Thursday, April 28, 2011

Divided we Stand

No sooner than the “I do’s” are said between Prince William and Kate Middleton then the world’s media will erupt into a chorus of “When will there be an heir?” After all, what will happen to the Monarchy if Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles and Prince William all suddenly die? Will we be stuck with Harry or some random cousin? Yes, let’s hope an heir comes quickly. Whoever the heir winds up being he/she will be known to the world. The media will see to that. There will be no question about their birthright.

Heredity is our legacy - leaving our mark on the world. I have had the good fortune of being present for the births of my nephew and niece respectively. Within the hour of each birth I had the incredible honor of holding them to welcome them to the world. It is truly one of those vertebrae tingling experiences that I am most grateful to have had.

In the event that either my niece or nephew opt to run for President let this serve as my authentication that they arrived into the world in these United States. This blog is on the internet so I know this verification will last and is indisputable. I don’t think the births were announced in the newspapers, but I distinctly remember posting photos on Facebook – that should suffice, don't you?

25% of the American people think that Barack Obama was not born in the United States according to a recent CNN poll. The network then conducted a massive ‘investigation’ of claims of “Birthers” and have concluded that Barack Hussein Obama was born in Honolulu, HI on August 4, 1961 at 7:24pm.

Donald Trump surged to the top tier of Republican potential 2012 Presidential candidates based on his aggressive challenging of the Hawaii’s official certificate of live birth verified by the former Governor, a Republican and all of the state’s officials in charge of these matters. The “birther” claims seemed to be a circular process: the more it was challenged, the more newsworthy it became. The President released the “long form” version – a version that isn’t legal in Hawaii but is the one the “Birthers” have been clamoring for. It likely won't resolve the questions.

I wonder if the doubters realize that Article 2 of the Constitution states: “No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President.”  Maybe they do.  Have they thought about the consequence of Obama being somehow found as unqualified for office? 

In the 2000 election the networks called the election for President-elect Gore only to rescind the determination, call the election for President-elect Bush and ultimately throw the towel in with nobody knowing who won. Then for more than a month there was a living civics lesson on the Electoral College, voting chads and experiencing the essences of democracy working. George W. Bush was certified as the winner of Florida by 537 votes.

Vice President Gore delivered perhaps his best speech conceding the election where he validates that George W. Bush as the 43rd President.

“While we yet hold and do not yield our opposing beliefs, there is a higher duty than the one we owe to political party. This is America and we put country before party. We will stand together behind our new president. “

It was an honorable speech that unequivocally legitimized the election even though (to this day) there are questions about the count and the Supreme Court decision. The Gallup poll in April 2001 showed that even though many Americans thought he had won the election on a technicality, 70% viewed him as the legitimate President. After 9/11 the country rallied behind Bush and his legitimacy was never in doubt again. Imagine what would have happened to President Bush if Gore never dismissed the concerns – how could he have led if the opposition party constantly reminded America that Bush didn’t win a majority of votes.

The “Birther” claims are not so much about removing Obama from office – but instead are a way to delegitimize him and his administration. It is not longer sufficient to disagree with an opponent or to malign them personally. When that fails then de-legitimize them. This approach may prove politically astute in the short term, the longer term consequences are significant.

Richard Nixon’s 1972 election was the last time that a President won 60% of the popular vote. Before that it was Johnson in 1964. Before that it was Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. In 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004 the victor didn’t get more than 50%. Obama got 52.87% in 2008. Even George Washington only won with 50% - on both of his elections. Thomas Jefferson’s 1804 re-election stands out as extraordinary: he won with 92%.

These statistics are important because they show that for virtually the entire history of the United States Americans have been divided. Different approaches to the issues of the day are a constant. They should be expected and even welcomed. Political polarization isn’t new. The Jefferson-Adams race of 1800 was particularly nasty with one calling the other “bald and stupid” and the other responding with “murderer and whoremonger.”  Vitriol in politics is part of the process.

The “Birther” movement is different. It aims to de-legitimize the President, and more dangerously the institution of the Presidency itself. More immediately it is a tremendous blow to honor. Honor and politics? I know, I know. It is honorable and necessary in a democracy to disagree – to passionately and vigorously debate the issues of the day. Certainly in a country that has been evenly divided for nearly our entire history we can find a way to disagree without destroying the very democracy that allows the disagreement to occur.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Praise be to…

This week there are several significant religious observances and celebrations. Jewish people celebrate Passover which commemorates the freeing of ancient Israelites from slavery. Christians are on the Holy Week journey which includes Jesus’ Last Supper, Death and Resurrection (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter.) 78.50% of Americans identify as Christian, 1.7% as Jewish and 16.1% are non-believers. Combined 86.9% of Americans believe in a God.

Conflicts over one person’s interpretation of one’s Holy Book (be it The Bible, The Torah, The Qur’an or any other) have sourced innumerable wars throughout history. Disagreement over what each Holy Book says account for both interfaith and intrafaith warring. In many parts of the world one sectarian faction fights another. In the U.S. the battles are less militaristic, but perhaps more damaging. Holy Book interpretations are used in discussions of rights for gays, women even workers.

It seems that religion is considered by many to be a synonym for morality. It’s not. Morality is personal character traits that conform to a particular set of principles. Religion is a set of beliefs. Religion informs morality but isn’t a substitute for it.

The damage done using religion as a weapon in the U.S. doesn’t leave a carcass as in other parts of the world, but instead creates a fissure through society. God should be a unifying principle, not a tool of division. One’s belief (or non-belief) in a God is perhaps the single most intimate personal things that we have.  It also distinguishes us as a species. It encompasses our philosophies and our actions on the very essence of living and dying. Personal spiritual development can benefit from guidance from a priest or rabbi or other leader but isn’t dependent on it. It is the utmost of arrogance (and no small dose of hypocrisy) for anybody to think that one person has the “answer” to any religious issue let alone the hutspah to try to impose it on another.

Every religion has an element of evangelism associated with it. Mormons come knocking on the door. Hare Krishnas still gather at some airports. Others offer bingo. Each denomination shares their faith in different ways – nearly universally with non-threatening invitations. In its purest form evangelism relays information about a particular set of beliefs to others who do not hold those beliefs.

The ability to believe and practice religion was sacrosanct to the Founders – so much so that it is the first part of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” It clearly states that religion is expected to be part of American society – “of religion” not “from religion.”

Even with the understanding that religion is an essential part of the human condition, the framers also put in the Constitution (Article 6, Section 3): "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” How quaint those old idealists were!

Looking over the past thirty years – the religion of our President’s reflects how they govern.

President Bush (41) is Episcopalian which is a genial, welcoming, “let’s-all-get-along-and-find-something-in-common-while-smiling-and-having-coffee-so-that there-is-no-conflict" denomination. Operation Desert Storm was in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. One of the largest and most diverse group countries came together (in a very Episcopalian way) to form an effective, if limited in scope, coalition.

President Clinton is a Baptist which subscribes to a theology of salvation through faith. In personal matters Bill Clinton would repeat behavior so long as he received absolution, salvation and redemption from his wife, the public and his preacher. His pattern: sin and request forgiveness rather than change.

President Bush (43) was raised Episcopalian, became a Methodist in 1995 and was ‘born-again’ after talking and studying with Billy Graham. 9/11 occurred as if it was an apocalyptic event the Evangelists warn of. This defined the “good versus evil” approach to foreign and domestic policy for much of his administration.

President Obama was a longtime member of the United Church of Christ and has defined himself as a Christian repeatedly. During the 2008 campaign there was much fodder about Pastor Jeremiah Wright’s sermons that resulted in the Obama’s resigning from that Church. Despite this according to a Pew Research poll released this week  12% of Americans still believe that Obama is a Muslim.
Even if Obama was a Muslim, would it matter? Based on our constitution: no. Based on my informal analysis of Presidential actions based on personal religion, it matters a great deal. The U.S. response to Al-Queda would have been substantially different had President Bush (43) been more Episcopalian than Evangelist. The discomfort and relative ignorance that most Americans have about the Muslim faith is important in why some are vested in identifying Obama as a Muslim. Success politically is based on a leader’s ability to relate and connect with the electorate. Nobody was better in 2008 than Barack Obama. The more that people are convinced that Obama is not like them (including his faith), the more likely the electorate is to look for somebody whom they can better relate to…and that counts come November 2012.

The patriarchy that founded the United States set an idealized aspiration that our private beliefs remain private. Who we are as people and as leaders is defined, in part, by our beliefs and those beliefs must, therefore, be part of the discourse. Discussion is one thing, imposition another.  I prefer my evangelism to be based on my actions. If people like what they see/hear with me, get to know me and you’ll learn that my religion is part of who I am and maybe you'll choose to explore what works for me on your own. I don’t impose my beliefs on others. I prefer this model versus the judgment of others as they promulgate their own morality on others. Can I get an Amen?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Off balance: auditing irony

It’s that time again. Tax time. Late nights culling through receipts. Panicked phone calls to CPA’s or navigating through tax software. Everybody is anxious to minimize any taxes owed without triggering an audit. The fear of the audit is a mighty stick that the IRS carries to insure compliance. Just 2% of taxpayers are selected. I’ve had the privilege.
The IRS looks for inconsistencies. Years ago when I went from a self-employed status to employee status, it raised a flag along with a half dozen other areas on the return. I brought in 2 file boxes full of supporting documentation and spent nearly three hours with the agent. I was relieved to discover that she didn’t actually have horns growing out of her head and I saw that she was just doing her job of making sure that everything was accurate, balanced and reported according to the regulations. It’s not easy – Title 26 (the tax code) runs over 15,000 pages. Happily for me everything on my return was in order.
Living in a free society doesn’t mean that we get to do whatever we want to. There are rules, laws and guidelines that balance the need for individual creativity, liberty and self-expression against the interests of society at large.
In business I have guided clients (individual, corporate and not-for-profit) through tax season and have served as the liaison with outside auditors. The tension of wanting to do the right thing while not being taken advantage of is common to all. If we don’t like it then we have the right to elect representatives who will re-imagine and re-regulate society in a different way – but until then, we have the system that we have. The constant is vigorous debate with a lot of posturing. No matter one’s political leanings, taxes are a fundamental part of the obligation of being an American and it is appropriate for a governing agency to insure accuracy.
Wesley Snipes and Richard Hatch (of Survivor fame) are two of the more recent high profile tax scofflaws who have actually been jailed for noncompliance. Let’s not forget Al Capone was also done in by the tax man. Fining somebody to the hilt seems to be a more appropriate punishment than depriving them of their liberty. The goal of taxing is to generate revenue for the state and that can’t be done if the rest of us wind up paying to house and feed people who are still not paying taxes. Jailing tax avoiders is simply not cost-effective, it's counter-intuitive.
The Government Accountability Office is an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress. Often called the "congressional watchdog," GAO investigates how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars. The results for just some of the agencies  speak for themselves (direct quotes):
  • IRS: Serious internal control and financial management systems deficiencies
  • NASA: Actions Needed to Improve Audit Coverage
  • SEC: Improvements Needed in Internal Controls and Accounting Procedures
  • Medicare Part D: CMS Conducted Fraud and Abuse Compliance Plan Audits, but All Audit Findings Are Not Yet Available
  • Defense Contractors: Widespread Problems with Audit Quality Require Significant Reform
The Defense Department itself has such extreme financial management weaknesses that they have yet to achieve audit readiness. In 1990 Congress demanded that the Pentagon get its books in order. For more than 20 years (4 Presidents & 7 Defense Secretaries) the Pentagon gives the same answer as Robert Gates gave in February: “Because of DOD's size and mission requirements, it is not feasible to deploy a vast number of accountants to reconcile our books."The need for audits isn’t just a good government practice; it’s actually a requirement of that pesky little document, the Constitution. Section 9 states "receipts and expenditures of all public money shall be published from time to time."

The ironies are rich. The agency that is tasked with making sure companies and individuals file and pay their taxes properly can’t balance its books! The Defense Department that is supposed to defend the United States can’t even defend itself with an accountant! The sad reality is that these ironies are making us poor.
We are a lesser people because the Government can’t identify and report on where the money goes. How can there be any serious discussion about budgets and deficits when for huge chunks of the Federal Government we can’t even say how the money raised, printed and borrowed has been spent? This isn’t a partisan issue. It’s a common sense one. We are not just out of balance, we’re off balance because the discourse has been about spending and cutting instead of understanding where the money actually goes.  Happy Tax Day.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Just between you and me...

On our daily jaunts we bob and weave to avoid interacting with others. In the event that the timing is off or traffic is too high Mylo goes crazy – hurling himself against the leash, barking and carrying on. Honey protects the home front in the event anybody has the temerity to saunter past the property they’ll hear her howling and yapping. One interpretation of this behavior is that they are protective pups. Another proves the axiom true: pets emulate their owners. (To be in compliance with the February 19, 2001 West Hollywood law: “companions emulate their guardians.”)

Right above my doorbell is a small (yet tasteful) homemade sign: “No Solicitation. Yes, that means you.” Living a few houses off of a major urban street and a few blocks from a large high school in a neighborhood of family homes the volume of door-to-door merchants is amazingly high.

As somebody who cherishes real-world privacy it’s ironic how much I give away online. For convenience, for discounts and for efficiency I have many digital relationships that compromise my privacy. Facebook, the world’s largest social media network has access to huge amounts of information on me (even though I have the permissions set very strong). I knowingly waive some of my privacy for the benefits that the service provides. Just this week I reconnected with a dear friend that I haven’t been in touch with in over thirty years. Facebook targets me with ads related to things in my profile and postings that align to my interests on the right side of the screen. I don’t have to interact with them and often don’t. The result is that I have reestablished many relationships, created new ones and gotten a lot of value by allowing Facebook access to some private information.

Every Saturday morning I toddle off to the grocery and use their “rewards” card. I save about 30% each week – about $20. In exchange the store knows what I buy and they send me coupons to try other brands. It’s another example where the value I receive outweighs the loss of personal privacy. In each instance it’s my choice what to reveal.

For the past week I have been getting email after email saying that my privacy has been breached. Wells Fargo, Chase, Ralph’s, CitiBank, Marriott, Best Buy and Capital One have all written me with their regret that there was a “system breach” and some of my personal information was released to a hacker. Fear not, the correspondences say, we care about you and “we take your privacy very seriously.” So seriously that more than 50 blue-chip companies outsource my personal data to one company, Epsilon. They were hacked.

Private Bradley Manning is the 23-year old Army private who has been in military lockup since he was arrested in May 2010 for allegedly downloading a huge volume of secret U.S. military and diplomatic documents to Wikileaks, which became headline news worldwide. The release of information arguably accelerated regime changes in the Middle East and has had some embarrassment for the Administration. Manning is being held in a Marine brig in what the American Civil Liberties Union calls “prolonged isolated confinement and forced idleness.” Every day he reportedly spends 23 hours in a 6-by-12-foot cell, and is allowed to exercise — shackled — for one hour in another windowless room. He is often stripped and forced to stand naked outside his cell to be inspected, has his sleep interrupted frequently, is periodically deprived of his reading glasses, and generally is subjected to treatment meant to “degrade, humiliate, and traumatize . . .”

Last month State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley denounced the conditions of Bradley Manning's detention as "ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid," forcing President Obama to address those comments in a Press Conference and defend the treatment of Manning. A few days later Crowley "abruptly resigned under pressure from White House officials.”

One day after his Inauguration President Barack Obama said: “Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this Presidency.” Last week the President received an award for making the government more open. In homage to irony the ceremony was held in secret.

A key element of a free society is the open exchange of ideas. In any organization, whether it is a business, a non-profit organization or a government agency – it is an ongoing exercise to communicate and keep all of the stakeholders engaged in the dialogue. As a business strategist and consultant I’ve seen too many organizations succumb to the ease of making “executive decisions” without doing the hard work of constant communication. Virtually every time there is a decision without buy-in there are tremendous consequences that take far more effort to resolve than if the issues were openly discussed, even argued. Agreement isn’t the goal of transparency, understanding is. In a free society that’s the job of the media – to foster openness.

In the United States we rely on the media to expose, enlighten and educate us on issues. Newspapers once held the baton of investigative journalism to keep the people informed. Then came 60 Minutes. Today Anderson Cooper is “keeping them honest.” An evolution of transparency is Wikileaks which releases massive amounts of raw data for the public to evaluate on its own.

It is incredibly dispiriting to see Private Manning treated worse than Aldrich Ames (the convicted CIA analyst who compromised more CIA assets than had any Soviet mole in American history). There hasn’t been a trial. He is accused. In America he’s supposed to have a presumption of innocence. His treatment is shameful and fundamentally violates American values. The relative silence from the media and the public gives tacit approval to pre-punishment against Manning and anybody else the Government thinks has done something. That growling you hear is me now emulating the dogs.