Thursday, January 31, 2013

You’re Fired?

Donald Trump’s The Apprentice took the unpleasant employment process and made it a catch phrase.  It was (for a brief moment) amusing television but never took the sting out of the reality.  Terminating somebody from the way they earn a living is a difficult process – difficult on the employer, and the employee.  I’ve been both sides, and know the angst that each situation causes.  I must confess that at one point I got so good at it that I earned a moniker of “Hatchet Man.” It had its consequences where I’ve had things thrown at me, been threatened, tires punctured – and no doubt had my mug on dart boards.  I’ve also saved dozens of companies and hundreds of jobs.  This week there was little company savings or much drama in a number of high profile media firings.
CNN’s new chief Jeff Zucker, fresh from driving NBC into irrelevance, has been sacking on air talent, behind-the-scenes personnel and probably everybody in between.  CNN certainly needs a make-over, but changing faces isn’t going to solve its fundamental problem.  CNN  needs to move back into reporting and run away from blather.  For every 60-minute hour that Wolf Blitzer spends on the air, 22 minutes is commercials and another 8 is spent promoting what’s coming up.  The rest of the time winds up being CNN analysts and reporters talking to each other about the subject of the day.  Given Zucker’s penchant for fluff let’s not hold our breath that a huge investment in traditional reporting will be the direction the network goes in.
Fox News, the number one cable news channel by far, had its own firing this week. The conservative network did not renew Sarah Palin’s contract.  This didn’t come as a surprise given how little she was actually on their air.  Kudos to the former VP candidate for trying to spin it when she said that it was time to speak to audiences with a different if she was voluntarily leaving.  Shortly after she was hired it became clear to even Fox News that she had no idea what she was talking about.  So little time that she spent on the air, it wound up costing $15 per word during her time on the network.  (Can you imagine that job?  Does you-betcha count as 2 words or one? No matter, she only uttered it twice.)  Fox News without Palin doesn’t mean that the network will suddenly be bring erudite deep thinkers on the air.
Elections provide the single best opportunity to fire politicians.  Congress, operating at nearly single-digit approval ratings, is re-elected at a rate nearly opposite – in the 90 percentile.  Americans say they disapprove of those who run the government, but in the privacy of the ballot box continue to elect them.  Maybe this is a job for the wild-haired man after all? 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Planes Trains and Automobiles

For the past week and continuing through the weekend I’m on the road.  Like the mediocre movie starring John Candy and Steve Martin – my journey includes all forms of transport.  I’ve never been a fan of the TSA or the ‘security’ procedures at airports, and now I’m even less enamored.  The level of inconsistency is beyond head scratching.
I took Amtrack’s Pacific Surfer from San Diego to Los Angeles – a three hour ride past California’s coast.  Through a confluence of absent-mindedness and confusion, I had booked a 10:50am ticket but had convinced myself I was on the 9:15am.  I arrived at the station – stood in the Business Class line for 3 minutes and boarded with the porter looking at the ticket only to confirm I wasn’t a coach class ticket trying to get into the comfier seats.  Several stops into the ride another porter checked the ticket and not a word that I was hours early.  Had I hung out in the rest room or moved between cars, it would have been rather easy to travel without paying.  Nobody checked my bags, I didn’t have to pull out my laptop or carry only 3 ounces of liquids and I was able to stay fully clothed.  These procedures stand in stark contrast to my flights.
Airport after airport my bags and my person are searched.  A full body x-ray is done by equipment that the government is now discontinuing due to its invasiveness.  So you know its gotta be bad when Congress has determined something is too invasive.  New “enhanced” security measures require passengers to engage in conversation with the ticket verifiers.  I’m not sure whether this is as much a way to ensure safety or combat boredom of the staff. 
Renting a car now requires both a mailing and a physical address.  Why?  What’s the point in having an address that’s 3000 miles from where the car would be?  “It’s required sir.”  Good luck in finding me at One Main Street.
Last year 30.2 million people rode Amtrack There are approx.. 150 million vehicles in the U.S.  Over 900 million people fly. Statistically, then, it’s clear that in terms of volume, flying is king.
The events of September 11, 2011 evidence the dangers of a high-jacked airplane.  It’s true that since then there have been no further incidents.  I’m not sure whether that’s due to awareness by fellow travelers or the security measures or some combindation.  Nobody has been able to show, however, that having to undress, and only travel with a few drops of shampoo does anything other than provide a cosmetic show of force given those very same things are ok in all other ways of getting from point a to point b.
If security was indeed the goal then Israeli style tactics would be in place – where every piece of luggage is searched multiple times and it takes people four hours to prepare for their flights.  If security was an issue then the trains that travel through the most populous parts of urban areas of the U.S. would not allow anybody who looks respectable to just board and ride the rails. 
There’s nothing inherently wrong about taking actions that psychologically calm the citizenry.  In some ways that is part of Government’s role.  I’m not the first, and likely won’t be the last, to point out the absurdities in security measures on different modes of transport. Until then, smiling and small talk is the next generation of security.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Bank Injustice

Banks are infuriating to deal with.  It took nearly 15 weeks to finally complete a work related transaction that ultimately took 15 minutes to process.  My own bank, also a conglomerate, doesn’t even have branches in Massachusetts, requiring me to use the envelopes and stamps to get non electronic funds deposited because their mobile deposit ap won’t accept larger amounts.  Many blame the banks for the 2008 fiscal meltdown (though those causes are far more complex.)  The banks reached a settlement last week with Fannie Mae that stops the investigation and costs a fraction of a percentage of the impact of the failures.  I am surprised then to find that I’m not only sympathetic to but am outraged at what’s happened to a large bank.
According to the BBC Switzerland’s oldest bank Wegelin, which was established in 1741, will close operations after it pays $57.8m in fines to US authorities.  “The bank had admitted to allowing more than 100 American citizens to hide $1.2bn from the Internal Revenue Service for almost 10 years.”  Under Swiss law there was nothing illegal about what they did taking money in from customers and holding it.  It was never the practice of the bank to find out who the money belonged to, where it came from and whether another government should earn tax income from the deposits it held. 
For years wealthy Americans have secured their assets in places away from prying American officials eyes.  There are laws on the books that require American citizens to report assets to the government.  For years law enforcement officials have been frustrated by their inability to confirm that resources were kept outside of the U.S.  It was illegal and if evidence was collected those people should have been prosecuted.  Unable to figure a way out to leverage pressure on the citizenry, the U.S. government instead went to the banks in countries like Switzerland cajoled and applied monetary and even threats of military impact to get what they wanted. 
The invasion of a sovereign country is not just done militarily now.  U.S. officials have demonstrated that they have found a way to bully another country to get what it wants.  Switzerland resisted the initial regulations in 2008 but after four years of threats of sanctions and other measures the Swiss Government relented and updated their laws. 
On January 1, 2012 the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act took effect.  The U.S. became the only country in the world (besides Eritrea) that levels income tax based on citizenship, not based on where wages or income is earned.  Thanks to this Act non U.S. governments are being required to report earnings to the Internal Revenue Service to make sure that people living and working outside of U.S. borders pay for U.S. services.  Turning U.S. allies into tax collections is particularly repugnant.  And if they don’t comply?  The U.S. will exert its considerable influence.  Count on the United States Government to take actions that make banks sympathetic.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Zero Impact

Zero Dark Thirty earned several nominations for an Academy Award this morning, including Best Picture of the year - adding to their haul of other nominations this awards season.  The picture is a convergence of my interests, being a film buff who spent the bulk of my adult life living and working in Hollywood; and somebody who is passionate about politics.  While the film has been open for several weeks in Los Angeles, it was just last weekend that it “went wide” to the bulk of the country and was my first opportunity to see it.  The opening screen states that it’s “based on first hand accounts” and has been described by its makers as journalistic in nature.  It’s not a documentary of the events leading to the death of Osama bin Laden, nor is it fictionalized.  It’s not the best of anything - in fact it's the worst type of hybrid imaginable.
Critics and marketers hype the ‘ripped-from-the-headlines’ nature of the piece.  Much of the political commentary has been on the 20 minutes or so of "torture" scenes.  The film purports to be the accurate telling of how the U.S. chased, found, and killed Osama bin Laden.  The story draws a definitive link between the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and finding the world’s most wanted man.  The problem, of course, is that it’s not true.

The CIA itself has disavowed the link.  Is this because the graphic nature of the information gathering is uncomfortable for the Agency?  I doubt it.  Various military agencies have supported plenty of films that celebrate the drama of getting information in different ways.  Before the film came out there have been Congressional studies, first-hand accounts and a myriad of press stories with real reporting that chronicle the capture in a far different way than is serialized in the movie.  The disparity between the preponderance of evidence of what happened and what’s in this two and a half hour film is gargantuan. 

Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow and writer-producer Mark Boal have created a narrative that is designed to be a a good entertainment experience.  Their work on “The Hurt Locker” was extraordinary – it’s a film I found quite compelling.  By removing the license to adapt and shape a story - a barrier that gives Hollywood permission to tweak real events for a better story - the film must then stand up to a different and higher standard. I couldn’t appreciate "Zero" because when it’s represented as an honest portrayal and in nearly every instance isn’ became this absurd piece of propaganda the unfolded in front of my aghast eyes.

Beyond the torture issues, the protagonist is misrepresented as well.  One female CIA operative did not drive the ‘greatest manhunt in history.’  It’s a convenient and contrived device that helps in storytelling.  If the goal was to make a thriller based on real events, fine.  But to claim it’s a journalistic representation of what actually happened is eggregiously false. 
More people will see this film over time and accept its basic narrative as the truth than will actually research and learn what really happened.  The harm that does is the further erosion of the line between fact and fiction in America’s politics.  The 2012 election was a bonanza for fact-checking sites.  The election was filled with each candidate’s misrepresentation of data to support their own agenda.  At one point people could have their own opinions and not their own facts.  That's no longer the case.  This  inevitable ‘slippery slope’ means that even the most outrageous actions – torture and murder – become indistinguishable from a space invaders popcorn flick. 

(Spoiler alert!)  The film ends with the female agent sitting in an empty cargo plane after having spent her entire career chasing OBL and just having looked in the body bag to confirm his identity.  Extreme close up.  A tear dramatically rolls down her cheek.  The audience is left wondering whether it’s a tear of relief, of sadness or remorse.  For me it was a tear for truth and justice.  I wish the film would have zero impact, my fear is that will convince people of a version of history that didn’t happen.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Banana democracy

The “resolution” of the alleged Fiscal Cliff is a near textbook example of what U.S. diplomats would usually call a Banana Republic.  Wikipedia’s definition:  “Banana republic denotes a country which is ruled by a plutocracy (the wealthy) who exploit the national economy by means of a politico-economic oligarchy (small number of people).“  Six people just decided a multi-trillion deal – arguably making this a case study.  In fact, however, the U.S. political system today reflects a Parliamentary system.
The U.S. Government was designed to be a republic – where elected leaders represent their constituents and power was specifically and evenly spread among the three branches of government.  It’s big, it’s messy and it’s a pain in the ass to get nearly 600 people to agree to something.  That’s the design and the structure we’ve lived with for 236 years and is, in the words of Winston Churchill:  “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
For much of America’s history the tension between competing interests has worked well.  The media and many legacy politicians have pined for a time when politicians argued during the day but had a drink together at night – and compromise was considered part of governing.  You have heard the Tip O’Neil and Ronald Reagan stories, right?
What’s different in today’s Washington environment is not that compromise has eluded the process, but rather that dogma and party have risen in importance.  In a Parliamentary system votes are by party.  Imagine what a firestorm if one Democrat had voted against “ObamaCare.”  President Obama would have been criticized for not being able to keep people “in line.”  It’s now about party, not policy – and that’s fundamentally un-American…or fundamentally un-Democratic.
When a politician changes his or her position – the opposition documents the “flip flop” and it becomes a central theme of the next election.  Yet the same media forces that condemn any ‘evolution’ on a policy issue as a betrayal bemoan the loss of civility and inability for government to come to a consensus.
Americans for 30+ years have been promised that they can receive entitlements such as unemployment, social security, disability and a whole range of other programs while not having to contribute significantly to the cost of those programs through low taxes.  You can have your cake and eat it too.  Since Reaganomics (described by President Bush 41 as “voodoo economics”) came on the landscape we have been able to have it all.
The same people who championed low taxes, a huge military and ample social programs that resulted in the current $16 trillion deficit are screaming that the emperor has no clothes.  Well, he never did.  But for 30+ years society has accepted that he did.  President Obama recently said in frustration that in the 1980’s he’d be considered a moderate republican.  He’s probably right.
The issue, however, isn’t partisan.   It’s math.  A stable economy – whether it’s a household account, a business, a non-profit or a government – simply cannot spend 30% more than it brings in and be sustained.  This “fiscal cliff” resolution addresses less than 1% of the 30% overage.  Until voters get serious about electing legislators who will balance the budget and pay off the debt we can continue to expect the U.S. to look more and more like a Banana Democracy.