Thursday, May 29, 2014

Lost & Found

July 1, 1980 I watched the first hours of what was known as Cable News Network. The sets were tacky, lighting bad, but real news was being reported. For a current-events junkie, it was nirvana. The 3 network newscasts were a joke in comparison. Today those newscasts continue to provide the majority of Americans with their news – 65% according to Pew Research.  Cable watchers are just 38% and most of it is recycled press releases and who can yell louder at the opposing viewpoint. I haven’t watched cable news regularly in nearly a decade, frustrated by the lack of depth and inquisitiveness in the coverage and the overreliance on opinion – whether it be CNN, Fox or MSNBC. The recently launched Al Jazeera America in a rare bright spot in the landscape. Last week CNN returned to its roots, albeit for a moment.

CNN spent weeks covering the disappearance of flight 370, including putting reporters in flight simulators and having anchors use toy airplanes to tell the story. Ratings soared with the theatrics. Last week CNN returned to its journalism roots and its reporting on the Veteran’s Affairs issues took center stage. The story went national and viral with disclosures that up to 40 veterans died while waiting for an appointment to see a doctor. The Inspector General just released an indictment of the current system – supporting CNN’s reporting. Its a powerful story that touches on many public policy areas.
It is surprising to learn that CNN investigative reporter Drew Griffin who led the investigation credited the missing flight in the networks ability to cover the story. “The network’s focus on the plane allowed [Griffin’s] team to finalize the story, at which point they waited for a lull in the search.” Long gone are the days that scoops and breaking news actually needed to get into the public consciousness. Debris floating in the ocean counts as ‘breaking news’ but the lack of care for veterans can wait?

Shocking as the report is – the reality is that the problems with the Veteran’s Administration have been well-known and documented. My blog last Veteran’s Day Dishonoring Veterans outlined all of the ways that the U.S. Government was not fulfilling its obligations. The current report is just one more way.

U.S. House Speaker John Boener reiterated his 20-year plan to privatize the Veteran’s Administration. I am a free market capitalist who largely believes that the private sector can deliver services more effectively and at a better cost than the government. There are exceptions. Taking care of Veterans is one of them. Mr. Boener, along with nearly every other House member and Senator spent most of the years after the 9/11 attacks voting to take America to war and continuing to fund the wars and military conflicts. Funding rose during this period. “In the Obama era VA spending rose another 78 percent, the largest increase on a percentage level of any Cabinet agency in Obama's tenure. The annual VA budget rose $65.9 billion a year to $150.7 billion in FY2014.” The justification for increased funding was to better serve veterans directly from the VA.

Privatization is something the Republicans and the Obama Administration agree on. The administration over the weekend authorized veteran’s ability to obtain healthcare at private hospitals. The move may provide additional choices for care, but impacts an already overburdened healthcare system with more patients without the benefit of specialists trained in the impact of military service. The private healthcare system in the U.S. is currently trying to absorb millions of people who now have insurance coverage and are seeking medical care. The VA already spends $4.8 billion per year on outsourcing medical services. Now the dollars the VA has will go less far by using third parties.

Until such time that the United States separates the physical and mental health of its citizens from the cost-driven insurance approach to healthcare, there will continue to be harrowing stories and examples of people not getting the care they deserve. If the Government sends its men and women to war, it  must legally and morally fulfill its promise to take care of the injured. Hopefully that resolve will be found before the missing plane is.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Government Motors: gone but not forgotten

I’m a car aficionado. Every three years I upgrade to a new vehicle. In my younger days (working in for-profit) I was able to do so every 18 to 24 months. Leasing enables my habit. Only in the past decade have I become brand loyal and consistent.  Before these Honda days I’d go from a Chevy to a sporty Z to a Jeep. Negotiating a car deal never intimidated me. I remember my Dad and I co-negotiating a Datsun back in the 1970’s when I was a pre-teen. I think I’ve helped on every car buy my folks had since then – mortifying my mother when I suggested a better deal could be had with the dealer who happened to be the Church Warden that she served with. Needless to say, Mom was right and a fair deal ensued and that car has served her well for nearly a decade. Neither George W. Bush nor Barak Obama negotiated a good deal in “saving” GM. A TARP report came out this week stating that U.S. taxpayers lost $11.2 billion on the deal.

How is that possible? Didn’t GM pay back the U.S. in full? In 2008/09 when the economy was in a freefall, the Bush administration agreed to “bail out” the automaker as it went through a structured bankruptcy. When President Obama’s team came into office $50 billion in taxpayer funds were allocated - approx. $8 billion as a loan and $42 billion as stock in the “new” GM. In 2010 then CEO Ed Whitacre ran a series of newspaper and television ads touting that GM had “paid back” the loans, with interest, in full, “five years ahead of schedule.”

The promotional campaign did wonders for the public’s perception of the company. Confidence in the company soared and sales started increasing. There’s disagreement on how GM “paid” the funds back. It appears that the funds the Government used to bail out the company were used to repay the government. Per Wikipedia: “Some Republican congressmen were critical of the statement that GM had repaid the loan from TARP calling it a ‘lie to the American people’. They say the money for the loan repayment came from other bailout funds housed in an escrow account belonging to the company.” Regardless of the accounting trick - the loan portion was paid back, but the disproportionate share of the bailout was in capital. 

The bulk of U.S. taxpayer investment came in the form of the cash being converted into stock – so much so that the moniker “Government Motors” took hold. Over the past several years since the “new” company went public the U.S. has been selling its stake in the company – to appease people like me who don’t think the Government should have ever been shareholders in the first place. The rate at which the stock was sold compared to the value of the stock on the open market resulted in the lost $11.2 billion. It would be disingenuous to complain about the loss without recognizing that if there wasn’t a loss then the government would continue to be a major stockholder - also a problem. I can’t have it both ways – a profit and no ownership because the underlying financial model never justified the capital investment by the Government in the first place. The solution, of course, would have been to let the market sort out the problems in 2008/09. Some would have lost jobs, but other companies would have bought the brands, reorganized, etc. The political will just didn’t exist.

Since the 2008 bailout (6 years) the Government has installed 5 different CEO’s at the company. The company in 2013 was the #1 seller of cars in the U.S. with nearly 18% of the market, moving 2.7 million vehicles.

This week the company has recalled another 2.4 cars – making the total 13.6 million cars in the U.S. (15 million worldwide) needing to be repaired at a cost estimated at nearly $2 billion. The 2004-2008 model years are the defective cars...perhaps one of the reasons the company was going under?

The U.S. Government last week fined the company the maximum amount of $35 million for the delay in issuing the recalls. Not for having dangerous cars that have killed people - but for not recalling and fixing the cars quickly enough. The irony of this action is rich. During the years that the U.S. was the single largest shareholder of the company and the Obama administration was rotating CEO’s in and out  there was a significant delay in issuing recalls on vehicles. In various Congressional hearings this nugget seems to have been lost: days after the U.S. exits its role as investor it returns to its role as regulator to punish what it oversaw as principal shareholder.

I never supported taxpayer money bailing out a private company. History has shown that letting poorly run entities die and be reinvented by competitors  or allowing entrepreneurs to take troubled assets in new directions yields the best economic and social results. There is short term pain but long term success. It is the basis of capitalism. Instead, President Bush said “I’ve abandoned free market principles to save the free market.” The legacy of Government Motors is a fine for not running the company properly, let alone the people who died as a result of driving the “deathtraps.” Oh, and let's not forget $11.2 billion.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

‘til death do us part?

Once upon a time I was married. Sort of. We were young, in love and crazy for each other. We complemented each other – where he was gregarious and outgoing I was more introverted and shy socially. I couldn’t (and still can’t) find my way around without navigational assistance, and he’s the human GPS – even in places we had never visited before. Our interests were not identical – giving us the ability to learn from each other while still being able to live our own lives. We formalized our partnership in the only way that was permissible then: we had a commitment ceremony with our nearest and dearest. It was an incredible day and a special time. It ended abruptly and painfully. For us there were no rules, no laws – we made it all up to suit our needs: the commitment and the un-commitment. It all happened a lifetime ago – ten years before Gay Marriage became an “Issue.” Would things have been different if the gay community (let alone the wider community) been conditioned to same sex commitments? Doubtful. But the path might have been easier for both of us. As we are upon the 10th Anniversary of same-sex marriage this weekend, I’ve been reflecting on what it all means.

May 17, 2004 Marriage Equality became the law of Massachusetts. Since then many other states have followed suit, and just last summer the Supreme Court declared Proposition 8 (the law banning gay marriages) unconstitutional – moving the process along even quicker. According to the USCensus there are over 600,000 same sex couples in the US – and about 100,000 have married. It’s an incredibly small amount compared to the approx. 60 million of non-gay marriages the Census reports on. The reality is that there’s probably lots more. The 2020 Census will have much better data. It's also unclear from press reports (and anecdotal stories), but I've been unable to locate any example of how these marriages have negatively impacted non-gay marriages.

Most of the opponents of gay marriage cite various Biblical references as supporting evidence of their resistance. While some may be fearful and bigoted against gays, a huge number of people are conflicted about their desire for fairness and equality and their underlying religious beliefs. Others, however, have taken it further – trying to establish “religious exemptions” for businesses and religious organizations that oppose gay marriage. The argument is that if you disapprove of something based on your religion (like two guys or gals getting hitched) then you don’t have to provide services. Bakers refusing to sell wedding cakes, wedding venues declining bookings are just a few examples where passionate opponents insist they shouldn’t be required to support something they oppose.

Serving the public means having to provide goods and services to everybody regardless of any condition. Imagine an atheist florist declining providing flowers for an Easter service because they don’t agree that Jesus rose from the dead. Or a white supremacist who won’t serve people of color. Society can’t function if the goal is for everybody and every business agrees with their customers.

Many non-U.S. countries in Europe and Latin America bifurcate the Government’s role in marriages and the Church’s role. Couples go to City Hall (or the equivalent), do the paperwork and registration and are then married in the eyes of the state for legal purposes, tax reasons, etc. Some then go out and party. Others hold a religious celebration. Others do something else entirely based on their own interests, beliefs and needs. The civil part of marriage is separated from the ceremonial part.

The very best thing the U.S. could do is emulate this model. Take the Church’s out of it. Priests, Rabbi’s, all religious leaders would not have the legal ability to marry people. They could only bless, sanction, celebrate the relationships however their faith traditional permits. Only the government could actually do the legal connection. Church’s that don’t support marriages between two loving people of the same gender wouldn’t have to bless those unions, but the couple would be equally married as any other.

Despite the progression of legislative victories for equality, they could always be rescinded, and the Church, however progressive in their new communications policies, is unlikely to alter underlying interpretations theology. Separating the legal function of marriage and the religious element would solve the problem. I look forward to one day going down the aisle, connecting with my betrothed legally. My faith and my Church will bless us. But first there's that ‘til death do us part bit…

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Political Righteousness

I’m the son of East Coast liberal parents. I grew up in a home which respected people’s differences – whether they be economic, social, racial or any other defining characteristic. I was around idealism of how an activist government could make the world a better place. The fact that my own political beliefs do not parrot my parents world view is a testament to how I was raised: to think for myself and to be an individual. Political correctness is the antithesis of that: it’s a set of terms and language that’s used to define groups based on a set of criteria (such as gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, etc.). How I talk to and about others could be construed as politically correct – it so happens that’s the byproduct of treating people as you want to be treated.  Recent events underscore the conflict between free speech and what large segments of society find acceptable.

Fred Phelps died last month. He rose to prominence in the U.S. through Westboro Baptist Church where the majority of parishioners were his relations. The rag-tag group went around the country (and world), picketing funerals and propagating anti-gay sentiments. “God Hates Fags” is not just their most famous sign – it’s the name of the Church’s website. The venom that Phelps spewed caused many people intense pain. The extremism and visibility of the hate towards gays may have actually helped the movement. Speech such as Phelps, as repugnant as I find it, is the speech that most deserves to be protected. Speech such as Phelps that moves people to action is dangerous and potentially criminal. There's no formula to distinguish between speech that is hurtful, insulting and stupid and speech that incites violence and danger.

Brendan Eich joined Netscape in 1995 where he created Javascript – a programming language that allows web browsers to do a bunch of nifty things. He had been part of the various successor companies until he was named CEO of Netscape in March 2014. Within days of the announcement it was discovered that the executive had made a personal donation of $1,000 6 years before to the Proposition 8 political campaign that successfully repealed gay marriage in California (before the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in June 2013). Two weeks later, amid a deluge of actions by the LGBT community, Eich resigned his position.

Marriage Equality is becoming the law of the land. This is a good thing. Not everybody agrees, so should those with a minority opinion be blacklisted? It wasn’t that long ago that the minority opinion was that same sex couples deserved the right to marry their partner. It is refreshing that for the good of a major corporation, the board made a change – recognizing that a CEO is more than an individual, it’s somebody who represents the company’s ideals to the public and to shareholders. The company, however, has a long and distinguished progressive track record in supporting LGBT employees and customers. Can somebody disagree with a company's positions still be able to run it? Good executives have to. Eich was entitled to express his personal opinion and make a contribution to a cause that he believed in. It’s a cause I fought hard against for many years…and we need to have the vigorous debate to air all sides of controversial and emotional issues with the fear of a new litmus test. Such tests may change - so let's be very careful about what lines get drawn in the sand. 

Donald Sterling is being fined $2.5 million and is potentially being forced to sell his NBA team The Clippers after his African-American/Latin 'girlfriend' recorded him saying: “It bothers mе a lot thаt уоu wаnt tо broadcast thаt you’re associating with black people. Dо уоu hаvе to?” That quote plus a number of others expose somebody who appears to be small minded and racist. Sterling’s not discriminated against anybody – in fact has many people of color on the court and in his employ across a variety of sectors. The veracity of the tape is not in question, but the motive for the recording is quite murky with various stories and rumors of money and blackmail being circulated. Regardless of the circumstances that drew the comments out – they’re awful and do not represent what a vast majority of civilized people believe. The NBA is a collective - not a capitalist organization, so Sterling must follow what the majority says. They have rules permitting the commissioner on behalf of other owners to dictate who can own a team. It’s not free enterprise. Sterling is likely to lose the team because of those rules. Ignorant and mean as his comments are – to lose a half-a-billion dollars over something that is said – NOT DONE – is troubling. He agreed to those rules, so it's not unfair. The comments that offend us the most are the ones that are most deserving of being heard. 

In each of these cases the ideals of an enlightened society seems to triumph. An anti-gay bigot died alone and excommunicated from his own Church. A multi-national company fired a CEO for supporting an anti-gay campaign. A major sport has sided against racism. Noble results, all. The consequence, however, appears that speech will be stifled. Society is moving beyond political correctness to political righteousness. The danger is when speech you think should be in the majority is actually in the minority. Who decides that and how? Exhibit B: President Putin just yesterday outlawed swearing in the media. Crap.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

You've got Virus

I joined America Online back in the dark ages when you were assigned a number for your membership. I remember listening to the grinding of the 2,400 baud modem connecting over telephone lines...thrilled when the high pitched electronic sound sync’d. My AOL member number was under the 6 digit mark, so it was early days for what became a behemoth (before it became extinct). I delighted in the “You’ve Got Mail” announcement until I began getting these strange messages from people I didn’t know for things I didn’t want. Back then you would reply to such oddities and politely explain that the mail must have been intended for somebody else. We all quickly learned that by responding to spam messages only unleashed the floodgates since we had inadvertently validated that the messages were reaching real people who actually looked at them. More than once I’ve succumbed to a rogue message and gotten my system infected with some nasty virus or other. The tech industry innovated an entire new sector to filter email, scan for viruses and monitor malware. Today I receive about 250 unwanted messages each day to my various accounts, and despite that annoyance, I’m glad that the government didn't step in to run the email system as many wanted. Little did I realize that the government itself is a purveyor of sending out junk email with malware that infects computers.

In November 2013 the media began reporting on the NSA’s placing of malicious malware on 50,000 computers around the world. The administration focused concern away from the disclosure by pointing out how few 50,000 computers actually were. Further reporting showed that the vast majority of computers targeted were not U.S. based and were part of the process of keeping tabs on foreign governments. Interest and concern waned.

The more recent information gleaned from the Edward Snowden released documents is that the NSA ("National Security Agency") has been impersonating Facebook to gain access to people’s computer. The program, launched full scale in 2010, has infected millions of computers. It allows the NSA to “covertly record audio from a computer’s microphone and take snapshots with its webcam. The hacking systems have also enabled the NSA to launch cyber-attacks by corrupting and disrupting file downloads or denying access to websites.” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said : “I've called President Obama to express my frustration over the damage the government is creating for all of our future. Unfortunately, it seems like it will take a very long time for true full reform.”

It’s only been a year that the public has had proof about the U.S. Government’s spying on American citizens. In May 2013 – Edward Snowden left the U.S. and met with reporters from the The Washington Post and The Guardian. He disclosed to them a massive amount of classified material. A small amount of the data was published. The Establishment, outraged, embarrassed and beside themselves call him a traitor amongst other things and some sought to censor the publications for publishing the information. The Pulitzer Prize was recently awarded the two papers for the stories - validating their newsworthiness and that they weren't "aiding the enemy" as the Obama Administration referred to it.

It's easy to acknowledge and support the release of information that showed how the government was spying on its citizens. Certainly it was a breach of confidential information and a violation of the law - but the privacy being impeded was a greater problem. It’s hard, however, to condone somebody like Snowden who fled the jurisdiction. Based on how the U.S. government treatment of Chelsea Manning (fka Bradley Manning) by having her stand naked for days on end until psychologists warned the Defense Department that she was losing her mental capacity to stand trial – it is at least understandable.

The Obama Administration ridiculed the idea that the U.S. government had the capability, let alone the interest in reading everybody’s email.  “We don’t have a domestic spying program,” President Obama said. Gathering metadata on emails, phone calls and texts without somebody's consent is certainly not being transparent. The U.S. Government sending out malware and impersonating a major social media company in order to gain access and control of individual computers may not be the President’s definition of a domestic spying program, but it is for most of us. AOL’s classic catch-phrase “You’ve Got Mail” has a much deeper and more sinister meaning considering the NSA is sending the messages.