GOP Initiatives That Make Me Proud to Be a Conservative (March 16, 2010)

Ohh Magod (read with all the 11th grade, stilted, befuddled cheerleader inflection you can muster.) “Like ohmagod.” I am sOO excited!

The answer to all the Republican woes as finally arrived. California Congressman Kevin McCarthy is developing his “Commitment to America.” It’s a lot like Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” which as we all know was the greatest political achievement put on paper since the Bill of Rights.

I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve slipped into bed filled with angst over the state of politics in America, only to soothe myself to sleep with dreams of another 10-Point Plan. I mean, haven’t you?   Wouldn’t it be great to know that our representatives were working on a PLAN–a document that tells us what they believe in?  I, for one, am just tickled pink.

I know what the cynics will say. They’ll say that our Representatives told us what they believed in when they campaigned for office. They’ll say that “action speaks louder than words.” Pish posh! What impresses me most is a couple of pages of well thought out slogans and clichés in a historical font with roman numerals. If they have it bound with a full color glossy cover all the better.

Putting together a document stating their beliefs gives them an excuse to avoid working with those pesky Democrats. They can now avoid the same kind of frustration that has driven Illinois Senator Evan Bayh to not seek re-election. They can avoid the late nights and long hours that consensus building and compromise demand.

Look what long range planning, innovation and sticking to your principles is getting Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan.  Ryan is working on—I know this will hard to swallow—actual legislation to fix the country’s fiscal problem. His proposal would zero out the deficit, balance the budget by 2063, reduce Medicare’s share of the economy to 4% of GDP by 2080 (it’s over 14% today), simplify the tax code, and replace the current corporate tax structure with an 8.5% consumption tax.  All this adherence to basic conservative principles has done is draw the ire of his GOP colleagues.  The Instruments of Inertia remain tethered to the short leash of immediate gratification for their constituents.  Passing that kind of legislation would require hard truths to be told the folks back home and who needs that hassle?

The real irony is that the Commitment to America stems from House Minority Leader John Boehner tasking Congressman McCarthy to develop a plan to help the Republican Party overcome its reputation as the “party of no.”  It is precisely “no” that needs to be said more often. Not “No” to the Democrats, but to Americans.  As in, “No, we can’t expand government programs and reduce taxes simultaneously.”

But golly, who wants to hear that? I’d rather hold in my ideological grip a pretty document outlining what the GOP believes in–what they’d do if they were in charge (not like 1996-2004. These Republicans are different.)  With the recent over-achieving history of these Republicans in my rear view mirror I can only hope that in short order we will have 535 Republicans working for us.

I bet 535 of these forward thinkers would come up with the coolest font ever.

Published in: on March 14, 2010 at 12:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

Winter Olympic Success: Be Amazed

There are still about 24 hours of coverage from the Winter Olympics on my DVR and, though I know the results of most of the events, I am slowly going to watch it all.  As I watch the US medal count plod upward I can feel a sense of entitlement welling up inside me. It’s the feeling that makes America so loathed around the world. It’s the feeling that says, “Of course we’re leading the medal count. We always lead the medal count. This is America. We’re supposed to be winning.”  I don’t have any sense of “awe” or “amazement.”  Which is sad, because I should. We ALL should. My goodness people, this is the WINTER OLYMPICS. Historically we—well, why sugar coat it—we suck at the Winter Olympics.

Through my formative years this is how the US has stacked up against the world:

Year Winner’s Total US total medal count Rank
1968 14 7 8
1972 16 8 5
1976 27 10 3
1980 23 12 3
1984 25 8 5
1988 29 6 9
1992 26 11 5
1994 23 13 5
1998 29 13 5

But this century has seen marked improvement, (2002: 36, 34, 2nd, and 2006: 29, 25 and 2nd again) though it took our victory by 7 medals in Vancouver for me to notice.

We won a gold medal in four-man bobsled, for goodness sake. We haven’t won gold in that event since 1948, routinely getting crushed—finishing three-quarters of a second behind the winners. That’s a USC/Shippensburg State kind of blow out in bobsled folks.

And now we’ve won gold and all it took was finding the portly kid with the bad eyes and an interest in gravity and reduced coefficients of friction. There was our problem, we kept sending world class athletes like Herschel Walker to the Winter Olympics to compete in bobsled when, in fact, we should have been tapping into America’s well-publicized pool of overweight children.  If you’ve got a pre-teen with slow feet and a mid section fashioned by the rigors of Fritos and joy sticks, just move to the mountains and make him a boblsledder.  And if little Billy chokes on a Snickers pulling 5 G’s through Turn-6, there are three guys behind him in perfect position to perform the Heimlich maneuver.

I have to believe the inclusion of sports once the sole property of the US/made-for-TV Winter X-Games like Snowboard Half Pipe, Skicross and Free style skiing has helped us pad our medal totals. These sports seem tailor made for another teen demographic on the outside of the athletic mainstream—the spoiled rich kid.

There are still sports where we haven’t broken through for Olympic Gold, despite a growing demographic primed for success. Curling for example, which is really just shuffleboard on ice.  When Canada’s elderly retire to the south, they are still in Toronto. When our elderly head south…..suffice it say the best ice around is in Nana’s Vodka Gimlet. But as America’s baby-boomers reach retirement age there should be a ready supply of participants, if only the US Olympic Committee can get together with the AARP and the Chambers of Commerce in Salt Lake City, Minneapolis and Lake Placid to encourage a more northern migration.

Naturally, there’s more to America’s success than snarky generalizations and stereotypes. There is Global Cooling which has increased snow-fall and made traditionally northern sports accessible in more southern states. (No, wait. Someone get me Al Gore on the phone. I don’t think I have that right.)

Truly, though, this is a story more about geo-politics than the inevitable ascendance of America. A real journalist looking into this phenomenon would probably site the breakup of the former Soviet Union, a global economic downturn limiting national Olympic expenditures, and the positive effects of globalization providing increased educational opportunities which take Nordic and Slavic kids off the slopes in search of a better life and put them in the classroom where they belong.

The fact that American Bill Demong became the first American to win a gold medal in any Nordic event (Nordic Combined) might have as much to do with the decline of other national programs as it does with the rise of America’s Nordic training.

Regardless of reason for America’s success, as you reflect on these Winter Olympics we should all be very proud of our athletes. They are finding success where few Americans have before. Our success IS a shock. It IS surprising; and it IS quite noteworthy. Not because America is great, but because these particular athletes are great.

Published in: on March 6, 2010 at 9:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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Evan Bayh and the Instruments of Inertia (February 20, 2010)

I hate to see Indiana Senator Evan Bayh go. I really do; because the reason he’s leaving means he’s the only man for the job.

In an interview on MSNBC Tuesday, Bayh noted that the American political system is “dysfunctional,” riddled with “brain-dead partisanship” and permanent campaigning.

Republicans are rejoicing because Bayh’s departure makes possible the gain of another GOP seat in the Senate in a Tea Party induced backlash to the failure of this administration and this Congress to govern effectively.  And, since Bayh is denying that he will run for President, it removes a highly regarded opponent from this list of potential challengers.

Problems abound in Washington and Republican Talk Radio dominates the airwaves pinning the woes of government on the backs of Democrats. But the problem with today’s federal government is not the Democrats. Nor is it the Republicans: it’s the way in which the Democrats and Republicans are functioning as a unit—which is to say, they’re not. Watching Washington in action is like spending a day with unruly three-year old twins—mischievous, irresponsible, meddlesome, undisciplined, whiny, and prone to blame the other. (If only we could leave 535 dry-cleaning bags around the Capitol our problems would be solved. That was mean. I’m sorry.)

Bayh is frustrated and if he’s telling the truth about why he’s going to leave the Senate then I believe him when he says he won’t run for president. Being President in this climate would make no sense. He’d simply be ringmaster for the three-ring circus that is the Federal Government.  He’d be crippled and handcuffed by the same instruments of inertia he eschews today.

Legislating today, as Bayh noted in the MSNBC interview, requires constant campaigning.  This fact means that the way in which a senator works with his counterparts and every vote must be viewed with an eye towards the next election.  If the Democrat Senator works too closely with GOP legislators he risks alienating his partisan constituency and subsequently losing his seat in the Senate.

So I really wish he’d stay. I wish he’d stay and lead by example. He could help reform the process by practicing what he preaches.  The Senate is not going to change by itself and it’s not going to change through Tea Party rallies. It’s not going to change by cleverly worded op-eds or radio and tv’s long list of clanging bells. It will only change from within.

What does he have to lose? Bayh can relinquish his Senate seat to the next partisan pol capable of deluding Indianans into believing he’s different, or he can turn himself into the Rogue Senator whose sole objective is to demonstrate change in action. If his colleagues render him impotent or the good folks in Indiana are offended by his bipartisan efforts at reforming the system he’ll simply be voted out of office.  So there’s nothing at risk except the Senate seat he’s already giving up.

If you are inclined to believe that there is a surrogate for Bayh capable of making a difference; and if you are a willing participant in allowing yourself to be a victim of what you perceive to be the direct consequences of a Democratic majority, then you can rejoice in his departure.

The reality, though, is that the current system castrates every candidate at the swearing in ceremony.  I only wish Bayh had the balls to stay.

Published in: on February 20, 2010 at 9:22 am  Comments (1)  
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The Continued Rise of America: Why I Still Believe (Feb 3, 2010)

Of all the monikers available to bestow upon the United States,  “United” might seem the least accurate these days. To listen to the elevated rhetoric, public opinion, and media messages some might conclude we live in Malaise-ia. 

I think identifying problems makes people feel smart. To accurately see through the spin and packaging of policies, products, proposals and personalities, requires a certain amount of insight, analytical skills and acumen.  Pundits everywhere seem to make a living identifying the potential pitfalls of legislative activities and government action. Likewise, scouts at the Senior Bowl in Florida are quick to point out the myriad of fundamental flaws in college-football star Tim Tebow’s throwing motion and accuracy, downplaying his chances for success.

Problem identification can be easily substantiated by distracting metrics and becomes the justification for risk avoidance.  If Tim Tebow is drafted in the 3rd round and turns out to be a star a la Tom Brady (6th round), no scout will lose his job—look at all the problems Tebow has. If health care legislation somehow gets passed and turns into a remarkable success it won’t be because its faults were eradicated by an efficient legislative process but rather because of the individual efforts of citizens implementing a flawed product.

Optimism and hope, though, are tremendously risky.  Personal capital is at stake; reputations on the line; errors in judgment are ascertained to be flaws of ability. Yet it is optimism that has defined this country since its inception. Optimism fuels immigration.  Optimism is the oft attributed “secret ingredient” in Ronald Reagan’s successful campaigns and presidencies. 
About what, though,  have we to be optimistic today?  Millions of people are uninsured in a health care system that needs reform. American economic institutions have failed to regulate themselves. American jobs are moving overseas in a globalized economy. China is outpacing the United States in investments in renewable energy generation. The American political system is gridlocked with partisan vitriol for the benefit of its practitioners and at the expense of the common good.  Our education system fails too many students and our universities are too expensive.  The American electrical grid is insufficient for today’s demand and we spew green house gases from our factories and automobiles at a rate orders-of-magnitude more than any other nation. A Zogby Interactive poll released today (Feb 3) shows only 1 in 3 respondents expressing their belief that their financial situation will improve in the next year.  Problems abound. President Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech seems ready for a dust-off. ]

Yet we have more reason for optimism than ever, though the quantification of our success has changed. From the 1940s through the 1980s we engaged in a “cold war,” a battle for geo-political ideologies and the global acceptance of the American way of life as the standard.  We won that war and today we continue to see the spoils of that victory scattered around the world.  Russia has transformed its power base from strictly military to a profit-driven global exporter of its natural resources. China has moved away from its exclusively state-controlled economy and encouraged the rise of capitalist-style local economies and opportunities. India is growing its service sector, taking advantage of the crumbs under the American economic buffet table.  Globalization is the new reality made possible by the successful inculcation of American business ideas by peoples and nations looking for tried and true models of economic growth. If our goal was to export capitalism, I’d say that the globalization of the world economy is about as big a trophy as can be offered.

Even as we engage other countries through the State Department and US AID; as we surge troops in Afghanistan and having done so in Iraq to win the hearts and minds of their people, we do so with the intent of creating and growing economic opportunity. The more successful we are in those efforts, the more we must expect that these very same countries will one day compete with us on global markets for goods and services. The same way a successful franchise always robs some customers from the original organization, these burgeoning “little Americas” will infringe on some of our traditional opportunities.

By what measure are we grading ourselves? The American dream has historically been that our kids would have it better than we had it. But this linear improvement can’t continue ad infinitum.  And while many Americans still pursue this dream today, as a nation (and for many well-to-do families) it is appropriate at some point to move our dream to something even grander: that our children will one day be better people than we are. Now that’s a dream, and the metrics for success have little to do with GDP.

Despite the diseased oak, the forest is alive and well.  America still provides widespread education, freedom of speech manifested by a vibrant press and the occasional Tea Party, the peaceful coexistence of religious and secular Americans, a political system that (in what can only be described as the greatest achievement in human history) every four years peacefully transitions the title of World’s Most Powerful Person from one to another.

We have expanded human rights to women, blacks, gays, Hispanics and the disabled. We remain the most popular destination for immigrants. We have distributed economic and political power throughout the country, and we have a track record of successfully adapting and prospering in a variety of contexts. Ingrained in the American experience is the idea of self-improvement.  China has endured for centuries, but they have yet to prove they can handle success.  Will the communist party be forced to stifle economic expansion when the seeds of liberty, planted in the soil of globalization, begin to sprout? How will China and India handle the revolutionary fervor we observe in Iran?

Geo-politics is like the Tour de France, with many participants, lots of “races within the race” for riders with varied skills, and plenty of ups and downs that can skew the relative position of the participants. It is inaccurate (and downright depressing) to evaluate a marathon based on a few snapshots.

The emphasis on pointing out the current state of decline in America is in part a result of the increase in information available to us and the increased ability for individuals to communicate which provides for greater expression of discontent. But that same expression of discontent is a manifestation of our strengths: involvement, passion, and free speech.

Viewed through the eyes and ears of TV news and talk radio, our problems might seem insurmountable. But I contend they are a reflection of our extreme success. The health care debate occurs because so many Americans have access to the best health care in the world yet we are conflicted because so many people go without it.

From Thomas Jefferson to the present we have created a broad, free, and excellent education system providing for the diverse educational needs of those with great abilities and disabilities; of the secular and the religious, of the home schooler and the public schooler.  Yet we are compelled to make it better, cheaper, more accessible. Some children are underserved and that we find intolerable. Our impatience and intolerance is a credit to our national character.
         

We have an energy problem because we’ve grown our economy to the point that there are 1.17 cars per licensed driver in America.  Our focus has turned to finding ways to mitigate green house gas emissions. Yet global negotiations on GHG emission routinely break down because other countries simply want to provide energy to their people. They can’t be bogged down by the weight of the greater good and the long term effects on the planet. American success creates moral imperatives that are a luxury to the developing world.

We are conflicted about how to use our military: hunt down terrorists that are a nuisance to the global community? Deliver humanitarian efforts to Haiti? Protect the global supply of oil from Sudanese pirates?  Most countries aren’t struggling with these debates because they don’t have the means and can’t afford to. (We can’t either anymore, but that’s for another day.)

I’m not worried about America’s long term prospects. I’ll eschew the mounting sense of doom and gloom; I’ll resist the temptation to become a nattering nabob of negativity simply because it’s easy and I can find the “publish” button. I’ll not join the chorus of those who lament Americas decline. 

Rather,  I’m optimistic and I’m optimistic because most of our problems are not in creating effective systems; most of our problems are in delivering what are already excellent systems to those who still go without.

Those are good problems to have.

Published in: on February 3, 2010 at 4:16 pm  Comments (1)  
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Paying for a Better Country: The Bill is Due (January 31, 2010)

Ask around, take a small poll of friends. Intrude on people in the elevators, on the bus, in the waiting room. When you are with a stranger for even a brief time, or when you are with friends, ask them this: do you believe that the American political system represents you and your beliefs?

It’s a cliché to say that the American political system is broken. It’s not broken; it’s simply evolved into something no one would have chosen.  But identifying problems is easy.  Anyone can offer a criticism of the status quo.  Complaining is the primary manifestation of the first amendment in this country, from toddlers, to teens; citizens to corporations.

This is, in fact, my primary critique of politics today: both parties are more interested in proving the other party wrong than in developing effective national strategies to improve the lives of citizens. Republicans seem more interested in killing the Democrat’s bills rather than working with the Democrats to create legislation that includes compromises from both parties but which places the interests of the people above all else.

Politics has become the focus of politics.  A Republican compromise that leads to health care reform would be a feather in the cap of the Democrat in office and thus improve the public perception of both the President and his party, likely at the expense of Republican congressional seats and/or Presidential hopefuls. Serving the people seldom seems like the foremost thought in the minds of our elected officials.

Republicans today (and Democrats from 2001-2008) won’t pay the price at the polls to affect a system of good federal governance. But who will pay the price for better government?

Last week the Supreme Court removed restrictions on how much corporations can contribute to campaign elections.  The basis for the 5-4 decision was that limits on spending represent government restrictions on first amendment, free speech rights of Americans.

I got it; and on its face, I agree. However, while the decision removes limits on the right to free speech, it further restricts the ability of regular Americans to be heard. Those of us who contribute little or nothing to the campaigns of politicians already have limited access to our elected officials. Those officials, elected one vote at a time, are beholden to the major benefactors who made the acquisition of those votes possible. It is not the votes themselves that matter to politicians, but the ability to GET the votes that matters.

What is it that we want as citizens? Is it a literal interpretation of the First Amendment that may be technically correct, or a system in which we have access to the Representatives who supposedly represent us?  There is no longer any volume control on free speech and while that removes government intrusions, it further limits access of regular people, like you and me. I don’t believe our country is better for this decision. Our government was founded as one “of the people and by the people.” Voting being our primary method of participating in the political system and as much a representation of our right to free speech as anything, the twenty-fourth amendment prohibits poll taxes so that no citizen is excluded from the political process. The Supreme Court’s defense of the First Amendment has done more to limit access than any 24th Amendment infringement ever could.

Are we willing to pay the price for the ability to be heard? Will we limit our right to unrestricted free speech so that all citizens have equal access and the influence of corporations and big money contributors is minimized?

Politicians from both parties laud the concept of smaller government. Americans pine for the shrinking of ever-growing federal infrastructure and programs.  Yet I have not heard a public willingness to forego the very provisions that make up an engorged federal government.  If we petition for smaller government, are we prepared to do without?

The root of the word government means to “bring into conformity with rules or principles or usage; impose regulations.”  Do we really want to be “governed?” Or would we prefer to be led?  If government backs away, are we prepared to step in to do those things for ourselves that a smaller government no longer provides us?  Many of us already are doing those things at home.

No government program can erase the $70,000 of debt I carried out of a failed marriage. No government program can erase the $5000 of negative equity I have in a 2004 SUV that costs me $1000 a month to drive in payments, gas and insurance. No government program can add 60 points to my credit score (driven down by a lousy debt to income ratio because I still own a house I can’t sell in this depressed real estate market) so that I can buy a house and benefit from the tax advantages of homeownership.  Yet, as I write this, I am living with my two children in the basement of a friends’ townhouse.  We live like Harry Potter in the cupboard under the stairs because it’s all that we can do.  Crunched by an income limited by salary and the usual budgetary demands of suburban life and ongoing payments to previous excess, something has to give. Unable to borrow a trillion dollars from the Chinese (though, to be honest, I haven’t called to ask) we make sacrifices to cope.

America as a society has payments to make. We owe on debts accumulated over the last century. We owe on wars we couldn’t afford. We owe money to entitlement programs from which we borrowed. We need to make investments in improving our access to our legislators. We need congressmen who will sacrifice what’s best for them in order to provide what’s best for us.

We can complain or we can participate. I’m already paying on my debts and so are you. Now let’s communicate to Washington that we are willing to pay the many and varied fees called for in improving the American political process.

Published in: on January 31, 2010 at 12:23 pm  Comments (3)  

The Department of Defense and Greenhouse Gases: Are You Kidding Me? (January 18, 2010)

I work in the energy field.  I am acutely aware of Executive Order 13514 President Obama signed on October 5, 2009, titled FEDERAL LEADERSHIP IN ENVIRONMENTAL, ENERGY,AND ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE. In summary,  it notes that it is “the policy of the United States that Federal agencies shall increase energy efficiency; measure, report, and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions from direct and indirect activities; conserve and protect water resources through efficiency, reuse, and storm water management; eliminate waste, recycle, and prevent pollution; leverage agency acquisitions to foster markets for sustainable technologies and environmentally preferable materials, products, and services; design, construct, maintain, and operate high performance sustainable buildings in sustainable locations; strengthen the vitality and livability of the communities in which Federal facilities are located; and inform Federal employees about and involve them in the achievement of these goals.”

This EO is in some ways excellent, particularly if you believe that it is better to over reach, and risk ridicule for being unrealistic as opposed to being institutionally inert.  The most severe implications stemming from implementation of EO 13514, though, will be the requirements to track and reduce green house gas emissions.

As you would expect, these requirements will apply to the Department of Defense as well as all other federal agencies.  However, it should be no surprise that the military’s interest in GHG emissions only stems from policy mandates and not any anticipated improvements in its ability to carry out its mission. There is no first order effect on DOD from  GHG emissions, whether increasing or decreasing.(There might be several 2nd order effects, such as climate change causing potential migration and demographic shifts which could result in geopolitical  tensions to  which our military will have to respond, but those are ancillary to  this discussion.) DOD’’s  heightened attention on improving energy efficiency is rightly focused on what “goes in” not on what “comes out.” And what “goes in” is expensive in terms of both human lives and financial resources. Improving DOD’s consumption habits in order to reduce the use and transportation of fossil fuels on the battlefield has mission critical implications.

It is the nation’s and the department’s best interest  to  develop domestic supplies of battlefield energy sources–domestic oil, coal to liquids, or natural gas to name a few–so that DOD’s missions are not vulnerable to external stressors. It is virtually impossible to imagine a modern military using anything other fossil fuels to power its war machines for the next century or so and GHG emissions will be an unfortunate consequence of whatever fuel is in vogue. Our commanders must never consider carbon when soldiers’ lives and military success is on the line.

Climate change is a symptom of what ails us NOT the problem itself. The problem is the over-consumption of what I like to call “incendiary” energy–stuff that burns. DOD can be a major player in renewables: as a start, replacing diesel generators on the battlefield and reducing energy consumption at our installations, both steps  that will create an improvement in what “goes out.” But improving emissions doesn’t appreciably advance our agenda vis-a-vis mission accomplishment.

If DOD comes to value energy for what it is–a critical weapon of war—it will rapidly change its consumption paradigm which will, most importantly, improve its ability to carry out orders. But it will also have the beneficial effect of reducing GHG emissions.

If the discussion within DOD centers on GHG emissions, then one day we may find that the military’s current emphasis in energy was just a fad– a brief period where GHG emission were important. However, emphasizing results that don’t pertain to DOD’s core missions and capabilities will cause attention to fade, analogous to environmental issues in the 90s, for which there is only cursory interest save the lingering niche bureaucracies that were created to attend to the issue.

However, if the discussion centers on how DOD can improve its ability to carry out its mission and do so within tightening budgetary constraints, then the investments we make today will be the Modus Operandi of tomorrow’s war fighter.

Published in: on January 18, 2010 at 8:55 am  Leave a Comment  

More TSA Security Problems: But the Best Lessons Learned (January 14, 2010)

Last week I wrote that Americans should get comfortable with the fact that we only live under the illusion of security.  It doesn’t help, though, when TSA personnel are lazy and incompetent. Case in point, my last trip through BWI.

Two of my children were flying to Baltimore from San Antonio.  I was to meet them at the gate. (If you’re not aware, it is normal and easy for an un-ticketed parent to get a gate pass that will allow them through security in order to meet unaccompanied minors at the gate.)

I proceeded to the Southwest ticket counter to get my gate pass but as fortune would have it the computer system wasn’t cooperating so they were unable to print out my gate pass.  Too often these days computer trouble like this would have been the end of my quest to get out to the gate, but the crack staff at SWA wrote me out a pass the old fashioned way—on a blank form with a ball point pen. They told me this might fluster the TSA ID –checker and he might decide to call a supervisor to verify the authenticity of my document.  Fair enough. I was I no real rush.

As I approached the TSA staff I went to pull out my driver’s license.  Lo and behold, I didn’t have it. I had left it in my gym bag earlier that morning. Uh oh. I did, though, have a government issued ID card for my work with the Department of Defense.  However, it had expired December 27.  Today was January 4. This could get interesting.

Reaching the checkpoint, I handed my handwritten pass to the TSA employee. His brows furrowed, his lips pursed. And just as promised he called for a supervisor. The manager was nowhere in sight so I was asked to step aside so others could move through security. Still no problem; time was on my side.  When the supervisor arrived he looked knowingly at the tidy penmanship on the form and ruled everything in order.  He handed me back my gate pass, waved me through and as an afterthought, looked at his subordinate and asked if he had checked my ID.   Drum roll please.  He said, “Yup, he’s good,” and I was free to head to the metal detector.

Except, he had never looked at my ID. He never knew I didn’t have a state issued driver’s license or any other state ID card. He never looked at my federal government card to see if it was an acceptable substitute. He never checked the expiration date on that government card to see if it was even current.

Oops.

As I smirked and walked on, I could tell that he had hesitated just a bit. He knew he hadn’t checked my ID. He knew he had just lied. There was a long line of harried holiday travelers who needed his attention. He was distracted. He didn’t want to appear like he hadn’t done his job properly already.  Behavioral scientists would have a field day with his malfeasance.

Bottom line?  In any job where routine is the order of the day, the hardest thing is learning to handle the unexpected and still comply with the routine procedures. Airline pilots face this all the time. So do nurses. It’s human nature.   The best lesson for this TSA employee can  gleaned from  his self assessment that he just messed up–badly.  He should beat himself up. He should lose sleep.  He should vow this will never happen again.  It will be up to him to learn from his failure.

“The System,” that nefarious and faceless entity, will never make us safe. Our best hope is the concern of the individuals involved in the process. Sometimes that”s the passengers. Always, it’s the TSA agents.  As my kids are sick of hearing me say, “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.”   I hope I was the best training that TSA employee gets this year. But that will be up to him.

Published in: on January 14, 2010 at 2:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

Evolving Into Monkeys and the End of the Human Species (Jan 10, 2010)

Christmas: a time for family; visiting and just hanging out. I enjoyed having time to chat with my 20 year old son. He can banter with the best of them and his interests are broad and his opinions provocative. I enjoy tossing out nuggets of humor and insight and seeing where the conversation will go.

Here’s one I served up on a 45 minute ferry ride–I think we’re evolving INTO monkeys, not the other way around. As evidence I offered him the opposeable toe. As a busy, working, suburban parent, I can’t possibly imagine how the evolutionary process could ever lead us away from opposeable toes and to what we now regard as a normal arrangement of foot appendages. Think how much more you could get done if you literally had four hands instead of two. The possibilities are endless. Yet evolutionary scientists would have us believe that at some point in the past, those without opposeable toes were better adapted than their predecessors. Sorry. Not buying it. In fact, I think today’s monkeys are swinging in their trees laughing at us: the perfectly evolved being—just smart enough to know how good they have it. No work pressures; just eat, sleep and have sex. Now THAT sounds fully evolved to me.

Evolution always makes for fun talk because my son and I share a faith in God that demands a place in our thinking for intentional design if not outright creationism. With that in mind, I threw him this pearl of wisdom next: it’s worth noting that every evolutionary development started as a birth defect. Imagine the first fish with feet. Was he ridiculed at school and shamed into leaving the water in search of friends who would accept him as he was?

Thinking (rightly) of evolutionary steps as birth defects is fun. It’s accurate but it’s also thought provoking. In fact, it was several days later that I was still recalling our talks on the ferry when I wondered if (and let’s grant evolutions veracity for the sake of argument) our success as human beings has put an end to the evolutionary process for our species.

Society doesn’t like birth defects. If a child were born today with opposeable toes his parents would have them removed (if for no other reason than shoes would be hard to find) and any evolutionary benefits the child might have received would be negated. If he would have been more efficient and could have earned more thus making him more attractive or valuable to females, the world would never know. If women, for some reason, found six toes of interest by reason of function, aesthetics, or simply erotica, the child’s parents efforts towards physical norming would render us all unaware.

If your daughter was born with gills below her ears, would you see this as the perfect adaptation to a warming planet with rising sea levels or would you see this as a freakish birth defect requiring a seriously kick ass collection of scarves?

Perhaps autism (and I have an autistic son so don’t send me hate mail saying I don’t understand) is an evolutionary attempt to adapt to environmental changes our species has yet to detect, and yet parents and physicians are desperate for a “cure.”

Not only does social norming compel us to seek the top of the bell curve, advances in medicine make it possible to get there. We will continue to uncover new and effective ways to perfect normalcy. Yet it is deviation from the norm that is at the heart of evolution.

Progress ending progress? Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.

(And if I’m right, I could be. But my brother would just end up shaving him, making him PB and banana sandwiches and send him off to kindergarten.)

Published in: on January 10, 2010 at 10:32 am  Comments (1)  

Football: We’re Never Happy (Jan 9, 2010)

We’re never happy.  What is our fascination with controversy? Is it that identifying problems and proposing solutions makes us feel smart?

Maybe a good New Year’s Resolution for football fans this year would be to take time to revel in all that is good about both college and pro football in the coming year.

Over the last few weeks football fans have been abuzz about the Indianapolis Colts resting their players in their second to last game against the NY Jets and then, having lost that game, in their last game as well. The Colts’ reasoning was that they wanted to avoid putting their most important players in situations where they could get injured when winning those individual games wasn’t important.  And they were right—winning those games wasn’t important.  In the NFL all a team needs to do is make the playoffs in order to have a chance to become champion. The Steelers the 2009 Super Bowl as the 5th seed (out of 6). Last year, the Cardinals finished the regular season about as poorly as a team can and made it to the Super Bowl. The playoffs are called the Second Season for a reason:  all things are new again. Playoffs are a tournament and each team starts 0 and 0.

Since the ultimate goal is to win the post season tournament, fans should expect the duality we saw the Colts manifest last month: 1) make the tournament; 2) win the tournament. Those are the goals as the season starts. That’s the approach that makes the most sense.

Thursday night Alabama played Texas for college football’s national championship.  Fans of Cincinnati (before their smackdown at the hands of Florida), TCU and Boise State argued that they, all as undefeated teams, had a right to play for the national championship.  But the BCS system that’s in place doesn’t work that way. The tension in college football is always making the distinction between identifying the best team and rewarding the best season. TCU, Boise State and Cincinnati all had excellent seasons but few thought any of them was the best team. Despite an absence of regular season losses, their arguments lacked legitimacy because their records accrued against lesser competition and those three teams were left out of the championship game.

Many want college football to have a playoff system—a tournament. But without a tournament, every game counts. A loss in September can eliminate a team from national championship contention before the leaves start to change color. Every game counts. Could you ever imagine a college team with national championship aspirations resting its players in the season’s final games?

The beauty of college football is that its system is more likely to identify the season’s best team than the pro football system. Pro football’s playoff is designed to crown a tournament champion, not come to a conclusion about which team is best. Does anyone think the Giants were a better team than the Patriots two years ago?  If those teams had played five games, the Patriots would have won four of them. But the Giants won the tournament.

If college football gets a playoff system, what might next year’s Michigan/Ohio State game look like? Michigan, still rebuilding under new head coach Rich Rodriguez, may well be 8 and 3 and ranked #15 going into the Ohio State game.  Ohio State, a perennial national championship contender, may well be 11 and 0 and ranked third in the nation.  Most pundits propose an eight team playoff, so UM would be definitely out of playoff contention and OSU definitely in. Will Ohio State rest its players in arguably one of the biggest rivalry games in all of college football?  Why would they risk injury with a first round playoff game against a team like Oklahoma coming up the next week?

Thursday night college football gave us, in all likelihood, the two best teams playing so that one team could lay claim to a national championship. Neither team rested its players in the quest for the championship because every game counted.

Tonight the NFL starts its post season tournament which could eventually lead to a New York Jets/Arizona Cardinals Super Bowl.  I contend that the most exciting game—the game NFL fans really want to see– is the regular season’s best teams: the Colts vs the Saints (or Vikings).

The NFL gives us a tournament and winning that tournament is the goal. We should relish the fact that the NFL has a tournament so that many good teams have a chance to participate in an compete for title of “champion” in one of sports’ best competitions. College football gives us the best teams competing for the championship every year. They don’t rest players and the biggest game will always have the all the star power fans want in the pre-game buildup.

Each is excellent for its own reasons. Rather than wish that every pro game mattered (as much as they do in college) and that college had a tournament (like they do in the pros) maybe we’d do better to relish in the excitement that each system already gives us in their differing approaches.

Published in: on January 9, 2010 at 2:01 pm  Comments (1)  
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Healthcare and Monarchy (Jan 5, 2010)

There’s so much to say about the healthcare bill recently passed by the Senate I don’t know where to start. But comment I must: so I’ll limit my comments to two.  First, you’ve got to start somewhere. Like a 39 year-old man anticipating next year’s physical, we all knew something painful was coming. It was inevitable. Talk of healthcare changes had fully gestated and nothing we could do could stop it. So, it’s out there now–version 1.0. And version one won’t work. For the same reason we have WD-40, not WD-1. Failure will be part of the process. Healthcare reform will be a process not an event. So this is the starting point. The doctor’s technique and hand size may be in question, but the appointment date has arrived. Deal with it America.
Second, and this is what I hate most—healthcare coverage will be mandatory.
Allow me:  I hate eminent domain. Literally, it makes me nauseous. There can be no real freedom– no real liberty–if there are not genuine property rights. The recent victory for the borough of Brooklyn to invoke eminent domain to build a stadium makes me want to hurl my pretzels back up into the lap of the sleeping gent in 22E squeezed in next to me as I type.
Mandatory healthcare makes me feel the same way. Tell me why Ican’t elect to pay cash? Why does Congress feel compelled to mandate participation? Where is the libertarian outrage at this element of the legislation?
Readers are certain to barrage me with a pile of statistics about major medical costs; America’s poor rate of savings and the generally poor prospect that many Americans will be able to pay for their healthcare services with cash. (No one seems concerned that many Americans can’t afford a major auto repair bill, even though most Americans could work with the flu but couldn’t do their job if they couldn’t actually get to their job.)  By way of example, my health insurance bills over the last year were $3000. Yet my only medical bill was for $330 to have my elbow X-rayed. I wasted $2670. That makes me sick. But what if I self insured? What if I invested that $3000 myself and paid the $330 bill from my investment? (And what if I’d been doing it since I was 22,  just out of college?) Let’s not bother with the mathematical answer to that rhetorical question. Suffice it to say, I’d have plenty of money on which I’d be earning interest rather than some faceless insurance company earning interest on my profligate premiums.

Congress has no power to mandate risk aversion.  This is the classic example of a few people ruining it for everyone else where a small, but well publicized, marekt segment receives treatment it can’t pay for at the expense of the taxpayers.
Some might counter that auto insurance has been mandatory for years and the mandate for health insurance is no different. I beg to differ. Auto insurance is required so that if I hit you with my car, you are not unduly burdened by my mistake. Auto insurance isn’t for me. Witness that what’s required is liability insurance, not comprehensive auto insurance. If I don’t have healthcare insurance, no one is harmed but me (this presupposes that I still go to the doctor when I’m sick, even though I’m paying cash. If I don’t see the doctor when needed in order to save money then this argument is moot and you should be reading a more enlightened  blog right now).
Congress believes it knows what’s best for us. More concerning yet, though, is that  we’re letting them get away with it. I can live with big,  nearly socialist, government attempts to fix healthcare. I’m optimistic enough to think that the system will correct itself and the problems will be eradicated over time as changes are made. But mandating that we have health insurance smacks of the English monarch mandating that citizens attend the Church of England. This country was founded on a belief that mandatory participation in state sponsored organizations was intolerable. Am I the only one offended by this breach of Congressional powers? Will this provision prove unconstitutional? I may cancel my insurance, shower and stand naked and soaking in a snow bank to help us all find out.  (Taking up smoking would probably take too long, don’t you think?)

Published in: on January 5, 2010 at 4:24 pm  Comments (4)  
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