Archive for February 2014

Arizona and Religious Freedom

February 26, 2014

Personal freedom is sometimes an elusive goal.  We are no longer hunter gatherers.  We live in populated cities and recognize we must stop at red lights where we want to or not.

It seems at times, there is always someone else who knows better, they say, and what you may want to do is not what they think is proper.  And when that someone invokes providence in the form of some mighty spirit, any argument attempting to refute that someone’s position becomes very difficult.  But, we are fortunate that there is a US Constitution to help put some stiffness in otherwise rubbery backs.

The 1st Amendment provides Americans with important protections.  One ensures that they will be free to practice their religion.  Too many religious people, this means that they have freedom to impose their personal views on other Americans.

The Catholic Church maintains that they should not be forced to conform to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement dealing with women’s health.  Specifically, the Church claims that their religious beliefs do not condone the use of any family planning methods and therefore they should not be required to provide birth control methods as part of their employee’s insurance even if the employee is not catholic.  The Catholic Church view is that the badge of religious freedom allows them to prevent others from obtaining some benefit guaranteed by US law.

Arizona is now poised to do one better.  The State legislature has passed a bill which allows Arizona businesses to withhold services from those whose life style their religious views do not accept.  What does this mean?

The Arizona law says that if someone’s religion does not accept same sex life styles, that person would be free to deny service to those exhibiting same sex life style.  Hmmm.  I could be running a public hotel or restaurant and perfectly free to deny service to certain other Americans.

It is becoming more difficult to comprehend this view of religious freedom.  How can one person’s views trump the rights of another?

Of course, these truly religious people may sincerely believe that contraception is immoral or that same sex life styles is unacceptable.  For those people, no one is asking them to participate.  That is religious freedom.

Governor Brewer can veto this bill, or sign it into law.  If she signs the bill, it will be moments before the courts strike it down.  I wonder whether Governor Brewer will choose the Ugandan path for Arizonans?


Bluff Called?

February 25, 2014

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced yesterday deep cuts to the Army.  The cuts were characterized as reducing the size of the Army to 440,000 or pre-WWII size.  Hagel said that the Country could not afford to maintain its technological edge, and still keep so many Americans under arms.  I guess he was saying its guns and butter again.

There are several logical arguments to support Hagel’s recommendations.  New technology can do a lot more but it also costs a lot.  While no one can be sure of the next war, the last two (Afghanistan and Iraq) were wasteful uses of traditionally supported ground troops.  Special Operations, on the other hand, have demonstrated much usefulness as an adjunct to diplomacy.

Exactly how our future military should be structured, such as numbers of ships and types, planes, or tanks, is a matter for our Joint Chiefs.  Entering wasteful wars like Iraq and Afghanistan is the providence of Congress, and ultimately the American voters.  So, here comes the bluff.

The GOP has been on a one handed deficit death march by cutting only government spending.  Economists can debate whether the deficit needs to be zero or just some small number, but running at current levels north of $500 billion is unacceptable and dangerous.

The danger arises because the deficit is not the result of a deliberative process, that is a conscious decision to spend in excess of tax revenues.  The deficit represents a dysfunctional governance process.

In the best of light, Congress is divided over whether to balance the budget by reforming entitlements (like Medicare and Medicaid), or to cut all spending while increasing tax revenues.  In the poorest of light, Congress is divided by which tactics will benefit which party at the next election and has nothing to due with true deficit reduction.

Defense spending is a cornucopia for all Congress members.  A little or a lot (of government dollars) goes to each district.  The mere idea of reigning in Defense spending sends chills down the backs of our blustery Congress members.  How can they remain tough on spending and still find ways to puff up the military?

The next few weeks should be a treat if your fancy is political double speak.  We will hear more about unnamed enemies and geopolitical threats.  And, once again, Republican Chuck Hagel will be castigated by his former colleagues.  How could Hagel be so irresponsible?

Using only Medicare and Medicaid cuts to reduce government spending has been a bluff in hopes of maybe getting cuts or at the least, a “grand bargain” which includes large reforms and a few new taxes.  This bluff comes off the tracks if Hagel’s recommendations are shot down.  In the process of advocating no military cuts, those “bluffers” will be exposed for what they are.


Enough Already

February 24, 2014

Every so often, there will be an “expose” about some organization that is taking advantage of others.  Religions are charter members who specialize in milking the old and those dispirited.  Religious groups promise eternal rewards for just only a few bucks.  (Don’t forget that a few more bucks will deliver even more eternal rewards.)

Save the children or save this animal or that one are favorites too.  The elderly and others trapped in their homes have little to do but watch television.  A perfect medium to bring the message.  In addition, lurking in the mail or an interesting magazine sit a host of other appeals.  You can stop cancer, or diabetes, or some other rare disease.  While there may be legitimate organizations soliciting support, too many of these friendly faces simply want the money.  For them, an easy touch is just fine, thank you.

America considers itself a free country.  Consequently there is a broad line drawn demarcating trust worthy claims from the shills.  It is the senior’s money and they have every right to spend it as they please.  Hmmm.

There appears to be version of this type of scam thanks to the internet.  Everyday I receive  3-10 or so solicitation for a political party (Democrat in my case) or a specific candidates and issues.  These request have similarities.  They make the pitch as a “life or death” struggle where just $3  (of course, more is better) will help turn a potential GOP advantage back.

These request flow from the national stage (Congressional issues) and the State level (governor and specific issues), yet they all have a similar look and feel.  Again, it is a free country and I have no obligation to answer any of these requests.  So what’s the big deal?

There is a certain unpleasant smell.  The email money requests are cheap.  While their actual success is unknown, my guess is they generate substantial amounts of money.  If the money is spent as advertised, that is, spent in support of Congressman “so and so’s” campaign, then the next question is where is it spent and what happens to all the PAC money we hear about?

This whole political donation process becomes murky.  There is a cottage industry behind each campaign.  There are strategists, advisers, and research (polling) experts.  And there are those purchase advertising.  One might ask, did the newspaper throw its support to Congressman “so and so” because they studied his positions or did they become influenced by campaign ad purchases?  Or, more simply, did the newspaper jump on board because they felt confident that campaign ads would follow?

And, what is most surprising. should the Congressman lose his election, his campaign funds are pretty much his to decide how to use.  Losing could mean a big pay day for our “so and so”.

I am at a loss as how to control this ready for misuse situation.  Campaign spending limits is the most obvious approach.  The Supreme Court, unfortunately, has already weighed in that Corporations are people and people have free speech rights.  Money equals free speech.

In the end, Americans must wake up and figure out that unlimited amounts of money is not working.  The political dialogue is not richer or more robust than in the older days of less spending.  For me, the answer is to withhold donations until the actual election, and then only if there are compelling reasons.

When I see someone begging on the street, I tend to walk on by.  I rationalize that there are social services available and the suspicion is strong that the beggar will just use any money I would give to buy more drugs or booz.  In other words, helping a beggar is not helping at all.

So until there are easy to read full disclosures of campaign contributions, I respectfully decline to give.

Head To Tail Strategies

February 23, 2014

Leaders almost always have question when it comes to selecting their policies.  It will be a leader’s policies that lead to specific strategies.   Should the leader select a strategy that he/she expect to work for the next short period of time (and maximize his/her chances to gaining popular support), or should the leader pick one that aims at long term objectives (and run the risk of leaving the public less satisfied)?

The short term approach has distinct advantages in terms of prediction and results.  So much more is known about today than what the future may bring.  Some leaders, however, seem to lack the capacity to imagine the future and are adrift when it comes to forming policies which are by their nature long term.

So, how do short term thinkers, or those who wish to maximize the public’s short term satisfaction deal with long term needs?  One idea is utilizing “head to tail” thinking.

A “head to tail” strategy begins with setting relatively short term goals, and when the “short term’ expires, setting a new, more timely and assumed appropriate strategy, and moving on.  The problem with “head to tail” is that there is no way to assure that a desired long term direction is being followed.  Everything turns out to be what seems right at the time.

Recent reports indicate that President Obama will present a “spending” budget to Congress.  After years of austerity, “sequestration”, and political arguments over a balanced budget, a spending budget seems like a disconnect.  And, in fact, it is a disconnect.  Why?

Political pundits suggest that since the GOP has offered no hope of a “grand bargain” (a political compromise path to reducing the deficit), why should the President continue to offer entitlement compromises?  Why?

Pundits say a spending budget will appeal to liberals, and that feels right at this time.  Hmmm.

There are three potentially serious weaknesses with the Presidents new direction.

  • First, this type of policy will reinforce the “tax and spend” label the GOP likes to place on Democrats.
  • Second, this austerity to spending leads no place, since there will not be revenue to offset the increased spending.    The GOP controlled House will never agree to increased spending and for sure will block any new taxes.
  • Third, a governance process which involves changing strategic goals on a whim is doomed to failure.  Continuity of purpose is key to long term success.

Great leaders and certainly great Presidents all had long term visions which guided their short term tactics.  President Obama’s closest political advisors live in the here and now.  Their advice and counsel is all about the short term.  Unfortunately, adopting the head to tail strategy approach is inconsistent with achieving long term visions.

Admittedly this post is holding President Obama to a higher standard.  Most Presidents enter their first term with only one objective, getting a second term.  Along the way they subjugate their noble campaign goals for short term gains.  And little or no progress towards those campaign goals become unintended consequences.

President Obama should know better.  Even if he thinks his specific proposals are worthy, he has failed us if at the same time, he has not said “I want to cut sufficient waste from existing programs to substantially fund this new policy”.

Surprisingly such an approach would catch the GOP off guard.  The GOP has as yet voiced no governance strategy that encompasses the middle class.  The GOP prefers to cite endless cuts to government spending without describing the end point or the impact their cuts would have on Americans.

I wonder whether the GOP is thinking that a strategy of “cut, cut, cut” today is wise, and following elections, especially if they can capture the White House, a new policy of increased investment (read more spending) would be even wiser?  Maybe “head to tail” thinking is the way of the future.


The Uke Line

February 20, 2014

From 1957-61, the Boston Bruins advertised one its best offensive line as the “Uke Line”.    Bronco Horvath, Johnny Bucyk, and Vic Stasiuk,  all of Ukrainian ancestry, thrilled Boston fans despite the recognition that most New Englanders had never heard of the Ukraine or visited this land.  The Uke line was known for its hard work and by extension, Ukrainians were assumed to be the same.

The last few weeks, especially the last few days, most Americans know exactly where Ukraine lies and what an immense mess part of their country is in.

I visited Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine about 10 years ago.  It is a famous and important old city.   Kiev displays the post WWII Soviet influences along side churches and buildings dating back to the middle ages.  The Soviet era subway is magnificent with marble tiled stations an seemingly never ending elevators which take passengers down or up incredible distances.  Approaching each subway entrance, peasant ladies who travel each day from the country side line up selling cigarettes and vegetables.  There were fewer tourists compared to other European cities (like Prague) but there was plenty of subway traffic.

I visited a WWII War Museum and was surprised to see and read about WWII as never before.  WWII was proudly remembered from the eyes of Ukrainians where Germans were the aggressors (no surprise) and the combination of Russia and Ukraine were the heros.

The official language was Russian although in Kiev, ordinary commerce was conducted in Ukrainian.  Kiev residents looked to the West while their countrymen living to the East spoke Russian and aligned with the former Soviet way of doing things.

Fast forward and Kiev is the focus of a potential civil war.  For the past three days there have been an open street demonstration, government police against protestors.  Rubber bullets, tear gas, and water canon spray against rocks, and Molotov Cocktails.  Why?

The News media reports the protests are the result of the Russia leaning Government spurning stronger ties with the European Union in favor of Russia.  If true, it plays back to the ageless forces attracting Ukrainians to either the East or the West.  One might say the current disturbances are the casualty of geography.

Hmmm. I wonder.

I wonder whether the slippery hand of the CIA is in the background?  I assume the Russian equivalent for sure is active.  I would be shocked if Russia did not see a neutral or at best a friendly Ukraine as in their national interest.  I wonder whether Kiev is just another chess piece on the global table?

There have been charges that the current Ukrainian Government is corrupt.  Hmmm, tell me something I don’t know (or would naturally guess).  And if we are to focus on corruption in the current Government, then tell me why a new Government would be less corrupt?

It is far wiser to begin with the assumption that all governments (including the US) are corrupt.  The more important issue is “how corrupt” and “does the population get a good deal” from a specific corrupt government.  What seems at play in Kiev is a statement that the current Government is taking too much and giving back too little.  This may be factually true or just an impression.  What is true is that Ukrainian President Yanukovich has done an inadequate job satisfying enough Ukrainians to keep the peace.

The Uke Line worked hard, kept their heads down, and tried to win games within the rules.  Wouldn’t that be better than street battles?

Minimum Wage Rage

February 19, 2014

A new Congressional Budget Office report has provided both political parties with demagogue headlines.  The CBO reported that a $10.10 minimum wage would raise the  income of some 16 million people and allow about 900,000 to rise about the poverty level.  That’s one for Democrats.

The CBO also reported there would be 500,000 less jobs as employers chose to lay workers off to offset the increased wage cost.  “Job Killer” says the GOP.

I just wonder whether the GOP plans to campaign on the slogan, “we can create 500,000 jobs at only the cost 900,000 more in poverty?

Common sense ought to raise a number of question.  For example, why $10.10 and not $9.10, or 12.10?  Or, will we act surprised when common services (like restaurants) raise their prices with the excuse of the new minimum wage?  Will we act surprised when businesses say they must outsource more in order to stay competitive?

Supposedly the purpose of raising the minimum wage would be reduce the number living in poverty and in some small way to deal with income distribution inequality.  Since those living in poverty tend to represent a long term social cost (read at taxpayer expense), it would seem both parties should be interested in minimizing the number.

Income distribution and its inequality among Americans is a much more complex consideration.  Owners and the senior management of corporations have discovered that they can earn more income simply because “they can”.  It is senior management who set pay levels.

There is little or no justification for the average S&P 500 CEO earning $15+ million.  CEOs receive this much income because they compare the salary of senior management with other senior management, and voila, the answer they are looking for just pops up.  Think about this.  If company A edges ahead in director level pay, Company B can tell shareholders they were forced to pay more in order to retain the best talent.  Company B probably will not say they also raised the pay of vice presidents, senior vice presidents, and of course the CEO to maintain their pay policy gap between senior pay grades.  Hmmm.

In a free market capitalist society, practicality demands some limits.  Unchecked, capitalist would drive the take home wage to the very lowest level possible.  Further, in a global market there is strong pressure to outsource as much as possible chasing the lowest hourly wage around the world.  With a senior management bias, raising only the minimum wage will not change income distribution very much and certainly not for very long.

The message here is that simply raising the minimum wage is a bogus goal.  America does not have linked pay levels.  If the minimum goes to $10.10, there is no guarantee that someone making $15.00 per hour would see an increase.

On the other hand, doing nothing and keeping the minimum wage at $7.25, serves no end either.  Linking CEO renumeration to both performance and some maximum ratio to their lowest wage could be, however, a game changer.

And, interestingly, people with more income pay more taxes and buy more goods and services.  Hmmm.  What an idea.


Mitt Again?

February 18, 2014

President Obama is into his 6th year as President.  Most pundits (as well as most voters) have already pronounced his Presidency a success or failure even though two plus years remain in which game changing events could unfold.

To be clear, I am not referencing assessment put forth on an ideological basis, like, “he’s a socialist”, “he’s taking away our freedom”, or “he’s bankrupting America”.  Or am I referencing the opposite views like “he’s soft on the environment”, “he’s deported more than any other President”, or “he’s done nothing to help the poor”.

Rather, at this point in President Obama’s Administration, it seems clear that as a CEO, he has picked a mediocre team of top assistants.  His selections may be bright or may have the best of intentions.  What they all seem to lack is (1) ability to work as a team, and (2) ability to get control and run their Departments effectively and efficiently.

We must remember that most government employees are civil service, career workers.  Any President or Department head may make a few direct appointments but the overwhelming momentum in any Department is provided by those who have already been there.  In essence, the President can direct something to be done, but unless these legacy Government workers want to do it, there is little hope that snapping ones fingers will result in the requested action.

This condition awaits any President.  It was true for President Bush just as it is for President Obama.  President Bush, however, ignored the bureaucracy and seemed content with government “inaction”.  President Obama has wanted things to be different, but has lacked the executive ability to change the status quo.

Some defend President Obama by saying he has had an obstructionist “loyal opposition”.  The GOP, they say have blocked every policy the President has tried to put in place.  While this is true, so what?

President Obama, like most other Presidents whose Party did not control Congress, has turned to new policies and new programs rather than reforming what exists already.   Streamlining, improving efficiency and reducing costs are measures the President has left to others and they have not been done.  What business world CEO do you know who has become successful allowing corporate bureaucracies to remain as is?

So if this notion has a morsel of truth in it, than wouldn’t a corporate CEO, rather than a equally bright “professor type” be more effective as the Country’s chief executive?


My guess is that were voters to get a clean choice (all else being equal) between a proven CEO or another professorial or ideologue candidate, they are likely to flock to the CEO.

Hence, the apparent interest in Mitt Romney again.

During 2014, GOP hopefuls will have free choices over putting forth their best image.  Following the Congressional elections in the fall, however, the many must begin the process to narrow down to the few, and finally the one.  Strangely being a great CEO is not necessarily an asset in the world of gutter politics.  I guess that is why Mitt is still playing it safe and remaining non-committal.

President Obama’s Unintended Consequence

February 13, 2014

When Barack Obama campaigned for President in 2008, he pointed to the inadequacies of the Bush Administration and said “we can do better”.  Historians will have to decide whether President Obama has done better than former President Bush given the world events and political situations that President Obama had to face.  I wonder, however, whether historians and pundits will point out how Obama innocently brought many of the hurdles on himself.

The Obama Administration inherited two wars and a near financial catastrophe.  In combination, these events forced President Obama to prioritize his efforts in a way quite differently from his campaign promises.  In foreign affairs, Obama (like most other pundits) did not see the impact the Arab Spring would have, but at the same time, its is unclear what better path existed for him to follow.  The President had just announced his intention to “pivot” from the Middle East to the Far East but thanks to the Arab spring, has found it difficult to extract the US from the Middle East.  Israel has been no help for quite selfish reasons.  Historians will have a lot to sift through.

I wonder whether historians or political pundits will point out a strange “unintended consequence”.  Is President Obama a prime driver for the rise of the irrational conservative right?

A first response might be, “of course, President Obama is a socialist”.  Hmmm.

I would counter and say that President Obama is probably our most centrist President in years.  His middle of the political spectrum position has boxed Republican opponents into a strange place.  In order to define themselves as sufficiently different, Republicans have had to march far to the right and into extreme ideological territory.  Republican leaders must understand that various extreme positions do not go together and as such, will not support a broad enough platform necessary to govern.  Never the less, Republicans have been forced to pander with sources of money which have only narrow focuses on the future.  This unholy alliance has escalated into the “just say no” GOP approach.  Gridlock.

It is almost a hoot to think that had President Obama actually been more progressive in his positions, responsible Republicans would have much more area to propose sensible centrist approaches to the major domestic issues (like infrastructure, educations, transportation, and true job creation).  With the President squarely in the middle ground, the only place for the GOP was to move farther right.

Who would have thought?



February 12, 2014

One rose does not make a summer.  Especially if the subject is death with dignity.  Never the less, there was a rose seen yesterday even during sub-freezing temperatures near Philadelphia.  A Schuylkill County judge threw out an assisted suicide case against a nurse-daughter.  The Judge said there were not enough facts sufficient to ask a jury to determine guilt.  Hmmm.

Certain facts, actually, are not in dispute.  The nurse-daughter did in fact obtain a 90 day supply of morphine at her father’s request.  It is also not disputed that the nurse-daughter gave the morphine to her father as requested.  And, it is not disputed that her elderly father was suffering and a hospice patient.

Further facts are that the hospice nurse found the father unconscious, saw the morphine bottle, and called for medical assistance despite the nurse-daughters request not to invoke heroic means.  Lastly, the father did not regain consciousness and died.

Assisted suicide is still a debated issue.  Various groups feel strongly about an individual’s right to choose death when life means further suffering and there is no hope of regaining a normal life.  Other groups profess there is always hope and with medication, the last days can be made pain free.  But is that what dignity is made of?

I am pretty sure we would all rise up against a law that said when one is diagnosed terminal due some disease, a lethal dose of something would be administered within 48 hours (enough time to say ones good-byes).  On the other hand, when someone has lived a full life and is now terminally ill, why must that person suffer the indignities of needles, tubes, and monitoring machines?

I am also sure that we would choose to prosecute someone who, for their personal convenience or gain, chose to end another’s life.  If American society could let this assisted suicide demon out of the closet and provide sun light through legal grounds for assisting suicide (for example with an end of life directive attesting the person wishes and certifying that they were mentally fit) is acceptable, human compassion would be fostered,

Showing compassion towards those dying is not easy or anxiety free.  No one should be made or encouraged to end their life unnaturally but those who prefer this option deserve our compassion.

Parallel Universes

February 11, 2014

Yesterday, the GOP House members met and attempted to agree on a path forward which avoids US debt default.  Ahead of the meeting, pundits predicted members were close to an agreement and would decide maybe even that day.  The meeting has come and gone and no agreement has emerged.

The only thing clear today is that the GOP appears more like a child in a candy story (or a sailor in….), they simply cannot decide like other adults.

For some members, increasing the debt limit is a non-starter regardless of the consequences.  Some of these people do not believe there will be serious consequences because they think the US can pay their debts later when it suits us.  After all we are the biggest, most powerful, and wealthiest country in the world.  Hmmm.

Another faction do not want the country to default but see this vote as the only method they have to force a minority view on the majority.  For this group turning the deficit around is key and this vote might allow them to change entitlement formulas (in return for raising the debt ceiling) and accomplish what they feel is important.  Hmmm.

So, not unlike the negotiating box the GOP put themselves in last fall.  Those negotiation lead to the Government shutdown and accomplished nothing.  As then, John Boehner was seen as unable to control his members.  Some members have gone as far to say that if Boehner were to allow an open vote, they would vote to replace him as Speaker.

Entitlements do represent a huge problem.  Entitlements are easy to demagogue, and most politicians are delighted to take credit if it buys them votes.  Unfortunately, the underlying math doesn’t work.  Healthcare costs, and its impact upon Medicare and Medicaid are on course to bankrupt the Country.  If those GOP members opposed to increasing the debt ceiling were true to their positions, they would be active in developing a comprehensive solution… some path with new taxes and entitlement reforms.

How do we think Medicare and Medicaid recipients will react to a reduction in these benefits if Congress so mandated?  Like most complex problems, no one is ever happy to have a benefit reduced.  This is especially true if Americans think the deficit is a shared problem looking for a shared solution.

Americans are in the end people.  Most people are reasonable and inclined to look for what is fair.  When Congress is so divided, and both political sides seem to lack interest in the common good, Americans have, at this time, no example around which to rally.

Should deadlock persist and default come to be, there is no telling what exactly will happen.  Most business leaders, bankers, and economists have warned against treating default lightly.

John Boehner has a rare chance to stand up for what is sensible and in the Country’s best interest.  The question is will he?