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.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


Gadgets are cool, fun and can either be great time savers or great time wasters. I was particularly interested in learning more about this week’s announcement of GoogleTV. Soon we’ll be able to buy a TV that connects to the Internet and using GoogleTV we can check on sports stats while the game is going on, watch what we want when we want, look up celebrity news about the actor in a movie we’re watching – really potentially cool stuff.

I’ve always been drawn to technology – from my stint as the Editor-in-Chief of my high school newspaper where I converted the article submission process from manual typewritten pages to discs! Many clients and employers have either been in technology or have utilized technology to streamline operations and maximize what humans can do versus what machines can do.

There are many areas where technological improvements have made tremendous differences in the day to day living of most Americans, helped businesses achieve or maintain profitability and created huge opportunities for a new generation. There is, however, one area that seems committed to doing things in the least efficient, most cumbersome and illogical manner: the California Voting system. (It’s probably true nationwide, but I know best about California.)

For the past decade or so I have been a “permanent” absentee voter – so I get to fill out my ballot and mail it in at my convenience. I started doing this after one particular election where I went to the assigned polling place and the wait was nearly 40 minutes. 40 minutes for my civic duty was somewhat justified in a “brussel-sprouts-are-good-for-you” way. I had my sample ballot – and showed the volunteer my name/address. I tried to help the octogenarian by pointing to name in the reams of computer print outs in front of them only to have my knuckles whapped by a ruler! Then I went into the rickety “booth” to punch holes into a card.  Silly!  I now punch the card at my leisure, mail it in, and know that in a contested or close election my vote might make the difference as absentee votes tend to be the ones that tip the final count. Isn’t there a better way?

Trillions of dollars exchange hands every day. Millions of people pay bills, mortgages and car payments on-line. Health records are moving towards electronic storage and dissemination. Grades are converting to secure online distribution. Why is voting largely still by punch cards, paper and mail?

There are 207,643,594 eligible voters in the U.S.  122,394,724 voted in 2008 election, a record.

42% of the people didn’t vote. Some may be lazy, some may not care – but perhaps the process is too cumbersome. In California you have to register to vote 15 days before the election: and then there’s no guarantee it will work. I have a friend who filled out the paperwork at the DMV and 14 months later still hasn’t gotten confirmation and has missed several election cycles as a result, despite contacting the Registrar. Should my friend have to take more steps to vote? Shouldn’t registering and voting actually be the simplest, easiest process imaginable? Don’t we want to incentive as many people as possible to participate? Of course not!

The status quo between the various parties survives and thrives by hampering participation. This way the candidates and parties have control. The nastier and stupider that elections become, the fewer who will participate. The fewer who participate become those who are easiest to identify. Then the effort of targeting/converting/convincing that smaller group is achievable. And democracy continues its descent.

Imagine if every eligible voter just could vote. Vote over a weeklong period at their leisure. Vote at the Supermarket. Vote at the bank. Vote at home on their computer. Of course there are logistical and fraud concerns – but in a country where we trust electronics to launch and track wars, where technology manages the stock market and the majority of the country’s GDP I’m fairly confident there is a way to make it work.

The result would be a total upending of the status-quo. We might actually move towards representative democracy again. What a concept! Now that would be a really cool ap.