naked image to determine if the individual has any contraband or explosives on their body. Individuals who are uncomfortable with the scan can elect a full body search which now includes same-sex screeners exploring the genital area.

Last week a passenger declined both, feeling that it was far too invasive and opted not to travel by plane at all. A TSA official threatened to fine and jail the passenger regardless of the fact that the man was leaving the airport.

The Los Angeles Times ran an editorial yesterday “Shut Up and be Scanned”. In today’s paper a letter writer suggested that the passenger who opted not to travel should be put on the no fly list. These are our choices?

On September 11, 2001 19 al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial jets and perpetrated the worst attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The responses to this horrific day have been extensive and the change to how we fly has been one of the most dramatic and obvious.

In response to a series of hijackings carry-on bags had to be screened starting in late 1972. That launched the incremental increases in procedures that have resulted in full-body scans/searches. Planes used as a weapon is a terrifying prospect and I certainly am not interested in traveling in a system which could be easily corrupted by the bad guys.

Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on September 11. The passengers stormed the cockpit and sacrificed themselves so that their flight would not continue on its path to crash into the White House or the Capital building in Washington. Those passengers were, in fact, the first to operate in the Post-9/11 world --- they took control and didn’t allow the terrorist plot to succeed.

There have been dozens of other incidents where passengers have taken it upon themselves to stop behavior or threatening actions. We no longer live in a world where hundreds of fellow passengers will quietly sit by as an aircraft is commandeered as a missile. Cockpits are more secure and pilots can carry weapons. Air marshals fly on most commercial flights.

Just a few weeks ago we learned Yemen-to-US flights carried bombs.  It reminds us that cargo transported (via air, rail or sea) is largely not screened and thus subject to nefarious activity. There are simply a huge number of ways that a free and open society can be manipulated, scared and intimidated.

Terror, by definition, is when we are afraid, uncertain and not safe. The question is whether the actions we take to feel secure actually make us secure or just give us the appearance of being secure.

There are cities where every two to three blocks a police car is visible. In London nearly every place one goes is captured on camera – they have more than 500,000 of them! (80% of crimes caught on their CCTV still go unsolved, however.) After 9/11 the National Guard patrolled airports with machine guns. At the height of the crime spree in my own neighborhood the local constabulary put on a visibility campaign...including parking empty patrol cars every few blocks. All of these actions make me feel less safe and less secure. Walking my neighborhood today I don’t see a major police presence and I actually feel safer as there isn’t a need for them to be out front.

Somebody has filed suit against the TSA for violating the Fourth Amendment with their new screening procedures. The extraordinary American system of checks and balances will once again be tested. I’m sure the case will wind its way through the courts over many years and by the time there is a resolution it won’t much matter since another technology will be in place.

One of the things I cherish about America is that we’re all Presumed Innocent until Proven Guilty. This presumption makes it difficult for law enforcement. It is one of the bedrock principles of the freedom that we fight wars to protect.

Some say “If you don’t have anything to hide, then it shouldn’t matter.” That’s a powerful and flawed argument. The premise of the argument changes that bedrock principle from having to prove one’s innocence instead of having it proven. When I fly next week I won’t have anything to hide. If chosen I will have to prove that I don’t have anything to hide (literally) it since the TSA presumes I’m guilty simply for wanting to spend Thanksgiving with family. It certainly won’t make me feel any safer.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Season of Change

Fall has arrived. In many parts of the country leaves have changed colors and there’s a briskness to the air. Most of us “gained” an hour through the now provincial notion of “saving” time. As nearly all of the farming done in modern society is automated and run by big agro-business, I’m not sure there’s much of a reason for futzing with the clocks. But then again I’m not in the oil business. With darkness descending earlier in the day, it’s a signal of a change in season especially when weather isn’t a traditional indicator of seasonal differences. Here in Los Angeles I call it the season of Santas. We get the Santa Ana’s in preparation for Santa Claus.

For many weeks the stores have already had Christmas merchandise available for purchase. Candy canes are on end caps and decorations stand in contrast to the Halloween and Thanksgiving motif’s that are the bulk of store shelves. This season sales are expected to generate $447 billion. That’s a lot of money and for many retailers this season represents the majority of their income and profit for the year.

Managing businesses that are seasonal in nature carry their own challenge. Having run businesses where this season did make the bulk of the profit required military-style precision in planning and execution. The biggest scaling that a business has to do is on the staffing side. Companies must have staffing that is proportional to their sales needs – and with seasonal businesses it means that for 2 to 3 months out of the year the majority of the staff is temporary.

The permanent staff that is relied on during the year to maintain quality, consistency and brand effectiveness must adapt to an influx of people who are looking for additional spending money, perhaps even as an ‘audition’ to become permanent; putting the regulars on edge. Managing the different agendas of staff is critically important to insuring that the core constituency (customer) is served.

Nationally this Season of Change is best reflected in the results from Election Day 2010. Much in the blogosphere and the media in general has been made of the Republican “shellacking” of the Democrats. The opposition party will indeed control the House of Representatives and have more representation in the Senate. There are still some races being counted – but the results so far show that Republicans gained 64 seats in Congress and 8 seats in the Senate. To me the statistic that is more interesting and helpful is that in Congress 15% of the seats changed and in the Senate 21% (of the 37 seats up for grabs). Looking at it another way 85% of Congress stayed the same and 79% of the available Senate seats stayed the same.

There will be some different leaders and tactics may change. Will there be much of a change in policies? Probably not. Just like the tinsel moving from 2 shelves to taking over an entire aisle during the month of November I expect that there will be continued rhetoric and disagreements. The focus may become more like the tinsel transition, but there will not be a wholesale takeover. How can there be? The vast majority of people and policies were re-elected.

It’s important to remember that the electorate has supported the status-quo. Usually the support runs closer to 90%, so this election cycle does represent a big drop in that support and that is indeed noteworthy. President Obama may follow the Ronald Reagan model after that mid-term “shellacking.” He may follow the Bill Clinton model of still being “relevant.” More likely he’ll follow his own hybrid version.

Just like the Santa Ana winds lead to a chilly rainy winter … or falling leaves to snow … when the majority stays the same so will the politics. So enjoy the additional hour of sleep, but don’t be surprised when it’s taken away come Spring.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

More Similar than Different

I’ve had a great opportunity this week to catch up on some of my Kindle reading (aka book reading). In addition to pulp fiction, mystery and romance novels I have done some non-fiction reading. Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars” provides an insider’s narrative on President Obama’s Afghanistan policy. Tim Gunn’s “Gunn’s Golden Rules” is a breezy romp, has some gossip and Gunn’s opinions and recommendations on manners in 2010. As I mused on these very different titles, subjects and authors, I realized that they were more similar than different.

Viewed through Woodward’s reporting – meticulously researched and impressively objective – the reader is introduced to Barack Obama, his process and how he works with the military. It’s a fascinating account that at its core is about how a novice civilian President must manage and ultimately direct a firmly established war machine that is accustomed to having its way. Over the course of his first 18 months in office there are repeated examples of the President asking for counsel and options and not receiving them…or more accurately receiving options that aren’t really options. (“Sir, what you really meant to ask for is…”) Vice President Biden emerges heroic, intelligent and passionate in his approach – adjectives I would not have previously associated with him. In this prism one can also understand better how President Bush’s approach easily was further corrupted and expanded.

My reading of the accounts (none of which has been disputed in the months that the book has been available) is that the senior military officers have acted in a way that borders on treason. At the very least they join their civilian colleagues behaving with gross insubordination. How President Obama both stood up to the military and ultimately caved is an extraordinary lesson in management, human behavior and what’s wrong with entrenched bureaucracy of any kind. My takeaway is we must remain true to our principles until the cost of those principles puts everything else at risk. President Obama could have stayed true to his principles but would have had to replace the Defense Secretary, the Secretary of State, the Joint Chief, 2 of the 4 Service Chiefs and the leading commanders in Afghanistan and in Iraq. That probably would not have been received too well in the US and global communities, though I’m not sure that they all would have resigned en mass as indicated in the book because many in that group have shown that they don’t hold to their principles that rigorously.

Tim Gunn stays true to his principles and has no trouble sharing his opinions or feelings. Largely known as the “guru” on “Project Runway” he approaches life in many ways from a Victorian sense of propriety He has adapted much of this sense of right and wrong to a current day sensibility. His is an uplifting and “American” story – overcoming a debilitating stutter, attempting suicide and rising to become the grand, elegant, beloved and adored teacher and guide to aspiring fashion designers. He says what he thinks and does so in a way that is respectful, funny and often inspiring.

Business people often have similar challenges. Unions, while staying resolute for their members can make life miserable for Management. Shareholders similarly can make demands that rankle the working class. Management must weave a careful and deliberate path between the needs of the people who do the work and the obligations of those who fund the operation while delivering goods and services that meet the expectation of their customer. For me this is where it’s fun to take those challenges and chart a course that ultimately delivers results for each constituency.

I realized that much of what Tim Gunn aspires to is what we actually wanted from our business leaders and from the President, whomever is serving. It is proper and expected that those serving the President should provide him with the accurate data that he demanded and is entitled to. Like it or not – it is his decision as Commander in Chief. Congress’s role is authorizing War. Of course they didn’t actually do that for either Afghanistan or Iraq – they authorized the “use of force” and the media has called it war ever since. These are technically military conflicts. The point is that once Congress has done its authorization and continues to fund the effort no matter what we call it but the tactics are left to the Commander in Chief. It is totally disrespectful and shows very poor manners to ignore direct orders. The outcome might not be any different: it’s the lack of respect of the office and the process that is most galling. Tim Gunn would say “Shame on you! Were you raised in a cave by wolves?” Of course I think that if more of Gunn’s Golden Rules were followed we’d not only have a more civil result, but likely even more fashionable!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Trick ‘em or Treat ‘em

It’s Halloween. Boo! I’m not a big fan. I used to be. I have a vivid memory of Mom making me a car outfit – a cardboard box attached to my shoulders by string. We colored the box, putting headlights on it and made a racing stripe. I loved cars and this was the be-all-and-end-all of costumes. It was totally fun, not to mention I loved the gargantuan amounts of sugar that my siblings and I would consume.

I never liked the scary part of All Hallows Eve. I’ve never liked being scared. Maybe it was my older brother making me sit through Hithcock’s “The Birds” at like 4-years old...maybe I’m just sensitive! Today when I’m startled I will jump 3 feet in the air – likely the only time this white man jumps that high. I’m the exception. Scaring people is a huge business, though.

The horror genre of media generates big money. The average person will spend $66 on Halloween this year – similar to 2008 – and total holiday spending will reach nearly $6 billion.

Nearly on-par with that spending is the $4 billion that will be spent by political candidates this election cycle.  It’s a monumental amount of money. If the same number of people vote as voted in 2008 election (not likely) that works out to nearly $33 per vote; about half of what the average person is spending on Halloween. It’s terrifying.

Most of this money is spent to scare the very constituency that is being courted. Candidates are buying ads, placards, mailers not to introduce themselves, their goals and ideals to voters – but instead to change the perception of their opponent. More often than not that’s to allege that a vote for that person is a vote for the devil. Or in one case this year, a witch.

Money has always been in politics. In today’s fragmented media driven world it costs more and takes more effort to get a message through to the constituent. Through the years there have been various schemes to choke off the funds – none of which have worked as each election cycle becomes more expensive than the last election cycle (mid-term to mid-term and Presidential to Presidential.) The Supreme Court weighed in last year that has allowed all sorts of organizations and businesses to contribute funds.

My campaign finance “reform” is very simple, achievable, and therefore likely never to see the light of day: If you can vote for a candidate or an issue you can contribute as much as you want so long as it’s your money (not laundered) and it’s fully disclosed. That means that as a resident of California I could no longer write checks to support the Yes on 3 (Rolling back the sales tax) in Massachusetts. Nor could I support a Congressional or Senate candidate that I couldn’t vote for. It would return our politics to those who are most impacted by the election: the electorate. Companies don’t vote, so they couldn’t contribute. Neither could Unions. Or dead people. Or dogs. And if I chose to give thousands and thousands to Dale Ogden (Libertarian candidate for Governor in California) I could. If I did, everybody would know … and know within say 72 hours of depositing the funds. Maybe it becomes an issue, maybe not...but it's very transparent.

Even with my proposal that wouldn’t eliminate negative ads, nor take all of the funds out of the equation. But it would be a start, and by being more locally focused by being locally funded the issues might actually start to be relevant over personalities. And maybe people would begin to participate. And maybe that would be the biggest Treat of all!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What if...

A game I often play is the “what if” game. What if I had stayed in that job 20 years ago…how would my life be different today? What if I had gone up to that really sexy person and asked them out? What if I hadn’t gone up to that really sexy person and asked them out? Playing the game is rarely productive, occasionally instructive and allows me to look at decision making in a fresh light.

Making decisions is something I love to do, something I thrive at and something I am usually very accomplished with. A typical business the day is filled with a constant opportunity to make decisions. It allows me to weigh the pros and cons of a particular situation, evaluate how the issue fits in with the strategic goal/mission of the organization and what its impact might likely be. I use as many concrete data points as I can, but, ultimately a decision is the ultimate form of what if. Having been largely successful my decisions generally pay off more than they don’t.

I was faced this week with a decision that was one of the hardest that I’ve had to make. Yes, more difficult than some of the agonizing choices that we as a family had to make during my Dad’s 5+ year medical crisis. I was faced with a choice: follow my instinct, follow virtually every data point that supported one option or defer to another’s advice, one who is well compensated and well respected for their counsel. The stakes were personally important with nominal consequence on the greater world. Do I stay true to who I am and what I believe and what I know to be right or do I avoid further conflict, take advantage of the counsel that I engaged and have the issue at hand be resolved in the moment.

A good friend, colleague and mentor of mine described me as a bit of a gambler. “More of a risk taker…but after you evaluate and strategize you generally take the path with a greater chance of success or failure.” It’s a true description. I calculate and then make a choice based on best available information and my internal instinct – which is why I either deliver dramatic success stories or significant setbacks. Perhaps I’m emulating former President Bush?

President Bush (43) said "I'm the Decider."  He meant the description more in the vein of Truman’s “The Buck Stops Here” statement than perhaps the contemplative weighing of pros and cons that I imagine.

Politicians campaign and are elected on a set of principles – and most actually believe what they say and intend on following through on their beliefs. Governance in American, however, isn’t a dictatorship – one opinion doesn’t rule the others. Compromise is needed. This is the rub. As a country we are largely split 50/50 on the major issues of the day. Looking at just Presidential election results there is a bare majority of the popular vote that has gone to the victor. For each presidential election from 1992 to 2000 no candidate won more than 50% of the popular vote. We have to go back to Richard Nixon to find a time when the candidate won more than 60% of the popular vote. Yes, Nixon! For generations there is a near even split among the electorate – so how we navigate decisions is the challenge without clear consensus.

“Compromise is when all parties walk away unhappy.” This motto is one that I keep in mind (and often say) during all negotiations. If one party comes away ecstatic, then likely the other party has been unduly taken advantage of and the deal is probably unfair or at least unbalanced. Finding a compromise isn’t a 50/50 solution where side A gives a little bit and then side B gives a little bit. The reason each party is in the negotiation is unique to that party – and they need to give-and-take based on their strategic goal and mission.

Being principled allows for compromise. In my own instance I held onto my principles, and it appears to have paid off on one particular point. I had to cede totally on numerous other points, none of which make me happy. This situation wasn’t an equal deal if one analyzed the total number of issues that went one way versus the other, but it was in my own personal best interest that this one point was met regardless of all the others. Hence a compromise was met.

In a time where doing what’s in the best overall interest for society is itself at issue, finding common ground is nearly impossible. It isn’t sexy. It’s hard to sell to a distracted and scared electorate. It’s hard to promote the value of compromise when we can’t even agree what’s “right.” The partisanship, sniping and fighting will continue to be the preferred method of “resolving” issues until each side pays a consequence for the tactics. Once that happens, a give-and-take on the issues of the day can begin in earnest, with nobody walking away happy. Said another way: What if politicians looked out for the greater interest rather than their own? Now that’s a game I’d like to see played.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Better Never than Late

Punctuality is important to me. I can even get a little OCD about it. If I’m on time then all is right with the world, and I usually don’t get too wound up if somebody else is late – just so long as I’m on time. While I’d like to think it’s all about ME, tardiness should be a yellow warning light.

Caution or concern didn’t exist for California lawmakers – finally approving this week a budget 100 days past the Constitutional requirement. The Federal Government didn’t even try this year. October 1st started the new fiscal year for the U.S. Government and not one Appropriation bill was passed authorizing the Government to spend money. Congress did quickly pass “Continuing Resolutions” to allow spending to continue, so even though there’s no budget funds can continue to be spent.

For more than twenty years I’ve developed and implemented budgets for organizations as small as $1,000 and larger enterprises of $250 million and everything in between. The figures are dramatically different, and many of the choices and priorities are likewise dependent on the sums of money being used along with the organizations priorities and strategic goals. The fundamentals of budgeting are the same: project what money you have coming in and estimate what you need to spend it on. And if you have to spend more than you’re bringing in you can: (a) bring in more money (b) cut expenses or (c) borrow. It’s really not much more complicated than that. Unless you represent the People.

It’s a neat trick. Spending continues based on prior year levels without income attached to it or any changes to how funds are spent. There is good reason to have Continuing Resolutions at the Federal level and for the State to have its version by just continuing to pay salaries of many, including emergency workers. Short term political gamesmanship shouldn’t, in theory, crumble critical efforts where lives are at stake (such as the military, fire, police, etc.). This has gotten out of hand to where nearly everything continues on as if a budget doesn’t matter. 100 Days into the budget year is about 1/3rd of the year. Any budget adjustments then must be spread over 2/3rds of the year instead of the entire year, making the impact all the greater. At the Federal level there’s no cap to the “income” side thanks to nearly unlimited borrowing potential or if that fails, printing new money by the Fed. (Nearly $1.5 trillion has been “printed” by the Fed since 2008).

I can’t print money so my credit card company shut me off. They did so after I have gone nearly two years without an income so I exceeded the credit line and I haven’t made even the minimum payments for many months. I intended to pay them back as I made every purchase and am grateful that I had over the course of a lifetime built a significant credit line. During that period I operated much like the Government does – spending without identified income. Should my bank have shut me off earlier? No question. With all of their sophisticated analyses that would generate fraud warning calls if I used a gas station 10 miles outside of my “normal” spending pattern – I would think that after 20 years of making 100% payments that after a few months of minimum payments that they might have called to check on whether something had changed…as a basic effort to monitor my credit worthiness. I would have been pissed, no doubt. They would have limited their risk, which as a loan entity they really have an obligation to do. I would have made changes that I should have done long ago. Regardless of what the bank should have done, I have an obligation to fulfill on my promises or face the consequences. I’m now facing them.

In business in the same situation your creditors likewise cut you off, you have to reassess your business and respond to market forces. You sell, you close, you merge…you do what you have to.

The lack of consequence with Government budgets is significant. Sure there’s a lot of blather about “Tea Party” and candidates ranting about how dysfunctional this or that Government entity is. There are kernels of truth in the blathersphere, but what is most telling to me is that the majority of people aren’t impacted by Government budgeting. It’s extraordinary. California went without a budget for 100 days? How did it impact most people? It didn’t. Do most people even know that the U.S. Government won’t have a budget until January or February 2011 when a new Congress is seated? Doubtful. What impact does it have? Negligible. Social Security checks still come, Unemployment checks still come. Many Americans receive some form of Government check or subsidy – and so long as those keep coming why complain? There’s a disconnect between budget and actual spending which is the essence of the problem.

If John and Jane Q. Public aren’t directly impacted the stalemates have little importance. The lack of relevance is why the idea of Smaller Government resonates. Out of the 2009 Stimulus $5 million has been spent on signs pointing out that that a project is part of the American Recovery Act.  It’s true this is a very small percentage the total cost, but the fact that signs are needed underscore the need for Government to justify what it does. To make itself relevant.

There is a role for effective, efficient Government in our lives, in the world. We have strayed very far from that role right now. Based on California & the U.S. Government’s budgeting process we apparently don’t even need a roadmap.