Thursday, June 30, 2011

Declaration of Dependence

July 4, 1776 the Representatives of the United States declared their independence from King George III of Great Britain. It was the culmination of years of petitions, diplomatic requests and ultimately a key rallying point during the Revolutionary War. The Declaration’s most famous phraseology is:

“…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

The remainder of the document is a litany of complaints against King George III. Addressing those issues ultimately became the framework for the Constitution which would be fully ratified by all 13 colonies by 1790...14 years after the Declaration. The fundamental premise of the document is individuals have rights and that government exists only when the people who are governed agree to be. Government’s role is to preserve life and foster liberty and freedom. American iconography of the rugged frontiersman, the out-of-the-box entrepreneur, the immigrant who can go from rags to riches are a manifestation of the Declaration. Individual freedom is a great narrative. The facts tell a different story.

  • Social Security Recipients (2009): 52,522,819 (17% of population)
  • Medicare Benefit Recipients (2010): 47,500,000 (15% of population)
  • Medicaid Benefit Recipients (2010): 58,000,000 (19% of population)
  • Americans on Food Stamps FY2010: 40,301,666 (13% of population)Veterans receiving benefits as of 9/30/2010: 22,658,145 (7% of population)
  • Approximately 50 million Americans are on welfare (16% of population)
There were 308,745,538 Americans counted in the 2010 Census.

Each agency counts each benefit separately – the above list (which is a partial list of government programs) represents 270,982,630 disbursements from the government --- just about 1 disbursement for every man, woman and child in the United States. (This quick analysis also only looks at Federal programs.) Certainly some Americans who receive one of the above benefits might also receive others – such as people receiving food stamps are likely also receiving welfare.

There are virtues to each of the highlighted programs, and a discussion of the value of each can be had. Regardless of the merits, though, is the breadth to which the country relies on its government.

America didn’t lose her independent spirit by accident. We elected legislators and Presidents who in their best efforts passed law after law (after law) so that now whenever anything happens it seems that the first instinct is to turn to the government for a solution.

Tea Party activists have a rallying cry of “Take Back Our Country” – but from whom? The country is a reflection of voters: it’s the genius (and peril?) of Jeffersonian Democracy.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a record setting 12 years in office (supported by a Democratic Congress and Senate) realigned American politics and priorities. His legislative accomplishments created the modern government infrastructure under the philosophy of providing a federal program for any need. He aggressively moved America into World War II leaving a legacy of the military industrial complex.

FDR was effective not only because he was a charismatic, optimistic and brilliant leader who knew how to grease the legislative wheels – but because the country was suffering like never before during the Great Depression. There are differing views on why the Depression occurred - some indicate that it was a failure of capitalism and private enterprise while others blame government control of interest rates and inconsistent monetary policy. There’s ample evidence to support these and other analyses.

There was a crisis and the resolution came not from individuals or private enterprise, but from the State. The response to the Depression was government focused – through works programs, incentives, stimulus, benefits and a whole host of other ideas. Within a decade (coinciding with investment for World War II) the economy recovered. Economists who argue about the cause of the Depression are equally divided on the recovery – whether it was the New Deal programs, the military funding or private enterprise learning how to operate in the post-industrial revolution economy. Following the war the same infrastructure that was put in place to respond to the Depression has largely stayed intact. The legacy of those programs:
  • The U.S. debt is $14.3 trillion and $2 trillion more is being negotiated to get the country through the 2012 election cycle.  (Upwards of $46K per person.)
  • More Americans are out of work, underemployed or otherwise not contributing to the economy since the 1930s with no end in sight.
  • Federal Regulation (per the SBA) cost $1.752 trillion in 2008; or $15,586 per consumer.

For 235 years Americans have had a healthy and vigorous dialogue about the size and role of Government. That will continue for the next 235 years and beyond. As we celebrate July 4th patriotism and nostalgia will reinforce the mythology and imagery of individualism and independence.  By our actions, though, though we have declared ourselves dependent on government. What will it take for the fable to become real once again?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Repeat. Repeat. Re-what?

Anniversaries are opportunities to celebrate, remember and plan. Two major milestones just passed: the 30th Anniversary of the first case of AIDS reported by the CDC (June 5) and the 40th Anniversary of President Nixon declaring the War on Drugs. Each marker reflects the times they occurred in and are a benchmark for where society is today. There are lessons worth repeating in their evolutions.

The first days, months and years of AIDS were marked by fear and uncertainty. Doctors and scientists couldn’t immediately state how people contracted it, how it spread – but could only confirm that it had a 100% mortality rate. President Reagan didn’t utter the acronym during his entire tenure in office. Many media outlets ran the wildest of speculation, allowing panic to spread. People were ostracized. Contracting AIDS was the equivalent of being a leper. Some even wanted to move everybody with AIDS to an island.

The LGBT community in the U.S. was hardest hit. Virtually an entire generation died. Traditional resources were scarce, compassion and understanding even more so. What happened? The community rallied. Millions of women and men “came out” allowing for the decriminalization of homosexuality in the U.S. and giving voice to a people that previously barely spoke.

The LGBT community built an infrastructure that didn’t previously exist. Organizations sprang up to provide buddy support, medical services, transportation, food – everything and even more. The community funded research institutes to find a vaccine. Where stumbling blocks existed, activists knocked them down – whether it was to reduce the approval time for drugs or get legislation passed to protect patients from discrimination.

15 years into the epidemic the “cocktail” drug therapy first emerged. This discovery changed HIV/AIDS from being a death sentence to a disease that could be managed, albeit with difficulty. Despite this progress, approx. 25 million people have died in the past 30 years. Today 5,000 people will die. Same tomorrow. And the next day. Over 33 million people are living with HIV/AIDS which has become the fourth leading cause of death in the world.  There is still much research and scientific discovery to be done to better understand, manage and eradicate this disease but the drugs have saved another generation.

Drugs of a different sort is what President Nixon wanted to eradicate. On June 17, 1971 he declared a “War on Drugs” which was likely a response to the perceived pervasiveness of the 1960’s. It began the Noble Experiment version 2.0. The original Noble Experiment was Prohibition of alcohol from 1919-1933 when crime increased 24%. Immediately after the repeal of Prohibition, gangsterism went into a swift decline. All of the major gangs disappeared within 18 months and the murder rate dropped every single year for more than a decade.

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) released a 40th anniversary report this month on the current Drug War. The report documents over a million people arrested, more than a trillion dollars spent and rampant gangsterism in the U.S. and abroad. Drug use is at record highs. It’s been an abject failure. 40,000 law enforcement professionals support LEAP. It is not a fringe group. Drug enforcement is their expertise.  They say the reason for crime epidemic is not because of drug use but because of the drug laws - most of which were introduced by the Reagan administration in the 1980's.

The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. The rate has grown exponentially because of the drug laws. Over 50% of all Federal prisoners are in jail due to a drug offense. Certainly if somebody commits a violent crime – theft, mugging, homicide, etc. – they should be punished…and they are and that is tracked separately. The question is whether people should be put in prison on the taxpayers dime because of behavior.

People should not do drugs. They alter the mind, they affect the body. (The same can be said of sugar!) What would happen if Americans were allowed to make their own decisions about drugs? Anarchy would run rampant and overnight we’d be a nation of whacked-out junkies! Well, not likely...and not more so than we already are.

In 2001 Portugal decriminalized drug use. After just 5 years rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug fell from 14.1% to 10.6%. Deaths related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half. The number of people on drug regimens for addiction rose to 14,877 from 6,040 after decriminalization. Money saved on enforcement allowed for increased funding of drug-free treatment and crime rates fell.

How much more proof do we need? We have our own experience with Prohibition and current data from Europe that shows that drug laws are the problem. No matter – what has failed in the past will continue: it’s political reality.

Philosopher George Santayana famously wrote: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Reflecting on these anniversaries the past informs us that legislating behavior doesn’t work. Community will respond to care for its own against all odds. When free to choose people say no to drugs, crime goes down and society benefits. That’s something worth repeating.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Let the sunshine in

June gloom is here. A marine layer of fog lays over most of Los Angeles for the first part of every day – then “burns off” for a glorious sun soaked afternoon. This meteorological phenomenon occurs regularly every year, most often in June...hence the moniker. It appears that the symbolism of June Gloom has gone inland this year…all the way across the country.

The U.S. economy continues to be anemic.

  • Official unemployment figures are over 9%. Unofficial figures are near 20% for those of us who are the long-term unemployed and the under-employed class.
  • The U.S. borrows $0.46 for every $1 it spends.
  • The U.S. “credit card” has maxed out at $14.3 trillion and the country’s leaders are toying with default that would only increase borrowing costs.
  • The mortgage industry was nationalized in 2008 with nearly 50% of all mortgages guaranteed by U.S. taxpayers. Freddie/Fannie are unlikely to ever return to the private sector.
  • The Treasury Department holds 500 million shares in General Motors, the result of the 2008 bailout.
Foreign affairs are even less sunny.

  • The U.S. continues to be engaged in Iraq. The Iraq government said a U.S. Congressional delegation was not welcome in the country.  Their crime? Asking for reimbursement of rebuilding costs from oil profits.
  • The 10th anniversary of the Afghanistan invasion is here. So unpopular is this conflict that when outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met with the troops a few weeks ago the question about leaving the country led all questions 3:1. Usually troops ask about pay, leave time and other issues – not since Vietnam have active duty troops questioned strategy.
  • The U.S. military is active in the Libyan conflict but are absent from uprisings in other Middle Eastern countries that are part of the “Arab” Spring.
Partisans may read this litany as an attack on the President. It’s not. Virtually all of the above points are equally applicable to the Bush (43) administration which caused many of the underlying issues or extended them from the Clinton administration (and on and on).

It’s nearly overwhelming. There's emotional culture war subjects like abortion and equal rights.  Add into the mix a host of more local issues – states that can’t balance their books, local crime issues, safety-net issues with regards to education and health and it feels insurmountable. What can be done?

Voters have tried what they know how to do, the levers of power available to them. In 2008 they voted for a “transformational” candidate who promised change – punctuating the vow with the chant “yes we can.”

When complex, intransigent problems combined with polarized partisanship clipped the promise – voters elected hard-core ‘tea-party’ types. Had the pendulum swung so dramatically that voters who supported Barak Obama were the same ones supporting Tea Party candidates? Likely not. The message voters who participated was: DO SOMETHING.

The American legislative process doesn’t lend itself to getting things done. The cumbersome structure of getting legislation to become law requires an introduction of the bill, committee work, debate and a vote. Both the Congress and the Senate have to do this and then reconcile any differences before it goes to the Executive Branch. The framers made it intentionally difficult in order to minimize the nation becoming too enmeshed in governing people’s lives.

Newt Gingrich had the most accurate and effective statement in Tuesday’s CNN “debate” of 2012 GOP contenders when he reminded viewers that electing one President isn’t going to solve anything – it’s having a working majority in Congress and the Senate that is aligned on the same philosophy that will actually effect change.

Voters get the idea that one person can just wave a wand and make things happen from movies and television whose function it is to tell compelling stories. One person being able to solve problems is much more interesting than the messy reality of process. Politicians don’t help themselves when they campaign on the illusion that they alone can solve issues. (Cue music and grand sweeping vistas.)

The inevitable frustration that results in society is a further decline in participation. In 2010 the voting-eligible population in the U.S. was 41.6%. Elections are usually pretty evenly split between the major parties so some 21-22% of us actually elect leaders.  Those elected usually succumb to the idea that they have a mandate when they actually got a majority of the minority who care enough to participate.

Apathy is the lack of interest in something. How interesting is it for people who are working hard, raising children, participating in life to go to the effort of voting when nothing seems to change? Add in that voting itself is more difficult than it should be. There is no consistent process to register and deadlines are often arbitrary. You have to find some random community center to stand in line. In a country whose entire economy is run electronically there must be an accurate, safe and anonymous way for the entire eligible population to participate.

Imagine the difference adding the other 58.4% of the electorate to political discourse! The electorate could be more easily and effectively engaged. Issues would no longer be narrowed to the few percent who decide elections, but instead would be geared to the majority. Political Party would be less important. Whoa! Deep breath. Getting carried away. The morning fog must be particularly strong today.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sit back, relax…this won’t take too long

Amongst the many insults the airline industry has imposed on its customers, none is more annoying than the flight schedule. After considering actual flying time plus pull-back, take-off, landing and parking times the airlines add another 30 to 45 minute buffer. This distortion is supported and regulated by the FAA. A quarter (25%) of flights in April were late.  The Department of Transportation defines “late” by granting an additional 15 minutes of what is on the schedule that already has the additional 30 minutes in it.

Deadlines are an integral part of everyday life and commerce. Retail stores have perfected the deadline driven sale – none more so than with time restricted online specials. My local supermarket runs specials for a few hours on Thursdays only. The infomercial’s mantra “Call now…” built and entire industry.

As an executive who has expertise in finance, administration and operations, I find deadlines a vital tool in effective management. There’s something equalizing about a deadline. Even when it’s arbitrary, as long as it applies to everybody the same, it’s hard to get upset about one. Who likes the April 15 deadline? At least it applies without discrimination.

Government establishes deadlines with ease but it seems to be less able to honor them.

“The California Constitution says flat-out that "The Legislature shall pass the budget bill by midnight on June 15.’ Yet, the lawmakers haven't completed their budget work on time since 1986.” - LATimes

Californians, annoyed with the deadline passing each year for 25 years, took matters into their own hands. An initiative passed that takes away legislator salary and per diem for every day that there isn’t a budget. Next week’s deadline hovers and the discussion in Sacramento has been about the fact that a budget was passed in March (albeit some $14 billion out of balance, another violation of the State’s Constitution) so therefore some legislators don’t think the penalty should kick in since they technically passed a budget. State Controller John Chiang said last week that he would dock their pay per the statute.

Congress, hardly the role model of punctuality, last week voted to rebuke President Obama for missing a deadline. The War Powers Resolution requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30 day withdrawal period, without an authorization of the use of military force or a declaration of war. The resolution was passed by two-thirds of Congress in 1973, overriding President’s Nixon’s veto.

The Resolution provides the President flexibility in military matters. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the sole responsibility to declare war, so a Resolution that transfers that power to another branch of government on its face seems to be unconstitutional. Every President since has embraced it and relied on the Act which has never been tested with the Judicial branch.

March 19, 2011 U.S. armed forces engaged in “Operation Freedom Falcon in” Libya as part of a U.N. resolution. By May 20, 2011 the President should have asked Congress for an authorization of the use of force or a declaration of war. Instead, President Obama notified Congress that no authorization was needed since the US leadership was transferred to NATO. (I’ve never been great at geography, but Libya doesn’t seem to be in the North Atlantic, so I’m not sure why NATO got this responsibility.) On June 3 the U.S. House of Representatives voted to rebuke President Obama for maintaining an American presence in the NATO operations in Libya, which violates of the War Powers Resolution.

The founders intended for there to be a tension between the Legislative and Executive branches. Congress holds the purse strings and the President commands the troops. Any military action can’t exist without the consent of both branches. The granting of Presidential authority to engage troops without Congressional approval breaks down the clear goal of the Founders.

If President Obama truly believes that American forces must be engaged in Libya – why not simply get an authorization? Have our politics gotten to a point that even this isn’t realizable? It’s another sad example of former constitutional law professor Barack Obama unable (or unwilling) to follow the Rule of Law. More shamefully, Congress has a duty to call for a vote on the military action, or, barring that, cease funding an action that hasn’t been authorized. I won’t hold my breath.

The next major military deadline that the President has set is next month (July 2011) for troops to begin leaving Afghanistan. Outgoing Defense Secretary Gates has said that any reduction in force will be nominal. Republicans complain that setting a deadline gives “the enemy” strength as all they have to do is wait out the timeline. Democrats insist that troops must start coming home by a date certain. It appears that the President will wind up with a hybrid solution – leaving most of the troops in place but pulling back a few thousand to meet his self-imposed goal. It’s disingenuous at best.

Perhaps the time has come for government to do away with the charade of deadlines. So much effort goes into working around them – whether they are budgetary or military. Governmental deadlines are really just airline flight schedules in disguise.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Come Out Come Out - It's bright out here

June is busting out all over. It’s Gay Pride month where cities and towns across the world celebrate with parades, picnics and parties. Born out of the 1969 Stonewall rebellion the events in the U.S. are now largely corporate sponsored party events. Nashville is holding their event on June 18 – even after the state passed a law a few weeks ago outlawing “gay” from being spoken in a classroom from K to 8th grade.

Not content to legislate speech, the Tennessee legislature passed and Governor Haslam signed into law a few days later a law that forbids municipalities from enacting any anti-discrimination ordinances that are broader than the states. So if Nashville wants to contract with a company, that company only has to meet state anti-discrimination rules, not local ones which might be more far reaching and inclusive. Colorado tried this in 1992 (with a nearly identical law) and the Supreme Court knocked it down as illegal. I guess with the current court it’s worth trying again?

There are ominous and odious ramifications of these actions. I have faith that the American justice system will wend its way and these  laws will be ruled unconstitutional. It’s infuriating that activists must re-fight battles already won, but I suppose that’s life in a democracy.

After Dan Choi was discharged from the U.S. Army last year under President Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy he became an activist. The City of Moscow turned down a permit to hold a gay pride march with the mayor referring to LGBT people as “satanic.” For the fifth consecutive year a march was held despite the ban. Choi went last week and was one of many who were beaten and arrested.

If “gay” isn’t mentioned in schools and if there’s no longer recourse for a company’s anti-gay policies then homosexuals will disappear? Preventing a march means that gays won’t really exist? In a recent episode of “Glee” Kurt said: “All that hate. They were afraid to say it out loud. So they did it [in] secret.”

People are born gay. Living an “out” lifestyle is the choice – whether it’s in a family with a partner and kids or being out on the town every night or anything in between. Some even choose to live a “straight” lifestyle even though they sexually identify as gay. Why?

Society in general perpetuates an “acceptable” narrative of life. This is reinforced by some religious institutions. The media does its part by telling stories that reinforce and support the narrative.

It’s so easy to blame the media. They contribute by choosing how the stories are (or are not) placed in prominence, in repetition and with analysis. The public gets a skewed vision of issues this way. By not having a balanced and complete representation of issues, people are left with no other option but to draw conclusions in areas that aren’t covered. LGBT issues are a prime example.

Last week Gallup released a poll showing that more than half of Americans believe that a quarter of the population is gay. Gallup also found that gays are more accepted than at any other time since they began their surveys.

  • 52% of Americans believe that 25% of the population is gay.
  • GLAAD reported that the 2010-11 TV season had a record high of 3.7% of characters as gay.
  • The 2010 Census doesn’t count people by sexual orientation.
  • The Williams Institute estimates there are 8 million LGBT Americans, or approx. 3.5% of the population.

The discrepancy between perception and reality could also be blamed on the media. If stories were told in proportion to population and importance then logic would indicate that the issue would be in perspective. Of course if that thinking had any merit then Sarah Palin wouldn’t be getting gargantuan coverage for driving a RV around looking at national monuments!

Blaming the media entirely isn’t fair or accurate (or balanced!) Media coverage reflects what people are interested in. If millions didn’t care what Palin was doing, then the coverage would shrink.  There’s the potential of circular thinking here – where the media says it’s only giving people what they want and people are wanting only what the media is giving them.

We are citizens of the world.  Whether we have a personal connectedness to a news story or not, an event or action that impacts socity in an important way means that we're all affected.

This is especially true when the story may not have personal significance. In August 1991 Boris Yeltsin lead a coup, taking over Russia and ultimately dissolving the Soviet Union. The revised constitution he championed legalized homosexuality, making Russia freer than the U.S. (until the U.S. Supreme Court threw out sodomy laws in 2003). 15 years later Russia has reverted to pre-Glasnost days, reminiscent of Cold War times. This story impacts more than gays. It impacts foreign policy, economics, and a range of other issues. 

A state government has legislated speech in schools.  The same state has usurped local governmental control.  We may not all live in Tennessee but these actions will reverberate throughout society.

It's time to stretch our comfort zones by not just watching networks and reading from providers that conform to our existing beliefs. We must fight becoming ignorant of alternative points of view. It’s time to come out from the dark.