Monday, July 27, 2009

The Race Card

Sgt. James Crowley and Henry Lewis Gates are going to have a beer with the President. The rational middle hopes that meeting goes better than their first. I will admit up front that I have no noble reasons for wishing the two men well...I just want the whole bloody story to go away. You see, what began as a series of bad judgements and ill tempers has been used by various groups as a tool for "getting the message out".

To be sure, the messages in question are valid; Civil-Rights groups concerned about the status of African-Americans and police profiling, police groups concerned about personal attacks and the limiting of their ability to do their jobs, and the media concerned about making money from a hot story. It is of course this final group who has the motive, means, and opportunity to make the story worse than reality and keep it alive past its expiration date. I am, quite frankly, sick of it all.

About 15 years ago, I experienced the weekly double; I was called a race traitor one day, and a bigot a few days later. I am equipped with limited tolerance for folks who cling to stereotypes and display selective racial memory; I have less tolerance for folks who think that using the term "racist" in relation to any Caucasian who ends up on the wrong side of an incident with a minority is acceptable. I reserve my sense of absolute hatred for "journalists" (a term I use very loosely) who like to exploit racial tension. Reporters are supposed to relay facts to the public, and let the audience make their decision. Unfortunately, a story of mistaken identity and the poorly considered behavior that followed on both sides sells far less ad time than the same story with a "racist" cop and a "enraged" black man in a white neighborhood.

I think that, given the facts, most of us would be enraged if we were asked for our ID on our front porch...BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF

I think that, given the facts, most of us know that the complaint about the police officer should be saved for after the fact.

I know from friends and relatives in law enforcement that situations are often not what they seem. Cops are yelled at when they hand out speeding tickets and criticized when they are not around. It seems, in this situation, that Sgt. Crowley came in short of facts and followed his procedure (at least until he refused to give Gates his badge number). It seems that Mr. Gates was in a bad situation and assumed the worst about Crowley (and then let his anger do the talking).

Move along people...nothing to see here. Most of us learned at a young age the lesson of refraining from judgement of someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes. It takes a deep breath and patience to get to point where you can borrow someones shoes. That deep breath can save a lot of problems....and cost a lot of network profits.

That won't be such a bad thing though........

Friday, July 24, 2009

Your Weekly Brain Cramp

So I was watching a movie the other day on one of the broadcast style cable know the ones that rerun old network series and play movies with LOTS of commercial breaks in them.

The movie I was watching had lots of action (blood, guts, destruction, sex, and cursing) and was HEAVILY overdubbed. That is to say the cursing was dubbed out and replaced with silly words nobody uses and weird misplaced sounds and grunts. Some of the sex was cut...although the double entendres remained.

So the brain cramp happens when the commercial breaks come along. Break number one features a series of mature couples in romantic embrace finding love again through science(my favorite is the couple in matching old-fashioned tubs over-looking the lake...the idea of folks my age or older moving two cast-iron tubs out to that spot and them filling them with hot water is gut-bustingly hilarious).

Break number two features a talking toaster oven from a popular sandwich chain asking the employee to "put it in me"....

I would loved to have been a fly on the wall when that ad campaign was pitched.

So we have to dub out uncouth language, half-naked bodies, and simulated sex while leaving in gratuitous violence during the movie...presumably to shield those with impressionable minds.

When it comes to commercials however, we are OK with using drugs and toaster ovens to achieve satisfaction. just got me thinking.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Medical (Fact) Checkup

We all know the players in the health care debate. The teams are well-defined; Republicans against, Democrats for. The American people, overwhelmingly, want something done. The AMA, insurance industry, big pharma, the AARP, and just about every other group or lobby remotely associated with the issue will openly acknowledge a problem.

The politics of the issue seem to preclude finding a solution, so the rational middle would like to take a moment to pull back from the politics and restate the basic, non-partisan facts.

  1. Insurance premiums for individuals and businesses have doubled the rate of inflation for at least the last decade. As there is some elasticity involved with medical costs, the amount of individuals and businesses who have stopped carrying (or offering) insurance has declined over the same time period.
  2. Real household income has remained flat over the last decade. Don't like or trust statistics? Take the "Rational Middle Challenge"; ask 50 families you know (your own, siblings, parents, friends, coworkers) if their income has increased by 50% over the last 10 years. That is the percentage increase (roughly) that they would need to keep up with inflation.
  3. Small businesses have taken a beating over the last decade; "The Rational Middle Challenge Part Two" would have you check on business owners near you; are they still in business, are their profits what they were, have they lost employees to larger firms that offer better benefit packages?
  4. Medical outcomes have not improved in the last ten years. It is a little annoying to rank behind a dozen or more industrialized nations in categories like life expectancy, infant mortality, and cancer rates. Don't like or trust statistics? Believe Limbaugh when he huffs and puffs about the world coming to America for medicine? Type in "medical vacations" into Google. Prepare to be surprised.

The second set of facts today relates to a promise made 16 years ago. At the beginning of Clinton's first term, Mrs. Clinton led what was the last effort to reform health care in this nation before now. That effort was resoundingly defeated. That defeat was driven by the fear of a loss of choice, and anchored in the promise that the market could self-correct and fix all of the problems it was having with cost and quality of care. The rational middle would like to examine that...

  1. "The Rational Middle Challenge Part Three" How long do you have to wait for service at your doctor's office, and if you don't like the care, do you have a choice?
  2. How long do you or your friends or parents have to wait for a specialist or MRI or surgery once you and your doctor find a potential problem? Do they have a choice in care or an avenue for complaint and satisfaction?
  3. The market has not fixed costs as evidenced by the above facts.
  4. The market has not provided the additional doctors, nurses, and associated providers needed to allow for cost, service, and care competition. The government has not provided targeted funds or incentive to correct this market failure.
  5. The market has not provided affordable pharmaceutical interventions and therapies for the public at large (talk to your older parents or look at you household budget for an idea of how much drugs cost).
  6. The market has not addressed the problem of malpractice cases and the cost of insurance to the medical industry. The government has not enacted real torte reform.

The debate over the health care crisis is critical in that different plans are weighed and evaluated on their merits and costs/benefits. When the argument becomes; "There is no health care problem", or "There should be no solution involving the government" (i.e. we the people), then the argument falls under its own weight.

This democracy has never shrunk from a challenge because of its difficulty. Slavery and the Civil War, the Great Depression, Hitler, the Space Race, Communism, Saddam Hussein, and international terrorism are all challenges that have cost us greatly in blood and treasure. We Americans have figured out how to deal with and rise above all of these previous obstacles by thinking about the issue, making a decision, and acting boldly.

It seems terribly un-American to shrink away from this issue now. The type, level, and cost of the intervention (and how it is paid for) should be what the conversation stays about. It is my humble opinion that it is our duty to do the basic research ourselves, make a decision, and check our elected representatives to make sure they are properly representing our views. We should not rely on information from single media sources (this one or any other) or politicians...all have a bias.

We should think, decide...and act boldly.

The rational middle hopes to hear your thoughts....

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Well...It Sure Sounds Good

As someone who has spent nearly two decades in the practise of and study of business, I am not a hard sell when it comes to the notion of fiscal conservatism. Waste and inefficiency are the devils that haunt entrepreneurs and managers of businesses of every size, and fads cost money.

I have learned a golden rule of sorts over the years; one person's waste is another's investment in the business. I have known perfectly rational and intelligent managers who have chased away daily coffee customers (who buy a product that returns say, $ 0.60 on every purchase) by charging for "extra" creamers, and be perfectly willing to give away a book of matches to every cigarette customer at the same total profit.

Businesses fail most often when their operators take too narrow a view of their market and operations. Short term pressures dominate businesses at both end of the size spectrum; small operations because of their small and erratic cash flows, and big corporations (publicly traded) due to shareholder/trader expectations. This factor limits many businesses, because most need to grow (or at least adapt) to remain viable over the long haul.

Enter the rational middle's favorite rallying cry; "Government should be run like a business!"

I will be gentle, and disregard the reality that most businesses are designed to run at a profit; the rational middle concedes that point is not intended. I will, however, note that the above phrase is used by any group whose tax dollars are allocated to a purpose they can not or will not understand. Liberals against the military spending of the Reagan Administration who succeeded in driving home their point with Bill Clinton in office, and Conservatives in today's politics who look down their noses at stimulus and "green jobs" and yell that the "market" will fix everything both use the phrase as a punchline. Both groups are equally wrong, because both fail to truly look at the phrase for what it really means.

Here is my attempt to do just that...and I will look forward to commentary on how close to the mark you think this is.
  1. Businesses hate "transparency". It is a political "gotcha" phrase now, and most of us want to know where the money is going, but transparency is not available in powder form on the shelves of your local mega-mart. Transparency costs time and money in the form of administrative tasks that do not add value to the finished product. Ask a top manager at a publicly-traded firm about Sarbanes-Oxley (the accounting law passed in the wake of the Enron debacle) and they will tell you how much "transparency" costs. It is contradictory to demand that the stimulus bill be transparent, and then demand a rapid distribution of funds. Imagine a trip to the grocery store; now imagine your spouse and a manager having to go line by line over every item on the list and receipt as the clerk rings in your purchase.
  2. Businesses must invest in infrastructure, labor (training and benefits), and new or improved products. To get this investment, they can do one or more of the following; add new ownership, reinvest profits from the highest performers in their portfolio, or raise debt capital. Most of your favorite businesses, small and large, have grown and are continuing to grow by leveraging themselves. They get a small business loan, a short term loan to cover seasonal cash shortfalls, or issue bonds in order to operate. When you see a factory or other large facility built, it is almost certainly being financed by debt. Something like 15-20% of our annual (federal) budget goes to debt service. I would challenge all to look up the reports of your ten favorite companies and see how that compares; then look at your own spending. I have a hunch that most households spend twice that percentage on debt service.
  3. Businesses tend to be successful when they are led by a single unifying force. Whether that force is a strong management team or a motivated small business owner is not the question; the applicable phrase being "Too many chefs spoils the soup". We live in a participatory democracy, with many chefs, all theoretically of equal importance. Those that advocate that government be run like a business are well to remind themselves of Stalin and Hitler; capable management should not be the first or last thing scrutinized on a resume.

Being mindful of the budget, and selecting worthwhile projects that add value to the nation are excellent goals to have for those who are employed by, or vote in our government. We, as a nation, do have large scale needs that require the investment of tax dollars for our "business" to succeed in the future. The trick is in the balancing act; need versus expense, short term pressure versus long term growth. The market, when it is functioning well, regulates two things well; price and production level. The notion that it does anything else flies in the face of hard-earned experience. Unless you like the slaughterhouse upriver managing your fish population, or the big corporate group uptown running your police force, the rational middle believes that your stake in this very American style business we call government is something to be proud of.

Looking forward to your comments....

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Evil of Sotomayor

Bigot. Racist. Unqualified. Activist. Empathetic. Pure evil was about the only attack left unsaid.

There has been an avalanche of accusations and characterizations directed at Sonia Sotomayor since her appointment to the Supreme Court by President Obama. To the extent that Americans are touchy about the topic of law and the court system, the reaction is understandable. We love to hate lawyers in this country, and yet we do nothing to limit the amount or reach of the profession. We hate lawsuits until we perceive an opportunity to file one beneficial to us. We love the idea of justice, so long as it is favorable to whatever cause we favor. Contradiction breeds strife and raw nerves, and this confirmation battle is trampling on the raw nerves of people left, right, and center.

The rational middle wants to know; what are the facts behind this choice, and is there anything worrisome in her selection? I will go through the major points of contention and make a case for a more reasoned debate. I hope you will join me in this debate in the comments.
  1. Impartiality- "I would like to believe that a wise Latina....." We have all read this quote at some time in the last few months. As a white male, I admit to being struck by it when I first read the quote. The important question when reading or listening to the news nowadays is, "Is the quote paraphrased, is it representative of the speaker or writer who gave it voice, and what are the motivations of those who published it?" Yes, the quote is lifted out of context from a very long (and boring) speech given by the judge at Berkeley. In the 2 paragraph section that contained the quote, the judge was speaking about the fundamental weaknesses of humans and their capacity to fairly judge. She referenced what she would like to believe about herself, then went on to say that fundamental impartiality required that any judge attempt to daily set aside personal prejudice and assess the case on its merits. Please read the entire speech for clarification, and judge for yourself.
  2. Political Leanings- The American Bar Association has rated her as a legal neutral, meaning that she has been a down the middle judge over her very long career. Her judgements are, in fact, unexciting and (mostly) non-controversial. She has resisted the urge throughout her career to make sweeping judgements, and has established a record of methodical, case by case rulings. First nominated to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush, her most noteworthy ruling prior to the infamous fire fighter's case was when she ruled with the Bush Administration on an abortion case; an issue that has Pro-Choice people up in arms about her selection.
  3. Qualifications- Her academic record is exemplary, and typifies a fast-track lawyer's school career. Her professional career prior to being a judge is solid; a start prosecuting child-molesters in New York followed by a solid civil practise. She also has more experience on the federal bench than any appointee in recent memory. Her record as an appellate judge is still above the norm concerning the number of cases successfully appealed over her head (even after the New Haven case). I can see attacking an appointee on cases and personal comments, but the attempts by some conservative talking heads (namely Limbaugh and Hannity) to label Sotomayor as "incompetent" are just silly.
  4. Judicial Activism- A flashpoint issue for conservatives who are upset about gay rights and other social issues where judges and courts have overturned civil law passed by popular demand, "activist judge" is a label preselected by Obama opponents for any appointee. His suggestion that a judge needs compassion and understanding along with a grasp of the law was seized on as a shot fired in the culture war, and Judge Sotomayor has been caught in the crossfire. The irony here is the New Haven fire fighter's case. The city took the extraordinarily foolish step of throwing out test results because no African-Americans had passed the test for management. The first stage of the irony are the plaintiffs in the case: one of them was a Hispanic male. The contention then, is that Sotomayor is a reverse racist who ruled against...another Hispanic? The second stage involves the decision itself. The three judge panel was unanimous in ruling that the lower court had formulated a fair judgement; in essence, they refused to take the position of judicial activism. In the end, the more conservative Supreme Court played activist and ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and against the city. That most would agree with the decision is just off the point; we have not been talking about popularity but justice, and Sotomayor ruled with two other judges on the merits of a single case over personal feelings.

The record of this judge is a long one, and all of it is available on any number of websites in the public domain. The rational middle would hope that all would take the time to look at the record, listen to and read the full context of the judge's more controversial statements, and evaluate for themselves her place on or off the court. The basic plea of this post is; ignore that chattering class in the media and politics, and do the research yourself. Is she evil or just wrong for the job? Is she a hero or just the right selection for the post?

Looking forward to every one's thoughts.....

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Soulmates and Blue Dresses

Poor Mark Sanford. His soul mate is in Argentina, his life is in South Carolina, his career is in trouble, and his wife is incensed. All throughout the United States one question is being asked; "What was he thinking?"

Eleven years ago President Clinton found himself in the same, ahem, awkward position. In between there have been dozens of instances where representatives, senators, governors, and others have been forced into finding a way to "spin" their "indiscretions". For the rest of the world, the cheaters just have to fess up and duck. I hope we all can agree that this issue is bipartisan; when it comes to fooling around, neither party is better or worse than the other.

The parties do try to make these events into political hay, and occasionally they are successful. The fact of Al Gore's popular vote win in 2000 underscores that Monica Lewinsky and her dress might have been collaborators in Dick Cheney's rise to the co-presidency. Mark Foley's shenanigans were crucial in the landslide victory for the Democrats in the 2006 mid-term elections. These results show that most Americans care about the character of those they entrust with the keys to the democracy, but I wonder how much of our concern is just wishful thinking? Many popular presidents have turned out to have been scoundrels of one form or another, and some of our least favorite were (apparently) great guys.

The attention that politicians and their families are subject to, and the ridicule they receive when they put their name in the hat are at once intense and suspect. I will confess to looking on Governor Palin with derision and contempt, but have found myself questioning the notion that I could "hate" anyone that I hadn't had the chance to have coffee with. It seems to be our nature to label those in the public eye in the harshest terms, and hold them accountable to standards that most of us are unable to reach. The Kinsey report found that 50% of men, and over 25% of women would have an instance of sexual impropriety in their lives. On the surface it would seems that we the voter have allowed ourselves very little room for maneuver.

The rational middle believes that we are responsible for the failings of our elected officials, and that we should be accountable to ourselves. We complain that politicians lie, but we will not elect one that tells the truth. Campaigns are won by the candidate who tells the most convincing exaggerations of a possible truth. Freshman members of the House go to Washington and do what their whips tell them to do. Aaron Schock, the engaging first term Conservative who represents Peoria and surrounding areas, is as accomplished as they come. He was given three committee assignments and is, unusually, a deputy whip to Eric Cantor. The fact remains that he will vote as all freshman reps will; the way he is told to. It is simply the only way that one will be supported by the party (either party) the next go around. This fact is common knowledge to any that payed attention in U.S. Government class, and yet we will not elect someone who makes that point in their campaign. Representatives tell their perspective constituents that they will go to Washington and fight for them; a candidate who would stand and say; "Here are my principals, but I will not be able to exercise them until you have elected me at least twice." will not go very far.

Members of the House represent 100's of thousands of people, senators millions, and the President over 300 million. All of those folks have differing viewpoints across a range of issues, and the majority are willing to exercise their right to be angry when the politician in question does not embody their (emphasis on the individual) view completely. On top of these political considerations, these elected officials must deal with a society that believes that they have a right to know exactly what is going on in the lives of their politicians and their families. Can you imagine that level of scrutiny applied to your life and family?

These people who we, sometimes derisively, call politicians, believed at some point in the importance of the participatory democracy. Most of them, be they Republican, Democrat, or Independent are in this because they care about their country. A few bad apples can't spoil the bunch if we don't let them. The "Sanford Affair" is not a headline, it is a painful family matter. It is no more correct that we dwell on that, than it was proper to impeach a President for his version of the act. I am not writing this to put my long held belief on paper, but rather to turn over a new leaf on this day of celebration for our country.

I am still no fan of Governor Palin, and I don't care for her politics; but if she is ever in town I will offer to buy her a cup of coffee. I will talk to her about the weather and the crops. I will ask her of her family, and share pictures of mine. I will look forward to a sharing of disagreements in an agreeable manner; and I will treat her like a human being.

The rational middle wishes you all a safe and happy Fourth of July!