Diversity is an American Strength

Having lived more than half a century, it never ceases to amaze me how varied we are as a people in our great country. America is truly a melting pot and our diversity is at the heart of our greatness. Quoting the line of Bill Murray’s character in the movie “Stripes,” our forefathers have been kicked out of every country.

I mention this now as we have a wave of intolerance that permeates our public debate that is unhealthy. The marketers learned back in the late 1980’s and leveraged further with the advent of social media to segment the audiences. Unfortunately, we have taken this segmentation to a fervent level in political debate. People get their so-called news from a biased source which perpetuates generalizations and stereotypes. People walk around with their own set of facts. Stephen Colbert termed this “truthiness” and he was on point in his observations. So,in one of the GOP candidates minds, he believes as does his audience that most people on food stamps are African-Americans. That is not true.

In the book “That Used to be Us” that I have cited numerous times and encourage all to read, there is a highly pertinent and very illuminating anecdote about our armed service, in particular people staffing a naval vessel. The allied and opposing forces were amazed by the diversity of our navy and military. The book references a ship of women, which was a misnomer, as the leadership of the ship included several women. The allied and captured opposing military initially only wanted to deal with men, but when they witnessed that the leadership were women and competent officers, they were impressed. What also impressed them was Caucasian, African, Hispanic and Asian Americans working side by side. The opposition had presumed all Americans were white. These diverse teams of people working well together were clear messages that people with perceived differences can not only coexist but function as a unit.

This was not always so in our country, but it is amazing what can happen over time. We still struggle with civil rights issues, but we are in a much better place than we were back in the 1960’s. The oppression of lesbians and gays is slowly dissolving, but it is the 2000’s version of the Civil Rights movement. I think most Americans are tired of the evangelical right legislating their version of morality on the rest of the country. I go back to “what would Jesus do?” He hung out with the disenfranchised more than the church leadership of the day. He would speak of the Golden Rule, which is as good today as it was then. So, as a self-professed “old fart,” I would say we should call out intolerance when we see it and defend those who are being put down. LGBT or GLBTers deserve every right and opportunity that other citizens have in this country.

Yet, it goes beyond that. The Middle East will never be as successful as a region until women have the same rights as men. Using an example from Malcolm Gladwell’s book called “Outliers,”  if you limit your talent pool to only half of the potential candidates, you are competing with your arm tied behind your back. His specific point was Canadian hockey identified at early ages what they believed were precocious kids. What turned out to be the truth, the precocious kids were merely older than their competition based on age cut offs, so were more skilled because of their maturity not talent.

If a society puts down its women, they are dismissing the opportunities for success as a people by 1/2. It is not lost on me that over 50% and closer to 60% of college students in the United States are women. And, I was not surprised when the two top winners of the Intel Science prize for high school science students were girls. One of these young ladies may have come up with a cure of cancer. Her thesis is being tested as we speak. The second place winner is not only female, she is also homeless. So, she had more working against than anyone could imagine. She is very much involved in marine biology.

So, taking just the first example and displacing her to her Iran or Afghanistan, this young lady who may have discovered a cure or, at least, a significant treatment of cancer, would likely have been suppressed or even killed for going to school. It does not get any clearer than that. This is why the separation of church and state is critical. Misguided religious zeal is not a good thing as it holds back the opportunities for all.

Yet, we have some of the same intolerance in America. We have a misguided focus on things that may be very important to the religious body of people, but infringe upon the rights of others. Most people who are overtly religious understand this, yet we have a zeal that causes people to say and support positions that run counter to why we are a great country. I do not know the original author of this quote – I believe it may have been Upton Sinclair back in the 1950’s –  but when I first heard it was back in the early 1990’s. It was used to reference the Republican Party’s catering more to the evangelical right. A Republican leader at the time felt this was a slippery slope and said “When terrorism comes to America, it will be carrying a cross draped in the American flag.” This was before ostracizing and assaulting gay people, the Koran burning minister in Florida, the military funeral picketers from the small mid-western church, the foiled plot by a Christian terrorist group to kill Detroit police and other examples.

We cannot and must not support intolerance. When we hear it and see it, we must call it out for what it is. Being tolerant and inclusive of others is not only the right thing to do per the Golden Rule, our constitution and our ideals, it means we as a country can be more successful. We are embracing the rights for all of our citizens to contribute to our society and make us greater than we can be as individuals.

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Independent Rebuttal to the State of the Union

I always find it interesting that the party not represented by the President of the United States is obligated to have a rebuttal to the State of the Union message. I for one have never liked these as we have but one President. The media though is biased toward conflict, so it feels it must air a rebuttal position. With that said, neither party wants to address the real issues of the day in the manner in which is needed.

I think the President made some good points and had some good ideas, but I agree with the GOP that only 3% of the speech was addressing a major issue – the deficit and debt. On the flip side, the GOP does not even want to talk about a key lever to help resolve the issue and that is tax increases. So, we have two sides that don’t want to step up to the plate and do what is needed.

The US is a great country, but we are kind of like Grizabella the old cat in the play “Cats” whose glory may be behind us if we don’t do anything about it. I have cited in earlier posts and to others that the best identification and prescription for the US challenges can be found in the book “That Used to be Us” by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum. Taking liberties with a few of their thoughts, plus a few of my own, here is an independent’s view on the State of the Union. The President’s ideas are closer to what is needed, but he falls short of what is truly needed and that is a shame. The GOP, unfortunately, is well off the mark and tends to want to talk too much about religious ideals rather than governance of a country.

Debt and Deficits

First and foremost, we need to let the extended Bush Tax cuts expire at year-end. We did not need these when passed ten years ago, they did not create jobs like the GOP touts and Bush’s own Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, was fired for voicing his criticisms. This and the two wars are the major reasons for the deficit as Bush came into the White House to a budget balanced by President Clinton. All Americans, not just the wealthy, need to pay more in taxes.

Adopt the Bowles-Simpson plan as a very good working draft and build off of it with an implementation of 2014. Compare the tax revenue to that produced by the above change to let the Bush Tax cuts expire. We need more revenue due to the shortfall. Yet, move forward with the aggressive consideration of the spending cuts and other measures noted in the Bowles-Simpson plan. This was a bi-partisan plan by some smart people who were less political.

Economy

Per Friedman and Mandelbaum, more manufacturing needs to be done in the US for a key reason that the best ideas for improved processes and products oftentimes come from the people on the production floor. Work with local and state governments and Chambers of Commerce to incent the creation, development and expansion of US manufacturing. The Mayors tend to get these issues, so work with them to build, advocate and communicates success stories. Double down on new and green technologies and training. Find out the best spots in the development continuum for public money.

Make it a mission to understand where the obstacles are in the governmental approval process and streamline them. Erskine Bowles was asked to lead the Small Business Administration and he took the a 42 page application down to two pages. Regulation is needed, but bureaucracy is not. If someone has to weigh the pros and cons of getting governmental help due to bureaucracy it is too intrusive.

The GOP will not like this one, but increase the minimum wage. We have 50 million people in poverty. The cost will show up in less return for shareholders and increased prices, but that is a preferable burden that will keep more people off the streets. More taxes will be collected and people will spend more. And, do not eliminate healthcare reform. It still needs improvement and has seen changes some already, but we need more people with access to care. We have already seen a flattening of some costs with 1 million more young adults kept on their parents’ plans.

Education

The US has too short a school year, typically 180 days. When you take away wasted days at the end of the first and last semesters, there are really only about 172 days of learning. Contrast that with over 200 days for our major global competitors. Extend the number of days and find and incent better teachers. The Teach for America program is a wonderful marriage of passion and intellect. Let’s try and keep the good ones longer and give them more liberty to devise their version of the syllabus.  Give Principals more power to move on the lesser quality teachers through training, mentoring or dismissal. It is unfair to perpetuate bad teaching and is a disservice to all constituents, including teachers.

Community colleges have the power to help in retraining America. Give them the opportunities to link with business. It is a push-pull exercise. The example the President gave of the woman in Charlotte with Central Piedmont Community College and Siemens is dead on accurate. That is precisely what is needed. Private colleges and state colleges also need to be refined to meet the needs of the employers. The private colleges are priced way too high due to over staffing and lucrative benefit packages. People cannot afford to attend them. I would provide incentives to places that have affordable education, just like a parent would with his or her children.

Energy

Global warming is here folks. Wake up GOP as you are behind everyone else in the world. Stop dragging down our country with your inane, oil funded rhetoric. We have to move down the path of a better energy policy. We need to incent the investigation, development and deployment of alternative energy – solar, wind, hydro, biomass, etc. – and make good ideas scalable. The President increasing the mileage standards on cars is very good measure as is the tough EPA standard on coal. Yet, we need more. Increase the gas tax to pay for this exploration, pay for electric/ hybrid car infrastructure and improve roads, bridges and public transportation. Toll roads and bridges can also help in this process.

And, emphasize conservation as a major energy resource. Green building should continue to be incented and highlighted. Goodwill Industries, in fact, has a training program for unemployed workers around green construction, e.g. Some green initiatives can be used to pay for development through capitalized future savings. Let’s figure out more ways to do this.

Political Changes

Let me close with some bi-partisan ideas, but ideas few have the chutzpah to do. Yet, if we did only these changes, much of the above could be discussed in a less confrontational way.

– Impose term limits on all elected officials. The President can only serve two terms, so we should impose a two term limit on every role in the Federal, State and Local governments. This turnover would address the old saying “power corrupts”  and provide new blood into the equation. It may also attract better candidates.

– Every taxpayer should be obligated to give $3 for example to the Federal government and state governments to be used to finance all campaigns. All other campaign funding would be made illegal, end of story. Then shorten the election process to 90 days for federal and state elections and 45 days for local elections. The Presidential election could be stretched to 120 days allow for traveling the country. Yet, electronic town halls could be used, as well. This will stop the endless campaigning. As individuals, if you want to make this happen, do what I do and turn down the sound on ALL political ads, no exception. You are only missing lies, half-truths and innuendos anyway. If no one is listening, then the money will stop.

– Implement rules to protect the integrity of the office. Insider trading in Congress is a conflict of interest, period. Fix it.  If an incumbent damages the role by his or her actions, censure, suspend or fire that person. The Catholic Church forgot the role of the Priest is larger than the incumbent and has damaged its reputation maybe beyond repair by not heeding this message. Elected officials are not much better at this than the Catholic Church.

These are my thoughts on the State of the Union borrowing heavily from others. The best ideas are a compilation of a lot of little ones. Look for ways to find them, do them and celebrate them. Of all things, our diversity of thoughts and ideas is what makes this country strong – like most positive changes, they usually occur on the ground closer to the action.

The Mythical Ronald Reagan

Having read many editorials and heard talking points espoused by GOP candidates and the Republican Party, a reverence to Ronald Reagan has created this mythical being which sometimes runs counter to history. Mind you, President Reagan was far from perfect, but as a leader he did accomplish things to which he deserves credit. His grandstanding at a speech in Berlin to “tear down this wall” was probably one of his finest moments and from what I have learned it was an ad lib line. It took someone to speak the words for others to believe it could happen.

I mention this now as Newt Gingrich among others talks about how the mythical Ronald Reagan grew this country directly due to a major tax reduction. He did help pass a major Tax Reform which greatly reduced taxes early on his presidency. I can remember clearly his State of the Union speech where he printed off the entire tax code and stacked it in a three feet high stack in front of him. He was never at a loss for theatrics.

What is not discussed today by our GOP friends that he was also very concerned by deficits. And, after realizing his tax cut was too severe proceeded to oversee five tax increases to make up for budget shortfalls later in his presidency. That is not a misprint. He was smart enough to use euphemisms and call them revenue enhancements, yet he knew we needed to raise revenue as well as cut spending to better balance the budget.

Why is this important? We are at a critical time in our country. We have revenue at its lowest rate per GDP (roughly 15%) in fifty years and spending at a 24% of GDP, a 9% difference. We cannot cut spending enough to bring this in balance or even consider paying off debt. Since we want to call on Ronald Reagan, let’s call upon the real one and not the mythical one. And, let’s throw in a little Bill Clinton as well, as he was the last President to get the budget balanced. I mention the two of them as the country prospered under both and both raised taxes. While we are at it, President George H.W. Bush also increased taxes going back on a campaign promise to his own detriment. We need to not only balance the budget this time, we need to have more revenue than expenses to pay off debt, just like you and I would.

I have been a broken record on our need to embrace the Bowles-Simpson Deficit Reduction plan. Let’s work from that. It simplifies the tax code, but eliminates the deductions for a net revenue increase. It should not be lost on anyone, but a fellow named Erskine Bowles was President Clinton’s chief of staff during this balanced budget period, the same one whose name appears on the Bowles-Simpson plan.This is probably my biggest complaint about President Obama – he should have embraced it, but he listened too much to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and backed away thirteen months ago.

So, don’t believe Dick Cheney when he purports the mythical Ronald Reagan proved deficits don’t matter. They do and the real President Reagan, not only believed it, he did something about it. And, don’t believe any GOP candidate who touts a lesser tax rate. Per an earlier post, that is the height of irresponsibility and people who do this are pandering to an audience to get elected. Those candidates along with Grover Norquist need to be asked to leave the room, as it is time for the sober people to discuss our problems. Finally, President Obama, it is time for you to act on Bowles-Simpson and give everyone something real to shoot at. And, Congress, you need to heed this request and stop acting like two year olds.

More on Global Warming

As noted in earlier posts, one of the key reasons I abandoned the Republican Party is its refusal to admit what every other formal body on the planet recognizes – that global warming is here and we need to do something about it. I have been reading an excellent book by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandlebaum entitled “That Used to be Us” which speaks to how the US has lost its competitive position and can try to win it back. I highly recommend this book to all politicians and leaders as it clearly addresses our issues and discusses our needed paths forward, which are already tardy. I would add the authors are pretty accomplished, so their opinions matter more than others who do less homework.

Regarding global warming they point out we have a war on math and science in this country which is mind-boggling to them, but also our global competitors. The GOP stance on global warming is but one of these “ostrich-head in the sand” positions that is extremely foolish and goes against the facts, which are overwhelming. As noted in an earlier post, Newt Gingrich is being vilified for appearing with Nancy Pelosi saying he was wrong about global warming. He should not be vilified for this change of heart as he is on the side of the angels now.

The book notes that the top 255 scientists in the US published an open letter in one of the more well read science publications stating that global warming is occurring and we need to act now. This was published in the Spring, 2010. I won’t repeat earlier posts which cite other beliefs, but suffice it to say the position by the GOP is highly detrimental to the US and our planet.

Messrs. Friedman and Mandlebaum note the following key points. Our failure to adequately plan for and address global warming runs counter to why America has been successful over time . They relate it to our Sputnik moment, when Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson responded with an investment in math and science when the Soviets launched the first satellite. They galvanized our efforts to put someone on the moon. Our failure to address global warming is akin to these presidents saying “oh well” and letting the Soviets claim space.

Not only are we harming the environment and our ability to survive on the planet, from a US perspective we have handed over our advantage to companies based in China and Germany. In  fact, some of the solar and wind power designs were created in the US, yet we have let others pass us by costing Americans business and jobs. And, since scalability is an issue, it is more important to build a foundation to grow from. So, our competitors are building foundations while we dally.

And, it is not just wind and solar. China is building far more clean coal plants than we are. We need to retool our older coal plants with greater regularity. It was good to see the Duke Energy/ Progress Energy merger held up until the two made a written commitment to address this issue. Coal can never be clean, but the new scrubbers make it more viable until the other technologies can be fully scalable.

Rather than repeat some earlier posts, let me close by saying the two authors have noted addressing global warming as one of the keys to turning the US ship around. I would add their book is much more holistic than this.  I encourage you to read their book and hold our GOP candidates accountable on global warming, in case one of them defeats a president who has done more on this issue than given credit for (mileage standards, investment, advocacy), but still has been woefully short on what is needed. I fear a Republican win will truly “take us back” rather than forward.

 

 

 

 

Height of Irresponsibility

As an independent voter, I probably should refrain from watching the Republican debates. I must confess they did ask better questions this time around, yet it is the answers and rock star like applause that troubles me most. I don’t mind people clapping in agreement as that is more than fine. What I don’t like is people clapping for answers that are irresponsible or don’t address the issues.

If you have read enough of my posts, you know that I am in favor of a balanced view on trying to solve problems. The specific example I have in mind is the US deficit and debt. At the last reckoning, our expenses are roughly 24% of GDP while our revenues are at roughly 15% of GDP. The revenue is the lowest it has been 50 years relative to GDP. This 9% budget gap in GDP cannot be reduced by expenditure cuts alone. The math simply does not work. We have to raise tax revenue as well.

Last night. Mitt Romney said we had tax rates that were too high. In fact, our tax rates are lower than those in most of the first world countries. And, as I noted in my last post, Paul O’Neill, President George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary was asked to resign when he opposed the tax reductions we did not need back in the early century citing his concern over the future deficits. This opinion was voiced at that time by Warren Buffett. In case you are wondering, Mr. O’Neill was correct in his prediction.

Yet, last night when the question was asked directly to the candidates as to what tax rate they would like to see the country at the responses were very illuminating. Rick Perry said quickly a 10% flat tax for all was the solution. Newt Gingrich noted a 15% tax rate, only to be topped by Ron Paul who said we should strive for 0%. Rick Santorum noted a two tier system at 10% and 28% and Mitt Romney said 25%, but at least leave it at 35% now on the upper end.

Beginning with Messrs. Paul, Perry and Gingrich, you three can go home now. At a time, when we have the deficit issues we do, to say you want to take the tax rate to that level is the height of irresponsibility. You are overtly pandering to the crowd with something we cannot do. Of course, they clapped.  Yet, one of my pet sayings is “any dumb ass can get elected touting tax cuts.” That is what people want to hear, but in this case that is not what they need to hear. We have serious problems and we need people with serious solutions to help us solve them,

Santorum and Romney were much better on the topic, with Romney at least acknowledging an inability to do anything now, yet I found their answers incomplete.  However,  the others just are so off base that they should not be taken seriously. That is why I support the Bowles-Simpson plan as it does get at the tax rates, but eliminates the deductions, so the tax revenue increases. The Bowles-Simpson plan is a reasonable approach to the problem and is a bipartisan effort which we need more of.

At the end of the day, we do need to step up and pay for something. We can and should make cuts, but be smart about the process.

The Tyranny of “Or”

This may sound like an unusual choice of titles, but it lets me focus on how our society and leaders have tended to frame issues in an unhealthy way. The use or implied use of the word “or”  denotes a polarized view of topics which may be good for sound bytes, but is terrible for governance.

A few examples might be of help. The deficit or debt reduction discussions tend to be framed in an increase in tax revenue “or” a reduction in spending. The more astute view is we need both as the math problem cannot be solved with one or the other irrespective of the opinions of Grover Norquist. President Bush’s Treasury Secretary was actually asked to resign after he voiced concerns over the tax cuts passed early in the century noting his worry over future deficits. Note, these are the same tax cuts Warren Buffett argued against and we are arguing over extending today.

Newt Gingrich wants to talk to African-Americans about the offer of paychecks “or” food stamps. There are two points that are important. The majority of people on food stamps are employed, they are just under-employed, so it is not a matter of getting a paycheck or food stamps. The other point is the majority of people on food stamps are not African-American, so there is an implied opinion of either you are white and employed or African-American and not, an opinion which could be viewed as racist.

In my volunteer work with homeless families and individuals, I have observed and the data would support, a significant number of homeless people are employed. The economy has heightened the unemployed numbers as the number of jobs have lessened, but the people in need are employable if not employed. There are exceptions to this observation, but there are many who find it hard to believe that if you have a job you can still lose your home.

The debate on regulations is an interesting one as well. The debate is framed in an “either/or” manner. Yet, as I have noted in earlier posts, we need regulation, but need to be less bureaucratic in their governance and more enabling. One of the reasons Erskine Bowles was asked to be President Clinton’s Chief of Staff is during his tenure overseeing the Small Business Bureau, he reduced the small business application from 42 pages to one. This streamlined the process immensely.

So, the questions we need to be asking are not should we have regulations, but how can we develop common sense regulations that provide the right level of governance. When you think of this issue, ask yourself how many people would buy car insurance or buckle up if the states did not mandate these requirements?

Let me close with one more example. The energy debate is centered around using more fossil fuels or alternative energy sources. As noted in earlier posts, we need to do both, but we must focus more than we have on the alternative energy sources to make them scalable. And, while we explore all sources we need to frame the debate around the pros and cons now and tomorrow. So, it is OK to say we should do “both” when issues are framed in an “either/ or” polarized way.

It’s a Grand Old Party isn’t it?

Using the full name of the GOP seems more appropriate given the gossip, innuendo and accusations that are flying off the airwaves and at stump speeches in South Carolina. It reminds me of a real party where party guests are stretching half-truths all over the place and spreading fertilizer to make a good story. The listeners, watchers and readers have to be on their toes to know where the BS starts and stops.

Quoting the father of a friend of mine, we should begin with this premise – “believe half of what you read and nothing of what you hear.” This may be too kind to some politicians where believing half of what they have written is a stretch. Here are a few odds and ends to consider as we try to ferret through the various comments.

We are witnessing the entire Newt Gingrich – the good Newt and the bad Newt. He is smart, but also fickle and mercurial. He has some good ideas, but some that will make your head spin. He has a high sense of self and is not known for collaboration. His fellow  Republicans conducted a coup against him to have him ousted as Speaker of the House. Plus, his ethics violation and fine are true stories and the concerns over his consulting arrangements are fair game. Yet, he is being unfairly vilified for appearing with Nancy Pelosi on a global warming commercial.  There he was in the right.

Mitt Romney is not perfect either, but who is. His challenge is to hide the fact he is a moderate, which is what our country needs and why he will appeal to the independents, but not conservative Republicans. His greatest success has been the Massachusetts Health Care which was copied by President Obama for the national Health Care Reform. Most Republicans who argue against Health Care Reform have no idea what they are arguing against – it is not perfect, but the status quo is broken – yet, Romney has to run from this success. The Bain Capital criticism is fair. Private equity has its place when done well, but there is a dark side to private equity, which the American public may not appreciate. Private equity investors are looking to make money. It is not unusual for them to buy a distressed company, strip it down to create profits and then sell off pieces or the whole. As this comes out, it will be harmful to him.

Ron Paul is steadfast in his beliefs and convictions. You know what you will get. I like some of what he says and the questions he asks. Yet, there are ideas baked into his thinking that are somewhat scary. The younger folks like his freshness, but are less grounded through experience to distinguish his good ideas from his bad ones. There is a role for government beyond what he touts, as people are not as altruistic as we would hope. Businesses do not want regulation, but having been a former business person, they need them. So, abolishing all of what he wants provides good sound bites, but we do need government to play a role.

Rick Perry needs to go back to Texas as he is wasting people’s time. Independents will not react well to the governor and my guess is he will leave the race after Florida. Jon Huntsman is the best candidate in the field to my way of thinking, but he is too reasonable and well grounded to have a chance in the Republican party. That is unfortunate as if he won over the President, we would have a good leader who will collaborate with others.

That brings me to Rick Santorum, the Glenn Beck of the race. His evangelical posturing which is his main thrust is bothersome to me. It overshadows his other ideas and stances and it is hard for many to look past this posturing to see if his ideas have merit. He rallies the evangelical base and may be the candidate by default as people tire of Newt’s antics and Perry drops out of the race.

Watching “Real Time with Bill Maher” last night, the author of “The Daily Beast” blog correctly pointed out that if Europe goes into a recession and the debt crisis continues, it will negatively impact the US. Which means the President may not get reelected as a result. So, his question to the host is “who do you want the Republican candidate to be as he may win?”

With that said, there may even be another variable with a serious third party candidate. It could be a Ron Paul or it could be someone from the America Elects movement which has some serious people behind it. If they came out with a candidate like Erskine Bowles, e.g., that might get people’s attention.  So, sitting here in January, I am thinking we have more fireworks ahead at the Grand Old Party and we may see some interesting developments both inside and outside of it.