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.