We Just Ran Out of Options

On Sunday, “60 Minutes” re-aired an updated version of its story on homeless families in central Florida. According to “60 Minutes,” one out of every four homeless children in the country are in Florida. During the story, one of the very mature teenagers said “we just ran out of options” when she told the story of how they came to live in their van. This story touched my heart as it did many others, as many reached out with money and help the first time it aired, so there were a few positive outcomes for the homeless children in the area, both the ones highlighted and others.

I have shared before that one of my passions is helping homeless families. I have been volunteering in some capacity for over 13 years. Yet, this is not about me – I only share this experience for context. There are three Americas in existence today – those who are comfortable, those who are above poverty living paycheck to paycheck and those in poverty. The US has one of the worst economic distributions in the world, meaning the distribution of wealth is highly tilted toward the wealthy. When people say the President is making certain issues a war between economic classes, this is misguided commentary. The war is over. The wealthy were decisively victorious.

These three Americas came to be, in my mind, when the Regan tax cuts in the early 1980’s dramatically reduced tax rates for the higher end. This “trickle down economics” which George H.W. Bush called “voodoo economics” when running against Reagan did not work, unless you were on the high-end. The disparity in income and wealth became extremely pronounced. Also, with the outsourcing of US jobs and welfare reform in the 1990’s, we paved the way for a diminishing middle class and increased poverty class. As referenced in an earlier post called “The Big Hairy Audacious Lies” the minimum wage jobs in the service, restaurant and retail economy actually perpetuate poverty.

But, I digress. This is about families who ran out of options and now live in a vehicle, in a shelter or on the street. If you see a family living in a hotel, that is usually the final step before outright homelessness, as the cost is too burdensome. Yet, the key comment I want to make for people who still believe the parent or parents are bums, no matter what I say, a significant number of these parents work or are employable, but have been impacted by the economy. Florida is significantly impacted by the recession as it had a lot of overbuilt commercial development and housing construction that ceased.The people highlighted in the “60 Minutes” episode are running through every option to find work, find suitable living space and find a reasonable life. The shelters are overcrowded, so like Joseph and Mary found, there is no room in the inn.

So, what do we need to do to help. First, do your best to walk in their shoes and convince others that the majority of homeless people out there are not the image embodied by the panhandler. We need to help the panhandler, as well, but the people whose picture I want in your mind are the homeless families and children. Where I live, we have courses for volunteers called “Poverty Simulation” and “Class (Economic) Matters.” The goal is to get people not in poverty to see what it is like to have to find options for food, shelter, transportation and income on a daily basis.

Second, irrespective of what people may think of the parents (again I am speaking to the people who believe the parents are bums), let’s help the children. There is data that shows homeless children have a greater propensity to become homeless adults than children who are housed growing up. Let’s break the cycle of homelessness for these kids. They did not choose to be homeless. If we break the cycle, they will benefit and the community will benefit as we replace someone in need with a taxpaying citizen who brings their intellectual capital to bear. I mention this last comment, as the second place prizewinner of the Intel Science award last year was a homeless girl.

Third, let’s help the families and children climb the ladder out of homelessness, not push them up the ladder. We have to empower the parent(s) and children to climb each rung. We have to make this a community effort, not just something good for the givers. There is a great book by Robert Lupton called “Toxic Charity” whose key themes are twofold – (1)  the efforts to help have to be more about the people in need and not the donors and (2) there needs to be buy-in from the families and community to help make the changes sustainable.

I volunteer with an agency that uses this empowerment model for homeless families. It provides temporary shelter before the family is placed in an apartment of their choosing from a short list. It provides rental subsidies based on the ability of the family to pay and provides active social worker and career development support. It is a milestone based program, so the families have to be saving, creating a budget, attending classes on making better decisions, etc. The significant majority of these families are employed. If they are not working, they are employable and just recently lost a job. The “secret sauce” is our volunteers who help the families by mentoring children, aiding with budget help and sitting for kids while the parents get a GED or go to a career development class. The volunteers do not proselytize and sign a statement that they will not. The idea is not to do for the family what they can do for themselves. We have to help the family maintain their dignity and sense of self-worth as they climb the ladder out of poverty.

So, let’s help these families climb out of poverty and homelessness. Giving money and food is wonderful, but we need to find places for people to live and work. Some call our model a “Housing First” model. We do migrate people to housing soon, but not out of the box unless they are ready. The executive director likens getting a homeless family ready for housing to sending a child off to college. There are many ducks that have to be placed in a row, so having the temporary shelter as we ascertain why people are homeless is important. It also allows the family to stay together in their greatest time of need.

Homeless people are not all alike in what they need. Migrating employable homeless families into rental or subsidized housing in mixed use neighborhoods is terrific and we need to do more of that. Getting a roof over the families head in a stable environment is major step on the ladder and enables the family to succeed in climbing the rungs. Yet, there are more chronic homeless – disabled vets and non-vets, people with mental and/ or substance abuse issues – where the homeless need to be in a group setting. So, as your communities reach out to help, note that one size does not fit all. Yet, at the heart of the matter, is getting people off the street and having them pay rent based on their ability to pay.

The cost of helping the homeless in this manner is far cheaper than models that shelter them on an emergency basis or worse through incarceration. The shelters need to be  temporary. Getting people in housing, providing measurable subsidies, and getting them the tools to help themselves ends up being more cost-effective. It also allows them to maintain their dignity and help themselves in a sustainable way. Sustainability is the key and will pay dividends for all including the community. Quoting a minister whose church helps those in poverty and homeless in a major way, “We cannot measure the intellectual capital that resides in these children. If we help them, we may be unlocking an enormous amount of potential.” I could not have said it better myself. Let’s help people climb their ladders.

Internal Bleeding – Be your own Health Care Advocate

A few years ago, two doctors looking to improve the quality of health care in the US, wrote a book called “Internal Bleeding: The Truth Behind America’s Terrifying Epidemic of Medical Mistakes.” Since Drs. Robert Wachter and Kaveh Shojania wrote their book, improvements have and continue to be made, but with the concern over the US’ 38th position in health care quality, while being the most expensive system in the world (according to the World Health Organization), I think it is appropriate to belabor a few of their key points, in particular, being your own health care advocate.

In today’s world, we must be the navigators of any customer service we receive whether it is at a bank, the driver’s license office or in a retail store. We must be diplomatically relentless in trying to gain the service we expect and need to resolve an issue. Service providers, in particular those in a Call Center, need to stay on script as much as possible. When your problems get them off script, then your navigation diplomacy skills are needed the most.  I mention this as context for what we also must do in gleaning good health care service.

A few years back there was a study conducted by a combined group called the “Leapfrog Group” to improve the quality of health care in hospitals. Leapfrog came up with three major ideas – (1) Electronic orders were a must (poorly written prescription orders were killing people), (2) Intensive Care units need to always have a doctor on site and (3) Medical procedures of import need to be done in centers of excellence, not where a hospital may have done only a handful of surgeries in this area. “Internal Bleeding” echoes many of these same issues, especially the one on electronic order taking. Yet, they also go beyond these Leapfrog issues.

They noted that often times in hospitals, fewer critical questions are asked closer to the time of the procedure. Sometimes, the critical mistake may have occurred very early in the process. They used the analogy of all of the holes in Swiss cheese aligning to allow a mistake to pass all the way through. They used the example at Duke University where a famous heart transplant for a minor child occurred. The doctors at this very fine medical center, one of the best, were so excited when a heart of a young deceased donor became available, that they assumed others had checked that the type of blood of the donor matched the patient. It did not and the patient died. Similar examples occurred when doctors operated on the wrong leg, arm, kidney, lung, etc. The doctors failed to ask the very basic of questions and assumed these issues had been resolved.

In addition to the above and related to the Rx orders, the authors advocate the patient understand fully what is being done to them in the hospital or before they get there. They recommend you introduce yourself to every care giver who comes into the room, ask questions of them relative to medications you are being given and make them fully aware of other medications you are taking. They recommend if you cannot speak for yourself or are uncomfortable in so-doing, to delegate this important role to someone you trust. In other words, they are recommending being your own health care advocate. This will help minimize mistakes.

Health care is both a science and an art. It also is a trial and error business, so the doctors may not know for certain what is wrong with you and have to figure it out. They will do their best, but they do not know you very well or at all. So, you have to play the role of information provider and advocate.  Using the authors’ recommendation supplemented by other sources of information and experience, you must be your own health care advocate and do the following to get the care you expect and need.

– Write as good a summary of your and your family medical history as possible. Make it available to others you trust who may need to speak on your behalf.

– Before you see the doctor, write down your symptoms and questions as you may get stage fright when you see the doctor’s white coat.

– Do not be scared to ask questions, especially if you do not understand the diagnosis or remedy – he or she is there to serve you. I tell my kids you show your intelligence by asking questions, not by failing to ask.

– Get a second opinion on major diagnoses. For example, it takes a lot of practice to read a mammogram correctly and a non-inconsequential percentage of misdiagnoses occur. Using this example, computers cannot take the place of human fingers in doing a self-test. If you feel a lump and the first mammogram shows negative, get a second opinion.

– Make sure you inform your doctors and pharmacists what drugs you are taking. There are a number of drugs that contraempt the drug you need (make its use less effective) and some which are toxic when taken together. I ask my pharmacist questions all the time about some over counter drugs that may be harmful when taken with the prescriptions my family is taking, including me.

– Take your medications as prescribed and through the dosage. Many people stop taking their meds when they start feeling better.

– Be truthful with the doctor about your drinking and extra-curricular drug use. Doctors tend to believe patients understate their drinking, so help them out and tell them the truth. You drink more than you say you do.

– Make sure you get treatment for a major problem at a place that does a lot of what you need – a center of excellence. This is especially true with back or spinal surgeries and surgeries on any major organs. If you are having heart surgery, do you want it done where they have done 25 in the past year or 250, e.g? I have two friends who are having major back complications after spinal surgeries were done poorly.

– Get all the information you can around procedures to make informed decisions. In some cases, living with a mild discomfort with medication may be better than invasive surgery. Ask the doctor what are the options, what are the chances for success and what are the risks. If he/ she doesn’t know, ask him/ her with whom you can speak.

– Be diplomatically relentless with Call Center personnel at insurance companies. Mistakes do occur and sometimes you may be allergic to a substituted generic prescription. So, you can appeal a claim if you feel under-served.

– This one comes courtesy of Dr. Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist, biologist and cancer survivor. Family history needs to recognize your environment as well. She was adopted, but her bladder cancer at the age of 21, also occurred in other family members who lived nearby (as well as other cancers). Bladder cancer is a bell-weather cancer. It is largely caused by environmental toxins. If your family, neighbors or community has some longevity in an area and more than one or two bladder cancers have occurred, start doing some fact-finding. It may be more than a coincidence. Since people move around, showing environmental causes is difficult as the exposure may have occurred years before.

– Finally, take care of yourself in a sustainable way. Walk more. Reduce portions. Eat more slowly and ingest more calories earlier in the day. These measures can be sustained whereas diets cannot.

These are just a few ideas, but the key message is be your own health care advocate as you are the only constant in any equation about your health. If you feel you cannot serve this role well, please take a trusted friend or family member with you. Doctors and nurses are marvelous care givers, but they are not perfect. You have to improve their service by being present in the conversations. It is only your or your children’s lives.

Simple Ideas We Can Do that are Budget Favorable

With Europe’s travails and China’s slowdown throwing a wet blanket on our slow burning recovery, what can we individuals do that will help our own personal economies and address our health and eco-energy concerns? Here are a few simple ideas, and by no means a complete list, of a few budget favorable ideas we could try that will help us individually and as a group, be it city, county, state, country or planet. Some of these ideas were mentioned in an earlier post “Conservation is the Key to our Future,” but there are others that go beyond the eco-energy front. I am taking a cue from one of my fellow bloggers at “My Magnificent Mess” at dje1231.wordpress.com, a must read. Most of these ideas are not new, but putting them on one list, they may spawn someone to try something new.

Eco-energy Ideas

  • Walk more, drive less – if stores, banks, restaurants are within a mile of your house, walk there. If you are eating you will get a two-mile walk in to improve digestion and you will buy fewer things as you have to carry them home. Note, since most car accidents occur within a mile of your house, you are reducing this risk, as well.
  • Power down electronics at night – don’t let them go to sleep. This will reduce your electric bill and depreciation of your machines. Fire risk will be reduced, as well.
  • Turn off water while shaving and brushing your teeth – this will save money and water which will become more valuable over the next few years.
  • Drive closer to the speed limit and coast into stops – it is amazing how much gas and brake depreciation is used by zooming into stop lights. You cannot go anywhere. By driving 40 in a 35 zone rather than 45, you will save money and reduce risk.
  • Alter thermostats by 2 – 3 degrees – this is one of the easiest things you can do.

Economy Ideas

  • Change work hours/ work from home if possible – this will get you off the road during peak traffic hours and save gas and time. The right person can be more productive.
  • Job share – this one is for the greater good, so you personal budget will suffer. Rather than see a teammate let go, find partners where you can job share and retain benefit coverage, which is key. This will usually mean 30 or 32 hours of work.
  • Pay it forward – a key to our recovery is consumers buying things. Since most groceries sold here are made in the US, go buy canned/ boxed goods and donate them to a food shelter. The economy gains and others in need are helped.
  • Hit the barter sites if you cannot find employment – you swap services and goods. A few sites are barter.com, swapstyle.com, zwaggle.com, barterplanet.com, u-exchange.com, but there are many others.
  • Negotiate insurance deals – the commercials who advocate “bundling” have it correct. You can save money. Plus, check how many miles they have you driving for pricing your auto policy. If you can show you use your car less, then you can save. Higher deductibles should not frighten you. Most people won’t report an accident under $1,000, so why not have a $1,000 deductible.
  • Donate campaign contributions to a charity – especially if the charity will help people get retrained, keep people off the streets or educate children. The campaign will only use it to produce a commercial you don’t want to hear.

Healthcare Ideas

  • Eat more calories earlier in the day – this will reduce stress and your body will burn off the calories better. Do not eat within a couple of hours of going to bed. Bad news.
  • Disconnect more, especially when driving – this will reduce your stress immensely and may save your and others lives. Note to younger folks, the fear of being left out will not kill you – trust me.
  • Leave a bite for the cook – this will aid in portion control. An even better idea is to fill your plate up less and go back if you want more.
  • Eat as a family whenever possible – this will pay dividends to all and slow your eating down.
  • If walking is not your thing (see above), do something each day – 10 minute stretching, Pilates, etc.
  • Avoid the emergency room unless it is an emergency – you will wait and pay more. It is like getting a drill out for one screw. Go to the Urgent Care Clinic – it is cheaper and they will see you faster. The ER doctors are better suited for emergencies.
  • Be your own advocate – write your questions down for the doctor, nurse or pharmacist; understand the medications you are being given and make sure they know who you are in the hospital by introducing yourself to all caretakers (if you cannot do this delegate this to a trusted friend or family member).

Education Ideas

  • Volunteer at impoverished schools – with many single parents, the kids need mentors and the teachers need help. This will improve your own health as the psychic rewards are many.
  • Unplug and read to your kids or yourself – kids seeing parents read will read more. Note, you can never be too well read and it is the gift that keeps on giving.
  • If school volunteering is not your thing, there are many other outlets to lend a hand. This will help your networking, as you will be giving back with others and it will keep you fresh and enthused.
  • Do not tolerate bigotry and bullying in the pulpit or in leaders – this is education for our kids and adults to treat people fairly. If a church minister is being bigoted, find another church. There are plenty of ministers who are not wielding the bible as weapon to exclude. I have said it in earlier posts just because someone is a minister does not mean he cannot be full of shit. Like any profession, there are good ones and not so good ones.

Advocacy Ideas

  • Keep the pressure on governmental leaders to act on issues of import; don’t let them get away with talking about nonsense.
  • In the past 28 months, 500,000 manufacturing jobs have moved back to the US after some incentives were put into law. The President has another bill which will provide further incentive to in-source more jobs. This is a tangible measure and is needed.
  • Advocate companies to think of a more balanced deployment of resources. In-sourcing call centers for US-based calls is starting to happen more, so we should promote this concept more. Service will improve and jobs will be closer to where calls are placed.
  • Advocate for sound eco-energy policy. Global warming is here and it is man-influenced. We must get greener in a thoughtful manner. Germany will be 80% alternative energy powered by 2030 and is ten years ahead of the US.
  • Advocate keeping and hiring more teachers. We must find ways to pay for these jobs. These are our kids and future we are talking about.

These are only a few ideas. You may be saying we are doing that already in my house. My hope is the ideas may spawn further thoughts on how to save money, improve your health and the environment. Yet, on these last set of issues on advocacy – don’t let the candidates and politicians off the hook. We need them to act and not play politics. If they get off subject, point them back to the problem.

If you have other ideas and comments, please feel free to share them. Many thanks.

The Big Hairy Audacious Lies

With due credit to Jim Collins in his book “Built to Last,” I have used part of one his themes to speak to the big lies that are out there regarding our problems in the US. The presidential campaign, or any for that matter, discuss how their opponents have lied about one thing or another. Yet, there are much bigger untruths we need to discuss in the context of our problems. I must apologize in advance, though, if my efforts to sound non-partisan fail as one political party has made an art form at being disingenuous, which is one of the reasons I left it behind.

Big Lie #1 – Deficits Don’t Matter

This one has been attributed to Ronald Reagan by Dick Cheney who even brought it up recently. This is one area where the Tea Party got it right, yet we disagree on the resolution. Yet, the truth is the deficit does matter and if we don’t do something about it, we will be like Greece. We are already seeing the deficits cause city after city in the US to declare bankruptcy and this will continue. Ben Bernanke and Erskine Bowles said last week that failure to act will be catastrophic. The other untruth is Reagan actually did care about deficits. That is why he increased taxes five times after he made his first major tax cut that went too far.

Big Lie #2 – We are Taxed Enough Already

According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris, who has measured overall taxes as a percent of GDP in 34 countries for over forty-five years, the US is one of the least taxed countries in the world. Of these 34 countries, the US ranks 32nd in terms of most taxes. Our average tax rate pf 24.1% of GDP in 2009 is almost 10%of GDP lower than the average of these 34 countries of 33.8%. When  our budget was last balanced in 2000, the year before Bush took office, our rate was still much less than the average. We also are at our lowest tax rates in over 50 years in the US. The truth is any politician can get elected saying he or she will lower taxes, yet we need sober discussions now regarding raising taxes as well as cutting spending as recommended by the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Plan.

Big Lie #3 – If you work hard enough in America you can change your Economic Class

Unfortunately, this is more a lie than it is a truth. For every Herman Cain story there are tens of thousands of failures to change their economic class. The best read on the subject is a ten-year old book called “Nickeled and Dimed in America.” The author worked a series of minimum or near-minimum wage jobs and reports that these jobs actually perpetuate poverty. Her peers worked their fannies off in usually more than one job, yet the wages are so low they could not eat enough or in a healthy manner, they could not afford health care, they could not save anything and were truly living paycheck to paycheck. These jobs are as close to slave labor as you can get without calling them that. And, per a Parade Magazine survey before the recession, over 70% of people making under $90,000 were living paycheck to paycheck. This is the real America and we need to address this. Better education has to be part of this equation as does living wages.

Big Lie #4 – Global Warming is a Hoax

When I hear reasonably intelligent people say this, it still amazes me, but they are biting hook, line and sinker on stories and biased data the Oil/ Gas Industry is feeding. Of course, global warming is happening and of course it is man-made. The data by reputable scientists dwarfs everything else plus the evidence is in front of us now. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just released a report that confirms the man-made influences on global warming citing the Texas droughts as one example. The US Court of Appeals in DC just ruled that the EPA has the right to govern greenhouse gases and chastised the Oil/ Gas Industry for criticizing the overwhelming scientific evidence. The rest of the world gets it, so the US needs both political parties at the table to discuss a workable eco-energy policy now. Germany is 10 years ahead of the US and will be 80% alternative energy powered by 2030 without nuclear power.

Big Lie #5 – Guns don’t kill people, people kill people

No, it is actually people who can get a hold of a gun kill people. The terrible tragedy in Aurora, CO is not the reason for this lie being included, but I will note that such tragedies will happen again. Yet, the greater tragedy is the number of deaths that occur on a daily basis where the victim knew the perpetrator. Pick up any local paper or watch the local news and count the number of homicides, suicides and shootings. With so many disagreements, despondence and stress, access to guns is causing a death to occur when it may have not been the case without such easy access. We have over 260 million guns in the US and the NRA is the most powerful lobbyist in the country who has only one purpose – to perpetuate the sale of more guns. No civilian should have access to an assault weapon – they should be illegal. Gun registration should have deeper background checks and be more elongated – we are talking about a weapon not a fishing license. Bullets should all be encoded so they are traceable. The police forces of America support this, but the NRA does not. I hold the opinions of our police force in higher esteem.

Big Lie #6 – More Jobs are Created under Republican Leadership

I had heard this was untrue, so I did some checking as can you on Wikipedia. The truth is quite the opposite and it is not even close. Whether you measure from January to January of the jobs in existence for the incoming President versus when he left office or if you measure from September to September of the President’s first and last budget, the same conclusion can be gleaned.  From January, 1921 to January, 2012, we have had 10 3/4 terms of Democratic Presidents and 12 terms of Republican Presidents. These are four-year terms, so Reagan and Clinton would have two four-year terms. The increase in number of jobs under the Democratic presidents have been over 72,177,000 an average of 6,744,000 per term. Under the Republican presidents, the increase in number of jobs has been over 35,752,000, which equates to an average of 2,982,000 per four-year term. The best job increase experiences were under the tutelage of FDR, Clinton, LBJ, Reagan and Carter, the latter of which surprised me.  Nixon and Truman were also good job creators. The author of “The World is Curved” served as a budget advisor to both Reagan and Clinton and he noted they were very similar in their beliefs on opening markets. Clinton actually saw more jobs created per term than FDR, but due to the size of the population, FDR had the highest percentage. While the President has less control of the job market than he is given credit for, where I first heard this statistic was when I read there have been more public/ private co-investments under Democratic white houses than Republican ones. That has been America’s history – one of open markets, but also public/ private investment to start a large effort or incubate an idea. This is a key premise of what we need to return to under “That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented and How it can come Back” by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandlebaum.

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I recognize I may have rattled a few cages in the Republican world, but being a former GOPer, they need to be rattled. We need to have serious discussions about our issues and plans to resolve them. We need people at the table armed with facts and not lobbyists’ versions of the facts. And, some of these conversations truly cannot wait for an election as the resolutions will take time and last beyond the terms of any President, which means we all must buy into the changes. We cannot shift gears after four years, especially when we are discussing systematic change. So, we need to get cracking this summer and we can begin with starting with the Simpson-Bowles plan as a solid working draft on addressing our deficits and doing so without damaging our slow recovery.

Kudos to John McCain

In the movie “Game Change” about the 2008 presidential election, the actor Ed Harris who played Senator John McCain portrayed two very poignant moments that validated why the Senator was a legitimate candidate for the White House. I mention these as Senator McCain deserves kudos for his recent impassioned comments calling out a congressperson for conducting a 2012 version of McCarthyism. In the movie, Senator McCain is seen calming down a strident follower who is berating Barack Obama as not being “one of us” and is un-American. The Senator had heard enough of this, so he gently said something like ma’am, I know Mr. Obama and he is a fine, decent public servant. I did not get the words just right, but the point he made is not to demonize his opponent. Yes, we disagree on issues, but we don’t need to crucify people. Ironically, since both were moderates, they were much closer on issues than their strident followers would have admitted at the time.

The other poignant moment came when Governor Sarah Palin was close to a meltdown having been thrown into so much, so fast before she was ready. Senator McCain’s response was “she needs her family,” so he arranged a family get together at his ranch in Arizona. These two moments, the first of which is recorded on the campaign footage, the second of which is easy to believe, show what a decent person and public servant he is. I mention these as context for what happened earlier this week.

Representative Michele Bachmann, the Chairwoman of the Tea Party Caucus in the House,  has been doing a Senator Joe McCarthy impersonation lately attacking selected individuals in various departments alleging they are furthering the cause of the Muslim Brotherhood. Senator McCain took offense at a set of accusations toward Huma Abedin, who is a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. McCain labeled them “sinister accusations.” He added, “These attacks on Huma have no logic, no basis, and no merit. And, they need to stop now. I have every confidence in Huma’s loyalty to out country…I hope these ugly and unfortunate attacks on her can be immediately brought to an end and put behind us before any damage is done.” Yesterday, Speaker John Boehner added his voice to McCain’s to quiet the accusations.

As an American, I cannot tell you how proud I am that someone from the same party has stood up to another, at great risk, to say you need to reconsider what you are saying. To step in and defend someone is laudable. The fact that Boehner backed him up speaks volumes. This follows on a call made by former Governor Jeb Bush for the GOP to return to its roots and away from the extremism that is rampant in the party. He testified in front of Congress and has said openly that he would have taken last summer’s Boehner/ Obama negotiated deficit reduction measure of 10 to 1 expense cuts to revenue increases in a heartbeat calling it a “no brainer.” Yet, the deal was not supported by the Tea Party caucus.

I fully understand where the Tea Party is coming from, in particular with their focus on the deficit and debt. Yet, I strongly disagree with them on their position to not consider tax increases, as the data shows we are one of the least taxed countries in the world, per the Paris-based Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. But, from where I sit as an Independent voter and even if I was in the GOP, I believe if the Tea Party continues to hang their hat on people like Rep. Bachmann, they truly should not be taken seriously. When I watch talk shows where she is a participant, like many I come away with an impression that she won’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Our issues are many and we need serious people to discuss them in a serious way. We do not people to manufacture issues and waste taxpayers’ time and money investigating witch hunts. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke just told Congress this week that they need to act now and not wait until the end of the year on the actions that will automatically transpire without change. The automatic income tax increases and 2% FICA tax hike will be harmful to the economy. Yet, they also need to address the longer term deficit issue. This is the same message that is being given by the World Bank, Simpson-Bowles and the S&P who downgraded the US bond rating last summer.

What we don’t need is representatives like Ms. Bachmann taking people’s eye off the ball to pursue witches. Senator McCain, well done sir and kudos for being a voice of reason trying to bring this fairy tale back to reality. Speaking out in favor of someone in the face of adversity shows your fortitude and make-up. And, Speaker Boehner, my hats off to you as well. Now, let’s get back to business and adopt something like Simpson-Bowles and get us back on a better financial path.

O’ Canada – You Rock

An article in Bloomberg News by Stephen Marche, the author of “How Shakespeare Changed Everything” caught my eye earlier this week. The title of the article is “Canada richer than US.”   Per Marche, “According to data from Environics Analytics Wealthscapes published in the Globe and Mail, the net worth of the average Canadian household in 2011 was $363,202 while the average American household’s net worth was $319,970. This is the first time in recent history that this has occurred. Not having seen the study, I would not be surprised if the Canadian wealth distribution is more egalitarian as well, meaning the US probably has many more on the high-end of the curve, but fewer on the bottom end.

Why is this so? Marche notes a combined “fiscally conservative form of socialism” and a little bit of luck. The luck resides in the richness of natural resources which produces dividends unrelated to public policy. Yet, while Canada has a greater reach with its social programs, national health care being the most successful,  it also has cut spending when needed and decreased taxes on corporations permitting them to reinvest in their business. What is also interesting is Canada’s embracing of regulation actually resisting calls to deregulate.

Unlike the US, banks are heavily regulated in Canada and have had tighter loan-loss and reserve requirements for some time. In fact, the big banks were not permitted to merge and as a result of all of the above, the stability of banks facilitated the stability of the housing market. This housing stability and less unemployment are key reasons for the better comparative wealth position. Many used to believe this conservative banking posture was quaint and growth inhibiting, but I do not think that argument would be as supported today.

From this article, I learned that Canada is very open to immigration, but it has to be done in the right way. There is a mandatory one-year prison sentence on illegal immigrants and the majority of Canadians favor deportation of illegal immigrants. So, while their borders are open to immigrants, there is a sense of fairness that it must be done according to Hoyle. I think many Americans would support this concept, but our problem seems to be the transition from what we have today to this premise.

I think Marche highlighted this last example to note that Canadians have a common sense belief in fairness. Regulations exist for a reason. Canadians might say, “Yes, we have our freedoms and we do believe in growth and wealth creation, but we do have some rules of the road.” I think in the US, we have people who sometimes forget that key point. Regulations are not growth inhibitors. If they were then how would one explain how so many trucking firms and airlines went belly up after deregulation in the 1980’s. How would one explain how US banks got the all messed up after Glass-Stegal was repealed in the late 1990’s which let banks be more than just banks?

However, I don’t want to end this post without reference to the Canadian National Health Care system. Canada along with every other first world country with a national health care system, rates more highly in quality of care than the US. Please refer to the World Health Organization (WHO) rankings for this analysis. The spreading of cost over more people and the assurance of preventive and acute care helps the Canadian population have higher overall quality of care than in the US. Further, while the Affordable Care Act is addressing the expansion of coverage in the US, until fully implemented, we have too many people in the US without care. So, many of our folks in poverty cannot afford health care and when crises occur, they must tap what few assets they have. This is the reason for my earlier hypothesis on Canada having a better wealth distribution than we have. Their citizens need not dig deep in their pockets to pay for health care on the spot or have to forego care.

Before the “yes, but” comments arise from some, let me state an obvious point. No country or health care system is perfect and there are problems that can be highlighted. This is one reason I highlight the WHO studies as the US health care system is the most expensive in the world, but rates down the list in quality. My main thrust is to say we don’t have all the answers here in the US and we should look at what is successful in other countries. Before I left my old global company, I used to tell clients one of the advantages of being a global company is you can adopt the better ideas germinated elsewhere and improve your model here. If Australia, UK, Canada or Singapore had a better construct, we could learn from it and bring it to the US. The arrogance of some US leaders that we must be the best at everything is in and of itself growth inhibiting. We should be global in our inventorying of good ideas and we could look north to start with.

Canada has shown you can be fiscally conservative, growth-oriented capitalists and socialists at the same time. And, before others say we cannot do that here, let me make two final points. First, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in a New York Law Review excerpt from a speech she made, that if she was creating a constitution from scratch, she would be more inclined to use “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms” than the US Constitution. I found that quite interesting. Second, before my conservative friends shout socialism. please note that Social Security is a form of socialism. Medicare and Medicaid are forms of socialism. So, we are growth-minded capitalists here in the US, but we have a system in place that tries not to let people fall through the cracks, so we are socialists, as well.

The US is still a pretty neat place, but I think we could learn a few things from our Canadian friends. O’ Canada, you most definitely rock. I knew I liked the band “Rush” for some reason.

An Oasis of Innovation in Texas

While much criticism is heaped upon the governmental leaders in Texas who are heavily influenced by the Oil/ Gas Industry lobbyists in their stance against proven data points on global warming and dangers due to extreme fossil fuel retrieval processes, an oasis of innovation has been spawned in Austin which looks very promising. Texas lays claim to being number one in the country for business development and I think that is more due to the innovative environment that leverages a very successful university system of public and private colleges and the business communities in major metropolitan areas in Dallas/ Ft. Worth, Houston and Austin to highlight a few. Promoting innovation has always been the keys to the promised land and we need to provide an environment for innovation to flourish.

In Austin, a planned neighborhood project called the Pecan Street Project (www.pecanstreet.org) is getting a lot of attention around the deployment of solar panels, smart grid technology and electric cars. The neighborhood is on the site of an old municipal airport and is the result of a private/ public investment between the Department of Energy, University of Texas – Austin and companies like Best Buy, Check-It, Chevrolet, Freescale, Intel, Sony, SunEdison, Texas Gas and Whirlpool to name a few. The project is over 700 acres and covers 400 homes and select businesses. Homes have solar panels that provide much of the power but not all of it. The other key is the use of smart grids that are so state of the art, they can detect the impact on power use when a light switch is turned off. Measuring the power use by the consumer and electric company will help maximize utility with future projects, the next one which is scheduled for Dallas. The electric utilities are learning about the power use, so that they can ascertain the best ways to use surplus power and supply power when needed. This is a key to the future, as if you do not measure outcomes, it is harder to make informed decisions.

Another key part of the project is the use of 59 Chevy Volts for transportation. This is the largest concentrations of electric vehicles anywhere in the country. Since the electric vehicles have to be powered-up, the smart grids play a role in making sure enough power is there to charge the cars. Using the solar panels are helpful to this process and lessons are already being learned. Solar panels on the west-facing side of the homes turn out to be more efficient than ones on the east facing side of the house. This is a practical example of how to build planned solar communities in the future.

Ironically, this initiative has met with some critics. When you first read or hear about this (I saw it on PBS Newshour on Friday night), you wonder how in the world could there be critics of this approach which makes so much sense? The website I note above includes some YouTube video of some of the demonstrations. I would put these demonstrations into three categories – people concerned with health issues due to the web transmission, people concerned with the security and confidentiality and people wanting to preserve the status quo on energy development. The first set of complaints has been raised in California by environmentalists. This one is puzzling as the smart meters will aid the eco-energy efforts. I would like to see more data on their complaints, yet the prize seems well worth the chase by using smart meters than not. The second complaint has got the backing of the some Tea Party advocates saying that people will know too much about you with the smart meters – how many people are home, when they arise, etc. I would argue people already know a lot about you from what you do on-line, so to me this is not a solid position. The utility companies note they can manage power outages better if they see where the needs are and can dial down energy deployment when it is not needed.

The other set of complaints is equally perturbing. While Texas Gas is also one of the sponsors of the Consortium, I would have liked to seen more sponsors from the Oil/ Gas Industry. This industry would seem to have the most to lose unless they move toward less fossil fuel development. I have noted often that the Oil/ Gas Industry is by far the largest and most powerful lobbying group in the US. The Koch brothers who made their billions in this industry fund almost every Tea Party and conservative Republican candidate. The industry supports many Democrats as well, but it should not be a surprise that the Tea Party is one of the groups against what appears to be a common sense, scalable innovation. I debated on whether I should include any politics in this post, as the idea speaks for itself, but when I saw some of the YouTube videos, I felt compelled to understand and explain why people would fight this innovative premise – I think the http://www.pecanstreet.org website feels the same way with posting the views of its critics.

An additional positive takeaway from this project is it is yet another good example of eco-energy initiatives which are occurring all of over America. It seems the smaller initiatives have easier paths forward and do not get caught up as much in political gridlock. We need these efforts to follow the paths forward created in Asia and Germany. In fact, Germany is ten years ahead of the US on alternative energy and will be getting 80% of the energy from alternative sources by 2030. All Americans should re-read the previous sentence for effect.

So, as someone very concerned about our eco-energy future, I applaud efforts like these around the country. It also shows a live, current example of our history of US public/ private partnerships that help innovation flourish.  When people say government should get out of business, they do not know our innovative history very well. If we celebrate and highlight our ideas, they can become scalable and replicated elsewhere. I see this as both a scalable and replicable idea. Well done Pecan Street and Austin!