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.