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!