Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Useless Resolutions

It’s that time of year again: New Year’s resolutions. If I still made them, the list would look awfully close to the list from any number of years before:  lose weight, have a more balanced work/personal life, etc. It’s unlikely that I’ll achieve those goals ... so like 60% of Americans, I don’t even bother. A study showed that 88% of people fail at their resolutions. I do love the practice that I heard about once – a couple writes down their resolutions, seals them in an envelope and on New Year’s Eve they each open the other’s to see how they did. Sounds like a fun way to do it. There’s nothing inherently wrong about making resolutions unless you’re a politician and it comes from Washington D.C..

President Obama resolved in his 2014 New Year’s message that it would be a “year of action.” Legislatively that was not the case, with the 2012-2014 Congress one of the "least productive" in history. In terms of his Executive Orders, however, he was true to his word. The problem with a lot of these orders is that they are largely symbolic. There’s no ability to effect the impact that is intended without a partnership and consensus with Congress, the body that writes and funds the budget.

The Obama Administration declared that Home Healthcare workers should receive “Minimum Wage”and overtime benefits. The Department of Labor issued the rules. There was much confusion on how this would work given that so many home healthcare situations do not lend themselves to the structure of traditional employment.  A few days before Christmas a judge threw out the rules. Nice symbolism, but no impact.

Two other Executive Orders in 2014 relate to wages for federal contractors. They are not being challenged in the courts, but the next President can withdraw the order easily. I’ve previously written about my disdain for the government setting wages in the first place --- but if they’re going to do it, shouldn’t it be set by Congress so that wages aren’t at the whim of the person in the Oval Office?

The President’s Immigration Executive Order has been kerosene on a fire in the blogosphere and for the pundits. The action comes after years of failing to get a bipartisan bill approved by the Senate through the House. One of the more significant issues that the order addresses is the legal status of certain immigrants. Millions will be awarded “temporary” status and no longer be considered in violation of U.S. law. What happens under the next President? Should somebody’s right to live and work in a country be solely at the discretion of one person? That’s not how the U.S. system is supposed to work.

Cuban-American relations are about to thaw after 55 years thanks to the President’s decision to normalize relations.  Congress does not need to approve foreign policy. The embargo, however, does require Congressional action, as does approving an Ambassador and funding a new embassy.  Seems the White House recognizes this. Last week they hired a lobbyist. Yes, the Executive Branch has now engaged a person to lobby Congress on its behalf. 

My 2014 goal (not resolution!) was to lose 100 pounds. I lost 40 and have kept 35 off. Progress can be slow. How many of these unilateral actions will go the way of so many goals and resolutions being made this week? Perhaps it’s time to resolve to have the three branches of government work together despite their political differences to solve the important policy issues that face the country. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

That's a wrap?

One of my favorite parts of going to the movies is watching the trailers. I’m even a little superstitious. If the trailers are all bad it usually indicates that the film that I’m about to watch is going to be bad too. Likewise if the trailers are all great, there’s a cinematic masterpiece that I’m about to watch. Often it’s a mixed bag. Towards the end of the summer and early fall is the best because all of the Oscar hopeful movies start showing up in the previews. This year, though, there was this one trailer that within 15 seconds I knew was going to be something I’d never watch – in the movie theatre, online or even on free network television. Much to my amazement that very film has turned Hollywood upside down and right side up again while the President weighed in on how to run a studio.

The Korean text reads, "We will begin a war", 
"Do not trust these ignorant Americans!"
"The Interview" is now described by the media as a political satire. IMDB describes it as an action- comedy. Its trailer felt like a tragedy...just a dumb idea that wasn't funny. The concept is: “Celebrity journalist Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen) secure an interview with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) and are instructed by the CIA to assassinate him.” It was slated to open wide on Christmas Day, then was pulled, and is now going to open in select theatres.

Sony Pictures made the film and is a subsidiary of the Japanese multinational technology company. Their computer network was hacked, confidential information and proprietary intellectual property was released. The hackers warned the public that a “9/11-style attack” would occur to anybody who saw “The Interview.” Sony pulled the film and is now releasing it on a limited basis.

Hollywood and Washington erupted in outrage over the hacking. West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin (a former schoolmate of mine) wrote a blistering attack on the media regarding their coverage of the information stolen in the attack. “Let's just say that every news outlet that did the bidding of the Guardians of Peace [the group claiming responsibility for the hack] is morally treasonous and spectacularly dishonorable," Sorkin wrote.

Sorkin, who perhaps more than anybody else melds Hollywood and Washington together, should know better. How is this different than The Guardian or the New York Times reporting on the content of the Edward Snowden leaks? Or the leaks by Wikipedia? It is actually the role of the media to report and disclose. Sure the titillating gossip of the backbiting of entertainment executives may not have the same gravitas as the U.S. Government spying on its own people, but it’s certainly legitimate to cover. Hollywood movies are one of the top exports that the U.S. has and is a multi-billion business.

Sony’s decision to not open the film resulted in a cacophony of outrage. President Obama even weighed in. He said the company “made a mistake” by canceling the release but would not go so far as to call the hacking an “act of war.” The narrative of the criticism has been: the terrorists won and the First Amendment lost.

The First Amendment prohibits the government from making a law that abridges the freedom of speech. Sony’s decision to not open a movie is a result of threats, but in no way shakes the essence of the U.S. Constitution. No law has been made that restricts the company’s ability to make movies. Let’s also remember that Sony is not even an American company. It’s a wholly owned subsidiary of a Japanese company. It is in the business of making money. And just like every other Hollywood studio it has shareholders to report to. What would the company’s liability be if they had released the film and an incident occurred? Would the President have indemnified the company from liability? After all it’s a foreseeable event given the public nature of the threats. On Christmas Eve the company reversed itself, and will take advantage of the global free publicity for the flick and open it in "limited" release. The company is now able to have limited its legal exposure and take advantage of free marketing. 

The decision not to release the film set a bad precedent, and the ‘slippery slope’ is precarious...even with the reversal at the 11th hour. For Sony it was a lose-lose proposition, so it did what most companies do – opted for the lower risk scenario until a better situation presented itself. The best option would have been not to have a script written or even a film made when the idea was first pitched. It was just a bad idea for a film in the first place. Sorkin made up a country in his West Wing series for a war – had Sony done the same here The Interview would have landed with a thud and been gone in a week...and that would have been a wrap on this whole escapade.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Christmas Miracle

It’s mid December, and regardless of your religious affiliation – Christmas is upon us. The stores, the sales…the commercialism. There are some of us who approach the holiday through the liturgical season of Advent, but even with that the omnipresence of retail is hard to avoid. The Christmas Miracle story isn't just one narrative, but a nice morphing of the commercial aspect of the holiday and the spirit that its intended. The story has many variations – but the underlying message focuses on the importance of giving. Poverty, wealth, stinginess and extravagance are all examined through a variety of narratives both in books, stories and movies and TV shows. Imagine my surprise when last week the Government provided its own miracle – a moment of transparency if not humility.

The recently released summary of the Senate Intelligence Report on Torture cost $40 million to put together. It took 5 years and the bulk of the 6,000 page report remains classified. What the 525 page unclassified portion tells is some of the most important information to come out of the U.S. government in a long time. It’s not so much a gift or a mea-culpa, but rather an acknowledgement of what actually happened.

Per Wikipedia’s summary: 

“The report details actions by a number of CIA officials, including torturing prisoners and providing misleading or false information about CIA programs to government officials and the media. It also revealed the existence of previously unknown detainees, that more detainees were subjected to harsher treatment than was previously disclosed, and that more techniques were used than previously disclosed. Finally, it offers conclusions about the detention project, including that torturing prisoners did not help acquire actionable intelligence or gain cooperation from detainees.”
In short the report validates those who have long criticized the “War on Terror.” I’m one of them. I’m a pacifist. I’m anti-war. I’m extremely wary of the military industrial complex. I have family and friends who have served the country with distinction and honor and I'm proud of what they do and have done for America. These two statements do not negate each other nor are they in conflict.

The release of this report necessitates acknowledgements where usually I criticize. Let’s think of it in the spirit of A Christmas Carol and consider some past blog posts.

I have been sharply critical of President Barak Obama who came into office claiming that he’d have the “most transparent Presidency” in history only to criminalize journalists and be more opaque than his predecessor on a slew of issues. The creation and release of this report happened under his watch and with his buy-in. While there’s certainly a political element to the report and its release,  it still happened and he should get the credit.

The Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee – Diane Feinstein – even got her own blog some time ago. Her unwavering support of the FISA courts – those secret courts that rubber stamp anything the Government wants without any due process or opposition – got my wrath. Her committee spent an ungodly amount of money and time developing this tome that will never see the fullness of daylight. The summary, however, has shifted the needle and allowed America to see the truth if not to take responsibility for its actions. Kudos for seeing it through.

The media is often the brunt of my analysis. A predilection for gliz and simplicity crowds out nuance and important policy issues in most coverage. Many have continued their partisan coverage of the report, but it seems the majority of outlets reported the facts as outlined in the report. It's important that the public see and hear what happened. 

The content of what has been released is troubling. It’s likely criminal. It’s certainly inconsistent with the values America preaches. It infuriates me for what is done in my name with my tax dollars. The Washington Post's poll shows that a majority of Americans in every demographic believe torture can be justified. That's alarming and not whom I believe Americans to be.

Much of military action today is done to preserve the American way of life – which is a well-worn slogan. More often than not the War on Terror via misnomer “Patriot Act” and other laws like it have torn away at the Constitution that it’s intended to protect. The release of this report, however, is a moment of brightness, a moment of clarity and honesty even if what’s its reporting is contrary to every fiber of my being. It's proof that telling the truth is much better than not.

The real terror is what the other 5,475 pages say. What is there that can’t be released, that is too shameful to reveal? Would that change the poll results, or reinforce them? Before going down that road…let’s celebrate the Christmas miracle that we do have: 8.75% of a report critical of American actions was made public.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Boxing Day is a sucker punch

Boxing isn’t my thing. Too much blood and I never much saw the point of beating the crap out of somebody else. It’s a sport, but never seemed to be very sporting. Boxing Day has nothing to do with the sport. As fans of Downton Abbey know, it’s a holiday traditionally celebrated the day following Christmas Day, when servants and tradespeople would receive gifts, known as a "Christmas box", from their bosses or employers. It’s usually a European celebration that is a vestige from a time where there were “Upstairs” and “Downstairs” classes. President Obama made it American this week when he signed an executive order giving every federal worker the day off this year.

Friday December 26, 2014 is now a Federal holiday – meaning that all Federal employees do not have to report to work and will be paid for it. Since Christmas falls on a Thursday this year, that gesture makes for a nice four-day weekend. And, really, who am I to be Scrooge about people getting a day off that would likely be one of the least productive of the year?

Federal employees get a pretty nice benefit package – 36 days off, or 14% of the year out of the gate:
  • ·        10 paid holidays (and Inauguration Day every 4 years)
  • ·        13 days of vacation for the first three years service, 20 days of vacation with three to 15 years of service, and 26 days after 15 years.
  • ·        13 sick days are accrued each year regardless of length of service and employees can carry over any sick leave accumulation to the next year. (It can be converted to cash upon leaving.)

Other benefits include medical plans and multiple retirement plans. You’d think that Federal Employees would just get Social Security, but in addition the government also kicks in an equal amount (up to 5%) to 401K accounts along with pensions and an array of other programs that require a full website to detail.

Popular thinking has been that in exchange for lower pay government workers receive job security, a generous benefits package and the opportunity to serve. According to a study using information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Government workers cost 45% more than an equivalent worker in the private sector. A 2012 non-partisan Congressional Budget Office study compared wages and benefits of private sector workers to public sector workers and found that pay and benefit variances – with federal workers having overall more compensation than their contemporaries.

The total number of Government workers is up under the Obama Administration thought it is down significantly from the Reagan era.

It is estimated that each Federal Holiday costs the American taxpayer somewhere around $500 million dollars.  Half a billion dollars.  In a $3.5 trillion dollar budget it’s not actually a significant number, but it’s still a lot.

If Federal employees want to take off Boxing Day – let them! No Scrooge here. That’s what a benefit package is provided is for – so that people can take time off with pay. It’d be a different situation if there was no paid time off, but there’s plenty of buckets for government workers to choose from. It’s the American taxpayer who has been sucker punched by the President in his half-a-billion dollar give away.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Robbing Consumers

I was robbed this week. I was stupid and left my iPhone in the car ("hidden" in the center console, but I left the charger connected) so it was obvious to a passerby that there was something there. Aside from the hassle of having the car window replaced and the sense of intrusion caused by my own mistake, I spent the bulk of the day without a smart phone. My first instinct when I got into the car and noticed all of the broken glass was: I must take a photo of this for the police, insurance (and potentially Facebook). Oops, can’t do that, no phone. Then I went to contact the police but couldn’t because, well, no phone. As the day went by all of the little things that I use the miniature computer for became apparent: figuring out where the nearest phone store was, how to get there, having music on the way, etc. Every element of how I navigate day-to-day activities now seems reliant on the Internet through the palm of my hand.

President Obama last month endorsed Net Neutrality. Wikipedia defines this as “the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differently by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.”

From the time Al Gore 'invented the Internet,' it has become perhaps the most revolutionary tool in disseminating information. Regardless of class, race or any other of the usual variables – once somebody connects to the World Wide Web, the information is there for the asking. Time Magazine in 1982 made The Computer its “Person of the Year” and Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos received the honor in 1999, symbolic of the importance of the Internet and commerce. In 2006 “You” (the reader) was the selection to represent the “individual content creator on the World Wide Web.”

In the President’s web/video announcement, he cited a section of the Federal Communications Code that he wanted utilized to protect the principle of Net Neutrality. (He has to use the FCC rules and process because the other attempts by his Administration to govern the Internet have failed in court case after court case.) The  code cited means that the Government would regulate the Internet as a utility. That request underlines the importance that the Net has in everyday life (like lights, water, telephony). My own experience for just an afternoon (before resurrecting a 4 year old model which I will use for several more weeks) validates the President's idea that connectivity is very much part of how life is lived today. Regulating the Net as a utility though portends huge potential problems and it’s easy to see how many started frothing at the very idea. 

75% of the traffic on the Internet is attributable to streaming – whether it be Netflix, YouTube or another similar service. 

Internet Service Providers (Comcast, AT&T, Charter, etc.) have had to upgrade their equipment to manage this explosion in traffic and data. U.S. is 9th out of 243 countries in broadband speed, not bad overall but pretty lame for a "first world" country. Per the Huffington Post, Verizon charges $310/mo for 500 Mbps while in Seoul the same speed costs $30/mo. Most people don’t have anything near that speed, though.

To manage the explosion in traffic and data consumption, ISP’s want to charge fees to businesses – essentially penalizing successful companies that have people using large portions of data. Some mobile companies “throttle” the data after a certain threshold is met. 

The failed legislation and various FCC rule recommendations are designed to keep access open – neutral – regardless of the usage by user or content creator. Capitalists worry that having the Internet regulated means that innovation will suffer and the speed with which they can adapt to a changing marketplace will be dramatically impacted. It takes several years now for rates to be adjusted to market conditions for other utilities - that would kill the essence of the Net.

The internet’s very success – and its very ethos – is that it isn’t regulated. The web is just that – a network of computers throughout the globe that have a common protocol allowing access. It operates without a central governing body. This must continue.

It doesn’t make sense to have the government regulate the ISP’s like they do electric and water companies. It also doesn’t make sense to allow ISP’s the ability to restrict at will which content their customers have access to based on their own criteria. The solution is to keep the Internet free and open, and move the financial model to one of usage. If you want to access the internet and only need to check email, that’s one access price for using a relatively small about of data. If you want 24-7 streaming at the fastest possible connectivity, that’d be a different price...and different by provider. Let the consumer decide. Don’t rob consumers of choice.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

50 Shades of ... Me

I hit the mid-century mark this week. I’m at the tail end of the “Baby Boom” generation – which started in 1946 and ended in 1964. I made it by a month and am considered a “Late Boomer” or “Trailing Edge Boomer” according to Wikipedia.  The celebrations were bi-coastal with my enjoying good friends and family on both coasts on the same weekend, topped off by the Facebook frenzy of greetings from near and far. Hitting the big five-oh has not (so far) been one of those deep emotional psychological moments – that happened for me at 35 and again at 40. According to Social Security’s Life Expectancy Calculator I’ve got 32.3 years left.

Based on family history I thought I had about 25 years left – so I figured I was two-thirds through the journey. It’s fantastic that the U.S. Government provides life expectancy estimates through the Social Security website … because it’s not like they’ve ever been wrong or miscalculated anything before.

I’ve got the same human affliction of looking back and self-analysis that we all do. For this milestone, however, I am focused on the future. Perhaps it’s the earthquake that became of my life during "The Great Recession" - right now I'm fortunate to be able to focus on what’s next. Having lost nearly everything of material value, I need not worry about retirement...I'll just work 'til I drop. I don’t have a bucket list. Yet. Sure there's the usual list of "wouldn't it be nice..." things, but I'm not particularly passionate about them. While I’m not too interested in looking back on my own history, it is fascinating to see what happened fifty years back.

1964 was a good year. According to a wonderful DVD of the year I received as a gift – it’s not only the year that I arrived, but so did Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin. General Douglas MacArthur, Ian Flemming, Cole Porter and President Hoover died during the year. The Beatle’s landed in the U.S. for the first time in 64. Leonid Brezhnev took over the Soviet Union from Nikita Khruschev and presided over the country until he died in 1982. President Johnson was elected by a “landslide.” The Civil Rights Act became law and Sidney Poitier became the first African American to win an Oscar for Best Actor.

What’s happened in the past fifty years has been remarkable in human history, just like the fifty before were and the next fifty will be. Whether I’m around for all of them or a portion of them, I’m sure it'll be quite the journey.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Civil Shopping

I’m not much of a shopper – I’m more of a buyer. The hunting and pecking for items bores me to no end. When I find something I like and it’s in the price range that works, I buy it. This is true for big and small purchases. My Realtor was annoyed because I could walk through houses and in moments know if it would work for me or not. So he stopped coming along. 10 minutes after my first walk-thru of the one I knew would work I put an offer in. The sale closed 3 weeks later which felt like an eternity. As we move into the lucrative holiday shopping season, people are making their lists and checking them twice. It’s all part of the ritual of the season. So much so that local government have shopping lists too - of your stuff.

The Week summarized an in-depth The New York Times  article: “Civil asset forfeiture is a little-known practice that allows police or other government agencies to confiscate citizens' money or property without charging them with any crime. Because it is technically the seized asset — not the person who owned it — which is under suspicion, it is typically extremely difficult for people to get their stuff back.”

  • In Philadelphia a family had their home taken away because their son sold $40 of drugs from the front porch. (According to the CNN story, in Philadelphia alone more than 1,000 homes have been seized, 3,300 vehicles and $44 million in cash have been grabbed in the past decade.)
  • Individuals who have been stopped for suspicion of drunk driving have had the cars they were driving seized and kept by authorities even though the individual didn’t own the car may have just borrowed it (in many cases without permission). Women have been stopped, warned by the cops - not charged - and left standing at the side of the road as officer then drive off in their car.

Innocent victims whose property is confiscated because of an alleged crime somebody else commits can try and get it back. They have to go to court, pay court costs upfront and hire an attorney to advocate for them. Per the Times report: “Prosecutors estimated that between 50 to 80 percent of the cars seized were driven by someone other than the owner, which sometimes means a parent or grandparent loses their car.”

Let’s reiterate: the property is taken BEFORE there’s an arrest, and BEFORE there’s a conviction. This isn’t a drug kingpin living high on the hog who’s been sentenced and is having their toys taken away which was the original origin and intent of the law. Victims are every day people who have not committed any crime, have not been accused of any crime who lose huge amounts of their own property...often in disproportion to the value of the crime. (A six-figure house is taken over a $40 drug sale.)

The Times article continues: “Mr. McMurtry (chief of the forfeiture unit in the Mercer County, N.J) said his handling of a case is sometimes determined by department wish lists. 'If you want the car, and you really want to put it in your fleet, let me know — I’ll fight for it,' Mr. McMurtry said, addressing law enforcement officials on the video. 'If you don’t let me know that, I’ll try and resolve it real quick through a settlement and get cash for the car, get the tow fee paid off, get some money for it.'”

Somebody accused of drunk driving could lose a Ferrari while somebody else could lose a Yugo. It’s all at the discretion of the officers…and what car the local officials may be in the market for. So much for the punishment fitting the (alleged) crime.

A founding principle of the United States was the presumption of innocence and the right of the accused to due process. Civil forfeiture laws – which accounted for $4.2 billion in seized assets in 2012 – have gutted this presumption and thousands of innocent people are hugely impacted. The outrage is that it's not accidental or happenstance. Seminars and trainings are held for law enforcement to show them how to target particular items, which assets yield the best results and provide step by step instructions for dealing with “outraged innocents.” Local agencies seek out certain items (flat screens, vehicles, houses) and avoid others (jewelry and furniture).

This gift giving season be careful what you wish for. Uncle Sam, his cousins and their offspring may want it too. And they can just take it. Civil Forfeiture is really Civil Shopping. And it's wrong.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

No Signal

In my personal life I’m pretty lame at reading signals…especially in the romance department. I remember once I was sitting in a car with a potential mate and we spent over an hour talking...the kiss that happened totally surprised me...though it was the natural evolution in the mating ritual. There’s some sort of obtuseness around me in that arena that keeps my therapist on her toes. As much as there’s an opportunity for improvement personally, in work situations it’s nearly the opposite – I’m pretty astute in reading the signals and maneuvering the nuances of various situations. I wish that our political leaders could say the same.

The 2014 mid-term elections have provided plenty of fodder for the simple conclusions that most pundits provide these days. “Crushing defeat,” and “Devastating loss” are how some of the headlines have read. Even the generally impartial Wikipedia describes the “sweeping gains” of the GOP. While some races are still being counted and runoffs are happening, as of 11/13/14 there was a net gain of 6 seats in the Senate (16% of the seats up for election, 6% of the total) and 13 seats in the House (3%). Most of the ‘contested’ races were close – all within 10% margin of victory. Crushing? Not quite.

Some analysts have stumbled upon the more important statistic: turnout. “Nationwide voter turnout was just 36.4%, down from 40.9% in the 2010 midterms and the lowest since the 1942 elections.” Turnout is calculated based on registered voters, not eligible. 30% of people eligible to vote are not even registered – that's 59,761,000 people.

Applying the eligible voter calculation against the actual turnout (i.e. reducing it by the 30% of the population who isn’t registered) 25.48% of the public voted in 2014. To win an election requires just a majority of votes, so just 13% of the eligible voters make the decision. Given that most of the contested races were within 10% of each other – the mandate is thanks to some 15% of the population. Not quite sweeping.

Both Republicans & Democrats look to the top line numbers, not the bottom line. They see more victors from one party than the other. In the thrill of victory House and Senate leaders renewed their commitment to repeal the Affordable Care Act – President Obama’s signature (and sole?) legislative accomplishment. He would no doubt veto any such legislation if it reached his desk. There aren't enough votes to override a veto. The President has indicated he will use Executive Action on immigration which promptly resulted in the GOP wagging their fingers and saying “don’t you dare!”

President Obama spoke to the nation on Nov. 5  saying "To those of you who voted, I hear you," Obama said in his first public remarks since the election. "To those who didn't vote, I hear you too."

In 1969 newly elected President Richard Nixon spoke to the nation regarding the War in Vietnam. He summed up his pitch: “And so tonight-to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans-I ask for your support.”

75% of American’s opted out of this election – despite (or perhaps because of) the $3.7 billion spent to “sway” them. It averages out to some $25 per vote. The President has determined that this means that folks are happy with him and his policies because they didn’t come out to vote for change. The GOP claims that people are so disgusted that they didn’t bother to come out. Somebody's not getting the signal: 92% disapprove of Congress and three-quarters of American’s opted out of the process. Something's gotta change.

Thursday, November 6, 2014


I work hard. Probably too hard. I average between 55 and 60 hours a week, with the busy season hitting it’s closer to 75 to 80. Earlier in my career I went seven years without a vacation. After flaming out I found a nice balance and actually took the time off I earned each year and ultimately was a happier and more productive person. All along it’s been my choice – while I can always come up with reasonable and strong justifications for my addictive habit, I have been fortunate in that the pressure to work and deliver results has been largely driven by me, making modifications somewhat easier. As somebody who is intimately familiar with the push and pull of “work” “life” balances, I’m particularly sensitized to others who claim to be burdened. I was amused by the recent study that members of Congress are considered workaholics as well, putting in 70 hours a week.

Roll Call reports that the average member of congress works 70 hours a week. The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) report was compiled from 200 interviews of congress people and their senior staff. The claim isn’t based on hours that they’re awake – it is based on labor. One of the reports researchers made the understatement of the year: “Perceptions are very different.”

Just about a year ago, in Dec. 2013, an America’s Voice (AV) issued a study came showing that Congress worked only 942 hours all year.  The difference between working 3640 hours a year and 942 is not one of just perception, but of methodology. (The average worker on a 40 hours week works 2080 per year, right in between the two studies.)  The CMF report includes the hours that a congress person spends working on constituent affairs, fundraising and all the things to keep their office going. The AV report only looked at the hours that Congress was officially in session and assumes that member of Congress are working only when in session.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Members of Congress do have work to do to respond to constituent requests, study issues, fund raise, etc. Just showing up and voting is not the sum total of the job.

97% of Congress was re-elected this week. 10 seats changed from one party to the other in the House – 3%.  6 seats changed in the Senate, 6% of the total or 16% of the seats that were up open. The media and political elite are beside themselves that “control” of the Senate has switched from Democrats to Republicans. While it’s true that a narrow majority of Republicans will now mean that committees and procedures will be run by a different party – the reality is very little will change. The Republicans controlled the agenda for the past 6 years by voting “no” on everything – by using everything they could to block legislation, appointments, etc. 

The paralysis that has defined Washington politics for the past decade plus will continue, the leadership will just be slightly different. The various political analysts will bloviate and the ‘differences’ between the parties will be hyped as if it was something discernable. As the hamster-wheel of America’s political establishment spins away, it’s comforting to know that they’re all working as hard as I am.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Shipping Activism

I work as the Executive Director of a gay specific organization, so in a culture like ours where you are what you do – virtually every social interaction is a coming out opportunity. Back in the mid-90’s when I was the Executive Director of a gay specific social services organization – it became so tiresome that on airplanes and in some general conversation I found it easier to say that I ran a social services group rather than give the full name. It only happened a handful of times, but it was telling how bad I felt whenever I didn't fully disclose. Twenty years later I no longer self-censor, which is a liberating experience even when people have issues. Last week I was on vacation and part of me didn’t want to be the activist for those who displayed ignorance or discomfort about me and my work. I was on holiday, but being who you are doesn't take a vacation. 

It was my 18th cruise. Floating from Point A to Point B ... watching the horizon go by is one of the things I find most spiritually, physically and emotionally restoring. I like the whole experience of unpacking once and every day or every few days popping into another port to explore. It’s not the best way to immerse into another culture, it’s the American way of tourism – skimming! The food is usually excellent and plentiful – with many healthier options available. Cruises are a great way to meet different people – and connect with them as much or as little as you want. Some days I’m happiest sitting on the balcony staring off and occasionally reading through the latest mystery. Other days I enjoy wandering the decks and getting into chats with people. Not once on this trip did anybody ask me what I did for a living. Nirvana!

There are shows at night – lowest common denominator selections of popular music, movie music and show music. The live band and singers are supported by tracks and the dancers work themselves into an aerobic sweat. For me it’s pretty cheesy but many other cruisers find it the height of culture. That’s what’s great about a cruise ship – it’s Las Vegas on the sea.

The whole enterprise is run by the Captain and the various social events are cheer lead by the Cruise Director. It’s not quite Captain Stubing and Julie McCoy from The 1970’s classic “The Love Boat” – but it’s not that far off either. When the Captain and then the Cruise Director made insensitive gay remarks, I was surprised, startled and taken aback. In 18 cruises I had certainly heard a few cracks and inappropriate comments along the way – from staff, even from officers. Never from the visible leadership of the ship.

What do I do? People in Dallas tackled a man who yelled anti-gay obscenities at a man wearing a pink shirt the other day. Not my style. I am a pacifist after all! I also believe (and blog) about people's right to be stupid, say dumb things and be insensitive. We must tolerate intolerance - except in instances where harm is done to people. Defining harm is where it gets tricky. Educating and training about how remarks or actions are problematic is a good step forward. Boycotts and shaming people and companies can be effective - but should be done in proportion to the offense. In this case it wasn't a systemic problem, so I'm not calling out the company.

As I pondered (a) whether I had lost my sense of humor and (b) whether I had become too sensitized to any potential infraction the overhead speaker crackled to life with the twice-daily rah-rah from the Cruise Director. The “gag” continued. Maybe I should watch some television and distract my reaction. The daily video from the Cruise Director was there with yet another variation of the same series of insults and stereotypes. 

I touched based with my traveling companions and others in our gay group – all agreed it was inappropriate. None agreed as to what to do about it. We were, after all, on holiday…and it could just as easily be considered sophomoric humor as homophobic.

I wrote to the parent company and my travel agent who then shared it with his corporate group sales rep. On the end-of-cruise survey I reiterated the points as did my traveling companions and others. I don’t ever expect to hear from the company – and my next cruise or two won’t be with them, but I may well travel with them again as I think the incidents were individual rather than institutional.

Will my correspondence and communications change anything? Maybe not. If one person sees it and realizes that words and deeds have impact and consequences, then the shipboard activism will have been worth it. 

Every little pebble thrown into the ocean may not make a splash, but a bunch of them cause a ripple. Next Tuesday, November 4 2014 is Election Day. Throw your pebble into the ocean and vote. 13% of the American public approve of Congress. Over 90% of Congress is re-elected cycle after cycle. These statistics are ad total odds with each other - and that's because the people who disapprove of Congress are not actually voting. It's time for a ripple or two - for all of us to have ship board activism.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Living like a King

I read nearly two dozen books a year. I was an early adopter of the Kindle because my reading isn’t evenly spread throughout the year – I tend to binge read while traveling or on holiday. Schlepping 10 books in a bag became old very quickly…especially since I’m a light packer otherwise. Now I download books to the iPhone and use the Kindle app – much more convenient! In today’s social media technology environment – being able to travel, vacation and have electronic gadgets to read books is a whole series of luxuries known as #firstworldissues. Traveling has its own array of #firstworldproblems.

In a post 9/11 world where all but one major airline company went through bankruptcy, fees have become the solution for balancing the books. CNN/Money reports that $31.5 billion was earned by airlines in 2013 – up from $2.8 5 six years earlier. Annoying as those fees are – they are democratic. If you want more legroom – pay the fee. If you want to bring a lot of stuff, pay a fee. If you don’t want to pay a fee – choose an airline that doesn’t charge fees.

The monetization of every element of airline travel began with the 1978 ‘deregulation’ of the industry. Before then the Government assigned prices and managed schedules. While the industry remains highly regulated, the ‘deregulation’ allowed airlines to introduce the hub-and-spoke system, mange its own pricing and have increased competition. Government still controls routes, security and a slew of other components. Business Class travel was introduced in 1978 – allowing those who were willing to pay for the privilege of having more space.

Companies pay for executives to fly in Business Class for a variety of reasons. Keeping key staff comfortable and happy is certainly part of it, but it's also making sure that their time is productive in the air and on the ground is cost-effective. A well rested sales person/executive is more effective than somebody who needs a day to recover from traveling. Financially the cost of business travel is deductible.

Companies pay federal taxes. For shareholders the goal is to be as profitable as possible – but for tax reporting the goal is to maximize deductions to reduce the tax liability. Travel is a true cost of business and should offset revenue. Does it make sense, though, for first-class and business-class travel to be fully deductible? By allowing a deduction for a luxury item means that the taxpayer is essentially underwriting the premium service. A deduction of the base cost of the fare would be more in the spirit of Government’s desire to incentivize commerce which would then eliminate the taxpayers role in subsidizing luxury travel.

U.S. companies pay one of the highest tax rates in the world – 35%. They pay this rate on revenue earned anywhere. So a U.S. company that earns money in France has to pay whatever tax it owes to the French Government but in addition must pay 35% to the U.S. on those monies as well. A Corporate Inversion is the process where businesses relocate their main offices outside of the United States. These companies still pay 35% tax on all income earned in the U.S. – they just don’t pay a tax on money earned in another country. President Obama has called this “un-American” and shames the businesses for “not paying their fair share.” Taxing money earned outside of the country isn’t fair. No wonder businesses take full advantage of all of the legal options to reduce their tax obligation.

Theoretically taxes are levied against revenue earned in a jurisdiction to offset the costs of services provided by government for that jurisdiction. Local sales tax, then, helps pay for local police to keep the community safe. Federal taxes help pay military costs, etc. Charging a levy against money earned outside that jurisdiction makes it hard to justify the applicability. Why would Boston need to charge a tax on money earned by its residents in New York? It doesn’t. In corporate taxes, though, the U.S. charges 35% to Burger King on money it earns everywhere in the world.

The U.S. tax code is currently 73,954 pages. The code is full of incentives for individuals and business to behave and conform in a manner that Government wants. (Home ownership only became a standard when the Government tax code made it financially beneficial for the majority by having the cost of mortgage interest reduce their tax liability.) One of the consequences is that some companies then don’t pay any tax, and the overall percentage of taxes paid by business have declined. The problem lies in the tax code – not in those who take advantage of what the code allows.

The desire for the State to manage every element of its citizens behavior has resulted in the world’s greatest Democracy to move further towards Imperialism. It applies both to the people who fly in Business and First Class which is subsidized by taxpayers through a tax deduction and to politicians who have created a system that penalize companies for earning money outside the borders. It’s time to do away with the monarchy…again.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Mad as Hell

I am a little bit spoiled. I have expectations that things will work a certain way – and when they don’t, I have less patience than I wish I did. This is especially true with technology. I’m of an age where I know the complexities it takes to make things happen, but am so accustomed to having it that I have little patience when there’s an interruption in the Cable TV, the high-speed wifi Internet, etc. I have to remind myself of the progress in my own lifetime – the computer on Apollo 11 that took the first men to the Moon is less powerful than what I carry around in my shirt pocket every day.  Frustrated as I may get when tech doesn’t work as I think it should, nothing compares to the angst that the American political system can generate.

I don’t think of myself as one of those Angry Tea Baggers fuming against the government. The Government has a role to play in our lives. The Founders pretty clearly laid out in the Constitution how intrusive it should be. Over the history of the U.S. there’s been an ongoing debate about the tension between those who see a more activist role for the State and those who prefer less of one. That’s a good thing, and something to celebrate. Whatever size and role you think the Government should play in all of our lives - the one thing we should all be able to agree on is that it should be done properly. There should be no room for incompetence. That's not the case and I'm Mad as Hell about it!

Let’s look at some of the top issues facing Americans today. Regardless of your political persuasion – whether you think that what the government is doing is good or bad – we can all be mad about how it’s being done.
  •  The U.S. Government spends $1.20 for every $1 it brings in. Total debt is nearly $18 trillion with each person owing about $55,000.  
  •  The military of the United States is deployed in more than 150 countries around the world, with over 160,000 of its active-duty personnel serving outside the U.S. and an additional 110,000 deployed in various contingency operations. 
  •  The President of the United States, a former Constitutional Law Professor, maintains a kill list and decides whom to eliminate without the benefit of a trial, evidence or a defense.
  •  Congress worked 107 days in 2012 and 113 in 2013. 
  •  The largest agencies of the Federal Government – including the IRS itself - can’t be audited because their books and records are in such bad shape. It's been this way for decades now.
  •  Director of National Intelligence James Clapper gave the “least untruthful” answer to Congress about gathering data on millions of Americans. That was after he initially said he didn’t lie. Most recently he claims it was a “mistake.”
  •  The Secret Service not only allowed breaches of security and its own policies, it didn’t disclose them until under oath. 
  • The Veterans Administration and the roll out of the Affordable Care Act show that despite best intentions, government's management of health care has a long way to go. 
  •  The head of the Centers for Disease Control and the Administration have minimized the outbreak of Ebola in the U.S. as a paranoid fantasy. Meanwhile cases are popping up and people are dying in the U.S. The Director of the NIH said this week that the Republicans have caused the problem because of “budget cuts” making a medical catastrophe-in-the-making political.

There’s plenty to be frustrated about. Is the Government – whether Legislative or Executive – lying to the public on purpose? Or are they just incompetent? Probably a little of both.

Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 movie “Network” is largely famous for its character Howard Beale who persuades viewers to shout out of their windows "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" It's time to start yelling once again.

The time has long passed for Americans to hold its leaders accountable for the inept handling of its affairs.