Thursday, May 26, 2011

Shhh....this is secret

I’ve been described as a priest, a lawyer and a therapist all rolled into one. While it sounds like the start to one of those bar jokes, it’s a compliment and responsibility that I cherish.  It is critical to maintain trust in my role as a financial executive, consultant or board member...let alone as friend, family man and mentor.  I work hard personally and professionally to honor and guard the information I’ve been given. In today’s media world, where the speed of information is often more important than its accuracy, keeping a secret seems to be a quaint concept from a bygone era.

Fox TV’s “Glee” fired a regular extra a few weeks back for revealing spoilers. Every extra and crew member must now sign an all-encompassing confidentiality agreement. Reality Shows rely on the element of surprise for the audience and go to great lengths to keep the results secret. It builds suspense and heightens the appeal of the show.  Cast and Crew of Survivor agree to a $5 million penalty above any prize money if they disclose any detail of the show. On the Emmy winning Amazing Race eliminated teams are kept at a remote location so that people can’t figure out who lost. Their penalty is $10 million. For this genre of television an ancillary business has emerged: insurance companies are selling policies in the event of a leak, protecting the producers.

Cartoon from 2003 by Cam Cardow in "Ottowa Citizen"

Entertainment and politics are close cousins. In California we even cross breed the two, none more obvious than the recent tenure of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Despite being in the limelight as one of the world’s best known action stars and running and winning an unprecedented recall campaign for Governor, he was able to keep secret an out-of-wedlock child from his wife and the public for more than a decade. As salacious as the details are, the most striking fact to me is that this sort of information could remain private. Journalists covering show biz and political investigative reporters failed in finding this story. The most interesting point (that remains unclear amidst all of the various rumors) is how the secret was kept and, more importantly why the covenant was broken. What happened that resulted in the information finally being divulged? The reporter from the Los Angeles Times indicated in an interview on CNN’s Reliable Sources last week: somebody was finally ready to talk.

President Obama’s planning and execution of Operation Neptune Spear (the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden) was kept from key aides and the public for seven months. In Washington DC, a city whose lifeblood is information, the shock that bin Laden hadn’t been forgotten about after all was overshadowed that a plan of this scope and impact could be developed and implemented and not leaked.

Nearly immediately after President Obama made the announcement details of the operation emerged. The specifics were flying fast and furious - so many that the major cable TV networks were able within hours to develop animated recreations. Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates and outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen have been especially vocal in the past week about their anger at the amount of information released.  Gates said: “In the Situation Room, we all agreed that we would not release any operational details from the effort to take out bin Laden. That all fell apart on Monday — the next day.”  They've both called the release of information "dangerous."

American democracy demands and expects transparency. The “outrage” that the details are public is what’s outrageous. For seven months not a word, an inclination or an innuendo escaped the secure confines of the Situation Room. That's as it should be.  It changed when the mission was completed. Somebody made the strategic decision to share information. The administration proved it could keep things quiet when it wanted to so its complaint that the mission process is being discussed in public is disingenuous at best.

In a society that prides itself, and indeed defines itself on openness, we nonetheless relish our secrets. The amount of information that is classified is increasing. In 2010 there was a 40% increase in classified materials – 76.6 million documents.
From the Washington Post’s groundbreaking series of articles Top Secret America 
  • 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on security programs in about 10,000 locations. In the DC area they occupy 17 million square feet of space.
  • An estimated 854,000 people hold top-secret security clearances.
  • Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.
The government has an absolute need to keep certain information from general dissemination. There is an obligation that what is kept from the public should be of extraordinary consequence, however, and not things that are uncomfortable, unpleasant or embarrasing. The explosion of secrets seems excessive. What is being hidden?  Restricting the flow of information breeds distrust, resentment and allows for a proliferation of conspiracy theories to have a life of their own.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Lemons out of Lemonade

Next weekend is Memorial Day – the symbolic start to summer: time for lazy days, baseball and lemonade stands. Last summer the tradition of kids making and selling lemonade on the corner met with modern day reality when the King County (Seattle, WA) health inspectors shut down a 7-year old girl’s booth.

Twenty years ago (March 1991) the FCC investigated a claim that Microsoft was abusing its monopoly status with its operating system by giving away additional products for free. The claim was found to have no merit. A few months later the Department of Justice opened its own investigation. A trial, an appeal and ten years later the DOJ and Microsoft settled. The company was prevented from bundling its Browser with its operating system or any of its other products for ten years. The settlement agreement expired on May 18. Without the shackles it’s unlikely that Microsoft will return to its innovative past. It almost seems quaint to think that by giving something away for free would constitute antitrust issues.

Google last week set aside $500 million for a potential Department of Justice investigation and the company is facing additional antitrust issues from several states. What will happen to this once mighty company when the regulators are done with it? Then it'll be Facebook's turn.  Capitalism used to allow industry determine out winners and losers.  Now it's regulators.

Regulation controls behavior by rules and regulations. Sometimes this happens through self-regulation, but usually it’s from governmental decree. This has been true since Biblical times, so nothing’s new. What’s different is the cost and scope.

The cost of regulation is huge. The Small Business Association reported last week that federal regulations (not including state regulations) cost $1.752 trillion in 2008. Passed onto consumers, that represents $15,586 per consumer. Regulatory costs equal 11.9% of GDP (almost twice the burden of the personal income tax).

  • According to the Office of the Federal Register, in 1998, the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), the official listing of all regulations in effect, contained a total of 134,723 pages in 201 volumes that claimed 19 feet of shelf space.
  • There have been 38,700 new regulations since.
  • President Obama’s Healthcare and the Financial Reform Act by Dodd-Frank will add thousands more pages.
I’m not anti-regulation. Having guidelines about food safety, for example, seems to me a reasonable thing to have. Having the FDA determine what foods people eat doesn’t.

Deregulation has gotten a bum rap. Most industries are never de-regulated – where no regulations exist. They are re-regulated with different rules. The issue is enforcement of the rules. There are plenty of regulations in place for many industries, enforcing them seems to be the challenge.
Somebody walks into the local bank and fills out a withdrawal slip for $100. They only have $50 in their account. The teller approves the transaction. The computer alerts the teller there’s a problem. The supervisor comes over and overrides the computer alert and hands the customer $100. The solution to this issue is not to pass a law preventing people from taking out $100 but rather to address the management issue of enforcing the rules already in place that people can’t take out more money than they have in their account.

The lack of personal responsibility has resulted in excessive regulation. In the example the individual should know that they only have $50 in the bank and therefore should only ask for $50. Failing that, the teller and supervisor also carry responsibility – to themselves and the rules that govern their bank that only allow people to take out what they have in their account.

Nearly every area of our lives are regulated. This has happened because when an issue or problem occurs the knee-jerk response seems to be to create a new rule, law or restriction rather than addressing or confronting the issue head on. It’s a great way for a politician to show that they’re in touch, in action and part of the solution.
Rather than assuming that personal responsibility is a burden to be suffered through, personal responsibility is liberating. The nanny state that the last generation of leaders has bequeathed us threatens the core liberties that the founders granted.

Individual liberty is a strength that overcomes the barriers of oppression. It’s an idea that makes lemonade out of the lemons of regulation.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

change change change...

May 12, 2005 Dad had a severe brain stem stroke. The next five years, three months and two weeks changed our family. Dad changed physically as a byproduct of the stroke but kept his cognition resulting in years of continued relationships. Mom changed from partner to caretaker. My brother and sister-in-law became frequent visitors, providing care and support for Dad and Mom a bit of a break. I took over their day-to-day financial life, dealt with insurance and details. My sister would read to Dad for hours on the phone, becoming his living conduit to literature. Change can be good, it can be bad…but as this experience showed us, it is constant.

During the five and a quarter years that we all lived with Dad’s stroke I became too familiar with the medical care system, and Romney-Care in specific. In my blog post I examined the pros and cons of the health insurance sstem. I was conflicted as to whether an all private system would work better than an all public system, though I was sure that the mash-up that existed (and still exists) wasn’t effective.

Considering major policy issues and their complexity and potentially changing one’s views can be looked at as enlightened and mature on the one hand and as a rash flip-flopper on the other. The nuance of the issue and what the change is should determine which category it falls into. In this particular case I have always believed that Americans are entitled to access to health care – my evolution (which is ongoing) is whether it is funded by the market or a single payer system. My own change is in tactic and approach – not in the fundamental belief. I’m also a blogger/commentator and not an elected leader so there’s a whole lot less consequence in my evolutions that real politicians.

Politicians are looked to for their adherence to the promises, goals and ideals that they set forth before the electorate. There are many examples of major shifts by recent Presidents.

President George Bush (41) famously promised in his 1988 acceptance speech of the Republican nomination for President: “Read my lips: no new taxes.” By 1990 the pledge was reneged, infuriating millions who took the President at his word.

President Ronald Reagan rode into office in 1980 calling the Soviet Union an Evil Empire. For most of his Presidency Reagan increased defense spending and ratcheted up the rhetoric. By 1987 Reagan met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and negotiated one of many treaties. He left office having stayed true to his fundamental principles of anti-Communism while changing tactics to set the stage for the end of the Cold War.

Bill Clinton won the Presidency in 1992 thanks to a coalition of groups, including the LGBT community. President Clinton’s legacy is Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (Related blog) and  the Defense of Marriage Act. President Clinton went from being the best hope of many gays and lesbians to the most anti-gay legislative President in history.

President Bush (43) campaigned and was elected with the doctrine of free market capitalism and a protectionist foreign policy. Eight years later he left office supporting the largest bailouts of American industry and having started two military conflicts designed to build nations. His book “Decision Points” identifies 9/11 as the cause for the shifts.

Barack Obama inspired the nation with soaring rhetoric, charisma and conviction that the rule of law would be the primary goal of his administration and the defining trait of Americans. He condemned Guantanamo Bay not just for what it is, but also for the idea that it represented: that people could be held without charges indefinitely. He believed it was fundamentally un-American. His background as a lawyer and Constitutional Professor underscored his commitment. As President Obama has done an about face – continuing many of the programs and policies he criticized – he takes action in contradiction. The recent assassination of Osama bin Laden is the most stark example where the rule of law was set aside. (Related blog)

We change our minds. We change our tactics and approaches. We can even change perspectives. When we change our beliefs – the core values that define us – that’s when notice should be taken. Bush 41’s policy reversal infuriated people and he lost reelection because he couldn’t convince the public why deficits mattered. 20 years later DADT is in the process of being dismantled and Bill Clinton endorsed gay marriage in New York, easing the anger against his abdication of human rights.  Less rigor was given to Reagan’s change on the Soviets because his underlying goal of dismantling Communism worked – he just changed the approach. Bush 43’s switch from capitalism to a form of socialism and from protectionist to nation builder disenfranchised many, though he used 9/11 in a compelling way to explain the contradiction. There is virtually no discussion in these early post-bin Laden days to Obama’s transformation.

Change is inevitable, it’s a part of life and adapting to changing circumstances, information and environment is vital to good leadership. Inflexibility and being resolute in the face of contrary information isn’t the solution, though the “Tea Party” movement is a byproduct of decades of leaders who don’t adhere to their beliefs. There is a difference between adapting to data and a wholesale repudiation of the ideals that make up an individual’s character. The Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama actions prove character is not based on a set of core principals.

President Obama’s action is particularly disturbing. He was feverishly articulate, passionate and clear-eyed about his vision of a country that ruled by law. Today he is equally resolute that there was no other choice but to kill rather than capture bin Laden. There’s no acknowledgement and certainly no explanation for the wholesale reversal of character on fundamental principles of life/death and the rule of law.

There's always the possibility my thinking will change.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Story time

I love going to the movies. Nearly every Friday I zip out to see the latest and greatest from Hollywood. In addition I watch plenty of television – sampling virtually every show that’s out there and getting hooked on lots of dramas. I’ve also spent the bulk of my professional career working in and around media companies. I’m not unique – the draw of a compelling story has been part of human history from the beginning. It’s no surprise, then, that the modern news media uses the narrative of a good story to communicate the events of the day.

As a journalism student at Syracuse University’s acclaimed SI Newhouse School of Communications I was admonished to tell the “who, what, when, where and why” of an event. Opinion didn’t have a role in the strict telling of events, though it was always acknowledged that individual perspective shapes stories. The major news event of the past week is “Osama bin Laden is dead.” When a perspective is brought to the story the headline changes to “Osama bin Laden murdered” or “Osama bin Laden martyred” or any number of other adjectives. Just look at the range of headlines from around the world and in New York.  “Balanced” reporting of the events is not having any perspective, but acknowledging that a point of view exists.

Nearly every major U.S. media network quickly put together graphics, music and a narrative to better tell the bin Laden story. The planning and assasination of bin Laden is being told on television and the Internet with thundering music and 3D graphics. It appears like the hot new video game. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – using every available tool to effectively communicate the event is welcome. Less welcome is when the telling/communicating becomes more important than the facts themselves and when differing facts and points of view on the events are not included because they don’t fit with the slick narrative.

The bin Laden story is dramatic, exciting, compelling and resonates with people world-wide. The White House perspective for days has been the baseline for the vast majority of the American reporting with little probing of the fundamental philosophy and justification behind the action. Whether the attack was a triumph of American resolve or the desecration of American principles was explored in my blog “Gotcha!” the other day. It’s gotten more comments and discussion than nearly any other to date. I think this is because the media narrative has been ubiquitous and unanimous and legitimate questions that exist haven’t been explored widely.

There have certainly been discussions about whether a "proof of death" photo should be released or about the U.S. role in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq where differing points of view have been heard.  The baseline of those points of view, however, have been the same: that the killing of bin Laden was legal and appropriate.  The narrative stays the same - the plot points heightened for dramatic effect.

From May 1 to May 3 Washington D.C. was host for the first time to World Press Freedom Day created 20 years ago by the United Nations to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press and remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression.

The American and Western press have spoken with one voice on the bin Laden story while simultaneously celebrating and preaching the necessity of freedom of expression. That feels like story time. Where’s the popcorn?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


May 1 is a day full of history. It is a holiday in socialist countries in honor of labor and labor organizations. Law Day, U.S.A. and Loyalty Day are celebrated in the U.S. as a way to counterbalance the communist celebrations. On May 1, 2003 President George W. Bush (43) gave his infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech. May 1, 2011 Pope John Paul II was beatified and President Barack Obama announced the U.S. assassination of Osama bin Laden.

On television there’s impromptu crowds gathering, dancing and singing, chants of superiority and celebrations of victory. That was the scene in many Middle Eastern countries on September 11, 2001 after the news reported that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center killing thousands. It was repugnant. The aversion I felt then is equaled today watching many cheer the murder of Osama bin Laden.

There’s little doubt that the world is better off with the mastermind of Al-Quada dead. The network of radicals he led has called for a global Jihad and they are believed to have been behind terrorist attacks that have killed thousands of innocent people. His death will likely be more symbolic to the world than effective at actually curbing the organization’s efforts – and may actually incite a response continuing the cycle of violence. Good riddance.

On February 11, 2008 Candidate Obama said: “We are going to have...a Justice Department that believes in Justice. And, you will elect a president who has taught the Constitution, and believes in the Constitution and will obey the Constitution of the United States of America."

Due Process has been around since the Magna Carta, is the backbone of the U.S. Constitution and is the distinguishing factor in Democracy over any other form of governance. Due process holds the government subservient to the law protecting individual persons from the state. Article 3, Section 3 covers treason: it has to be proved with witnesses before any punishment imposed. In every single instance the founders intended for due process to be the predominate right of all. Nowhere do the founders grant the right of any one person to unilaterally kill another without consequence. Even in the time of war. (The U.S. is not actually at War based on the requirement by the Constitution for Congress to declare it, but even if we give a pass to that pesky detail, the current military actions are against Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, not Al-Quada and certainly not an individual.)

During World War II, the last War that Congress actually declared, millions of innocents were slaughtered by the Nazis. The Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46 showed the world (via military tribunals) that Americans put the rule of law over revenge. Other venomous leaders and despots have been tried in International Courts and Tribunals. For generations the rule of law defined civilized society.

What does it matter? If Osama bin Laden had been captured rather than killed he would have (in nearly all likelihood) been found guilty. American taxpayers would have had to foot the bill for the trial where vitriolic anti-American rhetoric would have been espoused opening deep wounds. Any punishment would be an additional cost and distraction – certainly a Navy Seal operation was more efficient. Politically it may well prove to be a game changer in domestic politics and even in the 2012 election. It has given patriotic Americans something to cheer – like a sporting match.

The cornerstone of our Republic has been a justice system of due process, the right to a trial of peers along with the right of appeal. This system is essential for the most vile crimes and criminals.

President Obama said “justice has been done.” There is no morality or justice in killing – no matter who does it. Americans fist pump the air reveling in the ultimate gotcha: Osama bin Laden is dead. The irony is that once again he has the better gotcha: the Nobel Peace Prize winning President violates the morality and legal principles that are at the core of American ideals and identity.

For the 2011 National Law Day President Obama proclaimed:

At the core of our Nation's values is our faith in the ideals of equality and justice under law. It is a belief embedded in our most cherished documents. … Each Law Day, we uphold our commitment to the rule of law and celebrate its protection of the freedoms we enjoy.

On this Law Day, I encourage all Americans to celebrate and reflect upon our centuries of adherence to the rule of law. In so doing, we help ensure future generations will inherit and promote the ideals that help move our Nation forward.
Well, maybe May 1, 2012.