This zero-sum discourse needs to stop

What does zero-sum discourse mean? It means framing topics in terms of who wins and who loses. I fault politicians, pundits and reporters for this mindset. This mindset preceded the current White House incumbent, but he views most everything through a very short-term transactional lens. Did I win?

The dilemma in discussing who wins and loses on actions, speeches or tweets is it takes the focus away from the issues. Does this decision help or hurt the people, environment or region?

I heard a news discussion on whether the US pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal helps or hurts Trump’s image? That is the wrong question among many better questions. Does it make the US safer? Does it make the world safer? Are we harming our relationships with our allies? Are we making a fact based decision as other leaders are questioning the veracity of this decision? And, so on.

Whether it is healthcare, debt, taxes, environment, financial protection, etc., I do not care who wins or loses politically. When people care too much about winning or losing, I can tell you who gets screwed – it is the people they represent.

Americans want Congress to address healthcare, with the majority saying to fix Obamacare. Instead, the President and leaders in Congress have sabotaged it over the past three years making premiums even higher. They want to see it politically fail while screwing American people.

I am tired of the lack of collaboration. I am tired of the abuse of factual information. And, I am tired of this zero-sum discourse. To be frank, our leaders need to stop trying to keep their job and start doing their job.

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Execution matters

Very early in the Trump presidency, he signed an executive order to institute a travel ban. It was so poorly conceived, vetted, communicated and staged, its disastrous rollout was canceled in a couple of days. A key example was he failed to tell (or involve) the people who would execute the decision what they needed to do. He also did not advise beforehand the Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader who found out when we did.

Earlier this week and over fifteen months later, the President decided to pull the US out of the Iran nuclear agreement. Whether people agree with this decision, the State department had a very difficult time answering questions the next day as to what this all meant. The did not know answers to questions on the impact on business transactions underway, business transactions that had multiple parties from various countries, business transactions where US suppliers provided parts to French companies working with Iran, etc.

One reporter noted it was shocking how little the State department people knew on what needed to be done and the answers to many questions. They were not briefed. Apparently, the lessons of the first travel ban and other poorly rolled out decisions have not been learned. This is what vetting, planning and communication tries to avoid. Just because a regal person says to do something does not mean it can easily happen. Execution matters. Time matters.

As a former consultant and business manager, I can assure you execution is as important as good ideas. This is a key reason companies spend time and money in project management training. With that said, it is not uncommon to see execution challenges. I recall one prospective client telling me a new software was going to go live a certain date. I asked what alternatives they had considered if certain things did not happen as planned. His answer was of course they would happen on time. It is rare that things go as planned and this was no exception as the start date was delayed.

Yet, what we are seeing from the White House should not be a surprise, as one only needs to look at the business history of the leader. While the confident President would never admit this, what financial reporters and biographers have known for years is Trump is a terrific merchandiser, but they would not confuse him with being a good manager. Managing by chaos and loyalty are not conducive to the very necessary boring competence. Even vetting candidates for jobs is essential and is not a competency for which this White House is known.

Execution matters. Vetting, planning, communication, and time are essential. Without doing these things, too many people are caught off guard. A visual metaphor is White House communication staff hiding in trees from the press after they just found out Comey was fired. Not only did Comey find out after the media did, but so did the Communication staff. Without execution, you have chaos and confusion.

US is going alone again

Unless we alter our course, this period of time will be remembered as when the US ceded its global leadership role. We are following a path of nativism and retrenchment. And, there is one thing for certain – we cannot shrink to greatness.

First, we drop out of an Asia/ Pacific trade partnership early in the Trump presidency. The remaining countries proceeded without the US and inked a deal at the end of last year. Why is this important? When approached to do a bilateral agreement, Japan told Trump to reenter the Asia/ Pacific agreement.

Second, last June we decided to leave the Paris Climate Change Accord, leaving an agreement with pretty much the rest of the world. Even ExxonMobil told us to stay in the accord. Fortunately, businesses, cities and states are picking up the dropped baton, but more is needed from our DC leaders.

Third, we do our darnedest to restrict immigration into our country from several countries and are actively seeking to expel both undocumented immigrants and children who came forward under DACA. What we fail to understand is immigration is accretive to our economy and this is a key part of our ideals.

Fourth, we have introduced tariffs on our allies and trading partners. Not only are we acting like a bully, we are acting unwisely, so say 1,140 economists including Nobel laureates and Presidential advisors. We could be precipitating a retrenchment of the global economy, of which we are a key part. The economists say this is how recessions start.

Fifth, by pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement, we are heightening global risk. But, we also have turned our back on our allies who asked us to work with them to stay in the agreement. With the reimposed sanctions any EU countries doing business with Iran will also be sanctioned. This will invite sanctions by the EU on the United States’ companies doing business there.

The President views the world in a transactional way which is why he prefers bilateral agreements. He must win the transaction. In multilateral agreements, everyone wins some and loses some. He also does not value diplomacy as we have retrenched in those capabilities. The hard work is done by these folks and China is lapping us in their diplomatic efforts.

We cannot go this alone. We should pay attention to the words of French President Emmanuel Macron when he spoke to the US Congress. He beseeched us to remain involved working with others.

 

Retrenching into silos is the exact opposite of what is needed

With the advent of more terrorists’ activities around the globe and the significant refugee crisis, nationalistic and jingoistic behaviors have taken more solid footing. With the backlash in some European countries, the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump as an unlikely candidate for US President, show that protectionism is selling these days as a concept. These folks want to build actual and proverbial walls, rather than bridges.

Yet, that is precisely the wrong behavior needed. These so-called leaders feel if we segregate and retrench into our own little worlds, this cocooning will make everything better. What these so-called leaders fail to tell you is the significant benefits with being aligned, working together and doing commerce with each other. Economic trade breaks down barriers, as countries do not want to upset the financing of their economy and will work past governing differences.

President Abraham Lincoln did not coin this phrase, but he capitalized on it – keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.  Lincoln added several adversaries to his cabinet when elected. His view was if he could keep tabs on his opposition and argue with them, he could keep a lid on dissent at a time when dissent was in vogue. President Teddy Roosevelt was very open with reporters, in part because of his ego, but in large part to have the reporters be his eyes and ears. He would have them go speak with his department heads to learn what was going on.

Commerce breaks down barriers. Not only will we make more money by co-existing, we will be safer in turn. That is a concern of the Brexit vote, as the UK being a part of the EU makes the world safer and aids the economy of both entities. Like the UK, there is much to be gained in the US with the global economy, especially with companies who employ people here. Just here in Carolinas, there are multiple hundreds, if not thousands, of foreign companies who have US presences here, be it a North American headquarters or a major plant. BMW, Mitsubishi, Michelin, Doosan and Husqvarna come to mind.

We should not lose sight of breaking down barriers abroad. I have been a staunch supporter of doing trade with Cuba and Iran. The countries want to do business with us and we are well positioned to leverage that travel and trade. Just with Cuba and its 11 million people, it will be like adding a 51st state to our US economy. With Iran, of course, we need to keep our eyes open, but the median age of Iranis is age 35. We have a chance to create new economic paradigm with Iran which will live beyond the older regime. Plus, being closer to Iran will allow us to keep more tabs. This is the  best example of what Lincoln did.

The candidates who have touted building walls and retrenching are not being very open with the whole picture. They are using fear and an incomplete picture of reality. Companies have always chased cheap labor and as one CFO said in the book “The Rich and the Rest of Us,” if companies could get by with hiring no employees, they would. The greater threat is technology improvements as a new plant is not going to have 3,000 employees, it will have 300. On the flip side, Nissan in Tennessee and Mercedes in Alabama employ a great many American workers, which is not talked about enough as a benefit of globalization.

If we retrench, we will be reducing markets for goods and services. A venture capitalist once said what creates jobs is not owners, but customers. The fewer the customers, the fewer the jobs. But, with that said, there are elements of truth that workers need to ask more of the employers who have suppressed wages and let people go, to hire younger and cheaper workers. Companies are quick to hire cheaper, but need to be reminded that we employees are important and customers, as well.

I am reminded that two of the top three jobs creation Presidents had two things in common. Bill Clinton, the number one job creator at 22.8 million jobs, and Ronald Reagan, the number three job creator at 16.1 million, were both collaborators and advocated global trade, as reported in “The World is Curved” by David Smick, who was an economic advisor to both. Creating markets for trade and opening up our markets to others, in my view, is one of the best things a President can do.

Globalization is extremely important, but we need to manage it better. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is something we must guard against. So-called leaders who are advocating this very thing need to be asked more questions. As they are not telling you the whole story.

 

China, Cuba and Iran

Former President Richard Nixon became the first president who almost was impeached and would have been if he did not resign. Yet, in spite of his troubles at home where he ran a disinformation and burglary ring from the White House, he did make a huge difference in opening up dialogue with China. His efforts and those of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, paved the way for changes in the economic relationship with that country which led to growth there and abroad.

I bring this up as when we look back in forty years at these moments, we may be able to say the same things about Cuba and Iran. Both have very young countries, with the youth crying out for better ties with the west and the products and services they bring. Yes, both countries are not being led the way we would want, but I believe having commerce with people is the best way to break down barriers. At some point, the commerce is so important, that it will be preserved and more dialogue will occur.

Of course, we need to move forward with our eyes open, but it is far better to find common ground than to beat on your chest and refuse to enter the sandbox. So, from where I sit, I applaud the President for opening up these countries to more dialogue, just as I thought as a teen that dealing with China was exciting.

We will see the positives with Cuba much sooner, as tourism will be ramped up this year. The president’s visit was a huge step forward. But, I think having a better relationship with Iran will pay dividends as well, yet I am not foolish enough to say trust them completely. So, let’s be cautiously optimistic and guarded as well.

 

A few things to consider about the Iran deal

I am by no means an expert, but I want to ask our leaders to consider a few points about the Iran nuclear deal, after they finish beating on their chests and saying all the political things. Whether it passes muster in our Congress or not, a few things that should be thought about are as follows:

First, we are not the only country involved in signing this agreement. Our allies Germany, France and England did so well. And, Russia and China were involved. So, if we decide to not approve the agreement, we may stand alone.

Second, the President, Secretary of State and their counterparts should get a lot of credit for having these conversations, much less coming to an agreement. We have not had discussion of this nature with Iran in over 30 years, so their diplomatic feat should be applauded at a minimum. Getting a reasonable deal is commendable.

Third, the median age in Iran is age 35. That means half of its population is younger and is aching for a better economy and ties to the western world. We have a chance to win or lose another generation of Iranis. We have a chance to break down many barriers to future interaction. Or, we can continue to be an enemy and all that entails.

Fourth, what would happen otherwise is the question that must be asked. Iran would continue to do what it was in pursuing a nuclear bomb. They may even still under the vest. Yet, we have some governance with the deal we would not otherwise have. I understand the fears of Netanyahu, but he has been banging this drum for about ten years. It does not make the fears less, but I saw a Middle East expert note that Israel may benefit from a deal, because of more being out in the open.

I will leave it to the powers that be to say grace over this. Yet, I do think these points are important. One thing we should try to avoid are the “bomb Iran” crowd, as that would make matters worse and we would definitely lose that generation noted above.