Thursday, December 22, 2011

Exits and entrances

Exits and Entrances is another way of saing that life is full of beginnings and endings. We generally compartmentalize our lives into sections – often by years or major events. In my case the first 23 years … the formative ones … were spent on the East Coast largely in various educational pursuits. The next 24 years … the growing ones … have been spent in Los Angeles applying that learning to various entrepreneurial efforts. Right after Christmas I move to St. Paul, Minnesota to begin the next phase of my life.

I exit Los Angeles conflicted. Half of my life has been spent in LA and the city is part of my DNA. Friends, extended family, colleagues and clients will be missed. I am overjoyed to enter a new city on a great adventure. I shall be serving as the Executive Director of a leading arts organization in a region that celebrates the arts and culture in a way that LA doesn’t. It’s not just a job – it’s a calling that will use my professional skills and my personal passions together. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be fulfilling and challenging…and I’m eager to make a difference.

The ten days since the offer was made and accepted have been largely filled with logistics, but I have had a chance to reflect a bit on the journey of the past three years. Laid off from an executive position in January 2009, I joined the now 26 million Americans who are out of work. For 99 weeks I benefitted from the insurance my employers had paid with an Unemployment check. Once that dried up the investments, retirement fund and savings accumulated over a lifetime sustained me. They are now long gone. I’ve lived the Great Recession and it hasn’t been pretty.

In the first year I spent about a week every month-and-a-half in Massachusetts helping my parents. My father had suffered a stroke in 2005 and was deteriorating. Having spent their nest egg on his medical care I helped transition them from their home to a shared facility where Dad could be taken care of in a Nursing Home and Mom could continue her active lifestyle in a Retirement Condo. We unraveled dozens of years of financial planning in order to accommodate Medicaid.

Once settled, the second year became about supporting their new situation. Dad passed in August 2010, the month this blog began. He would be tickled that I write each week…he wouldn’t agree with many of my political conclusions…but he’d celebrate my effort. I miss that we don’t have that interaction, given his passion for writing.


During this time I worked to sustain my faith community. Over the three year period over 25% of the time my Church was without a priest in active residence. Lots more time was spent in and out of the transitions. That left much of the day to day issues to the ‘lay leadership’ of which I was a member. This was a difficult period for my own spiritual path. I put in so much work there that I ultimately listed the volunteer position as my most recent job on my resume!

Resumes were sent out from the day after I was laid off. Over 1,000 of them. Until the past few months (where I was fortunate to have several options) there were just a handful of interviews, only one in person. I applied only to jobs that I saw myself in --- things that I said “Yea, I could do that and I’d like to do that.” So finding 1,000 of them over 3 years is pretty good – nearly 1 a day. Virtually all got a customized letter. I never heard from 99.9% of them. It saps your spirit.

The way people are hired today is different than at any other time in my life. Technology determines your match for the position – software scans and searches for key words in resumes and cover letters. Employers can list 15 requirements and if you have 14.5 of them, you’re out of the running because there is an ample pool of candidates who have all 15. Having an eclectic background as I do – a fine arts education and real world experience as an employee, volunteer and consultant in for profit, not for profit, large and small companies as a corporate executive – doesn’t fit any computerized analysis easily.

When I saw the opportunity to lead this arts organization I further customized my correspondence, reached out to colleagues in the industry to make calls on my behalf, and relentlessly researched and studied the organization so that when given the opportunity to interview I knew as much as I could. Forget the emotion of rejection and the roller coaster of excitement about each found opportunity: looking for work is hard and requires a lot of effort. Anybody who thinks it’s easy to just “go out and get a job” simply is not in tune with the realities of the changed economic environment.

Life will be different in Minnesota. I’ve already had more conversations about the weather than I have had in years! I move into the 74% in this country who are fully employed (26% are unemployed, under employed or have fallen off of the charts). My perspective will change but my politics won’t. Stay tuned…until then…I wish you a prosperous, joyous and wonderful start to 2012.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

D’oh Ray Me

There is great entertainment value in stupidity. Movies starring Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller or Steve Carrell tend not to be intellectually stimulating which is virtually a crime with some of their talent. Criminals have their own brand of smarts. Violating societal rules that results in being locked away in a cage is inherently problematic, but there are some who have earned the moniker of “Stupidist Criminals.” There are so many of them that many websites are dedicated to them and even the Huffington Post has an entire section detailing their antics.


Case in point: last week two South Florida women are accused of stealing Christmas decorations from their neighbor's yard. They were caught when they put the stolen decorations up in a yard less than a block away.

Actions such as these are an easy indictment of the educational system.

Today’s concept of compulsory schooling has its roots in the Reformation, but in the States it became standard in the early 1900s as a response to the Industrial Revolution needing more skilled labor.

The result is 99% literacy rate in the U.S. with 85% graduating from high school and 27% obtaining a post-high school degree.  Over $900 billion is spent combined on public and private education.

Peter Thiel, the co-founder of Paypal, made headlines earlier this year when he named 20 Fellowship winners who would each be paid $100,000 not to go to college. With a list of success stories like Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), Henry Ford (Ford) and Mark Zuckerburg (Facebook) amongst others  – many have been making the argument that the automatic path to college may not make sense anymore.

Students are graduating college with record amounts of debt. Student loans are $1 trillion...five times what it was just 10 years ago.  The unemployment rate amongst recent college graduates is at its highest level ever: 9.3%  and within the arts disciplines that grows to 16.2%. (Nursing is the best option at 2.2%.)

Both major political parties are committed to education. The GOP 2008 party platform said in part: “Education is a parental right, a state and local responsibility, and a national strategic interest.”

The Democrats platform says in part: “Democrats share with all parents the commitment to prepare our children to lead lives of happiness and success. That’s why we’re dedicated to ensuring the next generation has access to a first-rate education and the tools to drive our economy forward. Our country is strongest when our workers are trained with the knowledge and ingenuity to perform at the highest levels.”

The words are a bit different and the funding approach varies between the parties. Whether education is financed at the local level or from federal dollars – the essential commonality is that some form of taxation is envisioned by both parties to deliver education to the masses.

This one-size-fits-all approach to education on the part of mainstream politicians misses a more nuanced reality. What role should formal education play in American society? Certain professions demand extended training. Doctors already undergo many years of study, but they might even need more specialized training than they currently get. Society benefits when lawyers, judges and politicians are knowledgeable about an array of subjects. Truth be told, though, is that everybody doesn’t need a broad based education.

Johns Hopkins University released a study last summer that proved that some people are born good at math and others not so much. How much time and effort should be invested in having that student become proficient at something they’re not good at? Would those same dollars and efforts be better utilized on the student’s strengths: History, English, etc.? And vice-versa – why drill a student who is born gifted at math on a subject they may not be capable of? Teach, nurture and foster the strengths that people inherently have…not to the exclusion of everything else...but shifting the current equality for everybody to a more balanced and individual approach. Establish a baseline literacy in subjects that all must achieve and then based on one’s interests and gifts a more intense and specialized course of study is pursued.

America would benefit by a more customized approach to education. We’d wind up having plumbers and mechanics who will have been on their chosen path just like lawyers and doctors. Student debt would not just accumulate but be an investment that can actually yield a return. We’d become a smarter and more dynamic country because we’d be investing in individual strengths rather than general ideals. Homer, the great Greek philosopher and no intellectual slouch, would support his cartoon namesake in supporting this fresh approach. D’oh!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Prediction time

“Psych” on USA is a delightful piece of escapist entertainment. Young police consultant Shawn Spencer solves crimes with powers of observation so acute that the real detectives think he's psychic. There are plenty of hi jinx and foils that the hour usually zips by. Psychics, palm readers, tarot card readings are easily available in Los Angeles with shops on nearly every block. Miss Cleo may have given up her pay-per-call service in 2003, but there are plenty of others. Serious policy people tend to mock the seeming frivolity of the mystic world…yet then they turn on Cable TV news and settle in for hours and hours of fortune telling.







Media critics complain about the trivialization of serious issues. Critics usually determine it’s a content issue – where news outlets seem to prefer to cover stories that are “sexy” and “tabloid” versus more “serious” news. While there’s certainly merit to that criticism, each of the major news networks do put their fair share of time into reporting on politics and issues even though they are skewed.

The coverage is slanted --- that’s a given. Opinion hosts give their opinions, that’s part of the show and is to be expected. News reporters may aspire for objectivity, but the framing of any question or any fact inevitably shows the underbelly of some sort of slant. Taking a fact and presenting it in two ways doesn’t alter the fact, it frames the discussion. Consider the big news from last week: “Unemployment rate falls to 2 ½ year low” OR “26 million Americans still out of work...more than half over a year.” Both facts are correct, how they are presented shows some degree of bias.


Eliminating bias isn’t realistic, and isn’t possible. Individuals bring their own experiences to everything, including news. Accepting and distinguishing bias is a shared responsibility between writer and reader – but ultimately it is up to the reader to interpret the information.


A few weeks back GOP Candidate Rick Perry created an ad with a quote from President Obama about how Americans got lazy.  Nearly every media outlet condemned the ad because it took the President’s words totally out of context. Reading or listening to the entire sentence the President was noting American exceptionalism and that we needed to keep working to maintain that. To properly cover the story, however, most news outlets ran the ad and then wagged their proverbial fingers at the distortion. It’s like when Janet Jackson had a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ and the news media was up in arms over the outrage...and then ran pictures of her pixilated boob for months!  In this case the Perry campaign got millions of dollars of free airings of their skewed ad, reinforcing the candidate’s narrative and winding up the liberals and media elite. The actual news story is that the Perry campaign created an ad, didn’t pay for it to be aired and was deliberately using the President's words out of context to draw attention to his campaign.  Not juicy enough.  Much better for the story to have everybody expressing mutual outrage but actually saying nothing.

When not running outrageous conflict driven stories (where the conflict is mostly theoretical), when it comes to politics speculation seems to be the order of the day. Regardless of network, the guests for a daily discussion of politics tend to be fellow journalists and political consultants. The subject matter discussed is the issue of the day. The substantive time of analysis, however is spent on talking about what the issue “might mean” for the candidate, how the voters “might” respond to this statement or that action. Sometimes an action can portend the future – and that’s worth noting. The minutae of one moment ‘derailing’ a campaign puts a disproportionate magnifying glass on every moment.

The consequence is that candidates retract from the media, fearing any blooper. Voters don't see the humanity of the candidates and it all becomes a TV show and expectations for a TV solution (in one-hour please) is heightened.  Long term solutions to major issues can't be addressed.  What might happen becomes the news rather than an actual event and its context in people’s lives. The hypothetical becomes what’s important simply because so much attention is paid to it and the what happened is passé...literally.

Look at the time of year we’re in. For months Christmas is front and center – the anticipation builds and builds - hyperbole on high. By noon on Christmas Day decorations are taken down, and the focus is on the next holiday. Our lack of attention as a society is translated to our politics. No sooner are the votes counted for one election than candidates are lining up for the next one.

The viewer has the same responsibility as the reader…each are the consumer. The customer is always right! Let’s demand that actions and events that actually occur be covered. We can have a media environment where serious policy issues can be discussed in an entertaining, intelligent and lively manner and people are moved to stay engaged with their communities. It says so right here in my fortune cookie.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Do Nothing Congress? If only!

President Obama has been channeling Harry Truman and has been railing against the 112th Congress as a “do nothing Congress” in his bid for a second term. Some facts support the claim. This Congress (only half-way through their term) has passed 60 laws.  The 111th (2008-10) passed 383 while the 110th (2006-08) passed (460). The volume of passed bills shouldn’t be the barometer of a productive legislative session and not every bill that passes becomes law, certainly, but most do. The latest egregious bill dismantles “Posse Comitatus Act” that prevents the military from doing law enforcement on U.S. soil without an act of Congress.





The ACLU reports that the National Defense Authorization Act has two sections (1031 and 1032 in the 600 page legislation) that transfers enforcement powers from the Justice Department to the Department of Defense. Once passed, American citizens and lawful resident aliens can be held indefinitely and jailed without charges. Others can be taken by the military, without benefit of habeas corpus or trial…while on U.S. soil. Those captured can also be shipped off to a foreign judicial system. Congressed passed the Act and the Senate approved it on a bipartisan basis on Tuesday 60-38. President Obama has threatened to veto it. Don’t hold your breath.

Since the Justice Department will apparently now have time on their hands, they have proposed to Congress that any violation of a Terms of Service (those obnoxious multi-screen legalese forms that you have to click in order to do anything on the Internet) be reclassified as a Federal Crime.  Imagine this: a news story about extending the “Bush Tax Cuts” is online. I decide to be my clever self and post a comment that since President Obama extended them in 2010 he should really get some of the credit as they are now his tax cuts. In a rush I sign my comment via a short-hand family nickname – Coogs. In this scenario I will have now violated Federal law and could be jailed for ‘assuming a false identity.’ First Amendment? Pshaw. The Justice Department proposes taking a private legal agreement between a user and a provider of that service and take it over and convert it into a criminal issue. Who knows what else is in those Terms of Service that we violate because none of us ever read each one thoroughly to make sure we understand what we’re agreeing to. Congress has held hearings and is actually considering the change even though they have not dealt with their primary fiduciary responsibility by passing a budget.
 

Congress created the “Super Committee” on August 2, 2011 as part of the debt ceiling debacle that consumed Washington DC for the summer. The group included an equal number of prominent and distinguished politicians from the two major parties. Conditions were built into the structure that if they ‘failed’ then “draconian cuts” (less than 2% that don’t kick in until 2013) would give them no other alternative but to make serious and significant structural changes to the budget. “A once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to take politics out of budgeting” some claimed.


The committee deadlocked on party lines and disbanded having barely met but a handful of times. The failure is a good thing. To empower 12 people to do the work that the Constitution demands the entire Congress do was too far reaching and bad governance. They were also potentially making decisions without any public hearings or input from others – which is never a good idea and, if successful, would have set a dangerous precedent. In fact, the Constitution provides a “checks and balance” system which has served the country well for 235 years. Taking no action supports the claim of a “Do Nothing Congress.” Consider it from a different perspective. The 12 members acted by not coming to an agreement, allowing Government programs to continue to be financed at constant levels via Continuing Resolutions. By doing nothing Congress, actually agreed to $1.5 trillion in deficits through 2012.

What does any of this matter? If you haven’t done a crime then does it really matter if those who have are captured by the police or the Army? If you go online and don’t do anything wrong then it wouldn’t impact you if any violation of a Terms of Service Agreement is a Federal crime or not. Congressional inaction on the budget doesn’t mean the Government is going to shut down, it means that things will continue as they have been. Each one of these items appear innocuous enough – but they continue the pattern that is turning ‘innocent until proven guilty’ on its head. This fundamental principal of the American system of jurisprudence is what sets us apart in the world. The onus is on Government to prove a crime, not to have every activity classified as a crime.  Please, Congress, stop!  Do nothing. For real.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Free for now...Free for now...

The famous words to the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" are being sung by today by corporations. “Corporations are people” said GOP Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney this summer. The Supreme Court started the idea a few years ago when it struck down provisions of the McCain–Feingold Act that prohibited all corporations, both for-profit and not-for-profit, and unions from broadcasting “electioneering communications.” The hat trick in personifying corporations is the Protect IP Act in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act in Congress.

This legislation allows the government to order service providers to block websites for infringing links posted by any users. It becomes a felony with a potential 5 year sentence to stream a copyrighted work that would cost more than $2,500 to license, even if you are a totally noncommercial user, e.g. singing a pop song on Facebook. Thousands of sites that are legal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act would face new legal threats. The DNS privacy currently enjoyed will change so that sites can be tracked. China and Iran already use the revised DNS process.



Recently I’ve been doing a shortened version of this written blog as a 3-minute video. As I’m recording let’s say one my neighbors has a party and they crank up the volume to some really popular song and because my windows are open a snippet of the music gets recorded in the background. Once I upload my video, I’ve just committed a felony and am going to jail. If that wasn’t silly enough, the Government could then direct Google, Bing, Yahoo and service providers like Time Warner, Verizon, etc. to remove my blog from the Internet. Extreme and hyperbolic? Maybe, but that’s what these bills allow for.

Today when somebody is upset, frustrated or want to make a point, the Internet is the soapbox of choice. Think of virtually any major product or company and there will exist a “ihateFILLINBLANK.com” version of their site or a “FILLINBLANKsucks.com” that details the complaints. Because the FILLINBLANK is the trademark and copyright name of a corporate entity, this legislation would permit the government to shut down the site. I could ask the government to shut down www.CraigCooganSucks.com and send those people to jail.

I’ve spent the majority of my professional career working in and around major entertainment studios and providers. As a blogger I am a content creator. There is tremendous value in protecting the creator’s legal and fiscal recourse to their work. Do some people use copyrighted material for their own financial gain? I’m sure there are plenty of examples. Should it be stopped? Of course. This legislation isn’t the answer to any legitimate complaint or issue of misused copyright. It’s about control and further equalizing business interests with individual rights.

Corporations are not people. They are entities made up of people. Corporations serve a vital function in society by providing goods, services, employment and, yes, profit to the shareholders and communities they serve. Let’s not diminish their importance and role in society. The granting of an entity equal standing with individuals is, however, extremely problematic. This legislation is the most recent example where individual rights (freedom of expression) are supplanted by corporate protection.

The “fair use” principle allows for the protection of copyrighted work while giving limited exceptions based on a series of tests. The concept originated in 1709 and is embedded in the Constitution. It has been modified over the years, and perhaps now in the Digital Age a further clarification of “fair use” is in order.

Instead of a common-sense modification of “fair use” 38 members of the Senate and 23 members of Congress are cosponsors of these Acts that would strip away fundamental freedoms. How could this happen? 54% of the Senate and 36% of Congress are lawyers.  It is not unexpected with so many lawyers in an institution that makes laws that creating new laws is the path chosen as opposed to modifying existing processes. With corporate funding legal for political races it is also not surprising that bills to protect those corporations sprout up.

It seems ridiculous…Onion-like, or even a sketch from Saturday Night Live…that such clear violations of freedom of speech could be seriously considered, let alone that so many elected leaders would support legislation that undermines the First Amendment in such a boldfaced fashion. That is the disconnect that exists in today’s politics. That is why Congress has a 9% approval rate. That is why you, dear reader, must give thanks this Thanksgiving for the freedoms that we still have and you must, please, contact your legislator and tell them to keep the Internet free forever, free forever, God Almighty keep it free forever.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Puritan Sex

Sex sells. (The sun also rises every day.) This marketing and journalistic mantra has infiltrated all elements of society. The outfits (or lack thereof) on many of the local news’ Weather and Traffic women leave little to the imagination. Suggestive models and seductive music are used to promote everything from hamburgers to insurance. Americans’ relationship with sex is complicated. On the one hand that sex entices people is good because it draws viewers, attention and dollars. But on the other hand there is a prurient attitude that suggests issues of sex, sexuality and sexual expression should not public. That inherent conflict is bound to cause problems.



Anybody who has had even the most remote interaction with children knows that there is a delicate balance between setting boundaries and creating an invitation to naughtiness. So it is not surprising that using the allure of sex is impactful – since it’s considered a no-no in polite society. Just like telling the little tyke not to do something or to do something distasteful in order to build strong ‘character.’

Institutions and individuals that hold themselves to a ‘high moral standard’ are often those who are later discovered engaging in the very thing which they purport to condemn. The most recent exhibit: Germany’s largest bookseller (after Amazon) is wholly owned by the Catholic Church and sells thousands of pornographic titles (Call Me Slut!, Take Me Here, Take Me Now! and Lawyer's Whore) and lingerie.

Creating and selling erotic materials is not illegal. It is, in fact, an industry that generates billions of dollars each year. The disclosure about the German publisher is only interesting and compelling because of the apparent hypocrisy of its owner, the Catholic Church.  Three days after the public disclosure the Church issued a statement condemning pornography “saying the practice denigrates women and represents ‘a serious lack of humanity.’" Prior to this particular discovery the Catholic Church has a long history of stringent statements and behavior restrictions on human sexuality.

Closer to home sex has derailed plenty of political careers. From Representative Anthony Weiner sending pictures of himself to others to former Presidential Candidate Gary Hart’s extramarital affair there are example and example of individuals doing things with others that they don’t want to be public. Herman Cain is the latest to have an accusation hurled at him for inappropriate behavior. It seems almost a guarantee that if a politician claims ‘strong family values’ that there will inevitably be some claim that disproves the concept. Maybe it’s time that the role of sex in American life no longer be considered private, but rather public and OK to talk about.  (Cue fire & brimstone.)

It is vital that we distinguish what a sex scandal is, though. Too often incidents fall under the ‘sex scandal’ umbrella when they, in fact, having nothing to do with sex. Accusations such as rape, assault and molestation of children do not belong in the more palatable ‘scandal’ descriptor. If somebody has consensual sex with another person outside of their marriage commitment, that might be a ‘sex scandal’ and is certainly amusing to peep into.  If somebody attacks another – that is a crime.  The media must accurately report on newsworthy items, but it is not appropriate for the media to decide what is a scandal and what is a crime.




Religion and government have been arbiters of what is permissible between people since the dawn of humankind. Societies have different standards on the same issue. Look at the age of consent for sexual relations. Angola’s age of consent is 12. China it’s 14. In the US it’s anywhere from 16 to 18 depending on the state.

How can one society determine that a 12-year old can have sex while in another country that same 12-year old would be a victim? The simplistic answer is that each of these communities has made determinations based on what works for them. Tradition, education and communal expectations are all contributors to how an individual’s sexual expression and guide the rules of that society.


We only need to look at the issue of homosexuality in America for an example. The past 30+ years of the modern gay rights movement has had an impact on people’s opinions. Gallup shows that support for consenting adults to engage in gay/lesbian relations has gone from 43% approving in 1978 to 64% approving in 2010. This shift has occurred because of visibility of LGBT people and experiences in the media, ongoing political discussion and legions of people coming out. And there’s more to go.


Issues around sex could use the same open airing as LGBT issues have had. Our politics should be about the policy and not the policy-maker. Naïve? Probably. Likely to change? Not any time soon.  Puritan sex wins.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

I’ve got your number

What a week! Earth welcomed its 7 billionth person.  (Hi to Danica May Camacho!) Global debt hit $40.6 trillion. (Putting millions, billions and trillions into context: the average person takes 672 million breaths in a lifetime.)  In the U.S. there are 300 million people and total debt just passed $15 trillion. That’s essentially $50,000 per person. Given that the average American household income per the U.S. Census Bureau is $49,455 - each American basically owes one dollar for every dollar they earn in a year. But the really important number is that there are 350 shopping days until Election 2012.

 

                                                                 video summary of Blog
 
 
This week marks the one year point when the quadrennial Presidential contest will be held. This election season is estimated to cost $8 billion, up from the $5.3 billion from 2008.  The 2008 Presidential winner, Barak Obama, spent $7.39 per vote. McCain spent $5.78. If the estimate for 2012 is right then the winning candidate will spend approximately $10 per vote.  

What will Americans get for all of this money? A constant barrage of back-and-forth between the two major parties. “The rich must pay their fair share.” “We do not have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.” Democrats will accuse Republicans of being heartless capitalists out to balance the books on the backs of the poor and needy. Republicans will accuse Democrats of being tax and spend liberals who have recklessly destroyed capitalism and are steering the nation towards socialism and extinction.  For all of the hyperbole it's all rather predictable.

Election 2012 will produce a popular vote that is nearly 50/50 as they have been for most the history of the USA. There will be a hard fought fight over a few thousand votes in Florida or Nevada or some other “swing state” that will determine the Electoral College victor. It’s guaranteed. The campaigns (most of which have been in full swing for over a year) are angling for every possible vote.

A recent New York University School of Law analysis by the Brennan School for Justice found that new voting restrictions may affect more than 5 million votes. 63% of the electoral votes in 2012 (191 out of 270) are impacted by a change in the voting rules since the 2008. Both parties are trying to jerry-rig the results. (The harder it is for people to vote, the easier it is to control the result?)  From the Brennan study:
  • 34 states introduced legislation that would require voters to show photo identification in order to vote. Eleven percent of American citizens do not possess a government-issued photo ID.
  • At least 13 states introduced bills to end highly popular Election Day and same-day voter registration, limit voter registration efforts, and reduce other registration opportunities.
  • At least nine states introduced bills to reduce their early voting periods, and four tried to reduce absentee voting opportunities.

The voting age population turnout in 2008 was 56.9%. Just over half of Americans over 18 who could vote did so. Compare that to Tunisia. In December 2010 the small country bordered by Algeria and Libya launched the “Arab Spring” with its people demonstrating for change and peacefully overthrowing the ruling party. In late October 2011 the emerging democracy held its national election. More than 90 percent of eligible voters voted.

Americans no longer perceive voting as impactful. (That may be because it isn't!)  More likely the political stalemate results in little change. It may be because the promise of candidates are rarely met with their results as elected leaders. Money is an element. So is cynicism. It may be after 236 years it’s no longer considered a vital component of being a citizen.

I have a friend who loves going to the polling station on Election Day, waiting in line and going into the cardboard and plywood booth to color in the circles of the ballot. The pageantry and ceremony of the process is exciting. Once. Maybe twice. Then most people just want to do their duty. Voting should as easy as using an ATM, not like going to the Post Office.

Democracy is the process by which we measure our freedoms. Participation is the contribution we make to preserve those liberties. We must as a nation, and as a people, practice our commitment to these ideals through more than lip service, sound-bite campaigning and expensive marketing and branding efforts that provide an illusion of patriotism. We must find ways to include people in the process. The cost of exclusion may well be democracy itself. That’s a number we can’t afford.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

It’s all Greek to US

I love Greece --- the country, though the 1970's musical is fun too. I enjoyed “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and even went to see the quasi-sequel “My Life in Ruins” that aptly describes what is happening there now. I was fortunate to visit the beautiful islands of Santorini and Mykanos a few years back. I’m not a big fan of their Salad, but I do appreciate how they do the dishes.




The tradition of breaking of plates is considered a part of "kefi" - the irrepressible expression of emotion and joy. There has been little joy in Greece for some time. The financial crisis has been especially dramatic in Greece.

 

In 1974 Greeks, with the help of their Turkish neighbors, overthrew the military dictatorship that had ruled since 1967. Greek governments since then have run significant deficits in order to finance public sector jobs, pensions and other social benefits. Few people pay taxes. Since 1993 the country has had debt to GDP ratios in excess of 100% - meaning that the country borrows more than it brings in during any year. 

The Euro was introduced in 1999 and is the official currency of the Eurozone which is made up of 27 countries. The Euro eliminated many different currencies and is the second largest economy in the world with more coins and banknotes in circulation than the U.S. Dollar. There are criteria that each member country agreed to in order to be part of the Eurozone and the currency…including having a debt ratio of less than 60%.

Greece joined the Eurozone in 2001 and converted the drachma to the Euro. During this period the government misreported the country's official economic statistics in order to stay in compliance with the monetary guidelines.  Currently the debt to GDP ratio is 116%. ht

Financial rating companies like Standard & Poors converted the bonds that the Greek government had sold (the debt) to junk status. Investors wary of potentially losing their money stopped investing and the Greeks ran out of cash and had to turn to their neighbors in the Eurozone for help. Europeans helped out with a number of strings attached. So for the past couple of years every time Greece needed money the Eurozone would dictate austerity measures which impact the lives of everyday Greeks.


Finally after months of the possibility that Greece would default on all of its obligations and every investor would lose everything…the banks and Europeans agreed to take 50% reduction in what they are owed in order to loan new money but Greece would have to meet further austerity metrics. The world breathed a sigh of relief. And then this week the Greek Prime Minister said that he’d allow a popular vote by the people of Greece to either pass the proposal, stay in the Eurozone, or obtain some other approval – none of which is likely to pass given the protests and discord other austerity measures have had.

The essence of capitalism is risk/reward. If you invest in something and it pays off, then you get a great reward. If you invest in something and it tanks, then you take a loss. It really is that simple. The concept only works because there is a consequence for risk. Take a risk and it fails then there must be failure. That just hasn’t been the case since George W. Bush (#43) said to CNN in 2008: “I've abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system.”  Bush instigated and supported a series of bailouts that took away any responsibility the institutions had for their own actions. President Obama continued and expanded them.

Today ordinary Greek citizens are living the consequence of their governments actions by losing lifelong pensions and other social promises that had been made over the past 40 years. Eurozone leaders are beside themselves over the idea of a popular vote to ratify the bailout. Since the Eurozone is passing a large part of the consequence onto the people, it will not be surprising when the people opt not to bear that responsibility alone and will want the rest of Europe (and the world) to do so.  Nobody likes the risk side of capitalism.

The U.S. debt to GDP ratio was 92.7% in 2010 and is expected to exceed 100% in 2011. Standard and Poors dropped the AAA+ rating for U.S. bonds. Benefit programs that have been part of a social contract with Americans for generations are being changed. People are demonstrating in the streets. Will there be a consequence to the U.S. Government for its actions over the past 40 years? Or will free market principles be sacrificed again? Consider the Greek crisis a prequel of things to come. It’s all Greek to US.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Best. Blog. Ever.

The blog you are about to read is the best ever. I have proclaimed it, thus it be so. October is American Cheese Month, Caffeine Addiction Recovery Month and Feral Hog Month. This month has some awkward recognitions: it’s National Bake and Decorate Month, National Popcorn Poppin’ Month and National Caramel Month while also being National Dental Hygiene Month. It’s also Pizza month and appropriately it’s also Sausage month. Nothing about Pepperoni. And not to leave anybody out it’s also National Vegetarian month which is not to be confused with November, National Vegan month. Seems like this blog should be in December which is Awareness Month of Awareness Months Month though I’m just celebrating October as National Sarcasm Month. (See full list.)

Video Version of Blog:


President Obama issues nearly 200 Presidential Proclamations per year…about on par with President Reagan. President Bush (#43) had approx. 120 and President Clinton averaged 125. In March I missed “National Poison Prevention Week” but escaped unscathed. That’s probably because I skipped “Read Across America Day.” I’m happy to have passed on “National Donate a Life Month.”
I suppose there’s nothing inherently wrong about establishing days/weeks/months to observe certain issues. Theoretically it raises awareness and provides a context to educate, inform and enlighten the population. For particular industries it probably helps justify certain lobbying costs. For example, May 28 is National Asparagus Day. Did you also know that in honor of the day each year there’s a National Asparagus Queen?


In these days of hyper partisanship governments at the local, state and federal level have few ways to acknowledge constituents. Anybody can order a flag that has been flown above the U.S. Capitol – but there is a fee. The flag will have only flown for a second or two because of the voluminous requests... 100,000 flags fly each year.

Presidential proclamations are not just ceremonial. Pardons are effected through the proclamation process, like President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon and President Carter’s pardoning of Vietnam Draft Evaders.  Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freeing 3.1 million of the country's 4 million slaves is perhaps the most significant.

An Executive Order from the President differs from a proclamation because it is usually made as a clarification or direction to an Act of Congress which authorizes the President to do so whereas a proclamation is a directive of established powers. Both have the weight of law.  President Obama has issued 97 Executive Orders to date. George Bush (#43) issued 290, Bill Clinton 363. The champion, however, is Franklin D. Roosevelt who issued 3,728…573 in 1933 alone.

In and of themselves, most of the proclamations and executive orders facilitate the function of government. That changed significantly this week when President Obama said he will start issuing executive orders to forge new economic policies because "we can't wait for an increasingly dysfunctional Congress to do its job. … Where they won't act, I will.”

The U.S. system of government has three equal branches of Government. By design. By intent. It’s a checks and balance system. It was born out of an abundance of caution in not wanting to replicate the parliamentary system of Britain. If we as a country want to throw it out, then we have a process to do so. But until that happens, it is wrong for one branch go around the other. No matter how frustrating things are.


Pundits, politicians and every day Americans bemoan the state of political discourse today. Both the “Occupy Wall Street” and the “Tea Party” movements give voice to the impotence that people feel about government’s ability to solve problems. Consider, however, that the system is actually working. Americans are divided on how to solve entrenched problems. The popular vote for elections have for generations shown a nearly 50/50 divide. It is therefore appropriate that the political system is also at an impasse.

The stalemate can either be accepted or solved through leadership. A leader is somebody who will come up with a way to navigate the impasse while maintaining their integrity, if not necessarily adhere to their orthodoxy. Leadership is not doing an end run around your opponent. It is not running a war by Executive Order as President Clinton did in Bosnia. Or fighting terrorism by Executive Order as President Bush did. Nor can Executive Orders fix the economy as President Obama hopes. Maybe they can all get in a room and figure it out on November 4 which is National Common Sense Day. If not, there’s always November 21 to 28: National Deal Week.









Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fore for Four



Click on Video above for Vlog summary.  Full post with links and comics below:


Friday, October 14 was “Take out the Trash Day” at the White House. The expression, from and early episode of The West Wing, describes a strategy for releasing sensitive information that for one reason or another the Administration doesn’t want to draw attention to. It’s usually late on a Friday and there are a number of items bundled together. This past week it included the administration’s abandoning CLASS – the long term care option under ‘Obamacare.’ The administration authorized the use of military force to intercept planes out of Brazil that might be carrying drugs, even though Brazil has legalized individual use of most drugs.  And, finally, the President released a letter he sent to Congress declaring war in Africa.


War in Africa? On October 14 the U.S. sent two combat equipped teams plus logistics personnel to Central Africa to remove Lord’s Resistance Army Leader Joseph Kony from power. He has brutalized his people for over two decades according to the White House letter. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (previously CIA Chief) justified the action to Scott Pelley of CBS News differently:  “There are elements there that either have ties to al Qaeda or that represent the forces of terrorism on their own. And that's what's dangerous.” (Dick Cheney lives on.)

 
Under the 1973 War Powers Resolution the Executive branch must inform the Legislative Branch within 48 hours of entering into armed conflict and forbids troops from staying engaged beyond 60 days without Congressional approval. The administration opted not to do this with Libya. On March 19 U.S. forces were part of a coalition that attacked Libyan forces. Seven months later conflict continues in that country and President Obama has yet to notify Congress of U.S. involvement and Congress has yet to authorize the action. While not authorized, approved funding for the conflict is part of the also-announced-on-Trash-Day $1.3 trillion deficit for 2011, the second largest in history.

It is noteworthy that President Obama opted to follow the War Powers Resolution in the case of Africa. (It might have something to do with the 2009 Congressional resolution that called for the U.S. to support civilians and to remove Kony…so Congress was already on board with the action.) There is only 100 personnel going now. Even though they’re combat forces officials are saying the troops are going to be training and advising the Africans. On the surface that seems a whole lot less intrusive than lobbing missiles in Libya. Sherriff Barak Obama is coming to Africa’s rescue.

People in other regions of the world could use some help too. Syrians have been suppressed for many years and subject to terrible atrocities especially this year of the “Arab Spring.” China continues to top the list of Human Rights abusers. Then there’s Iran.

The Iranian people have suffered since the 1979 Revolution. The State Department’s annual Human Rights Report states: “The government severely limited citizens' right to peacefully change their government through free and fair elections, and it continued a campaign of postelection violence and intimidation.”

Last week a number of members of Congress and the Administration indicated that they believed that Iran had effectively declared war on the U.S. The alleged plot to assassinate a Saudi ambassador at a Washington DC restaurant had rhetoric heated around the capital.  The bizarre plot was unlikely to be realized given its structure – let alone the fact that it was hatched with the help of a U.S. informant.



Just so that we all understand the Doctrine of Nobel Prize winner Barak Obama: Increasing U.S. troops to 100,000 in Afghanistan to get rid of the remaining less than 100 Al Qaeda is a national priority. Combat forces in Iraq that were scheduled to leave by December 31 may not. Drones are considered an efficient and acceptable tool against terrorists even though they kill 10-15 civilians per militant target. Missiles are used to effect regime change in Libya. Navy SEALS are now tasked with killing specific individuals who have not been charged with any crime or atrocity but are presumed to be terrorists. Going to war against Iran for a John le Carresque plan is reasonable. Sending military equipment and personnel to Africa to kill somebody who has been in charge for over 20 years is suddenly important. And not one of these actions warrant the Congress to do its constitutional obligation and vote to declare war? We weren't forewarned that number four would happen…maybe it’s enough to prevent number five.