McChrystal’s Poorly Worded Resignation Letter (June 27, 2010)

In the General-McChrystal-gets-his-ass-canned story there is an underlying supposition—that Stanley McChrystal is a moron.

I’m not buying it.

More likely, the Rolling Stone article served as a poorly worded resignation letter. General McChrystal hardly seems like a man to quit especially on something as important as the war in Afghanistan and the men who revere him. Yet clearly he felt Washington was failing to deliver the tools he needed to win the war and he ultimately feels this war in unwinnable (an assessment I share). How could he extract himself from a position in which he felt he was trapped into executing a losing strategy?  And how could he do so in a manner that facilitated greater contemplation of his concerns?

Retired General Barry McCaffey has commented that “The policy surrounding [McChrystal] has been too unstructured, too incoherent, too little commitment.” Commenting on the roles of the major players in the policy development and implementation, McCaffrey asks, “What’s the responsibility of Ambassador Holbrooke, of Eikenberry, of the various free agents in this whole process?”

It was only eight months ago that McChrystal found himself in hot water for publicly advocating a broader strategy focused on winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people but which would require an infusion of 40,000 more US troops. President Obama, in a speech at West Point, seemed reluctant when promising 30,000 more soldiers yet the Afghan war has not improved since they began arriving leaving McChrystal with the uneasy feeling that Afghan hearts and minds are not to be won, at least not in a manner facilitating a US victory in the region.

Bringing his concerns before the American people and raising them once again to President Obama and Congress required a new communications strategy. If forcing a policy review and public referendum on Afghanistan required him to commit hara-kiri then so be it.  In fact, according to ABC’s Jake Tapper, it was McChrystal himself who pointed out to the White House that he had compromised the mission. Those aren’t really the words of a man desperate to keep his job.

There are, in fact, very few quotes directly attributable to General McChrystal in the Rolling Stone article. Most of he derogatory comments were overheard by its author Michael Hastings and came from the mouths of staffers and assistants. Why was Hastings allowed such access to private conversations and events where alcohol loosened lips in the first place?  McChrystal’s PR advisor, Duncan Boothby–since sacked–is hardly a neophyte; and Rolling Stone’s reputation for immersion journalism is well known.  There is significant plausible deniability in the context. Almost to a man, those quoted would certainly point out that if conducting a proper interview their words would have been more decorous and supportive of US policy. Rather, they’d continue, they were just venting and while this event is unfortunate, it certainly wasn’t insubordinate. At least, that would be my story.

Phase I of McChrystal’s plan is complete—he has removed himself from this debacle and done so in a way which preserves his integrity and paints him as a brutally honest truth-teller—no one’s lap-dog he.

Phase II—the President’s review—seems clearly to have fallen on deaf ears so far, though it was successful in providing the Obama administration an opportunity to carefully review its own policies in light of the current situation. While demoting another American hero, General David Petraeus, to McChrystal’s old job, Obama said, “This is a change in personnel not in policy. We will not a miss a beat because of the change in command in the Afghan theater.”

Phase III—a review of Afghan policy while Congress considers a new $33.5 billion supplemental appropriation bill—may yet be effective. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has denied a link between the bill and McChrystal’s ouster, but Kate Hunter, writing in Roll Call (June 24, 2010), comments that liberals are seeking a delay on the vote “until ‘serious questions and concerns’ about the war in Afghanistan that were raised in an explosive Rolling Stone article have been addressed.”

As McChrystal dusts off his resume and begins considering high paying consulting jobs, one thing is clear to me—this was a win/win/win/win strategy. McChrystal gets to leave with his reputation in tact, Obama has a chance to reflect, Congress has a chance to get involved, and the American people, from both parties, must pause and consider why such a well respected General is so concerned about US strategy in Afghanistan.
It makes more sense to me that this was a well thought out strategy with defined goals rather than a week-long exercise of poor judgment by a collection of ambitious, successful leaders.  So, yeah, I’m not buying the moron-thing.

Published in: on June 27, 2010 at 11:50 am  Comments (2)  

And California Stopped Sniveling–Thoughts on Prop 14 (June 13, 2010)

If you don’t like the system, change it.

And so they did in California. Last Tuesday, California’s voters (by a wide margin) approved Proposition 14 that will replace traditional Party Primaries with a wide-open election. The top two vote getters from that election will face off in the general election.

Clearly many Americans are fed up with partisan politics. A feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness colors political discourse in society as citizens view with frustration the lack of productive collaboration occurring in the halls of government:  America held hostage by its own political systems. Yet while our historical systems have muted the will of the people, those same systems have always been pregnant with the solution. Our political system has, from inception, empowered the people to make changes through elections. We the people have always been the holders of the power. Our failure to use that power has inadvertently transferred practical power to politicians but citizens still wield the hammer.

A victim-mentality has taken root in the American psyche.  We have forgotten (or, more accurately in this generation, never known) that the American system of governance depends on an involved electorate.  I’ve grown weary of the whining and complaining that constitutes our political activity vice action or initiative, so I was understandably euphoric to see that California voters have thrown off their shackles and exercised the power they have always held.

If you don’t like the system change it.

Proposition 14 isn’t likely to have a large immediate impact. Primary voters are usually passionate, very involved citizens with strong allegiance to a Party or an issue.  Increasing the number of choices and creating a realistic path forward for independent candidates isn’t likely to generate greater voter turnout. Name recognition is as important as anything else in a primary and nothing presupposes name recognition like being an incumbent or having a party’s endorsement.   In the absence of Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt running for office without party affiliation, there may be few independents reaching the November run-off.

But that isn’t the point. Prop 14 demonstrates that Americans want change; that Americans will vote for change; and that the latent power of the people can be awakened. That is a source of optimism for me and should be a harbinger of shifting attitudes to politicians at large.

Our forefathers knew they had not created a perfect system. But what draws it nearer to perfection is that with such knowledge they installed evolutionary mechanisms to ensure that citizens could bend the American political system to the needs of the people at any given time.  The loudest voice was given to the collective mouths of America’s voters and it resides there yet today.

There are likely to be many unintended and unanticipated consequences of Prop 14 (some of which may be good, it should be noted) but I’m proud to see that California’s eschewed the fear of the unknown in an effort to address that which they are certain is a problem. Progress can only come through constant efforts to improve.  Those efforts, though, come with the risk of failure. But when we freely acknowledge that the status quo is insufficient then we have no choice but to accept those risks.

California has demonstrated its willingness to be a part of the solution rather than perpetuating the problem. I hope this is but the sleeping giant’s first yawn and wakeful stretch of a very active period.

Published in: on June 13, 2010 at 10:43 am  Comments (1)  
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Patriotic Choices about Energy Use (May 30, 2010)

It’s easy to become a cynic about the state of the American citizen’s covetous psyche.  The expansion of our desires long ago exceeded the boundaries of our wallets resulting in the constant expansion of the federal government and not just the lowest national savings rate in history but also culminating in a negative savings rate—most Americans spend more than they make.

But it is in times of calamity that the true spirit of Americans shines brightest, attested too by the collective selflessness of our citizens following 9/11, the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. When properly motivated to action, there is no nation on the planet more capable and more willing to help a neighbor in need. I believe this about Americans with every fiber in my body.

Today, our nation’s problematic petroleum paradigm is a serious vulnerability for the United States and a drain on our individual budgets and a constraint on economic growth. However, solving the P3 is a potentially lethal weapon against terrorism and given that our uniformed sons and daughters have been warring in the middle east for eight years in significant part because of our oil addiction, the most pro-American, “I support the troops,” “buy American” act we can endeavor. Reducing our need for oil is the most patriotic issue of the day.

One of the most significant ways we can reduce demand for oil and improve our qualities of life is to alter the composition of our local communities. These are choices American families can make today and which forward thinking urban planners can aid. Suburban sprawl, far removed from our economic centers, is a monument to the global misunderstanding about the role of oil in geo-politics, formulated when oil was thought to be cheap, accessible and secure.

It would be trite to say that more suburbanites simply need to move closer to the cities—a trend underway in several cities attested to by the sustained property values of residences closer to cities and mass transportation hubs. Importantly, there simply isn’t enough space in already land-constrained districts. Moreover, such a mass exodus by well-to-do suburbanites back towards city-centers would force less affluent citizens to move out, thus shackling those with the fewest resources with the greatest transportation burden particularly in an absence of established mass transit systems in our suburbs.

In the most innovative cities the urban development trend is mixed-use zoning policies.  Areas that are built around a mass transit access point allowing easier and less energy intensive access to city-centers are popping up from D.C. to Portland. These mixed-use development centers have a variety of housing options from single-family homes (though often on smaller lots than the most recent suburban sprawl) to townhouses and apartments.  Additionally, business space is interwoven both for service-oriented companies and also for the stables of modern existence—groceries, entertainment, dry cleaning, barbers, and restaurants. These town centers become professional, recreational and social gathering places for Americans of all ages and are easily accessed by foot, bike, or a short drive. Town centers use land more efficiently by emphasizing vertical construction while recognizing the evolving desire to blend our work, family and social lives. More than anything else, the modern American is short on time. Town centers return dividends on this scarce resource by collocating the services and commodities we need most thus reducing time in transit from one provider to another. No longer trapped and isolated in our cars and rushing through cold, impersonal, cavernous stores we increase personal contact with friends, coworkers and neighbors in ways that draw us closer together. Beyond their obvious patriotic advantages, town centers represent societies sharing their lives and experiences.

Connecting local citizens to both the smaller, outlying town centers which become the mini-hubs of daily life and to the larger cities around which town-centers orbit can be an urban planning challenge and capital intensive to build new infrastructure. However, more creative examples exist such as Bogota, Columbia’s Transmilenio that essentially created a city-wide surface subway system with cutting-edge bus service utilizing existing streets.

It is chic to look for the fastest and most impressive gains in energy efficiency to come from technology. This techno-chauvinsim in American thought might dated from the atomic bomb’s success in bringing an end to the Second World War, but techno-chauvinism removes emphasis from the greatest instrument of change at our disposal—our individual and collective will as Americans. As Headmaster Albus Dumbledore noted to young Harry Potter, “It is our choices….that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Americans have a long history of rising to a challenge and doing what is necessary under difficult circumstances. Americans have decisions to make but it is the role of good policy to facilitate easier transitions and promote the general welfare. Innovative mass transportation solutions and the addition of town-centers to existing suburban sprawl can bolster plunging property values in the suburbs, promote an end to our problematic petroleum paradigm and pump money back into the economy.

Reducing our need for oil is the most patriotic issue of the day.  Viewing urban planning through this lens opens the door to a variety of effective, community-enhancing, options that conserve the investments we’ve already made and engage Americans as part of the solution, and when Americans are part of the solution, all things are possible.

Published in: on May 30, 2010 at 9:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

When Less is More (May 26, 2010)

Change is good. Change is natural.  Change is necessary.

If you believe in evolution, the physical and intellectual development of man is the result of steady, persistent change and adaptation. If you are a Christian, your world view is shaped by the belief that people can change through the regenerative salvation offered by the death of Jesus. If you are stopped at toll booth with a wallet full of singles, you, too, know that change is a must.

Our country was born of a desire and need for change. Our Constitution was almost immediately changed with the introduction by James Madison of the Bill of Rights during the very first congress in 1789.  Ironically, the Bill of Rights purposed to set limits on what the federal government can and cannot do in regard to personal liberties.  Our initial instinct as a nation was to limit what the government can do thus freeing the people to do more. “Yet, Here we are, darling,” as Edna Mode noted in The Incredibles.

Candidate Obama promised change but making good on the changes he favors requires something other than change; in fact what it requires is expansion of the status quo—more federal government, more spending, more misunderstanding of the peoples’ desires.  The fallacy of federal policy, though, is wrongly set only on the front steps of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.  The Instruments of Inertia currently taking up space in the Capitol, regardless of Party, are equally guilty of the toddler’s lament: “More, more, more,” said the baby.

With our federal government, as well as most state governments, struggling to make ends meet, it is time to rethink approaches to fiscal policy, the delivery of government services, and the blurred line between want and need.  Michigan’s Governor, Jennifer Granholm, has noted that “People have come to expect that government was going to be a certain way and we’ve had to press the reset button on our economy and our government.”  Regardless of what she and the Mitten’s elected representative implement, the retreat of government should be a welcome occurrence worthy of 49 plagiarists, nay 50 as we include the Federal Cancer.

Our government—genius as it is—had one undergirding assumption, long since vanquished to the ashbin of quaint erudition:  an involved citizenry.  Save the Electoral College—a monument to the founder’s fear of exactly the kind of political buffoonery running amok in polling stations today—the founders assumed that Americans would always be as passionate about participation as our pilgrim paternity.

Today, though, a small group of citizens tired of being ignored has birthed the Tea Party dalliance. The real shame of the effort has been the decided lack of specificity and blatant willingness to sacrifice that could have been so effective if shouted through the bullhorns vice angry slanders of ineptitude.  Where is the expressed willingness to see that which benefits us individually returned to the state for the good of citizens at large?   “You’re an idiot! Do things differently,” is almost certainly going to be less effective than, “I’ve asked for too much in past and you’ve given it to me. I don’t want it anymore, please stop.” The hypocrisy in the cry for smaller government undermines any strategy to see it sired.

This is a great time to ask for less as we are already learning to shackle our desires in the midst of the prolonged economic down turn.  The fiscal crisis facing the feds and the states is an opportunity to shrink budgets, services and entitlements and we (The People) ought to not only allow it, but encourage it.  In the American tradition of the ancients we ought to insist on tight quarters for legislative spendthrifts and fill the void with our own delayed gratification and increased sense of charity.

We have the ability to make government’s job really easy—by asking for less and doing more.

Published in: on May 26, 2010 at 7:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Slippery, Iridescent Hues of Our Sputnik (May 21, 2010)

There was a time I supported off-shore drilling. It wasn’t that long ago—as recently as Thursday, in fact.

I did not support drilling as an affront to global warming’s authenticity or its supporters. I supported it because drilling will accomplish two things I value. First, expanded drilling would help reduce our reliance on foreign oil imported from hostile producers. Of the top 20 oil producing nations (the US is number 3) only three others can be considered strategically secure. In 2008 we imported nearly six million barrels of oil per day from OPEC. At today’s price of $70.65 per barrel that’s almost $200 billion per year to OPEC alone.  Theses facts create foreign policy obligations that cost of the lives of our sons and daughters on the sandy fields of battle. Beyond the $70.65 per barrel, we must understand that the real currency of oil is the blood of our soldiers. Our problematic petroleum paradigm limits the tools our nation’s leaders have at their disposal as they weigh the economic considerations of the retaliatory tools available to those with whom we deal.

Secondly, even if we immediately Harry Pottered ourselves into a world in which the US needed to import no oil, the oil we have could be used to sell to other nations still undertaking the transformation. The money reaped from such sales could fund health care or education. American resources funding American needs.

Today, I view the cost as too high. Whatever benefit we reap from increased drilling we must now look at those well-heads as potential sources of disaster. What will be the final cost of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico? No matter how good the technology gets we must always consider that another spill is a foregone conclusion, for as long as humans build them, as long as humans man them, as long as humans design them, there will be human error.

Our greed for low oil prices and perpetuation of the petroleum status quo is terrorizing American families up and down the Gulf Coast. Predictions now suggest that the Gulf Current will carry the slick up the Eastern seaboard. What message might we glean from a photo of the tidal basin painted in the slippery, iridescent hues of sunlight on oil?

The effects to America’s natural playgrounds and the wildlife that reposed in their confines bear the brunt of our oil addiction like bruised spouses and children of violent alcoholics.

Today I don’t care about global climate change (I’m in limbo on that on the best of days). I care about change. Not Obama’s change but our change. Do we have the courage to create a new vision for America and embark on the journey to create it? Many have suggested an Apollo-like effort to bring renewable energy to America. May I suggest a better first step?  The US imports about 62% of its oil and about 70% of the oil we use goes to gasoline.  I believe an Apollo-like effort to get every single gasoline powered automobile off the road in ten years is within our capabilities.

The US spent $7 billion of our own money on Gulf War I: what if that money had been invested in Ford, GM and Chrysler with such an objective? Where might the US auto industry be today if twenty years ago we had invested in a program that would have required that 100% of the autos on the road be replaced with new ones? Where might they be in the global market if they were industry leaders in non-fossil fuel propulsion? Where might we be if our foreign policy objectives in the Middle East weren’t saddled with our gluttony?

Add to the money that could be invested in such a project the estimated $22.6 billion in clean up expenses that may be needed to resurrect the Gulf Coast.  We always seem to find the funds for reaction to tragedy but can seldom pry the funds from our clutches to facilitate proactive solutions.

This plan creates jobs, removes foreign policy handcuffs, slows the flow of money to governments sponsoring terrorism, supports our troops, and negates a need for foreign oil.

Policy hurdles would need answers: how will American families afford new vehicles, particularly low-income families? What about those who own and want to maintain classic vehicles? What about long-haul transportation? What happens to the old vehicles—can retrofits be part of the answer? These are but a few valid concerns but policy answers exist when smart people ask the right questions and leadership is provided to guide the process.

Is the specter of another spill any less daunting to our economy and to the lives of our brethren than sputnik circling overhead?  Yet who in American politics has the gumption to propose such a grandiose plan?  Such a plan will not emanate from the masses, but a new leader should be able to capitalize on patriotic fervor, pro-American policies and healthy dose of disgust to launch such a project.

The time has arrived for every American to participate in promulgating all that is possible in this great nation.

Published in: on May 22, 2010 at 12:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

Happy Birthday Dad: Joy4U as U4US (May 11, 2010)

Where did I come from? It’s a question we all want answered and, no, the answer is not found in the pages of 1977 classic which uses a doughy animated couple’s humorous erotica to explain the birds and the bees to children.

No, I think the question we often want answered is, “Why am I like I am?” “What influences informed my thinking and my behavior.” 

Looking at the very best of me I see my father reflected. I suspect if I asked him (and that might be a nice thing to do, wouldn’t it?) he would tell me that he has always tried to lead by example rather than with endless proselytizing.  In fact, I can’t remember him giving me a single speech in my whole life (a fact which might be just as attributable to my poor memory as the frequency of his familial oratory). But it ought to be just as important that if he did give speeches, what I noticed and what I remember is what he did.

Of course, it has long been known that it is not what we say but rather what we do that most influences the people around us. Though example-setting isn’t as sexy as a lifetime of pithy quotes, (when was the last time you saw a book called “101 Neat Examples to Live Out on a Daily Basis for your Thankless Children,” yet tomes like “The Wit and Wisdom of [fill in the blank]” fill the shelves of bookstores.) it is a steady commitment to acting on enduring values that best shapes character.

No one makes every person he meets feel more important in that moment than my dad. His joyful exuberance over making your acquaintance will surely make you believe he has you confused with an Alsatian monarch with a similar name. And once he discovers an area of interest of yours he will find, clip and mail you articles from a variety of periodicals until you are certain he cares more about you than your own family.

He would call his approach a commitment to “higher values.”  (Someday I need to compare this concept to Russell Kirk’s “permanent things.”) And I think he would say the highest value is the dignity of each individual. While he and I might have occasionally disagreed over what the “highest value” is, I don’t think he has ever wavered, despite my periodic, yet resolute, petitioning for exceptions.

He lives joyously because he believes every day is a day to revel in the glory that is the gift of life. Something great is happening right now, he would have you believe. This is the day; this is the moment. Don’t miss it. Smell the flowers. Express your love. Be comfortable in your uniqueness for it makes you special. Every moment is an opportunity—not waiting to happen, but unfolding—don’t miss it.  If Reebok says “Life is short. Play hard,” my dad would say, “Life is short, love hard.”

He has set a standard in our family for kindness and civility-in-action to everyone with whom we come in contact.  It’s not an act like we often see people of means engage in to demonstrate their sensitivity by deigning to interact with the commoners.  Dad’s civility is a genuine desire to demonstrate love through the active valuation of the thoughts and company of all who are fortunate enough to engage him.

My dad turns 75 this week. With any luck at all, you’ve got another 20 or 30 years to track him down and meet him.

Published in: on May 11, 2010 at 5:59 am  Comments (7)  

Anonymous Free Speech (May 2, 2010)

Friday’s USA Today contained an article describing new legislation under consideration that would require CEOs, union leaders, and third-party groups like the US Chamber of Commerce, to disclose their funding of and participation in the creation of political advertisements. In fact, as proposed, ads would be required to list the top five donors. One must conclude that this legislation, sponsored by Democrats Chris Van Hollen, MD, and Charles Schummer, NY, is in response to a January Supreme Court decision removing financial limits on campaign contributions.

I understand that limiting campaign contributions is a form of limiting free speech. Practically speaking, though, unlimited giving does more to limit the ability to be heard by small donors than it does to free larger donor’s ability to speak. In response to the proposed legislation, President Obama said, “Powerful special interests and their lobbyists should not be able to drown out the voices of the American people.”  But we should be careful here before we start complaining. What efforts have we, as individual citizens, taken to have our voice heard? If whining to our friends that we have no voice is the extent of our exercise of free speech then our complaint is without merit.  How many letters might someone be able to pen in the 45 minutes spent on hold to talk to the local talk radio host?  There are few things as capable of swaying a lawmaker’s opinion as 300 fresh faxes.  True, your voice is only one of 300 million in the country and only one of 670,000 your Congressman represents, so It’s easy to conclude you cannot make a difference. But one of 300 should be downright encouraging if not actually motivational.

If you have made genuine efforts to have your opinions considered, however, then I find no fault in attempting to fix a system that is clearly broken. Time after time we hear that the political system is rigged to favor those with money and that part of its dysfunction is the over-influence of special interest groups.

This proposed legislation, though, makes no effort to curb giving. What it does is create accountability.   While the right to anonymous free speech has been repeatedly upheld by the Courts and dates back to the Federalist Papers, Americans ought to have the right to know to whom our elected officials are beholden.

Relevant to the pending battle will be the 1987 ruling in Meese vs Keene. The case addressed whether foreign agents can operate anonymously when distributing political propaganda which the Court defined as including not just slanted and misleading material but also materials that are “completely accurate and merit the highest respect.”  The Court ultimately ruled that disseminators of propaganda make additional disclosures to better enable the public to evaluate the material’s impact, to allow citizens to add further information that they think is germane and actually fosters, rather than restricts, free speech. I couldn’t agree more. Ask yourself, “Would it make a difference if an ad attacking a candidate’s stance on gun control was paid for by Smith and Wesson or by the ACLU,” as opposed to “This ad made possible by the friends of Candidate John Doe.”

Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can't see where it keeps its brain." Arthur Weasly in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by JK Rowling.

Those who oppose this legislation will have you believe this is a desperate attempt by the Democrats to preserve an “election advantage” and to “limit the speech of those who may disagree with you,” as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell put it. Not only is that a disingenuous characterization of the bill but those making political ads aren’t just exercising free speech. They’re asking us to believe them. They’re compelling us to action. They’re petitioning us to be pawns in their efforts. At the very least we should be suspect of those who compel us to action while yet remaining anonymous themselves.

It was Einstein who noted that it is insanity to do the same thing over and over and expect different results, yet that is precisely our approach to an identified problem with our political system. If special interests have too much influence, we would do well to take measures to remedy that situation.

Published in: on May 2, 2010 at 1:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Making of Intellectual Cowards (April 24, 2010)

It’s difficult to make me mad. My ex-wife used to say I was “long fuse, big bomb.” Now she says other things about me but even those don’t make me mad.  Yesterday, though, a good friend forwarded an email I suspect he thought I would enjoy:  instead, it infuriated me and time has not softened my response.

The email was a teaser for Glenn Beck’s April 23 program.  It was a forward from Glenn Beck’s show itself and it lead with this:

“The left is begging, BEGGING for a tea partier to lash out in violence. They’ve been constantly warning people about it, but also constantly humiliated by the footage they are forced to show. It’s completely peaceful.”

My friend concluded with, “The left is out to get us—any way they can.”

Bernie Madoff got 150 years in prison for hoodwinking investors out of billions of hard-earned dollars.  But Glenn Beck and others from both political persuasions (Keith Olberman, Ann Coulter, et al) are hoodwinking millions of Americans out of something far more precious than money and even harder to recoup:  hope.

I applaud what I call the “Madonna School of Marketing:” be outrageous, be crazy, be different, make money. It’s the American way. I’m probably too mainstream, too center and too unable to create a media image contrary to my personal beliefs to be filthy rich. The center is crowded. There’s lots of room at the edge.  Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann—they’ve all created a product that many Americans value.  These money-making mouths of misery say out loud what others might contemplate but normally toss aside and give the ridiculous the perception of legitimacy. Good for them. They’ve created an industry from nothing and found a way to market their intellectual property.  Caveat Emptor.

The sad part, though, is the cost to the country. Not the financial cost but the cost to the political process. These pundits and their fringe ideologies have created a victim mentality in their listeners.  The idea that the “Left is out to get us” reeks of smoky back room deals designed to subvert American interests. AM radio and TV bombast create an US vs THEM mentality; a GOOD GUY/BADGUY approach to politics and inherently assumes that “our side” is not doing the same thing. If the left is indeed out to get us, I assure you “we” are out to get the left. In fact, once could easily make the argument that the entire purpose of the Republican Talk Radio machine is to “get the left.” Beck’s email is designed to foster suspicion of the motives of the left.

Yet his idiocy and hypocrisy are boundless. In the same email Beck noted:

Glenn celebrates Earth Day: How does Glenn celebrate Earth Day? The only way he knows how – leaving the lights on!

Glenn’s Special Ops charity auction heats up!

As if helping the finest men and women in our country isn’t enough of a reward, this charity auction to benefit the Special Ops Warrior Foundation…..”

Fuel Convoy in Iraq

The links between changing our nation’s energy paradigm and national security are so well established it’s not worth the time to enumerate them here. Yet Beck flaunts his flagrant disregard like a toddler, “Neener, neener.” I can’t imagine a more irresponsible, immature response. Except to follow it up with a self-serving plug for his support of our troops. Clearly unaware that energy efficiency on the battlefield is a primary concern for the US military; so much so that there is a new office of the Director of Operational Energy Plans and Programs who reports to the Secretary of Defense and whose sole responsibility is to improve energy on the battlefield. Energy, for the military, is critical weapon of war, yet Beck thinks himself clever to at once congratulate himself for his extravagant consumption and then have the balls to hold a benefit for the very men who put their lives on the line to protect the movement of fuel on the battlefield and ensure the flow of fuel across the world.

The resultant fear from pontificators like Beck prevents the open discourse of ideas. No more do we enter into political discussions with the desire to find solutions; rather we discourse to prove ourselves right. Abraham Lincoln is well known for installing a cabinet of rivals and ensuring that each of them had a voice. Never defensive over conflicting view points, always open to dissent, Lincoln understood the value of fostering collaboration to achieve the best possible outcome. One cabinet member noted, “He was the best amongst us.”

Our fear of “them” has made us intellectual cowards, unwilling to challenge ourselves to read and discuss conflicting ideas.  Problem solving requires us to take in as much new data as possible and then apply that data consistent with under girding truths.

If a conspiracy is to be found, it is mostly likely to be found in the conference room where Beck’s staff meets before the show to outline the day’s program. If the product is the manipulation of the American mind, then new marketing ideas are constantly needed to move the product. Perpetuating the delusion of the listeners is job 1.

The resultant divisiveness angers me. I’m mad at those who market their product at the expense of American interests. But I’m madder at the deluded consumers who buy this dribble.

Published in: on April 25, 2010 at 9:58 am  Comments (1)  

Teen Drivers: Asking the Right Questions (March 26, 2010)

The April issue of US News & World Report brings to light once again the poor safety record of teen drivers and presents several possible remedies. It is not, though, the problem that needs our immediate attention. It is, rather, the question. We keep asking, “How can we make teens better drivers?”  In fact, this question has no easy answer because it is not age which is the primary cause of their danger. It is a lack of experience.  Even if we delayed licensing drivers until they were 18 years of age, they would still have zero experience behind the wheel and this makes all the difference in the world.

Human decision making is composed of two crucial elements: rational thinking and our emotions. As it turns out, our emotions play a critical role in effective decision making. Two of my favorite phrases are, “Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment;” and “We learn more from our failures than our successes.” Catchy as these might be, they are also based in neurological fact. Both the anterior cingulate cortex and the nucleus accumbens, in conjunction with a brain chemical called dopamine help regulate our emotions and are highly effective in teaching us from our failures. Often, when we have a “funny feeling” that something is wrong it is because our brain’s predictor neurons have sensed something amiss in patterns we are used to seeing.  Though our rational mind is unable to identify or explain this funny feeling, our emotions—our fear in this case—in response to dopamine activity in the nucleus accumbens and the anterior cingulate cortex, are able to quantify the anomaly and create physiological responses in our body through the function of the hypothalamus. Human decision making at its very core is a function of the rational (aged related judgment) and the emotional responses we have based on experience.

The net effect of this very brief biology lesson is that only experience can begin to create normal patterns for our brain to use when evaluating new situations. Good judgment, it turns out, really does come from experience.  Unfortunately, the accumulation of experience often involves the exercise of bad judgment.

So how can we reframe the question of teen driving if the only way to facilitate improvement in teen driving skills is to let them gain experience by driving? The question can no longer be, “How can we make teens better drivers,” it must become, “How can we keep teens safer when they are driving?” Two different questions each with their own set of solutions.   The new question allows us to shift responsibility for their safety from their driving skills to the skills of other (more experienced) drivers.

For example, as I come to a halt at a four way stop I might see a car approaching from my right. It is normal to assume that the other driver will see the four-way stop and decelerate accordingly.  I might then proceed even as that car yet approaches the intersection. However, if I knew that the driver was a teenager—inexperienced—I might delay my takeoff a few moments longer to ensure the youth intends to decelerate and stop.  All I need, as the more experienced driver in this mobile confrontation, is to know that the other driver is new behind the wheel.  I will gladly stay out of his way if I know he’s there but I can’t be helpful if I don’t have the information I need to make such a decision.

What if it were the law that for two years after getting a driver’s license all drivers had to have a green strobe light on their roof—similar to the small white strobes now found on the tops of school buses?  Armed with this knowledge,  we can shift the onus from the inexperienced driver—from whom we should only expect mistakes and failure as they put in hours behind the wheel—to the experienced driver who has the capacity to use this information to give the youth a little extra room on the road.

All the policies and initiatives in the world won’t mitigate the simple need of new drivers to acquire experience. But one simple initiative can help more experienced drivers stay out of their way and save countless lives.

Published in: on March 26, 2010 at 7:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

Apples, Little Tikes, and Good Parenting (March 20, 2010)

Wednesday I went to my daughter’s elementary school and had lunch with her. This is one of those obligatory-anticipations but pleasurable-on-reflection events I make a note to do a couple times a year when I happen to be working from home and have a hankerin’ for tatter-tots.

Walking by the gym while the youths play basketball on an eight-foot basket, like Gulliver in a modern-day Lilliput. I can’t help but thinking, “I could totally slam on that.”

Not surprisingly, but somewhat to my disappointment, I found I couldn’t be drawn into my daughter’s conversation consisting of bad knock-knock jokes, Pokemon card collections and silly songs with animal noises. This left my mind free to wander…. and it wandered to apples.

Of the twenty-three children sitting at our lunch table, eighteen had purchased lunch and five had brought their lunch. All eighteen buyers had an apple on their tray and one of the brown baggers had brought an apple.  Only one of those nineteen apples had even come close to fulfilling its destiny, and that one looked as if the school mouse had been working on it most of the morning.

Then it occurred to me: how much of the apple industry survives on parental guilt? I know my kids don’t like apples in their lunches, yet I pack them anyway. The apple’s odds of being consumed are increased if I skin the apple first and put it in a Ziploc with a little lemon juice to keep it fresh.  But even that is only marginally helpful, if my informal survey of lunch boxes coming home with the bag of still-fresh apples  inside is any barometer. (Though I’m always surprised at how well the lemon juice works. That’s a great kitchen tip.)

The lunch ladies (much more physically fit than my memory or last trip to the Improv would suggest) must know, including apples is folly; and certainly the custodian has figured it out carrying the trash bag to the dumpster.  This hasn’t changed in the thirty years since I was in elementary school and I’m going to make a bold prediction that lunch at my grandkids’ school will bear similar observations.

So why do we do it? Why do we drop $6.00 on a bag of apples each week when we know they will not get eaten? Why do schools include apples in lunches knowing they’re headed for the landfill? Guilt. Plain and simple. As a parent, I can’t pack ONLY what I know my kids will eat. A lunch of twinkies, oreos and sodas will be met with great enthusiasm and expanding waistlines.

The apple is a place holder.  If we only included a) what kids would eat; but b) nothing unhealthy, then lunch would consist of two chicken nuggets and two shots of juice. I’d feel like I was starving my child. Tradition dictates that I pack the noontime, brown-bag equivalent of a beverage and four course meal: entrée, two sides (a fruit and a vegetable or carb) and dessert. Half of that lunch is for my child’s anaerobic benefit, half is for my emotional benefit.

I have drawn a similar conclusion about the majority of the Little Tikes line of products. These toys look great in the store or catalog: a rugged plastic kitchen with large, brightly colored utensils; or a big and bold tool bench with safe, easy-to-hold hammers and screwdrivers.  But as any parent who has one of these in the house will tell you, the kids play with it for about ten minutes after they open the box and almost never again. Really, how much fun is it to hammer a fake nail into a pre-drilled hole that facilitates the construction of nothing?  The product line is theoretically designed to facilitate imagination and pretend-play–games recent generations of children are not known to excel at.  The greatest opportunity for long-term fun is from the big box Little Tikes products come in.  (The exception is the Cozy Coupe. The Cozy Coupe rocks.)

Face it: these products are designed for the parents not the kids. The goal is to persuade parents that kids will like the toys, not to get the kids to beg the parents to buy them.  I have five kids. Never once has any of my kids asked me to buy them something from Little Tikes.  It’s all our idea. We have forgotten what is actually fun for kids and so we fall prey to the pretty colors and appeals to imaginative whimsy that could come from hours of pretending to build a spaceship with one blue nail and one red screw. Hmmph.

After the first ten minutes of play (in which kids do everything that can be done with the pretend kitchen—twice—and permanently cross it off their list of things to do) the next time the kitchen/tool bench will be of any use to the family is at next summer’s garage sale, where, once again, on the secondary market it will appeal to a less affluent, but no more insightful, group of parents and grandparents.

Good for the apple industry and Little Tikes that they have found a way to make millions of dollars playing on our guilt and uninformed, but well-intentioned, desire to buy things our kids will like. What a great business model: they have created markets for products that really serve no purpose and which the targeted user doesn’t really desire. They aren’t selling toys and healthy snacks for kids.  They are selling affirmation to parents.  It really is genius. I’d do it if I could.

There is no point to the article, except to note that we are funny beings–we amuse me. Although it does remind me that we need apples.

Published in: on March 20, 2010 at 8:45 am  Comments (2)