Thursday, June 26, 2014

Ugliest of Americans

The solstice has passed and this thing called ‘summer’ is underway. After a quarter-century in Los Angeles the meteorological changing of the seasons on the East Coast is still surprising to me. With the rising temperature and school vacations the travel season is underway. It is the season of ugly Americans – a pejorative description of American behavior on foreign soil. People who expect a different place to have the same amenities, values and traditions of home and are vocal about it are pigeon holed as loud, obnoxious and arrogant American tourists. Having been abroad and both participated in such behavior and observed it, the United States is not well represented in such situations. As embarrassing as that can be, however, it pales in comparison to ugly, arrogant and misguided American foreign policy.

The U.S. has been at war for most of its history. Presidents Harding through Hoover (1921-1933) oversaw the longest period of peace. After that, World War I and all of the subsequent wars, military conflicts have moved the United States into such a global role that in many ways America is the policeman to the world.

The nuances of a particular conflict should be looked at on their merits. Defending a friend/ally or supporting a particular regime over another at least provides a choice between two specific options. More recently the conflicts have given way to something far more troubling. Nation Building – where America comes in and instills what the Administration thinks is best. (Congress has little say, other than budgetary, so policy is really up to the executive branch.)

In Afghanistan, a country that was conquered by Alexander the Great in 330 BC has been in military conflict non-stop since 1978. Americans (like Russians before them) have tried to instill its own sense of government over that of the citizens. Neither succeeded.

President George W Bush (43) campaigned heavily against an interventionist foreign policy. He said: “If we don't stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions, then we're going to have a serious problem coming down the road. And I'm going to prevent that.” After the attacks of 9/11 he changed course, saying that circumstances required America to instill its values around the world to defend itself. His successor continued the drive to Americanize Afghanistan and has increased troops, spending and training on what he describes as the “legitimate war.” Recently he has indicated a deadline for all troops to leave that country, much to the horror of some.

President Obama actually fulfilled his campaign promise to “end the war” in Iraq. In December 2011, the ninth year of the conflict, all U.S. military personnel left the country. There remain at least 7,000 military contractors on the ground – paid for by private enterprise under contract with the Defense Department – but official U.S. soldiers have been gone from the country. Last week Sunni protestors reignited the sectarian violence that has defined the country for decades.  Hundreds of U.S. troops have been sent in to "observe."

Former prisoner of war and chief GOP warmonger John McCain attacked the administration over its “losing” Iraq. He ultimately wants troops to be used to restore the ‘peace’ that had been imposed on the country during a near decade of U.S. control after the invasion. This idea is the ugliest of American stereotypes – thinking that we have the answers to every country’s problems and will use our strength and might to impose it. That’s not democracy. That’s imperialism. And it’s un-American.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

It should be all Greek

In sports, rooting for the home team is part and parcel of living in that community. The conundrum comes when one home team is playing against a former (or soon to be) team. Such is the case in the current battle for Olympic gold – the U.S. site for the 2024 Summer Olympics. Boston and Los Angeles along with San Francisco and Washington DC are in the running. One of the cities will become the potential host that then competes with other cities in the world for the privilege of hosting the games. I’m not much of a sports fan, but I recognize the value of the Olympics as a global force for amateur athletes to compete on behalf of their country. What I don’t get is the whole host competition.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) makes the determination about which site will host the Games. With the selection come civic pride, and not a small financial commitment to building infrastructure.  The 2014 Sochi games were the most expensive costing Russia over $50 billion. NBC agreed last month to a $7.75 billion contract extension to air the games through 2032 Olympics. That’s before the millions spent on equipment, personnel and satellite transmissions.

Tourism dollars in the short term and the long term are often used to justify the exorbitant costs. It’s a claim that has not born itself true in recent years. In Athens, after the 2004 Summer Olympics less than 10 years later 21 out of the 22 building are shuttered, gathering graffiti. Sochi is a described by locals as: “dead city.”

The Olympics have been tainted by politics over the years – this winter’s games were just the latest scuffle. Whichever country takes on the event does so a decade out – leaving plenty of time for building improvements and infrastructure changes. In Brazil the current World Cup was used to finalize long standing transportation woes in the country. These long timelines also don’t allow for political changes – Russia in 2004 was quite a different country on the world stage than 2014.

Why not build a permanent Olympic Village? It could be in Greece, home of the original Olympics, or maybe Switzerland so there aren’t any political battles. Maybe one village for the Summer Games and one for the Winter in climate appropriate areas. The tens of millions of dollars cities spend competing in their own country, and then against each other would be used for other things. IOC members wouldn’t get to travel the world on somebody else’s tab. If that winds up being the thing that stop it - each participating country could kick in some dough to keep the fat cats fat.

The facilities would then be consistent Olympic to Olympic – so whether the air is thinner in one place, or a field is ‘faster’ than another – allows the games to be consistently competed against prior records. That’s probably a good thing athletically.  The cost would be a one-time capital cost with ongoing improvements as technology and other needs change.  The communications costs would be mitigated as an entirely new community doesn’t have to created every couple of years.

A permanent Olympic Village would alleviate the political football between countries, save money, provide a better competitive environment. It’ll never happen – because it’s all Greek to the IOC.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

And Behind Door Number 2

Monty Hall is synonymous with most generations as the host of “Let’s Make a Deal!” Average folk are given the opportunity by the host to choose one prize over another. Sometimes the items are fabulous, and sometimes they’re “zonks.” Contestants wear outlandish costumes to get the hosts attention. The show has been on the air for more than 50 years on various networks in multiple of configurations. 20 non-U.S. countries have their incarnations, though it’s only currently in Egypt and Indonesia. Afghanistan is not one of the places the show has ever aired, though the Taliban have shown remarkable adeptness at the concept.

Bartering is the fundamental premise of a capitalist society. One thing has a certain value and it is exchanged for something else of a similar value. I started my consulting business on a barter – a friend’s company was in distress and asked if I thought I could help. I did – in exchange for 3 in person referrals since they didn’t have cash. And, like the old Prell commercials, they told 2 friends, and so on and so on and so on.

Today running a not-for-profit feels often like the days of bartering, especially when the auction season kicks in. We’ll give you ___ from our organization if you give us ____ from yours.

In the workforce, internships are another form of barter. People without direct experience will trade long hours and little to no pay for the opportunity to learn, gain experience and the potential of being hired. Many a Hollywood career was born out of lowly internships in mailrooms.

Applying the same concept towards diplomacy seems to have ruffled feathers. Conservatives who usually have capitalistic principals as the bedrock of their values are beside themselves that the President swapped 5 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay for 1 American, the only known U.S. prisoner of war. According to some it was a great deal, saving the life of a soldier and not leaving a man behind. Others have suggested this is ‘treason’ and an impeachable offense. Beyond the hyperbole- there’s no actual law saying whom the President can or cannot talk to, despite longstanding protocols. He’s entitled to change them. In this case he actually told everybody he would. (This is, in fact, in line with the transparency he promised, that so often has gone missing.)

The frothing at the mouth and the near round-the-clock ‘analysis’ is curious. Candidate Barak Obama in 2007 whipped up some excitement when in response to a question of whether he would ever negotiate with the leaders of North Korea and Iran. He said “I would.” It was his whole premise that personal diplomacy and negotiation would be a marked contrast to President Bush (43) who seemed to choose military action over diplomacy. There was a lot of discussion at the time. In fact, some think that the President’s Nobel Prize came in part from his willingness to embrace discussion over bombs.

My own antipathy towards war makes these analyses more difficult since the easy answer is that if the U.S. hadn’t barreled into a military conflict, there wouldn’t have been a prisoner of war to have to rescue. Since that’s a bit too convenient, being able to rescue an American without additional bloodshed makes sense. It seems that this individual may not be the piece of Apple pie that the Obama marketers were hoping for. That shouldn’t matter.

Now that the world sees that the President is willing to give a little to get a little, perhaps the Republicans can barter a little more like the Taliban. Nah, that’s like  Door #3. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014


I’m a nomadic homebody. It’s not an oxymoron - it just means that when I’m in a particular place I settle for whatever time I’m going to be there. Generally when I leave a location, I often focus on the excitement and exploration of something new rather than reminisce about what I'm leaving. That said, no matter the attributes of Boston, I find myself longing for the meteorological certainty and temperate climate of Los Angeles. (Every day!) There are favorite haunts from when I was in other areas as well. There’s no question that I miss the people and friends from all of my prior haunts. This week I'm jealous of what’s happened in Minnesota.

Gov. Mark Dayton and the Democratic legislature repealed 1,175 “obsolete, silly” laws in the land of 10,000 lakes during an 'Unsession.'  The Governor said: “In addition to getting rid of outdated laws, the project made taxes simpler, cut bureaucratic red tape, sped up business permits and required state agencies to communicate in plain language.”

How many laws are on the federal books? According to the Library of Congress: “The current Code has 51 titles in multiple volumes. It would be very time consuming to go page by page to count each federal law, and it also does not include case law or regulatory provisions.” In other words, nobody knows!  According to Wikipedia “The Code of Laws is the official compilation and codification of the general and permanent federal laws of the United States. The current edition of the code was published in 2012, and according to the Government Printing Office, is over 200,000 pages long.”

That’s just federal law. The bulk of the laws that affect everyday people are local and state laws. Even if each state has a fraction of the code the U.S. does, there are millions of pages of laws in existence. Since it’s impossible to calculate a total number, but let’s agree there’s lots of laws. Wikipedia: “As of April 2011, there were 1,225,452 licensed attorneys in the United States.” So there are plenty of lawyers to keep track of the various laws.

State law used to govern nearly all criminal violations and federal law addressed more civil and regulatory issues. Now there are nearly identical federal criminal laws that allow law enforcement to determine which legal venue would yield the “best” result. (Law and Order would have lost many story lines if this wasn’t the case!)

One of the more notorious examples is the Rodney King case. After a local jury found the (white) police officers not-guilty of the beating that was captured on video, riots ensued in Los Angeles. The U.S. attorney then charged the officers with a hate crime and they were found guilty and went to jail. Without getting into the details on either of those cases, the actions of the officers against King were adjudicated twice, once in state court (assault) and once in federal court (hate crime). Yes they were different types of charges, but clearly Double Jeopardy was circumvented in this case, and in many lesser famous trials. That happens when there's one action and multiple tries at convictions.

It is no longer illegal to carry fruit in an illegally sized container in Minnesota. That’s a good start at reforming the code. There’s much work to be done in other states and at the federal level. I might even put up with another MInnesotan winter for more Unsessions.