Thursday, May 26, 2011

Secrecy, The Antithesis to Memorial Day

The National Riffle Association strongly implies that freedom and democracy are only guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms, not the ballet box. They rightly note that there are countries that have ballet boxes but they lack true democracy as voting by the citizenry is a shame. The NRA is correct as holding elections does mean that democracy and personal freedom will be the result. That said, there are countries where guns are in the hands of many of the citizens, and at a much higher rate than the United States, yet there is chaos and a lack of personal freedom. So the gun is not the guarantor of freedom democracy.

Personal freedom is rooted in an open democratic process with vigorous civil discourse wherein ideas are debated, argued, clarity sought, common ground recognized, consensus is found via compromise and where differences are respected. Such a democracy is threatened when demonization of one’s political opponents and winning at all costs replaces respectful civil discourse and nation building.

Another threat to democracy is undue secrecy. When government business is discussed and decided in secret, the democratic process is eroded. I am not talking about military secrecy, or private dialogue between peers, or the leaders with their primary counselors. Democracy is under attack when meetings with special interest lobbyists and high power supporters take place in secret to author legislation. Legislation is best when it is put through the rigor of open debate, where differing viewpoints are aired for public observation and enquiry. Democracy is undermined when elected officials are unable to learn who has participated in the private meetings. Leadership should not ignore freedom of information requests or feel that such legislation should not exist.

Democracy by virtue of its nature is defined by public participation in the shaping of public policy. Hence, lack of government openness and civil discourse are the antithesis to democracy. Secret meetings are also the antithesis to who we honor and why we honor their sacrifice every Memorial Day.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Once again we have those in prominent positions in the news for various immoral acts and which are costing them dearly. I’m not mentioning them by name, not because the attention is not deserved but because those individuals are not the purpose of this blog. When such immoral and/or illegal actions come to light there is a tendency in the media and our social circles to point to human hubris.

There is a bent in all of us to fall victim of hubris. It can subtly touch any of us, sometimes only for a few hours or days, or sometimes for months or years. Living in a town where significant hubris is on display, I am reminded of its subtle allure and that hubris transcends all professions. We see hubris at play in every field, including politics, entertainment, sports, education, research, and nonprofit. While we would wish not to admit it, let us not forget that it the church too has leaders who have become its victims too.

To simply dismiss hubris by simply saying that it effects the wealthy and the powerful, may be unwise. It is not something that infects only the wealthy and powerful. Certainly wealth and power is a factor, not only because wealth and power is relative, but so is our self importance. One of my favorite British comedies is “Keeping Up Appearances”. It is a favorite not because of the witty humor but also because it deals with in a playful way with the hubris run amuck.

 Hubris can creep in and take hold when we frequently shift blame to others, when we horde praise due to others, and when we define our importance/place by who we know on a first name basis, what prestigious events we have attended, the power held to accomplish what we desire, and how often we are in a dominant position.  Hubris starts to take hold when one loses touch with his/her own place and limitations…in other words, when s/he become self-centered, forgetting that they are merely a bit player upon a grand eternal stage.

Everyone can readily fall victims to hubris. Most I dare say could fall victims easily…it is just we have not had the opportunity to have significant influence, power or wealth. Can hubris be prevented? Yes, and we have had many powerful and influential men and women who have kept hubris in check. We can learn from their example. Most recognized that they were just fortunate to be in the right place at the right time…even those who had significant wealth inherited have viewed that they were fortunate to by being born into the family to which they were born. Others have recognized that they did nothing extraordinary, that they rose only due to a series of fortunate breaks and judgments at the right time.

Another commonality is that they knew their core values, that those values were sound, and they held to those values. Religious faith and teachings are often at the heart of their values, but not always. Many powerful and influential people over the course of human life had sound values, that though held in common with religious teachings of their age, had been arrived at independently of faith.

Having a good friend or spouse to act as a foil is another means to limit hubris from taking hold. The foil often stands off stage whispering quietly, and through their reminders, critiques and drawing them back to the core values helps to keep a person grounded in reality.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

High Energy Costs and Politics

This weekend Republican Representative Martha Roby in the weekly Republican radio address, in speaking about energy production rightly stated, “The greatest threat to our economy, job creation, and the future of our children is to do nothing.” She went on to state, “We have to act. It is what we were sent to Washington to do.”

Amen, Ms Roby, amen. A good part of the problem is that too many of her peers spend more energy about posturing, pointing fingers, putting forward great sounding ideas but in the end are empty or unbalanced. Things need to get done.

No one or two magic bullets exist. Due to various logistics, nothing Congress or the White House does today to increase production or supply will make any significant difference for the consumer today or even the next year.

When only one out of four gallons that you and I pump into our cars is produced in the US or Canada, tells us that there is a supply problem. While we would like to blame the Obama administration for the problem, we cannot. The problem has existed for at least five presidential administrations but Congress and the White House year after year has not moved in any serious way.

We need more electricity from wind and solar. These are not primary solution but they do play a part just as more efficient vehicles are making a difference. We need more hybrid vehicles. One out of three cars powered by natural gas and propane, that calls a refueling infrastructure becomes much broader and spans the nation. Free enterprise market forces will eventually build out such refueling infrastructures but it will not take place rapidly enough without national and state short-term incentives.

Our public transportation system is poorly underdeveloped. Too much energy is wasted idling. In the majority of our major cities traffic lights are not computerized to adjust for efficient inflow of traffic during the morning commute and outflow in the evening.

We need to push for greater conservation and more efficient electronic devices. The citizenry as a whole needs to become more energy conscious as to how little things done each day, such as setting the AC two or three degrees higher, and the heat two or three degrees lower, and set-back thermostats can make a big difference.

Clearly oil production needs to be increased. Opening new areas for exploration needs to happen today whether the areas area in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, along the western or eastern coasts. Environmental issues should be duly noted and high care must be taken to manage risks. The assessments must be quicker and approval given even if the risks are not nearly negligible. That said, regardless of the simplistic pontificating and posturing of politicians and lobbyists, we must be realistic. For every well that comes into production there are twelve to fourteen dry wells.

It takes four to five years for new oil wells to come into production which means that lack of current activity rests solely upon the inactivity of the prior administration, not the current. Let’s hope the current administration and Congress will take bold actions rather than be more like the prior administrations in this area...much talk and posturing with no meaningful action. If there is action, it also means that a subsequent administration and Congress will reap the adulation.

Let’s hope that the current Congress and White House will work together to formulate a plan with a broad array of elements that in total will make a difference. A mark of national leadership is the ability to find common ground by setting aside political dogma, and finding a solid solution for the good of the whole regardless of who may claim or receive the credit. In the White House and Congress, do we have statesmen and outstanding national leaders or do we have a collection of bickering politicians who are playing games?

Saturday, May 07, 2011

In A Way, Is the United States Becoming Like the Country It Rebelled Against?

In a time of peace, when a country has a large diverse military paired with it is a drive to use it in various non-defense reasons, from threatening other countries to bow to your intent and to directly interfere in the affairs of other countries. This is particularly true for superpowers such as the United States.

I am not opposed to a nation having a solid military system to protect itself from undue aggression. As evidenced in times of disasters the military with its command and rapid response infrastructure to rapidly move and deploy aid as well as provide a framework of civil order.

What concerns me is when a peacetime military is unduly large. As evidenced by Somalia, Panama, Lebanon, Granada and the current Iraq war, politicians have a way of using the military in unjustified ways. We have too many who have not served in the military (or worse who during the Vietnam era used connections to have deferments or homeland service) being too quick to spill the blood of our youth.

I am also concerned with its size not only is a major expense in the national budget but it dominates the budget, and that education, roads, care of seniors, etc suffer significantly in order to pour more money into arms. I am concerned when it is so large that the defense industry is a major factor in the political process.

Since Gorbachev brought a unilateral conclusion to the Cold War, the United States military budget as a percent of the national budget and GDP has continued to grow. And if a large number on Capitol Hill have their way, even more of the national GDP will go into defense.

Draconian cuts are being proposed by Congressmen Paul Ryan and his colleagues across the board except for the military. This is an atrocity. The military needs to be cut even more so than civilian expenses. The current justifications for a strong military, for all other expenses to be slashed to the bone to keep the military strong while the industrial military complex that Eisenhower warned us about (and we have conveniently forgotten) become wealthy is not new. The current arguments and dynamics at play in the United States are the same rationale, arrogance and dynamics that existed in England in the mid 1700s against which this country rebelled. It is unfortunate that in so many ways that as a nation the United States is coming full circle and doing what its founding fathers rebelled against.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Disney Institute

Two days were spent last week attending the Disney Institute. In five two hour classes attendees gain a handful of the Disney Corporation’s business practices. As expected, no secrets or closely held proprietary information was revealed. The information is well known about the company by management and business observers.

I enjoyed the Institute. The carefully crafted well rehearsed scripts were well presented (other than for a few personal illustrations you would hear the same script regardless of the presenter). Though a good number of practices are common sense, others could readily be deemed as basic business teachings. It is good to be reminded of them.

I found the difference between corporate cultures in the room to be interesting. Most of the participants work and live within an authoritarian hierarchical command system whereas Disney’s culture is a collaborative consensus model which readily utilizes interdisciplinary teams to address issues and seek improvement.

Was it an unproductive experience? Far be it. Even for those who labor in a command structure there are numerous takeaways that can readily be utilized without radical changes in structure. Empowering employees, feedback loops for clients, stakeholders and employees to effect change, engagement processes, consensus building, using interdisciplinary teams to solve problems, freedom of lower levels to bring forth solutions and participate in problem can readily be utilized by any structure when leadership creates a culture that fosters such elements.

I can attest that an authoritarian command system can implement many of the Disney elements as over my professional life I have been fortunate to work in such an environment three times.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Democracy Is Not the Best Form of Government

Michigan is a state that is in a grave fiscal condition. For decades decaying infrastructure of its cities, particularly the inner cities, has needed attention. In Detroit, Flint and other cities and towns, neighborhoods that in the 40s and 50s were vibrant had fallen into such repair that in the early 90s vacant buildings outnumbered occupied buildings. Rusting, aged and deserted industrial plants added to the blight. Today, there are areas of Detroit that have blocks upon blocks of vacant lots.

The result is not only vacant buildings, but dramatically decreased property values. With decreased property values and the weight of deserted industrial, apartment and housing properties have left local governments and school boards with less resources to provide services while costs for police, fire, schools, road repair and other services grew year after year.

In the last two months Michigan’s governor and state legislature passed a bill that allows the governor to appoint an administrative trustee of the governor’s choosing to oversee any school board and local government which is in debt. Accountable only to the governor the trustee has full authority to do whatever he or she desires, including the ability to end unilaterally labor contracts, cut services and close schools. The trustee has the ability to dismiss elected and unelected officials, and sell any local assets he/she deams of value, from local parks to schools to civic buildings. Further, the trustee who has no term limit, and he/she could be an individual or even a company.

The trustee can override zoning laws and business processes. As mentioned the trustee has freedom to sell off municipal parks to a company who wishes to build condos, resorts or golf-courses. That which was held for the common good could be sold an transformed into a private menber's club.

What I find most interesting is that the governor has created a system that functionally admits that democracy is an ineffective government system, particularly when it comes to tackling major problems. While he has not stated it that bluntly, the governor and the Michigan legislature have declared that what is taught in junior high and high school civics classes regarding the value and importance of democracy, and that it is the best form of government, is false. The governor and those who have agreed with him have indicated that when it comes to solving problems or expiditing matters, dictatorships is the best and most effective form of governing. It puts the governor and legislature in disagreement with the citizens of several Middle Eastern peoples who have risen up to cast out their dictators.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Iraq War Costs Coming Due

Two or three years ago I blogged Iraq War and why the US should withdraw. While the invasion of Afghanistan was justified Iraq was not. To put forward their argument to the UN the Bush/Chaney administration sent Colin Powell, the person in the administration with the greatest credibility. Within weeks of the invasion it became clear that the Bush/Chaney administration intentionally misled America. To cover their folly and distract the nation from the crumbling rationale, in dramatic fashion Bush announced “mission accomplished”. Powell’s credibility and character were mere tools to be spent by people who lacked Powell’s depth of character and principles.

Over the subsequent months and years new rationale was put forward post invasion as pre-invasion rationale. Bush led a great nation into a war that is problematic on several levels. Besides being unjustified, the strategy and follow-up plans were highly questionable, and the war was not paid.

For any country to prosecute a war successfully, the entire nation must be involved in the sacrifice. War making must be a national activity, not only a military activity, that requires the nation to sacrifice not only its blood, but also its treasures. It is a folly not to demand the latter from the outset. It is the latter that helps hold the civil armchair political generals in check. What happened? Rather than paying for the war by demanding the sacrifice of the general public through increased taxes and the closing corporate loopholes, Bush/Chaney amplified the folly by cutting taxes and allowing American daily life to be lived as if there was no costs and thereby leaving the nation with a growing time bomb debt.

Costs do come due, costs that Bush/Chaney pushed the problem off to the next administration. Further compounding the problem their deregulatory actions enhanced the depth of the crisis by contributing to the housing bubble and the mortgage meltdown. Still further, contrary to his pontificating of being a “Uniter” and his campaign trail claims to work in a bi-partisans consensus building manner, the imperial Bush/Chaney administration worked in a highly dogmatic partisan manner which created today’s political environment that makes it problematic for the White House and Congress to achieve any bipartisan solution not only on the budget but most matters.

As more and more is revealed about the Bush/Chaney administration the more disgusted with their administration…and for acquiescing to his imperialism and imperial presidency, the Republican Congress, and the Republicans party. Some scholars are speculating that the Bush/Chaney administration may well go down as one of the worse two or three administrations in the last century, and be amongst the worst seven in American history. I am coming the conclusion that the administration not only bumbled its opportunities for greatness, to build a better nation and world, it also sowed the seeds for the problems that would will take the United States, and to a degree the world, a generation or two to overcome.