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.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Multiplying Dead

Zombies are in. Or so I’m told. They’re not just for Halloween anymore either. Hollywood has perpetrated a fascination with the dead and un-dead with TV shows like The Walking Dead, Supernatural and Game of Thrones. There are plenty of movies too. It’s a genre that isn’t a favorite of mine, though I will admit to enjoying TNT’s The Last Ship this summer which was less about zombies and more about a disease killing people mysteriously with one ship of people left to save the world. The Michael Bay series set a dark scenario where an unknown illness killed people indiscriminately. Almost on a parallel timeline news from Africa emerged about the current Ebola outbreak. It seems that fiction is stranger than truth.

Thousands of people in West Africa have died from Ebola. Sierra Leone had 121 deaths in one day. The disease is no longer confined cases and deaths are now reported in several countries, including the United States.

In August (2014) an American missionary was airlifted to a hospital in Texas. Local television news, the Internet, and the community went into full scale panic. The supervisor for the Texas hospital “repeatedly downplayed the risk” as a way to calm the community, according to CNN.  He died this week.

Fox News may be stoking paranoia on its airwaves, but its website has bypassed the hyperbole to provide the facts:
Ebola doesn't spread easily like the flu, a cold or measles. The virus isn't airborne. Instead, it's in a sick person's bodily fluids, such as blood, vomit, urine, semen or saliva. Another person can catch the disease by getting those germs into his own body, perhaps by wiping his eyes or through a cut in the skin.
Bodily fluids aren't contagious until the infected person begins to feel sick. The initial symptoms are easily confused with other illnesses, however: fever, headaches, flu-like body aches and abdominal pain. Vomiting, diarrhea and sometimes bleeding follow as the disease progresses, increasing the risk to others.
In West Africa, the disease has spread quickly to family members who tended the sick or handled their bodies after death, and infected doctors and nurses working under punishing conditions, without proper equipment. Bed sheets or clothing contaminated by bodily fluids also spread the disease.

Americans are still wound up and worried. Is this because of the disconnect between breathless television coverage and facts? Or are people just stupid? People are reacting emotionally and skeptically. In late July and early August this year the U.S. Government sought to downplay the African outbreak by categorically stating that there was no way a case could get into the U.S. Less than a month later there are multiple cases in the news (the CDC has investigated hundreds of cases that hospitals have reported). The President sent 3,000 troops to the region, committed $750 million to the cause and is making speeches about how the world must step-up and play its part in this outbreak.

Officials can’t have it both ways. They can’t try to pacify the public with statements that there is little to no risk and then launch a war (with ‘boots on the ground’ no less). Then weeks later patients start dying – when medical and political officials said that was unlikely to happen in the U.S. because of its advanced medical facilities. No wonder the public’s ability to trust and believe its elected officials is at epidemic lows.

Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men famously said “You can’t handle the truth.” With Ebola, that seems quite a fitting description of where American’s are feeling. Without knowing the real impact of this disease, however, the dead are multiplying and the panic is reasonable. Alien as it may be for this Administration, better to say “We don’t know yet” rather than more obfuscation and in short order reveals itself as uninformed or lies.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Swing and a Miss

I used to play football. For a week in 8th Grade before I quit. They started me on a Varsity team though I never had exercised regularly in a game I had never watched and didn’t understand was way too much for my changing body. I was a new school in a new town and was having new feelings. I played tennis instead. In high school in order to meet the athletic requirement I became the Manager of various teams, ultimately earning “Manager of the Year.” I won that either for my skill in juggling a variety of sports or through dumb luck in not being hit by the pucks hurled at me as I carried a 10 gallon water bucket across the ice while the guys practiced. I once followed baseball for a few years until I realized I was more fanatical about the statistics than the game itself. It’s all to say that I’m not a big sports fan. I’m not ignorant of the games either. While I do skip over the dedicated section of the paper, I try to keep generally up to date on the overall – so that when the Red Sox won the World Series last year it didn’t come as a total surprise. Now if they did this year it would be, mostly because it’s been what’s known as a ‘lost year.’ I have found myself seeing more about sports recently as the various leagues and high profile players have migrated from the Sports Section to the Main and Metro sections.

Los Angles likes to think it’s a big sports city, but in a region that large it’s too diverse to have the community get caught up in the fever of a particular team. The Twin Cities have great teams and fantastic sports fans and when I lived there it was clear that part of the culture of the community includes the great franchises there. But Boston is a sports town. There is a fanaticism here that’s a little hard to fathom as a non-sports fan. The shine seems to be off of the industry as a number of higher profile incidents are tarnishing the whole, including Aaron Hernandez, a star of the New England Patriots football franchise, who is on trial for murder.

The NFL’s records show that since 2000 there have been 665 incidents that have an overall conviction rate of 68.27%. The breakdown of crimes show that 30% were violent.
The NBA has 196 incidents in the same period, everything from bond violation to homicide.

The MLB in comparison has just 35 incidents, mostly alcohol and drug related.

This info-graphic from 2011 shows the professional sports crime statistics.

Being a professional athlete comes with a lot of perks – and an array of pressures and challenges that those financial incentives are supposed to support. The paychecks are big, the bling is bigger and the outsized proportion of importance is the biggest part of being a star jock. The expectation to deliver at top capacity in exchange can be debilitating (and exhilarating). No matter how talented somebody is – on or off the field – if somebody breaks the law they should be prosecuted just like anybody else. The Hernandez case is good in that it shows that the system does what it’s supposed to do.

Ray Rice allegedly beat up his then fiancĂ© in an elevator. There’s video and pictures, so how can it be “alleged”? No criminal complaint has been filed against him. Let’s not parse here, though – violence is not acceptable in any form, especially domestically. There are laws against it, but he has not been charged. He’s been fired from his team – a violation of a morals clause no doubt. That’s legal. The NFL and its Commissioner Roger Goodell have come under scrutiny and criticism that they lied about seeing the video, didn’t fire him from his team fast enough, etc. All of that may be true – and legitimate complaints. The NFL’s image may be harmed, its value as a franchise impacted, but there’s no evidence that a law has been broken by the NFL. Politicians and media have been screaming for Goodell’s head as if he was the abuser rather than a bad manager and politically inept.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D) has not only complained about the process and the situation, she has now proposed that Congress investigate the NFL for how it handled the incident. The NFL is a non-profit 501(c)6 league comprised of 32 teams. The IRS has authority to insure they are in compliance with their tax status – but other than that there’s no other federal agency, let alone Congress itself that should be investigating this organization and how it managed this situation.

"If the NFL doesn't police themselves, then we will be looking more into it. I wouldn't be surprised if we had hearings," said Gillibrand, who blasted the "the way the NFL handled" the situation as "awful" and "outrageous."

Congress doesn’t have time to pass a budget, approve a war that’s underway but it’s going to have time to see if the NFL handled an internal matter of one of its franchises? If ever there was an example of Congress swinging and missing – this would be it.