Thursday, March 07, 2013

Just Another Crazy Day

OK.  Today started with Senator Rand Paul going after President Obama, demanding that he clearly state that he would not use drones to kill non-combatant Americans in the U.S.  Duh!  Senators Graham and McCain chastised Paul for raising such a stupid issue; it would be "murder", after all.  This is further confirmation that Rand and his father, Ron, must have lived where there was some sort of funny stuff in the water.  Saying that, I give  both of them an excuse for positions that, in a totally healthy person, would be considered insane.

To top off my day, a good conservative friend forwarded me an email purporting to quote a very derogatory editorial about President Obama that was published in the liberal Washington Post.  The email pointed out that even the WP had come to its senses about Obama's non-fitness for the job.  The piece contended that Obama got all his educational opportunities through affirmative action, that he did not have any experience worthy of being a president, and that his associations with his former pastor and Bill Ayers were proof he was a socialist or worse - all of these being "warmed-over" accusations from the 2008 election.  Trouble was, the editorial WAS NEVER IN THE WASHINGTON POST; it was a screed from a right wing web site.  Several of my otherwise very bright conservative friends also bombard me with baloney like this, stuff that they get and forward without ever checking out.  You'd think that an editorial that seems too good to be true - a WP editorial trashing Obama - would get just a little scrutiny from these folks, but when you agree, it's easy to swallow something hook, line, and sinker.  Hitler used baloney like this to take over Germany, though, and that's why I will never overlook the repetition of a big lie.

Last, but in a more positive vein, it appears that President Obama's meetings with some congressional foes may pay off.  We need a big deal that addresses entitlements and the deficit, including some tax code reforms that target high income people.  Maybe, just maybe, we could be on track to get one.  Compared to how things looked two days ago, that would be crazy, too.

p.s. Watched, for a few minutes this afternoon, a TV program about a "militia" that believes the federal government has overstepped its constitutional authority.  The militia, which includes a lot of fat guys with guns of various sorts, is drilling and practicing a fake ambush.  I have two things to say about this.  First, we have a Supreme Court to decide what is constitutional and what isn't.  Second, if these yahoo's ever engaged in armed conflict with the U.S. government, I'd be perfectly happy if President Obama (or any other president) used drone missiles to blow them away.  Remember President Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion?  Same story.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Gun Control - a Necessity

Two things we know about recent mass killings: the perpetrators had mental illness and they used "assault weapons" to maximize their carnage.  Two things we know about guns:  40% of gun transactions are now conducted without a background check, and there are few controls to ensure mentally ill people cannot buy guns.  Just this week, a woman with severe mental illness killed her two little grandsons with her pistol before killing herself. Haven't we had enough?

I like guns.  They do a great job of what they are legitimately asked to do, whether it be target practice, hunting, or protection.  I've used them for the first two, and my dad carried a .38 to work because he went in very early and parked in a downtown parking garage with no security.  I was once asked if I wanted to be the officer in charge of the 101st Airborne Division's marksmanship team, which I declined.  I've enjoyed firing .45's, M-1's, M-14's, AR-15's, light artillery, and a number of civilian-type rifles, pistols, and shotguns.    So, I know a lot about guns - but I don't love them.  My experience has ingrained in me the idea that they are very dangerous and, therefore, they must be controlled.  Even the Army understands this; every weapon is accounted for, they are never taken home, and their use in "practice" is strictly controlled.  Why, then, do we allow guns to be bought and sold in this country with no more control than if they were children's toys?

I can't accept that the 2nd Amendment prevents reasonable controls over guns, and I believe the Supreme Court has also accepted this position.  How gun enthusiasts, and the NRA, can claim reasonable controls are  unconstitutional seems not worth the debate.  Yes, we have "the right to bear arms", but all of our rights are limited - we "can't yell fire in a crowded theater" for instance.  Our government is prohibited from taking our guns from us without due cause, but they are not precluded from exercising reasonable controls over them.

So, what is "reasonable" when talking about a tool that can be, and often is, used to kill someone in an instant from a distance?  To me, reasonable controls consist of four things:  first, every firearm in the country should be registered with the government at the state level, and all state databases should be accessible by the federal government; second, all citizens with felony convictions, orders of protection, or under treatment for mental illness should be denied access to guns by their being included in a national database until taken off by a judge; third, all transfers of guns should be recorded permanently in the state databases and be accessible by the federal government; and, lastly, those convicted of any crime involving use of a gun should be subject to a mandatory prison sentence.  Penalties for possessing an unregistered gun should also be non-trivial and never plea-bargained away.

Why don't we already have these controls, which most other civilized countries already have in place?  Like most other important questions, the answer is found by "following the money".  There is a giant industry in the U.S. centered around guns and desperate to maintain its sales and profitability.  It goes to extreme lengths to protect its place in our society, constantly publishing false information and engaging in scare tactics.  Chief among these tactics is the "confiscation" argument"; registration will result in confiscation.  Nothing would be further from the truth, as this would be in direct contravention of the Second Amendment as now interpreted by the courts.  Hey, if we don't register guns, why bother to control cyanide or C-4?  All are equally dangerous in the wrong hands.

So, I consider politicians who oppose gun control to be complicit in the murders that result from the uncontrolled sale/transfer of weapons.  With about 300,000,000 guns already possessed by U.S. citizens, there's no doubt that gun murders will continue for the foreseeable future.  However, I believe that reasonable controls would reduce these deaths by thousands every year.  How much is each one of these lives worth? Well, many politicians have determined their price, and then banked it.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Gun Mania - or is it Insania?

Among all the things I ponder when I'm wondering about the world, this has been the year of the gun.  There are gun channels on TV, ads for gun stores large and small, and lots of killings with guns in the news.  It's hard to pass a day without hearing or reading a reference to guns in America, and many of them are affirmations of the efficacy of guns.  But on a personal basis, I've been surprised by how many of my friends are becoming enamored of guns.  Three examples will preface my concerns about the emerging gun culture in peaceful suburbia.

First, early this year a friend asked me to be a reference for his New York pistol permit, to which I acquiesced..  "Why do you want a pistol, I asked?"  "For protection", he said.  I asked, "Do you know anyone, personally, who ever needed a pistol to protect him from a threat?"  "No", he said, "but you never know when those people might rise up and threaten you.  I want to be able to defend my home".

Not too long after that, I walked into a conversation about guns after church, in the fellowship hall.  Two members, both friends, were discussing pistols.  I said, "I was once an MP who carried a .45 automatic.  My sergeant told me that the most likely outcome if I pulled it would be that I'd get shot. The fact is, bad guys are more prepared for violence than good guys."  The response?  One of my friends said, "Well, if we ever have to revolt against the government, we need to be armed."  All I could say was, "Obviously, you haven't thought too much about what arms the government would employ against you if it came to that."

Last night, at my old ambulance corps' holiday celebration at a beautiful country club, a 60-ish woman with diamonds on ears, fingers, and wrist crowed about her recent experience at a gun club.  She had taken the club up on a "Woman's Day" experience with long and short guns, and she fired several of them during the familiarization process.  More than anything, she was impressed by how nice everyone was to her.  When I asked her why she needed a gun, she said "It's a dangerous world.  When we looked at (expensive) new homes our agent steered us away from areas he thought were dangerous.  And, when I go to the car wash and there are (low class) guys around, my NRA sticker will give them reason to leave me alone."

I'll be clear:  I own three long guns and I know how to shoot them; they all have caused animal blood to flow and I have no qualms about those many experiences.  Moreover, I can envision extreme circumstances where I would use a gun on another person.  I don't hate pistols or long guns; they are just tools to me - very special purpose tools.  However, I believe guns of any sort are a terrible solution to conflict and a very poor choice for defense by a non-professional.

What do my friends have in common?  They all are highly educated and successful, and they live in an extremely safe suburb.  They face no obvious threats, they have no experience with guns, and they don't know anyone who's needed a gun to defend themselves.  So, why are these basically good and rational people so interested in guns and defense?  Simple.  They listen to conservative talk radio.

It's not the guns that bother me as much as the ideas that Americans need to be fearful of others who, given the chance, would "get them", or that Americans should be fearful of own own government attempting to become a dictatorship.  Conservative talk radio, and to some extent, TV and the internet, seem to have succeeded in creating a mindset among many that they are truly threatened by their fellow citizens and their government.  Consequently, owning guns might be a smart response - "self-defense" seems to be intrinsically logical and right.

From a practical standpoint, "self-defense" with a pistol or long gun is very dangerous for anyone who dares to attempt it.  When one raises the level of a confrontation, one elevates the risk of being the one who is seriously injured or killed.  Collateral damage is also a big risk in any armed confrontation.  In some cases, even, the gun owner becomes the instrument of their own death by accident or suicide, and many incidents of gun violence occur when family disputes get out of control.  Guns, close at hand and loaded, too often result in unintended consequences for their owners.

From a societal standpoint, the mere idea that armed responses to threats are reasonable contributes to a lessening of actions to resolve conflicts peacefully and within the legal framework of a civilized nation.  It brings to mind the societies where guns are everywhere and death is commonplace - the means allows the ends to occur all too frequently.  Sadly, the increase in fear, the increase in personal weapons, and the more common acceptance of guns providing reasonable solutions to problems has the potential to significantly raise the level of violence in our country generally, as it already has in many of our inner cities.

All this said, I'm not a big fan of a blanket gun ban.  I'd much rather see gun sanity - guns should used for sporting or work (e.g., hunting, target shooting, and ranching), not for misguided attempts to enhance personal safely or to deter imaginary threats from the government.  However, sanity is not a staple of conservative talk radio, so my friends and many others seem to be headed down the insane lane where the major beneficiaries are the gun dealers and the losers are those inadvertently or purposely killed by legal guns.  Is it possible to overcome the fear-mongers in the media?

Friday, November 02, 2012

Great Sarcasm

I was trolling the internet today and came across this.  It's pretty great sarcasm, and I've got to admit it strikes a chord with me.  Just thought I'd pass it along for fun.

"Republicans top 10 issues this election .

1. Democrats have not yet paid off the huge national debt that Republicans have created.
2. Democrats have not yet stopped all the wars that Republicans started.
3. The poor have too much money
4. The rich do not have enough money
5. All Americans will soon have access to medical care
6. The President will not admit that he was born in Kenya
7. Women still have control over their own bodies
8. Only a quarter-billionaire like Romney can realllly understand the struggles of the middle class.
9. Democrats have not yet turned the United States into a fundamentalist controlled Christian Theocracy.
10. The President did not veto the law of supply and demand resulting in higher gas prices."

Sunday, August 21, 2011

No Easy Answers to the Budget, or Anything Else

It's campaign season again, the time when the tooth fairy, the leprechaun, Aladdin's Lamp, the four leaf clover, and every other lucky charm is invoked by some candidates as they make promises that are virtually impossible to keep.

"Want the U.S. to have a balanced budget? Vote for me!" "Want to buy gas for $2.00/gallon? Vote for me!" "Want to see millions of new jobs materialize in months? Vote for me!" "Want someone to dismantle the welfare state? Vote for me!" I suppose campaign season, like rutting season for the big bucks, can always be counted on to bring on outrageous behavior in hopes of getting some attention. With so many candidates vying for tomorrow's headline, going "over the top" may be the only way to score. So, Ben Bernanke will be "treasonous" if he loosens the money supply before the 2012 election, for example.

I wish it was easy to solve America's problems. It would be great if all the so-called Washington experts in politics and finance were wrong and the populists were right. I'd be delighted if Texas solutions could magically cure the American economy, just like I would have been delighted if "Just say no" had eliminated pregnancies for unwed mothers. However, reality has a way of kicking wishful thinking into the gutter. There are just no easy answers to the budget, or anything else. If there were, they'd already have been passed by the congress and signed by the president, since public opinion would force the politicians to do the obvious.

So, here we are in election season, waiting for a candidate with the magic touch, someone who will kiss and heal the boo-boo's that cover our nation like bruises on a defeated boxer. Perhaps it's not so strange that we're willing to listen to the ridiculous - "any port in a storm" is better than no port at all when the ship seems to be sinking. But, as the months of silly season wear on and we get close the vote-counting day, and the explanations for getting to $2 gas blow away like the fall leaves, we've got to get more serious and decide whose medicine we're really willing to take.

Will we cut defense spending by at least 1/3rd, putting a million more people out of work? Will we increase the social security retirement age and freeze payments for those who have assets exceeding a certain level? Will we require increased Medicare contributions from all recipients and reduce the procedures that some people will qualify for? Will we stop guaranteeing many student loads because so many of them are never repaid? Will we cut back the incredibly expensive care that the government now funds for people with special needs? Will we....?

Sadly, none of the lucky charms in candidate's pockets will work. In the end, it will come down to hard choices about giving things up - things that even the Tea Party won't want to forego. So, buckle your seat belts, folks, 'cause we'll be riding a rough political road for the next few years. Don't you mind too much about the wild statements we'll all be hearing - they're only the equivalent of promises made by carnival barkers, soon to be proven wildly overstated. Let's listen for those who state simple facts and propose simple choices, like "guns or butter", as they used to say in my economics class. In the end, the solutions to many of our problems will lie in the things we are willing to give up.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Gutless Republicans!

I've been closely following the political back-and-forth regarding increasing the U.S. "debt limit", and I can't say I'm too happy with how the democrats are moving toward getting our nation's financial house in order. However, I'm downright angry about the conduct of the more radical republicans in the house of representatives, for two reasons.

First, it's absurd for them to refuse substantive compromise when they don't have control of the senate or the presidency. Second, since it is the duty of the house (majority party) to initiate all taxing/spending bills, the radicals' failure to define and pass a "debt limit" increase bill including their specific spending cuts is gutless.

In my view, the republican party knows that following through on their Tea Party bluster - putting their cards on the table - would cost them the 2012 presidential election and some of their own seats in congress. That's why they continue to call for the president to "lead" on the spending cuts and "no new taxes" - they don't have the guts to put their conservative prescription for America on paper, and then vote on it. They know their bill would not pass the senate, survive a presidential veto, or keep many independents in their corner. This sort of "stake in the ground" would become their own stake in the heart.

The simple truth is that America's financial woes are so dire that only a bipartisan solution has the chance to reverse our inexorable march to insolvency. All citizens must feel the pain, and all politicians need to take the grief. Anything less is gutless posturing, which is the hallmark of the current republican right.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

What Does Government Cost?

I've been cogitating on a subject that should be obvious to us all, but is almost totally hidden. That is, "the cost of government services". To clarify, I'll just state the obvious: we know the price (cost) of just about every product or service we receive from private sources, but we know almost nothing about the price (cost to us) of just about every public service. Without knowing the prices of government/public services, we have no way to evaluate whether or not we are getting our money's worth. And, in my opinion, this is exactly how our legislators want it to be. We should be demanding that this change, and that every major service in government budgets be presented to the public in terms of its fully loaded cost.

Here's a simple, hopefully non-controversial, example - the fire department. What is the annual average salary and benefits cost per fireman, the average annual facilities and equipment cost per fireman, and the average annual administrative cost per fireman? What is the average total fire department cost per "working fire" in one year? How many "working fires" did the average fireman respond to in the past year? What was the total property damage (insurance) cost of the fires in the district last year? These statistics would be easy to generate, and would take virtually no newspaper or internet space to present - but we never see them. Why? Because those in charge of the fire department have no interest in the public being able to evaluate their cost vs benefit, or to compare their numbers against those of other departments.

I'm sick of hearing pseudo-debates on public policy that are totally subjective, devoid of statistics that would help one make sense of the policy options. "Special Education" is important, yes, but how much is spent, on average, for each special education student versus each "normal (sorry)" student? What is the average hospital bill for each uninsured person who is brought to the emergency room, and what does the chart of costs for all uninsured patients look like? What is the direct cost and the fully-loaded cost for each state legislator, including staff costs? What is the average annual cost of keeping a person in the county jail, and what are the major elements of this cost? We are kept in the dark about these facts, and a host of other pertinent facts about public institutions, because the special interests do not want us to know the answers, and they don't want us to know the answers because they don't want to hear the follow-up questions that would ensue. "Transparency" is virtually non-existent.

Now for a little "compare and contrast" exercise. The same government that tells us almost nothing of use about its own operations requires giant reports like 10-K's, 990's, and tax returns from individuals, companies, and non-profits. These are the standard reports, but there are many others required from specific industries and occupations. In other words, government wears us out with information requirements while providing us with hardly anything about its own operations. Does this seem right to you?

I believe that every government agency, at every level, should have an independent citizens panel that sets public reporting requirements for it. Citizens interested in being on such a panel would submit their names and then, at random, be assigned to the various panels for that governmental unit. Citizens could not choose the specific panel they wanted to be assigned to, since that would simply result in the panels being packed with members sympathetic to one special interest or another.

In my career I've been part of "management" for many organizations, both large and small. The better ones always devise, produce, and evaluate statistics to aid in developing strategies and assessing performance. Board members and others not directly responsible for operations see this information and ask questions. Why do we not see similar processes regarding our government, which right now is far from "of the people, by the people, and for the people"?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Selfish Seniors!

The U.S. has a huge accumulated financial debt and an equally huge current budget deficit. In other words, we owe a lot (about $14 trillion) and we are on track to owe a lot more. If we continue on this track, our country soon will be paying high interest rates on our debt and lenders will be skittish about refinancing it. Nobody will be able to "bail us out". This is very bad news, both politically and economically, for our nation and for each of us. So, what is the "right" thing to do?

For purposes of this essay, I am equating the term "right" with the term "fair"; you know, the old Golden Rule - "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This rule provides an excellent guide for solving the debt/deficit problem.

Before we start in earnest, a little background. Please take a quick look at the chart above, which I stole from Wikipedia. You can click on it to "embiggen".

If you can read a graph, you will quickly come to two major conclusions. First, our country steadily paid down our national debt (as a % of GDP) from its very high level at the end of WWII through the Carter administration, including "paying as you go" for the Vietnam War. Second, starting with the Reagan presidency in 1981, we've been building that debt back up in a very big way. (I'll refrain at this point to comment on the administrations that built this new debt, but you can figure that out for yourself.) This debt-building occurred during a period when our country was not dealing with any cataclysmic problems like WWII.

In my view, the citizens who could vote during the past 30 years are the ones responsible for allowing this debt to accumulate. Those of us who are currently over 45 years of age are the ones who allowed the debt to happen and also benefited from the economic growth generated by the borrowing; e.g., rising wages, pensions, and accumulated fortunes during the past 30 years.

So, our country now faces a dilemma. Who should sacrifice to pay back this debt and reduce the current deficit? Should it be those who follow us, the younger generation, or should it be those 45 and over, the latter being the citizens who elected the politicians who spent this money and the ones who benefited from it? If one is interested in being "right", being "fair", then the answer is clear - we older folks spent it, and we should pay it back. If we were the kids, would we want the adults to saddle us with huge debt that did not benefit us in the slightest? We oldsters need to face up to our excesses and make it right for the younger generation, by paying back.

Now, how should us in the "forty-five and over" group pay back the money we overspent? To be "fair", we should take back benefits that we obtained but did not pay for. First, we need to pay more for Medicare and get fewer services. Second, we need to reduce Social Security outlays, probably by cutting out cost of living increases for many seniors and by slightly raising the retirement age. Third, we need to pay higher taxes on our income and our wealth, including our pensions and estates. If we do these things, we will leave our children and grandchildren a country that might give them a future beyond working for the Chinese at very low wages.

What bothers me a lot these days is that the debt/deficit problem has become politicized; the facts get lost in the midst of all the shouting and demagoguery. The republican Medicare solution doesn't penalize those currently over 55, for example, even though these are the very same people who allowed this program to get out of control and who stand to gain the most from it. The "Tea Party" folks, many of whom are oldsters, want dramatic spending cuts - except for Social Security and Medicare, their cash cows. As I write, republican congressmen who were elected on a platform of dramatic budget-cutting now face outraged seniors who want no change to Medicare. Selfish seniors! There is just no way to pay for the benefits they demand, and they seem to have no problem passing even higher debt onto their children and grandchildren.

If I was the benevolent dictator of America, I'd put the following changes into effect posthaste:

1) I'd change the Medicare guidelines for "end of life" care, eliminating hospitalization and costly procedures for seniors with terminal illnesses or advanced mental disabilities. These persons would be referred to hospice, which is covered by Medicare. To be blunt, death by natural causes should not be postponed at great cost for those whose quality of life is marginal at best. This one change would go a long way toward saving Medicare.

2) I'd review and strengthen the qualifications for "Social Security Disability", which now provides regular incomes for many individuals who are capable of working - not truly "disabled". I'd provide funds for retraining many of these people before cutting off their SSD benefits.

3) I'd eliminate Social Security cost of living adjustments for those whose income exceeds a certain threshhold - say, $50,000 annually - and also raise the Medicare premiums for this same group.

4) I'd let the Bush tax cuts for incomes exceeding $250,000 expire, institute a 1% annual "wealth tax" on those whose net worth exceeds $1 million, and repeal the tax laws that permit individuals to evade paying a reasonable estate tax.

5) I'd cut the defense budget by 5% immediately and freeze it for the next ten years, forcing the military to fund inflation out of its current budget. I'd commit the savings achieved here to massive subsidies of new technology aimed at gaining energy independence and less reliance on fossil fuels.

6) I'd dramatically increase government support of pre-K through 12th grade education, add many technical education opportunities, and give schools far more power to deal with unruly, disruptive children. I'd also take a very hard look at funds currently spent on "special education", which I believe has gotten out of hand.

All in all, my policies would require significant sacrifices from those 45-and-older citizens who allowed politicians to create an unfunded welfare state for them. The policies would also promote the development of a future citizenry and an economic infrastructure that would be competitive in the world economy. Change is good, even if it is often painful! And, to you selfish seniors, "Man Up!" - you love to preach old time values of accountability, and now it's time to live up to them.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Rich and the Unions: Two problems to solve.

Rich guys and unions; often there's something really nasty about both of them, and you really want a cure for what they're doing to you.

Rich guys. I suppose many rich guys have always been about conspicuous consumption and competition for higher ranking on the Fortune 500 (or local 50) list, but things have gotten out of control. Over the past half century, tax rates on the richest of us have dropped dramatically. As Warren Buffet so famously said, "There's something wrong when my marginal tax rate is 15% and my secretary's is 32%" (my paraphrase). Yet, if you listen to Faux News, the rich are getting hosed. It's true, as they repeat incessantly, that the richest of us pay, by far, the lion's share of tax dollars. However, it's also true that the rich own more of America's total wealth than ever before, and their incomes are higher than ever before. It seems rather evident, then, that these taxes have been pretty easy to bear.

Tax reform is the answer to the problem of the rich. We need some more brackets to grab a bigger share from those who are making many millions or billions. We need to reclassify hedge fund profits as ordinary income rather than capital gains. We need to reinstate an estate tax with teeth; perhaps a 25% rate but no exemptions for estates over $100 million. The fact is, without some significant financial leveling our country will soon resemble Saudi Arabia - princes and peons.

Those who favor unbridled capitalism often complain that those who work harder and smarter deserve to keep most of their economic success, while those who have achieved less have not worked so hard and are not so smart. This is baloney. The truth is that the great majority of those who are rich owe their success to the accident of their birth - they enjoyed an upbringing with social and educational advantages that gave them a huge head start over most others. To be honest, I'm one of them but not one who considered wealth to be the most important thing in life. Most of the rich are not "self-made"; they are the logical result of privilege, and they owe others the chance to grow up with many of the same advantages. That's what some of their increased taxes should fund. The great republican, Teddy Roosevelt, expressed this same opinion a century ago because he understood the reasons why he was so successful.

Now to the unions. As one who lived his entire employed life under the rather strong control of management, and was himself "management" for quite awhile, I learned that nothing is so important to an organization as flexibility, and secondly, the ability to discipline employees who are not performing to reasonable expectations. Think of a family with children: the parents have responsibility to set the agenda and expectations for the kids, both of which change over time and circumstances. Parents are "management", and few would disagree. If they say, "There's not enough money to buy you an IPod", that's the end of the story. If they say, "No TV untill the homework is done", there is no debate. For organizations to operate smoothly, management must set the agenda and expectations for employee performance without undue interference from those who must do the work. If management is not always perfect in its judgments, face it, who is? That's the environment that I worked in, for more than 30 years, and I saw very little management conduct that reached the level of "outrageous".

It's historical truth that unions were initially formed to deal with unreasonable hours, work practices (safety, for example), and to fight pay pegged to the lowest common denominator - all of which remain concerns that unions should today be addressing with management through collective bargaining. Over the decades, however, unions used various strategies to obtain agreements that eviscerated management's flexibility to respond to business changes and their ability to discipline or dismiss employees with poor performance. As a result, in many ways the unions, rather than management, gained control of the production process and companies became far more focused on meeting the needs of union employees rather than customers. My one extended contact with GM, in the mid-1990s, left me with the strong impression that the UAW would ultimately cause its demise, for example. And, it did, with the complicity of GM's salaried employees who demanded benefits and work rules equal to those achieved by the unions. I view today's teacher's unions and government employee unions with same level of concern that I did GM's unions many years ago.

Anyone who disputes the idea that union controls over government and some businesses have gone too far should take the time to read a typical union contract. At the simplest level, you will find absolute dependence on seniority and unbelievable protections against discipline. The average person on the street would disagree that tenure, alone, implies ability or dedication, but the unions build their power on this very foundation - a foundation that penalizes many able and dedicated employees to the advantage of some who are neither able or dedicated. And when it comes to discipline, the rules can go past the absurd - as evidenced by the heavily populated "rubber room" of paid teachers that NYC schools will not allow in the classroom but who cannot be terminated for many years if ever. The cost of pursuing endless hearings exceeds the benefit of getting rid of any teacher who does not do something so egregious that even the contract won't protect them. This insanity needs to stop, now.

If unions are to remain a factor in America, they need to adjust to protecting the interests of members who deserve protection - it's that simple. If companies or governments need to make workforce adjustments, they must be able to do so on the basis of merit rather than seniority; objective factors should be part of the process, but not the entire process. If an employee has performance issues, the performance improvement and termination process should be simple and relatively timely. Organizations should be able to move employees from one job to another without impediments other than a fair and prompt appeal process. What bothers me right now is that unions are resisting changes like this; they want to continue to make the rules that govern their members and take away both management's flexibility and its ability to discipline poor performers. It's a battle they should not and likely will not win over the next few years.

So, there you have it. I've got strong feelings about issues other than these, but I do regard throttling back both the rich and the unions as key to progress in America. Both have accumulated too much power and too little accountability over the past 50 years, and both seem adamant about retaining their current destructive positions. Time for change!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Reducing the Deficit and Debt

The 2010-11 federal deficit is now estimated at $1.6 trillion, and the national debt is over $14 trillion. The increasing debt is a major threat to national security because the interest will ultimately consume a huge percentage of the national income, especially if our government's credit rating slips and interest rates rise. We must deal with this issue sooner rather than later, and I agree wholeheartedly with those in congress who are facing this problem honestly. But, what should we do?

The President's bipartisan committee did an excellent job of defining the problem and identifying solutions. Entitlements, including Social Security, Medicare, federal pensions and Medicaid need to be put on a more secure financial footing by adjusting benefits and increasing the contributions of those who participate in these programs. These adjustments are required because the assumptions in place when these programs were approved or last adjusted are no longer valid, and have not been valid for some time. The benefits and contributions adjustments must compensate for prior year "overpayments" as well as the higher future costs of these programs.

With respect to non-entitlement spending, including the defense budget, a serious belt-tightening regime is required. However, across the board cuts make no sense. Some programs must be increased, others eliminated entirely, and some consolidated. All spending needs to be ranked on criteria related to the mission of the larger cabinet functions and the relative "value" of the outputs produced, using objective criteria. Overall, it should not be too difficult to cut the entire pot of non-entitlement spending by 5% without losing anywhere near 5% of the perceived "value" of all programs. That is due to the simple fact that the marginal utility of the last 5% of spending is often close to zero, especially if budget reductions have not been done on a regular basis.

Although I consider myself a political liberal, I do not believe that the government has a responsibility to be a "jobs" program. Rather, it is to provide necessary services in the most professional way at the lowest possible cost. This gives the private sector far more discretionary resources to grow our economy and compete with the productive capabilities of other world economies.

The approach outlined above would result in many government and private sector employees losing their jobs. I don't mind this outcome, for two reasons. First, in environments where layoffs have not occurred for some time, at least 5% of employees are not performing to minimal job requirements - they deserve to be laid off. Second, if capable people are laid off, for example in programs that are totally eliminated, these people will find jobs fairly quickly; the cream rises to the top, as they say.

Will fixing the deficit and debt be painful? Yes. However, many of those who will feel the pain also benefited for many years from government overspending. As Robert Heinlein famously popularized, "TANSTAFFL" - there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Time to pay up, America! When the paying is taken care of, life in the U.S.A. will be much less precarious for many years to come.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Big Changes Take Long Term Planning

America has a lot of big problems: high unemployment, inadequate education, huge unfunded entitlements, energy dependence, and impending major climate change damage, to name a few. Informed citizens pretty much agree that "government" must tackle these challenges, either by taking direct action and/or enabling the private sector to take action. What is lacking, however, is a political consensus that long term planning is key to success. In fact, our political system is a hindrance to progress - perhaps a fatal one.

It's obvious that none of these problems is susceptable to instant solution; there are no "silver bullets". Neither electing a new crop of politicians nor throwing a lot of short term money at them will have much effect. What is really needed is a vision of where we would like to be in the longer term and a systematic approach to getting there. If we look at the meteoric rise of China since Mao's passing, for example, it's easy to see that this resulted from the slow implementation of very well-conceived and multi-faceted plans. We need the same sort of strategies if America is to solve its seemingly intractable problems.

In a former life I played a big part in effecting major structural change in the way a corporation accomplished an important function. The change began with conceiving a vision of the desired "end state", which was so dramatically different from the current state that the human and technological challenges to achieving it were daunting. Yet, by developing a long term plan and slowly, over six or seven years, taking logical steps in the right direction, we accomplished what lots of smart people thought was impossible. The measured pace of the change minimized disruption and chaos in the ongoing function. America's problems must be addressed in the same way - we need to get to very different places while keeping disruption at an acceptable level.

Our democracy, while having many laudable characteristics, is often a dis-enabler when it comes to tackling big problems. Since major change creates "winners" and "losers", politicians are extra sensitive to the concerns of the "losers". For example, the changes needed to put Medicare on a sound financial footing will excite the giant "senior citizen" voting block; a politician willing to work for change is likely to lose his/her seat at the next election. "Losers" in all the other area needing structural change will be similarly energetic. Consequently, democracies have real difficulties overcoming roadblocks set up by powerful constituencies that favor the status quo - things that "must be done" often can't be made to happen.

Unfortunately, democracies seem to enact major changes only when problems reach the crisis stage and great damage has already been done. The cost of this damage, and of the hugely disruptive and expensive "crash projects" that follow, usually far exceeds the cost that would have been incurred if the needed change had been implemented earlier and in a measured fashion. For example, slowly adjusting Medicare benefits and taxes would be much preferred to abruptly shutting down major aspects of the plan because the government ran out of money to pay the bills. Understanding this, is it possible for the American democracy to avoid the crises that it will almost certainly face if it fails to act now?

My answer to this question is that the "commission" strategy often used by presidents and the congress is the best potential solution. The commission, composed of members with many points of view, gathers facts, calculates likely scenarios, and produces one or more variations of a long term plan to solve the problem. Congress and the president then debate the alternatives and are forced to choose one of them by the "rules" that set up the commission. The "choice" also requires the congress to pass legislation and appropriate the funds to carry out the plan, and the administration to take positive implementation steps. Years ago, my management set the stage for major change by doing much the same.

Perhaps the "commission strategy" is not do-able in our democracy. If so, we will end up with crisis after crisis and pay dearly for our lack of long term planning. This would provide a lot of evidence that our democracy does not work, and set the stage for some sort of revolution and the installation of a much stronger executive - Hitler was Germany's solution in the 1930's. Do we really want this? It's time for our leaders to pull up their pants and skirts and get going on the right path.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Gentle Reminder

Not too long ago the economy crashed as a result of something called "the sub-prime mortgage debacle". Real estate prices had been artificially pumped by allowing people to buy homes on substandard credit, at too-low interest rates, and under terms that now seem ridiculous. The resulting mortgages were then traded on the market as "AAA" securities. This house of cards had to crash, and the worldwide economy almost tanked when it did. All of us, but particularly many of the currently unemployed, have been greatly harmed by this calamity. Somehow, though, the culprits who facilitated this collapse seem to have been forgotten.

Who were those culprits? They were the politicians and government agency (read "FED") people who kept interest rates too low for too long. They were the bankers and mortgage brokers who relaxed their credit rules and wrote the ridiculous contracts, and the rating agencies who lied about the value of the packaged securities. They were the real estate agents who got rich peddling overpriced property to people who clearly could not afford it. All these big players made it possible for speculators and ignorant buyers to get hooked and subsequently get busted, and for the rest of us to bear much of the cost.

My gentle reminder is that the culprits mentioned above, the self-described champions of the "free market", are the perennial backers of the republican party. Their goals have not changed; they want want low taxes on their income and investments, and they want gentle regulation of their business interests. Many of them made big money during the boom years, and they kept it. Now they're trying to convince us that the people who got displaced by the crash don't need any more "welfare" and that the rich can't afford a tax increase. After what these people did to all of us during the Bush years, is it really possible Americans will hand them the reins again?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

No Breaks for White Collar Crime!

I see that ex-Illinois governor George Ryan is asking for an early release from prison because his wife is ill and not expected to live more than three more years. Ryan's been in prison for less than two years of his 6.5 year sentence for bribery, tax evasion, and other charges. I say, throw away the key to his cell. White collar crimes don't get treated nearly as seriously as they should be.

I have much less sympathy for the white collar criminal than I do for many who go to jail for crimes of passion or desperation. Typical white collar criminals have plenty of money, considerable education, and lots of social contacts. They do their crimes not out of what one might consider "necessity" but, rather, out of simple greed or a compulsion to outsmart the system. I put George Ryan in the same stinking boat as Bernie Madoff and a host of others who have knowingly misused their positions of trust to enrich themselves at great cost to innocent others.

If prison time meted out for punishment or deterrence is to have any meaning, then it must be served. If Ryan is released early under standard "good behavior" terms, that's fine with me. However, external events should have no bearing. Those are the contingencies Ryan should have considered when he took the risks that landed him behind bars.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Haiti, Pakistan and the Concept of "Relief"

I'm in a quandary thinking about the two big disasters of 2010 - the Haiti earthquake and the Pakistan flood. In both cases, millions of people were and are in great jeopardy and in need of help. In both cases, the sovereign government was incapable of providing relief or reconstruction. And, in both cases, the affected areas were overpopulated and becoming even more overpopulated despite the fact that the basic services associated with "civilization" are unlikely to be available in the foreseeable future. Should relief be provided by the rest of the world if the affected countries do not take steps to change their ways?

What are the basic services associated with civilization in the 21st century? I suppose the short list would include a reliable internal food supply, commonly available clean water, transportation and communications infrastructure, workable governance and justice systems, and an education system that trains people for useful work. Governments are responsible to provide these things, I believe, as first priorities. Neither Haiti nor Pakistan provides these services, except for the elite. That's just the way it is.

The area of Pakistan affected by the floods has about 20 million residents. It's agricultural, with plots as small as two acres. Girls are often married by age 14 and have many children through age 25. The residents have no capacity to pay, through taxes, for the basic services described above. Moreover, each year the population becomes more likely to fall prey to those who would blame their subsistence conditions on the failure of their government or the outside world to "take care of them". That's why fears of insurrection rise when disasters like these occur and the government is unable to respond.

So, here's the quandary. Should the outside world provide massive relief to bring the disaster-ravaged areas back to roughly the same "uncivilized" condition they enjoyed prior to the disasters, with no preconditions? Or, should the outside world require governmental reforms and population control measures as the price of relief? Is preventing future disasters as important as mitigating current disasters? Should TANSTAAFL (There ain't no such thing as a free lunch) be applied?

In general, I've concluded that the second and third worlds now require a lot more supervision than in past times. Technology now provides great opportunities for these countries to upgrade their standards of living, but it also provides great opportunities for them to make mischief - North Korea and Somalia are poster children for the latter. Consequently, perhaps it's time to put out the carrot and the stick to Haiti and Pakistan's elite "quasi-governing" classes. Relief must be accompanied by radical changes in their societies, changes that in the long run will make for long term success.