Thursday, February 28, 2013

Ship Shape

I’ve recently enjoyed some time on Holland America’s Eurodam.  Being at sea is how I relax, and I’m really lucky that (so far) I’ve been on 16 cruises, spending nearly 5 months of my life off of dry land.  The merits of cruising aren’t the ship to focus on this week.  Instead we have to look at the lack of statesmanship of our political leaders as they play brinksmanship once again with the economy.
Surface tension is required to keep ships afloat – the phenomenon where water pushes back on the boat with a force equal to the weight of the water that is displaced.  Similarly in politics a tension must exist between the force of two extremes --- in this case having the government continue to spend like a drunken sailor versus the other side that wants to dry dock the government.  Compromise … or accommodation even … is essentially that surface tension.
I like to be right.  We all do.  More importantly than being right, I want results.  I won’t stand rigid just to prove that I’m right.  I’ll cajole, arm-twist (write blogs) and do a variety of other things to bring people around to my way of thinking – and then I’ll look at the situation and decide whether standing on principal is more important than getting something done.
Washington DC has 435 members of the House, 100 members of the Senate, a President and Vice President – along with some 17,000 lobbyists.  Coming to a balance between all of these competing interests has proven to be nearly impossible.
Each elected leader from President to Congressman to Senator has promised to be a person of action – when in fact they must work together to accomplish anything.  In our democracy nobody can rule by fiat. 
Imagine you’re hiring legislators.  The job description that would be put together would say “must work well with others” and “ability to find common ground” as requirements.  Yet Americans continue to place people in the job who insist on adhering to their own beliefs first. 
I’m as fiscally conservative as they come.  This ‘sequestration’ nonsense is just 2.5% of the budget, pennies.  Granted it’s not being implemented in a smart way – but that’s all politics.  The nation must only spend what it brings in, and if that happened there’d still be this $17 trillion deficit that would have to be paid off.  While more cuts are needed – and more revenue too – for now a fair tension would be some small cut in expenses 1% or 2%.
Unless something gives even at a miniscule percentage – the call you hear from the bridge will be to the lifeboat station.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Upside Down?

The Post Office announced recently that they’re eliminating Saturday delivery .  This week it was reported that Google is going to open retail stores.  This all seems somewhat counter-intuitive – that the service whose function is to deliver letters and packages will be a M-F service while the company that epitomizes the internet is moving to bricks and mortar.  Of course that’s a simplistic analysis, but these announcements show the complexity of the current economy.
The Post Office is a robust institution that loses billions of dollars per year.   The organization is not a government agency, yet is chartered and overseen by Congress – sort of the worst possible situation by not being on the federal dole yet having to comply with federal rules.  (AmTrack is similarly run.)  The losses are the result of many things:  union intransigence, huge health care and pension burden, bad management, but mostly for having a cost basis that far exceeds the price they charge for the service.  A first-class letter costs double what a stamp costs.  The same is true (but at lesser percentages) for magazine and catalog delivery.    No operation (for-profit, not-for-profit or governmental) can exist on that set-up for long.
Google helped to accelerate the demise of the USPS through the prolific use of email.  As people communicate by email, social media and text – there is less of a need or value to having something on paper delivered to a mailbox.  Online purchasing rose 14% in 2012 to $50 billion.  Google’s reported plan is to sell a variety of products that its operating system Android runs on.  Unlike the Apple or Microsoft shops the Google store won’t be hardware unique. 
I think Google will go the way of Gateway and become a huge albatross if they actually launch this idea.  It makes little sense for them to directly compete with their advertisers which is the foundation of the company's income.  It’s apparently an evolution from the kiosk driven pop-up stores that the search provider has been utilizing over the past 18 months or so.  This may, however, prove to be one of those (many) things that I’m wrong about. 
In the case of such fallibility, the next area that I would most like to see move in an unexpected direction is the U.S. political establishment.  The just completed 112th Congress was in session for 153 out of 352 days.    Many of those “days” were for 10 or 15 minutes for ceremonial reading of proclamations and such.  The 113th Congress that just started last month (52 days ago) has put in 19 days.  They’re currently on a 10 day winter break.
Given the havoc that Congress creates, having them in session fewer days might be the better option.  Since the rank and file members earn $174,000 per year - based on last year’s sessions, they’re getting about $1,100 per session, no matter how long or short it is.  If this is frustrating – then send an email from your Gmail accounts via the United States Post Office.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Benedict … Arnold?

Benedict Arnold is famous in US History for originally fighting for the American Continental Army but defecting later to the British Army.  Pope Benedict’s announcement of his “retirement” puts him squarely in line with flip flopping.  Worse still has been the media – and the public’s seeming acceptance of the publicist driven story from the Vatican.
Pope John Paul II and John Ratzinger, his loyal lieutenant whose role was to enforce Catholic dogma – rewrote the rules and procedures for selecting future popes.  These new rules, had they been in place in 1979 would have never allowed John Paul II to ascend.  These rules permitted the enforcer to become the next Pope.  To claim that Ratzinger never wanted to be Pope is simply inconsistent with the reporting at the time that had plenty of coverage of the backstage maneuvering that allowed the unpopular Ratzinger to become Pope.  Why the same correspondents can’t even recall, let alone refer to their own reporting is further evidence of the decline of serious journalism.
I do not agree with many of the dogmatic interpretations that the Catholic Church has on issues of women and sexuality.  (My preferred liturgical tradition is Anglo-Catholic and I attend services weekly, so I’m not anti-religion or anti-Catholic.)  The Catholic Church’s participation and handling of the various scandals has been nothing less than appalling.  The sexual abuse issues predate the current Pope and while he’s made a number of efforts towards reconciliation, it’s been woefully inadequate. 
Pope Benedict is one of the foremost experts in the world on that interpretation and the consistency with which the Catholic Church should apply them.  It’s not like a Democratic or Republic convention where people get to vote on various social issues – the positions the Church take have a long history.  Others far more adept on this issue than I can (and do) argue effectively about how those positions should change and are supported theologically.
A fundamental value – and indeed a core principal of the Catholic Church is that there is one Pope through which God works (and he’s infallible).  It’s a lifetime gig.  You’re called by God and you serve until He takes you away.  Popes can be traced back through time to the Apostles – it is one of the most sacred and important rites that the Church has. You don’t just walk away from it because you’re tired.  And you certainly don’t just walk away from it if you’ve spent your entire life trying to convince the flock to stay true to the core principals of the Church. 
The spin-meisters say that the resignation proves strength…when in fact it shows deep and troubling hypocrisy.  The media coverage has taken the ‘reason’ for the resignation at face value.  This was a man who was supposed to be a transitional figure – between his friend John Paul II and the next generation. When John Paul II was dying of Parkinson’s – the world waited, watched and prayed for years.  All of a sudden the Pope can’t serve?
The truth lies somewhere between a Dan Brown novel of Vatican intrigue and the publicists spin.  I’m confident the next Pope will not change dogma – but will be more media savvy and a better fiscal manager.  This fundamental betrayal of Pope Benedict’s lifelong work is a faith-challenging turn of events.  My own faith in the media’s ability to take information and decipher it rather than regurgitate it diminishes even faster.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Comforting Tradition

There are certain comforts in consistency.  Traditions are what keep us centered in a constantly changing world.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the average person holds 11 jobs in their lifetime – which extrapolates out to just under 5 years per job.  The lack of stability in the job market from the prior generation is part of the underlying economic shift that has happened in the last 25 years.  It’s also one of the reasons why when Hostess put itself up for sale there was an outcry that a favorite comfort food was potentially disappearing.  Television is without question one of American’s outlet for comfort viewing.

The top rated shows year by year parallel society’s evolution.  In 1953 “I Love Lucy” was the number one (non-sports) show while this week it’s “The Big Bang Theory.”  Both comedies speak to the audience of their time.  For television to be successful it can’t pull people too far out of what they’re comfortable with.  They’ll just change the channel, or less likely turn it off.

Mood Media has ended Muzak.  The company that is best known for providing lilting instrumentalist music in elevators and stores isn’t actually going out of business, but after a variety of mergers and acquisitions over the past decade, its current owner is retiring the brand name under its own banner.  Changing a brand is a particularly challenging task – keeping the consumer who has used the product while redefining it for other consumers.
Politicians are experts at brand redefinition.  Why else would the 2012 election have resulted in a nearly 90% reelection rate while the approval rate for Congress is nearly the opposite, at 10%?  The easy answer is money – more than $7 billion spent in all races this cycle.  That translates into $22.58 spent on every man, woman and child in the USA.  Given that at least half of those dollars were intended to sway people to vote for the other person – perhaps the message is that money doesn’t have the impact conventional thinkers believe it does.

Advertisers spent over $4 million for a 30-second spot for last week’s Super Bowl, providing approx.. $300 million in revenue to CBS over the 4 hour broadcast in order to efficiently reach 111 million viewers at one shot.  If advertising didn’t work companies wouldn’t spend that money.  It’s become a tradition in itself, the ad competition.  And there’s some comfort in that, isn’t there?