Sunday, December 29, 2013

Pick your Ducks and Prevent a Row

I think that I’ve become too jaded or too indifferent to get my dander up regarding Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson. It was a safe assumption that A&E would reinstate him and that they would of course be back on the show as soon as the free advertising frenzy resulted in more name recognition and paraphernalia purchases than they could have imagined in their wildest fantasies. It is an interesting opportunity to watch for the pundits throughout the political spectrum venting everything from their own pro or anti-gay points without even noticing that the demographic for the show was so limited that it was a complete waste of time for the multiple demographic groups that, honestly, never would have gone anywhere near Duck Dynasty without provocation. It’s doubtful that there would have even be incentive to (unlike Sarah Palin) do something really radical—like actually reading Robertson’s GQ Interview before chiming in on what they think was allegedly said in it.

Overall, the general sluggishness of the broadcast, cable, and on-line news audiences provided an extremely generous holiday gift to broadcasters and news desks throughout the U.S. They were up a creek with the President and congress out of town for the remainder of 2013. It’s hard enough to come up with much material during the holidays from contract journalists who are all stuck with revitalizing more old news outside of the month old discussions on the Affordable Care Act or being reduced to actually covering multiple conflicts in Syria, Sudan and/or even the U.S. figuring out whether to finally tell Afghan President Hamid Karzai that it’s been real and to consider us gone.
While all of these thoughts are circling around me, my ultimate confusion comes when I try to determine why there is so little strategic thinking taking place to address circumstances like Duck Dynasty. General Electric (owner of A&E) has no incentive to do anything other than enjoy the free publicity resulting from the alleged controversy. On the other hand, News Corporation, Time Warner, Disney, CBS and/or Viacom should be more useful to their investors by counter-programming and reaching a different niche market in the same time slot as Duck Dynasty rather than giving them more curious onlookers. A narrow group of Duck Dynasty beneficiaries will always promote their investments. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) knows that the state of Louisiana is making quite a bit of money off of Duck Dynasty—so much money, in fact, that he can even overlook his own singing and happy African-American constituents. So, perhaps the competing cable corporations would do better for their own audiences, advertisers and stockholders by simply aligning competing demographics and taking more active steps to compete on the actual battlefield of ratings and advertising revenues rather than repeatedly reenacting a war that (at least theoretically) ended in 1865.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Why Fa was Right about Government Bureaucracy

I may have finally crossed over to the other side regarding federal employment. While I was in college (and shortly after), Government looked like a place where the passable and unmotivated applied when they were not competitive enough or too fearful to take on the corporate life. Admittedly, when I became a General Service (GS) employee, I was conflicted. I liked the possibilities of secure work, but I did not want to become lethargic or pigeonholed where I could no longer be creative, improve, or advance.

As the clock on the television counts down (like it does at Time Square on December 31st); to determine if we are to furlough government employees who are deemed non-essential out of their jobs for an uncertain amount of time, I think it is finally time to accept that the US Government no longer wants an exemplary workforce, (if it ever did).

My grandfather (a.k.a. "Fa") worked for Department of Commerce a long time ago. He was disconcerted on occasion himself when he looked at the inefficiency around him and the lack of motivation overall. On one hand, he deplored the inefficiencies noting, “You could take all the employees out on the front lawn, do a raffle and eliminate two out of three and still have enough to get the work done.” At the same time, he appreciated the requirement to swear an oath to the country and swear to uphold the constitution. No corporation requires you to make an oath to do anything at all short of making money for your employer, client or investor. 

When I joined a federal agency after years in the non-profit sector and the corporate world, it was a cultural shift to say the least. The requirement to be culpable for leaking classified data or for being absent without leave made total sense to me. I figured a person needed to be more culpable, not less, after receiving an Active Secret Clearance and gaining access to classified information. After a whirlwind of incidents in the past couple years from NSA leaker Edward Snowden to WikiLeaks leaker Chelsea Manning and now Alexis; the key issue that is eroding our minuscule remaining credibility as federal employees is the basic philosophical confusion some civilians, soldiers and contractors are experiencing between the desire to hold an agency accountable for perceived wrongs while not internalizing the need to be accountable for illegal acts themselves.

If we are vague in our enforcement of leaking classified information, we will be doing considerable damage to our intelligence, our counterterrorism efforts and our financial security as a nation. Manning’s judge stated herself that providing classified information for mass distribution is a sort of treason if the government can prove the defendant knew “he was giving intelligence to the enemy” by “indirect means.” Enabling treason and no culpability is a fast way to destroy our livelihood and our safety.

There needs to be a higher standard for the requirements of federal civilians if we are to be effective in protecting our citizens and our intelligence. This is hard to achieve when the overall impression of a Federal employee is that we are lazy and uncaring and only out for ourselves. It’s possible that many of us are. We are likely to find out in the next year or so also. If the private sector is thinking ahead and planning for future reactive legislation, they are more likely to recruit the current GS employees who already have the higher clearance levels before they invest their own investors' funds on deeper background checks (especially when they can get taxpayers to fund them). Corporations requiring cleared personnel are apt to go into the pool of the 1.4 million who have a Top Secret Clearance already versus investing private funds to get their current contractors higher clearance levels.

Last year, the military judge in Private Manning’s case ruled that providing classified information for mass distribution is a sort of treason if the government can prove the defendant knew “he was giving intelligence to the enemy” by “indirect means.” This is the point in our history as Americans, where we need to determine whether or not, we are allowed to break the law at no risk other than our clearance, or if we are going to be held accountable to obey the law. The simplest answer is that if we don’t obey the laws ourselves, we might as well abolish the laws altogether, for we will have no right to expect anyone else to be accountable if we are not.

If, in fact, the US Government no longer wants an exemplary workforce, we as a nation, and individually, need to figure out what we want to do as Americans. Do we believe it is better to hold our government employees to a higher standard and respect them for their willingness to meet that standard, or do we simply think of them as the least common denominator in terms of employees? If the latter is true, it is a safe bet that the benefits no-longer outweigh the determents, when we go get our Affordable Care Act (ACA) insurance activated and after being furloughed begin to internalize that federal employment is now the same risk and the same benefit as the private sector. Odds are many of the patriotic but pragmatic top people will move over to the private sector. There we will likely do the same jobs that we are doing now, but we will do them for a middleman who submits proposals to the government, gets tax dollars for contracts, pays us a bit more than the government did directly, while charging double that to the taxpayers. Perhaps it would help if a common understanding could occur that cutting federal employees does not enable the necessary work to be abandoned. Cutting government jobs does not translate into the work ending or even into the taxpayers not having to pay for it. For the most capable federal employees however, the calculations become very simple. Altruism is a charming luxury, but when no one has your back, you know what to do next.

United We Stood, Divided We’ve Fallen (But Maybe We CAN Get Up)

I have been listening all week to the multiple commemorative perspectives on the 50thAnniversary of the March on Washington. From Saturday’s First Amendment Demonstration at the Lincoln Memorial, through multiple speakers; through the National Urban League and NAACP and even tribal dances and multiple versions of Amazing Grace; many different feelings arose all around me. While thousands of Americans and visitors of every demographic waited en masse, the Secret Service herded everyone into  were to be checked into a zone that required more scans and security checks than an International Airport without an organized set of ropes between any kind of isles. Upon arrival, I watched hundreds of attendees waiting 4-5 hours to get inside the perimeter. The level of security made the hoses and riot police in Alabama seem more real than the simple systemic control that (as a people) we take completely for granted without thought or protest in the year 2013.
As a communications professional, I was utterly amazed and somewhat chagrined that there was suddenly not one 30th, but two separate events. Rev. Al Sharpton knows full well that segmenting a limited audience and dividing their activities into two disconnected events lead to a disengaged population who would have liked to be involved (whether they were looking only to theoretically be a part of history, or simply to learn how they can begin to take part in moving the country back toward a path that at least feigns an attempt to recognize the needs that MLK put out there 5 years before I was born). 
Millions of people around the globe watched and listened through thousands of media outlets--each projecting different aspects of this landmark occasion.  I am doubtful that any of the viewers were likely to get a bona fide sense of who is there; or how many of them experienced Rev. John Lewis trying to remind and reunite. Unfortunately, his points put the accent on the barriers while keeping the faith those viewers could (by osmosis) internalize the need to address the barriers without being too overwhelmed to do so. All of this while hoping and praying that we can do assume these responsibilities without turning against one another in the process. It’s true that these efforts have been convoluted a lot in the past 50 years due to an intense and dedicated effort of multiple groups to combat the change before 1963 and facilitate reversion as much as possible. Isolating multiple demographic groups of   Americans and convincing them that they were each vying for a limited pie without sufficient pieces. Successful attempts at distraction and blurring the focus of citizens to the point where they were not even advocating for themselves or their own financial, philosophical, moral or political goals or issues. This was not accomplished through segregation, but rather, segmentation.
Every day since August of 1963, political and philosophical advocates have hoped to combat every looming change under The Civil Rights Act of 1964 knowing full well that the best way to combat a wave of true transformation was not by rubbing the public’s noses in it, but instead using subtle tactical methods. Thousands of vigilant steps were taken to maneuver society toward the illusion where they appear to be promoting and facilitating the right to vote, while simultaneously are in fact undermining patriotism and proactive citizen involvement.  In the past 50 years, multiple transitions from affirmative action to unions to elimination of poll taxes have shifted into multiple states trying to revert to a Voting ID law and through all but literally reapplying a poll tax deliberately impede voters of specific demographics from being represented in an election. Why should Americans keep the faith in the government having their own best interest at heart, while simultaneously indicating state by state that they want poll taxes to make their way back to states that have a “minority majority”?
The penal systems, war on drugs, Citizens United etc., have succeeded in intimidating millions of Americans into fearing or avoiding proactive debate, peaceful demonstration or even uniting voices. Overall we have become a population who generally sit by ourselves even in crowds staring at an iPhone Android or Galaxy completely oblivious to the fact that “we the people” includes us all.
All of this continues while our country experiences multiple progressions and recessions. We have recently experienced the demise of Glass–Steagall and attempts like Dodd-Frank to readdress the reckless behavior that deregulation brought to the economy.  Can Americans doing multiple minimum wage jobs, impossibly deep in student loan debt truly understand the potential for a better world?  The baby boomers can try to remind us about societal improvements. Doesn’t it fall a bit flat for Generation Xers and Millennials as we and our parents losing ground economically, socially and psychologically? Of Detroit succeeds and is soon followed by Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Philadelphia? If they eliminate pensions for people who worked for many years right as they are defenseless in old age, why should any American believe that they will be thrown under a similar bus when they become physically vulnerable? While we’re at it, what about all the recent talk of trying to treat soldiers better than our returning veterans from Viet Nam? How do we anticipate that while underfunding the VA with limited prospects for them to get gainfully employed? 
When we look at the ease of our populations’ distraction and polarization of goals we need to stay focused on which goals are common enough to attempt to bring about. What are our priorities: government size? Reducing national debt or opposing tax increases? The Tea Party began with one message that, and became a party tool. While it doesn’t reduce the validity of their opinions, it certainly undermines the philosophical goals and hands them over to a government that simply wants to keep their own jobs.  Similarly, Occupy Wall Street tried to address social and economic inequality, greed, corruption and the perceived undue influence of corporations on government. That is, until they moved off the basic message of “We are the 99%” and became fragmented into every philosophical angle possible from gay rights to anti war to where they made Woodstock seem much more focused. 
How to address the multiple American populations is complicated. At the 50th Anniversary Clinton and President Obama basically said so. Perhaps it is possible for us to get together and re-attempt the drive to changes that are just as needed now as they were in 1963. But with rampant fragmentation, millions of separate voices can’t or won’t hear one-another although they do have multiple common goals and needs.  Remember, all of the demographic sections who marched in 1963 did not get along with one another, (and their kids and grandkids don't get along now).  On the other hand, if we can actually get past the feelings of anger, abandonment, isolation and segmentation, perhaps even we can realize the common goals we do have. At the end of the day, of course Americans will re-attempt to reach the societal goals projected in both 1963 and 2013, and if they can stay focused (and to some extent united), freedom may actually be allowed to ring. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Sexting, Lies and Videotape Meets All the Potential Presidents Men?

After listening to the political quagmire (yes those who wish to use the Family Guy® reference can feel free to go there!) regarding the recent scandals in New York City politics, I think that New Yorkers (and Americans) are getting a bit bogged down in the minutia and forgetting the real issue. Regardless of our political stripe, citizens, politicians and pundits are being so sidetracked by the promiscuous exhibitionist behaviors happening all around us to the point where we keep communally forgetting which behaviors are illegal and which are merely unseemly, sordid and even contemptible, but not against the law.

Former Congressman and would-be NY City Mayor Anthony Weiner obviously should consider some serious psychotherapy. He ought to also consider getting a press team who is capable of coping with massive hubris and persuading him when he should truly stop speaking; (particularly if he intends to keep running for office). Regardless, as his dramedy continues on multiple channels, try to remember that Weinergate was not about the sexting, it was not (and still is not) about bawdy electronic images. Rather, it was (and is) about holding a press conference and lying to constituents about his Twitter account being hacked.  Weiner said so himself: "I have not been honest with myself, my family, my constituents, my friends and supporters, and the media” and; "to be clear, the picture was of me, and I sent it." This was the only conceivably unlawful act, not the sex.

Former New York Governor and potential Comptroller Elliot Spitzer was not under investigation for promiscuity, but for political corruption. Let’s be clear. In 2008, Spitzer was heard on a federal wiretap scheduling a rendezvous with a high-priced (even if slightly hayseed) prostitute at a Washington, D.C., hotel. No matter how a defense attorney pitches it. We are talking money laundering of up to $70,000 and significantly breaking the law in ways that a less politically connected man would likely have been convicted and possibly even incarcerated.  Just ask his prostitute's New York madam, Kristin M. Davis, who was incarcerated for four months for being the prostitute’s "DC Madam” and who ironically is now running against Spitzer as the Libertarian party’s candidate for Comptroller, (go figure!)

When we look at the public’s failure to consider reproaching these men and instead see politicians being rewarded for their misconduct, how can Americans be shocked when politicians begin to feel like gods entitled to forgiveness rather than mere mortals unsure if they deserve it? Does everyone deserve a second chance after a short time even when unrepentant?  If they go by Governor Mark Sanford as an example, who after he abandoned his post and misappropriated state monies for his own personal use was publicly permitted (despite his actions being illegal) to run for office again and convinced South Carolinians to elect him to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. So it’s not all that surprising that Weiner and Spitzer believe they can pull off the same type of thing in New York. Constituents should still bear in mind however, that whatever else the activities of these candidates and government officials may have been, they were also illegal.

Journalists and pundits also keep adding Former President Clinton into the equation.  Multiple media have used a split screen with Huma Abedin on one side looking forlorn; and ancient footage of Hillary Clinton on the other side, standing (sitting actually), by her man like Tammy Wynette despite her denial: “I'm sitting here because I love him and I respect him, and I honor what he's been through, and what we've been through together, and you know if that's not enough for people then heck, don't vote for him!”

Let’s be clear. President Clinton committed an illegal act. He did this, not by having his employee Monica Lewinsky go under a desk for extracurricular activities; but for lying about the existence of the affair during a sworn deposition.  It does not matter that a JD might be able to argue his way out of it. It is still illegal.  If President Clinton had chosen to have the wherewithal to simply state, “Yes I had sex with that woman and I am working through this with my spouse”; he would have been unimpeachable, period.

Had the internet been anywhere near the arena it is now, I doubt Bill would have survived. Shows like Dr. Phil® and Judge Judy® or even American Idol® seem like a charitable picnic compared to the potential humiliation that Linda Tripp could have brought about in an internet age.  Hillary and Huma Abedin may want to consider co-authoring a book to address the fine line between standing by your man and allowing your own prestigious career to be obliterated (or at a minimum considerably compromised) for the potential political power their husbands may (or may not) achieve.

The motivations of any political figures; From Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner, Eric Massa, Eliot Spitzer, David Vitter, Christopher Lee, John Edwards, John Ensign, Larry Craig, Bob Filner (and whoever should turn up next); are generally impossible to really put a finger on (metaphorically of course!)  Nonetheless, I sincerely doubt that any of the women involved from the spouses, the mistresses, the call girls, or the sexting  partners; to the incidental women who needed to explain sexual harassment to a groping boss. I doubt that any of them ever intended for local state and/or  federal politicians with x and y chromosomes to actually internalize that they somehow received sanction or approval.  Perhaps, Americans should encourage their political figures to consider giving up the public exposure of their personal lives and/or their genitalia and move toward pleasuring themselves in private (ideally while not photographing themselves for posterity and sending those images throughout the social media galaxy while expecting no one to find out). This might be a better alternative to simply feeling confident that Americans don’t care if they break laws, sexually harass a rear-admiral, sleep around, dump their wives while they undergo chemotherapy, etc.

Ah well, regardless of their activities and the media covering them, just remember the real issue. It is irrelevant whether any of these politicians’ acts are immoral. Lying about the acts under oath is illegal. So ultimately, it is not the hiking the Appalachian Trail, its being AWOL from your post. It’s not the affair with an intern but denying it on the record. It is not publically playing with a sexting buddy. It is lying under oath and/or in a press conference on the record, that is the removable, terminable and yes, impeachable offense—not the sex.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Speak Now to Forever Hold Our Peace

In October, 2010; a "ruly mob" of 150,000 to 200,000 people filled the National Mall, (from almost in front of the Capitol to the Washington Monument (at their own time and expense). They came for The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington, DC. According to Jon Stewart, the event was intended to be for: "the 70–80 percenters," who do not hold extreme political views and lack a voice in the media” alongside Stephen Colbert.  The overall spoof format did not detract from the effort to address the overall needs that the American people want to speak. They also want actual answers from their government that they don’t believe they are currently hearing.  Just short of a year later, on September 17, 2011 Occupy Wall Street is born and to this day, refers to themselves a “leaderless resistance movement”.  

I attended both of these events (by happenstance more than by intent); and at both, I remember the overall swell in the crowd of harmony and focus. It did not matter whether the focus was on humor or on anger; speaking in unison was still what made it memorable. If either event brought about an increased understanding by Americans at home or on-line watching the world goes by, who are less inclined to pontificate or to scream from the mountaintops, (but who nonetheless are very anxious?) It’s a win. Americans believing that they are not alone in their concerns and that they won’t effectively disappear to the wayside immediately following an event one or two news cycles later, then it’s a success. Therefore, the key distinction between the two events was the small but lasting impression of the rally versus the complete lack of memory regarding why people occupied.

Frankly, compared to multiple protesters amassing in Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, the United States (theoretically the freest country in the world), seems to be the least driven to maintain that freedom rather than regress.  But perhaps the bigger problem is that a megaphone does not suffice without a voice to use it. So the truest need that the American people have is for a spokesperson.

For the millions of Americans of all demographics, their overall view sounds more like a John Mayer tune. It is critical however, that we stop waiting and that those who confuse philosophy and integrity for power are not the right voices to speak for the people.  The more I listen to John Boehner and even President Obama, I believe we have lost track of the real needs to pursue personal gain and there is a marked absence of personalities that can address this. I do not see Rand Paul or Jay Z having the overall pull, and I think that even if very intelligent and experienced, anyone named Clinton or Bush is already behind the 8 ball due to past issues and influences that are going to weigh them down regarding political activism and potential movement. 

Currently what politicians of all parties believe is that Americans want the following: jobs, roads, guns, no guns, abortions, and mandatory ultrasounds, stand your ground laws, clip size limits, corporate votes and voter ID laws, bailouts of investment bankers and elimination of food stamps. Until we can determine as a community how to balance representation and regulation of special interests, there is no way to prevent distraction; making the most effective political stance for incumbents on all sides being to divide and conquer the multiple interests and distract everyone from what needs to be done while campaigns continue and which is charities under section 501(c) (3) get away with behaving like lobbyists and the limited for social welfare groups organized under section 501(c)(4) throughout the political spectrum keep rolling along because they convince the general public to assume it’s only “the other guy” that’s doing it. Organizations like Citizens United and American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are extremely adept at persuasion, but convincing scores of people that the law itself doesn’t need to be looked at is still quite a feat.

These tactics are working remarkably well for fanatic extremists with clear-cut goals and focus; but they are also malevolent instigators of an even more elemental syndrome. Winston Churchill’s 1961 comment; "Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it" seems remarkably ironic, after watching the  Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 being defanged this week. But don’t forget that bait and switch, divide and conquer, distraction and confusion with no incentive to notice have been tactical tools for multiple millennia.     

Conversely, a spokesperson who is willing to take on these issues without aspiring to become a politician, lobbyist, judge, CEO, etc. might be able to help.  In the meantime, we as a nation keep searching for a spokesperson, without focusing so hard on the current power structure that we ignore the external possibilities. Power can withstand corruption, but the most formative potential is before that corruption hits. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela are daunting shoes to fill and, unfortunately the well for prophetic mentorship truly seems to have run dry.  

So, if you are a powerful personality who has some altruism and real integrity, consider the personal sacrifice and severe physical exposure required. After determining that you are willing to consciously take that personal risk, take the step and become a real voice. If you can stay focused on the basic rights and not get waylaid by distractions that are in the millions, you’re our person —one who a leaderless resistance movement will be unable to resist.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Certain Unalienable Realities

OK. After the craziest week of professional and peripheral experiences I have experienced in a very long time, we are back to examining the fundamental freedoms and rights that are inalienable versus privilege we take for granted as Americans. On Monday, during the Boston Marathon, New Yorkers like me were flashing back and working through our Local and National PTSD regarding explosions and injuries and responders being killed or injured, limbs falling from the sky and 3 fatalities that are still being resolved as I write this. As Americans, we have simultaneously been reminded as one people, that our freedoms don’t come free of any cost. With freedom comes responsibility (whether you like it or not).  These responsibilities are what our laws are for and our laws and their enforcement require us to work together as one country.

As the ATF, FBI, Massachusetts State Police and Boston PD arrest “Suspect #2”  in connection to the bombing Monday at the Boston Marathon; we as Americans can, (and should) continue to have a discussion about our rights. What about the rights of our newly arrested terrorist suspect regarding ammunition and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or automatic weapons? While a terrorist event unfolded, our House of Representatives voted down a regulation that would require background checks. Both Republicans and yes, some Democrats, chose instead to see if they could just ignore their roles and responsibilities and hope it would lose traction and finally die down. President Obama noted, “All that happened today was the preservation of the loophole that lets dangerous criminals buy guns without a background check. That didn’t make our kids safer.” While we can continue to determine if utilizing background checks will work (provided it also becomes equally illegal and equally prosecutable for law enforcement should they abuse the data in any way whatsoever). We also need to examine all of this happening while even the most politically extreme groups acknowledge the incredibly high percentage of 90 percent of Americans and 74 percent of National Rifle Association members who support universal background checks. Instead, “they claimed that it would create some sort of ‘big brother’ gun registry, even though the bill did the opposite. This legislation, in fact, outlawed any registry.” 

Jon Stewart provides a very cogent perspective on how we the people must weigh the tenuous needs for both the unalienable rights we have with the laws required for us to keep them. He answered the congresspersons who argued that background checks were pointless because criminals didn’t follow laws:

“Right,” he said. “But people who steal guns do not submit to our rules about stealing, but we still have them.  Here’s what so crazy about this. The people in our country who spend millions of dollars to get elected to a legislative body known as the Senate are making the argument there is really no point in making laws because criminals are just going to end up breaking them.”

We can try to worry about having a militia and our government not killing random Americans with drones, but when you should worry more about whether they have gun registration similar to the registration of other lethal weapons like automobiles. When Senator Cruz tap-danced around the issue with Senator Schumer, “It is not currently proposed, but if the bill that is being considered were adopted it would put us on that path,” even onlookers didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. While on some future path, there is potential for my registering a weapon I own, then my selling it to someone. If I let authorities know that I sold my weapon to someone, if that protects me from litigation and/or punishment for what the purchaser does, how is that any different from the laws regarding an automobile? After all, if we own or drive a car, truck, RV, motorcycle or even a Vespa, we have already agreed to legally register our vehicle, insure it, have a license indicating we know how to operate it, etc. As citizens and taxpayers, we even allow ourselves to be watched by radars and fall into traps if we speed. We chose this because it potentially decreases the danger of driving on common roads where there are no rules and where everyone goes 100 miles an hour with no signals and where there is no incentive not to run red lights or run over pedestrians.

While we are reeling from these issues (all packed into 5 days), a massive explosion occurred in West, Texas where state and federal officials now need to determine the rights and repercussions West Fertilizer Co. may or may not experience or if they will be able to further to evade maximum fines and will be paying merely $2,300 again like in 2006 when fined by the Environmental Protection Agency for not having a risk management plan.  Are their rights to profit and economic power more vital to the American way than the rights of the 14 dead to be alive or the 200 injured along with the owners of the 500+ homes that have been completely annihilated? How will they think through that while they continue the search and rescue efforts for more that 60 they still have not accounted for who may be injured or deceased?

All of these crazy whirlwind events made this a more cluttered, clunky and speculative news week than I have seen ever before. But we still need to realize that choices we make as a people to maintain our government “by the people for the people” requires us to determine if any rights are more unalienable than others. If so, are the constant security photos taken of our faces in public reasonable? (Provided law enforcement and or government don’t go after a person until there is a burden of proof making it warranted?) Is anyone culpable if we own a weapon and give it to someone who commits an act with it, or can we be covered for litigation and arrest as long as we have a record that the weapon, car, chemicals, explosives, photos, ammo, etc. are accounted for? At least then we are somewhat safer from potential crimes of passion. We may even lessen rampant suicide by civilians and decommissioned soldiers (which would be a plus).

All require thoughtful discussion and action. Even so, the most pressing need (that butts against every one of these) is to no longer focus on only foreign terrorists, and notice our increasing population of potential terrorists from within. Sadly, a small number of these people who call themselves Americans honestly feel entitled to mail ricin or anthrax to government officials (or more accurately, the unfortunate mailroom attendant at a Service Processing and Distribution Facility who is the highest level person that will ever be harmed by such an envelope); without consequence. Unless we make a national, cohesive effort to address this, Americans who truly do seem to feel at liberty to assault, maim, mutilate or kill will simply continue to do so.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Is the US Train Falling off the Fiscal or Literal Cliff?

OK. I think it’s official that we are now a social media and on-line communication world. As I listen to the U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe on Wednesday morning stating that the US Postal Service is going to stop delivering letters and other mail on Saturdays, but continue to handle packages, I see another basic staple that, like most other things, Americans take for granted until they begin to go away. The gradual nature of the demise makes sense, but because people generally don’t notice items until they are slammed directly in front of them, they can ignore them.

There are many aspects of our daily lives that are funded by our taxes and that we don’t notice, so we don’t see the need to pay for them. The mail is definitely one of those. If delivery has been privatized to the point of making the US Postal Service irrelevant forever, then that’s fine. We will all go to UPS® or FedEx® and other Commercial Carriers to mail everything then so be it. It will be more expensive, and if they are not regulated at all to be competitive then a regular post card will go up by 2 to 3 times the cost. As I am writing this, I am sure that the market researchers at UPS® or FedEx® and numerous potential competitors that may be pondering what the competitive price is for a postcard/letter in the current market before people go on-line and dump the paper altogether. Many who determinedly continue to live in the analog world will be irritated by this, understandable, but then again, if the service becomes prohibitively expensive, then we head to the alternative, on line. American Greetings®, Hallmark® and Shoe Box® have already gone this direction and are lowering their overhead by selling virtual reality. In 1995, the national Greeting Card Assn. stated that they would sell 2.7 billion Christmas holiday cards. By 2011, that number plummeted to 1.5 billion cards as those of us who used to send out paper cards to everyone, now do an electronic message to up to 100 people stating “Happy Holidays”. At first it used to make me sad, when I thought I’d stop putting the cards around the living room over the holiday season and remembering my friends and family, but shortly after I realized that they could be printed and tacked around with the same overall effect.

This reminds me of the tragic demise (they are technically in a coma now, but waiting to be declared dead after waiting way too long to try to go digital and eliminate their distribution sites, Blockbuster Video® looked up just in time to get whacked in the head before it was forced to give up on trying to beat Netflix® who took out the middle man and sent the videos directly to the home. They too had to re-modernize though and upgrade their distribution to be removed from a CD and sent electronically instead to compete with Time Warner® and Comcast® and be competitive with their instant gratification quotient. The cable company costs are already invested by many and the 1.00 for an oldie to a 4.50 newly on DVD movie, make it quite competitive compared to going to a theatre, particularly if a whole family or even a couple are watching, (and the perk of pausing to not miss the best scene while I 'go to the loo' is a nice bonus at a lower price.

Other industries are going to go the same route depending on the advantages taken by the marketers and the vulnerability of the customers. The yo-yoing of the paranoia over transportation and commuting is a perfect example. If it is prohibitive to stay in a remote area, due to the cost of transportation, then the people will go where they can make enough money to live. If they figure out how to keep fuel costs below $5.00 a gallon then people will suck it up and keep driving. But meanwhile, as the public is figuring that out, the demand is swinging back and forth on if Amtrak should disappear and be privatized or if we all simply go back to driving everywhere. Up and down the east coast and the west, we have some options still. This could change, the government and the private sector both play with it in the abstract from time to time, but that does not mean that they are going to ever act on it. reported recently about the New York fare increases being necessary Hurricane Sandy in October delivered the worst damage to the New York subway in its 108-year history requiring the borrowing of nearly $4.8 billion for repairs and infrastructure upgrades. The MTA Board voted to increase the cost of a single ride (transfer included) from $2.25 to $2.50 which may seem large compared to a single ride on the Los Angeles Metro which is $1.50 (transfer not included) while in Washington DC, a 20 mile ride from Northern Virginia to Suburban Maryland is $ 5.75 at rush hour on the MTA.  If my employer and I can come to an understanding, do I begin to virtually commute as half of my friends do from as far away as Mattawan NJ or Front Royal, VA, or to keep track of our productivity, do we commute? Do cities like Detroit and Memphis stay in an urban plight, or do they continue to flip demographically from the fleeing that took place in the 1970s? Nobody wants to pay more than they have to, but the reality is that the costs are going to go up for services if they go private and taxes are going to go up if they go public; it is pretty basic math.  

When the mass white flight took place in the 1970s and 1980s, and the commuters watched urban decay while avoiding criminals during commutes out of town, it was worth the time and the energy and money to commute in. Now that the cities are cleaned up, the white return flight is now beginning and the price of an efficiency apartment in Manhattan, NY, Logan’s Circle, DC, and even Fells Point in Baltimore, MD are now reflecting the demand on urban living. Many noticed these trends, but few noticed the trends of the poor moving outward to Newburgh, NY or to Northeast Baltimore or Prince Georges County, MD, where they are more isolated, have fewer services, longer commutes and are more vulnerable to gangs and narcotics while the cities clean themselves up to enable the middle class to move back in and look for a good charter school for their kids.

This fight is not going to end anytime soon. The conservative privatization goals of removing the government from every aspect of life from education to transportation to postage, is one way to go. Taxpayer funded transportation, public education and services like the US Postal Service are another. The more dangerous tangent that the country may continue on however, is the road toward trying to do both. Funding and holding onto the public services just enough to destroy them before the private sector gets rolling, while not funding them enough for them to do what they are tasked to do; or expecting the private sector to take up the slack while they have no incentive or obligation to do so. This will definitely result to a much deeper spiral while both sides look at one another saying, “We have no idea what happened, we just know it’s not our fault.”

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Are Baby Boomers Retiring Only as Metaphors?

We don’t need to examine the Baby-boomer generation too deeply to understand that, as far as retirement goes, they are going to be slower and more cautious retiring during the giant post-recession. Frankly, if I were eligible for retirement in the next 10 years, there would still be no way on earth I would retire early. Having watched the retirement funds and Thrift Savings Plans (TSPs) blown to smithereens by hedge fund gambling, speculation and outright fraud over the past ten years, millions of people who could have retired, can’t and many federal employees who may have entertained the idea, probably won’t.

The psychology is not all that complicated. The U.S. job market has gone from unions having some political and financial teeth up through the 1970s which once required businesses to look at long-term investment and encourage compensation to keep pace with productivity. This changed in stages.

The first straw came through trade and market expansion and global competition coinciding with extreme U.S. deregulation. Not that the original intent was to export all manufacturing and many service jobs into a world economic playing field, or enabling countries that had no unions or labor laws to enslave their people at a level that created a bottom-line market that was impossible to match. This combined with a decline in education standards and a large amount of social changes facilitating a decline in unions through the 1980s to the present; which further caused a substantial shift in non-farm business sector roles reaching nearly total stagnation and a current job market where total compensation does not even feign an attempt to match productivity gains over the past 30 years.

The second straw was the deregulation of trading and commodity bundling. This caused multiple scenarios to become a reality where retirement accounts and savings were rolled into bundles nobody could locate and that were completely gambled without consequence to the SEC or Treasury or even the Department of Justice. When the time came to determine the value of the gambled assets, or even to contemplate prosecuting the bundlers or their firms who defrauded thousands using every vehicle in the financial arsenal from hedge funds to pyramid schemes, things were so scrambled and haphazard that there were limited ways to go after them. (By the way, institutions like AIG are now deciding whether to along with their investors, sue the U.S. taxpayers for having the cojones to bail them out in the first place—rather than letting them go bankrupt while gambling others’ funds).

The third straw became easy to extrapolate. If you are eligible to retire before qualifying for Medicare; you could and would likely be vulnerable to COBRA ending. Any pre-existing condition would proceed in having you figuratively thrown under a bus for the years between that point and 65 years of age, and/or the rest of your life. It is not an irrational fear that you can be retired one day and the next day through the occurrence of a heart attacka stroke, car accident, cancer diagnosis or other medical incident occurs whereupon you can be instantly in a financial black hole for between a quarter-million to a million dollars overnight with no possible hope ofyou or your family paying it back. By the time you are conscious in a hospital bed and know about it, you could have banks foreclose on your home, car, retirement account, college funds for your grand-kids and anything else they can get their hands on before disposing of you entirely. If you don’t have kids who were lucky enough to have become financially secure on their own with an extra bedroom and extra income, good luck.  You may be eligible for Section 8 housing or assisted living, (but don’t bet on it).

We should not be looking at the Baby-boomer generation as an anomaly. They simply appear at this point to be the last generation to grow up under better financial circumstances than their parents. I don’t know if Generation Y and Z are at the point of thinking about these things as much, or if they have been shielded enough to be oblivious still as some of them complete high school this year, but somehow, I doubt it.  Even if they have the naive illusion of invincibility and no conscious fear of being financially ruined for the rest of their lives by a future medical condition or a hospital stay, many are at least cognizant that their parents or grandparents could be.  Guess who the burden falls on thenGeneration Y is and Generation Z absolutely will be incurring a higher academic debt with reduced likelihood of long-term contractslet alone secure salaried or permanent employment. They are unlikely to be able to pay off more than the interest of the loans they are taking on before they are in their 60s—if they are lucky.  

When we combine these circumstances with the 2-million Americans who have been deployed overseas to Afghanistan and/or Iraq in the past 12 years, those of us in Generation X and Y are hopefully far more realistic regarding what we expect from ourselves and our country for the next 20-40 years, namely that if we can operate a keyboard and/or a phone, unless we get a spot on American Idol®, somehow hit a mother load or win at Mega Millions® we are most likely to be working as long as we all shall live.  Most of us were being told in the 1980s that Social Security would be depleted entirely by the time we were in our 60s, so we looked at it as an abstract, not an assumed safety net. If your family tends to live to be older than 70 and you are retiring at 65, do you expect to be comfortable into your 90s? If you can’t rely on your investments or savings being legally protected on any real level and not being bundled and/or gambled away by people in theoretically accredited financial institutions that are still “too big to fail” and who will at most be required to pay nominal fines causing no financial pain to them at all? How about if those same people are unlikely to be prosecuted if they blow it out their noses without telling anyone? 

Under the circumstances, the only U.S. employer who is still even slightly culpable or accountable in any enforceable sense of the word is the government. It is only natural that a federal employee should be cautious before jumping into a precarious world where there is no culpability on anyone’s part but your own once you retire until you are eligible for MedicareVery few people are really considering retirement after a recession that tanked their stocks and obliterated any equity their home may have had and interest on any savings dropped to nothing. Watching sluggish portfolios and a net worth barely moving along, let alone keeping up with inflation, why would they risk retirement?

During the recent recession, many baby-boomers watched retiring friends who fell hard. Some of the falling ones ended up at Wal-Mart® less than a year later where they may work for the rest of their lives as a greeter or a janitorIf they or their spouse, parents or kids experience a sudden medical illness that isn’t covered costing between a quarter and a half-million dollar minimum; or an IRA that mysteriously disappears without a forwarding address, how likely are any self-preserving baby-boomers still in a federal job to blindly follow them?