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On a Future State: Video Essay for June 29, 2013

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On the Ship of State: Essay for August 18, 2012

Who doesn’t go on vacation with an anticipation of blissfully hiding from the headlines for a week or so? And so it was my expectation as we headed out on a Saturday morning that the next newspaper I held in my hands would be to light a fire on the beach. Only on that particular Saturday Paul Ryan was picked to be Mitt Romney’s Vice Presidential running mate. It has been difficult to hide my head in the sand this week but I have tried to go “pundit-less” so that I could accurately capture my thoughts about the selection of Paul Ryan.

I am excited by this pick for a number of reasons. It has excited Mitt Romney. He seems a bit like the boy who is so excited about tomorrow that he can’t go to sleep. There is an excitement in the ranks of Republicans, too, as the Romney campaign appears to have picked up a conservative philosophical tone. Finally, there is both trepidation and exhilaration on the part of the Democrats that describes their uncertainty over the selection of Ryan as a conservative architect of the Republican budget. Some can’t wait to sink their teeth into him and others are shrinking from the inevitable debate with Joe Biden. You think the Olympics were a highly watched event? Wait till the hype for this: “Biden-Ryan in Kentucky: Dropping the Anvil in Danville.”

There has been so much ideological debate this campaign season about who is the purest of the pure when it comes to conservatism. Could any candidate survive that dissection and also win a nomination? No candidate with a voting record could demonstrate that purity without contradiction. Stalwart that he is portrayed to be, even Paul Ryan would fail to turn the litmus paper red every time.

When last I looked there were over four hundred 2012 Presidential hopefuls registered with the Federal Elections Commission. Collectively we have had exposure to only a dozen or two. We never came to know very many and I am certain there were fine people among them with great plans but no traction. So now it has come down to these two Republicans, Romney and Ryan, to be pitted against the incumbent Democrats President Obama and Vice President Biden.

It is a mega-match up. Given the woodpile of Presidential timber from which to choose, this is the best set piece of an ideological battle for which we could hope. On one hand, the Obama-Biden ticket promises more of the same wealth redistribution approach to government. Steady as she goes. Without a course, any wind will take you there.

The Romney-Ryan ticket promises something else. We know the mantra: smaller, less intrusive government with fiscal responsibility. The ticket promises us a better economic plan to get us back on track but it has to be so much more than that. It must truly begin to reflect the nature of the conservative/tea party rebellion that we have witnessed for the last three years. Without it, the economy will falter and we will be pointing fingers at Party Politics, the Political Class and the Establishment as the usual suspects.

Picture the Ship of State as an aircraft carrier. It is a mighty and powerful behemoth with tremendous momentum. If the Captain wants to stop the ship he can call all engines full astern. Nothing will happen for a painfully long time. But the Captain will anticipate that and have faith that physics will prevail and the intended consequence will ensue. In the meantime it is all about the leadership to set the stage for patience for the physics take hold. That same Captain could stop the ship with more rapid effect by running aground but with deleterious consequences. Speed of execution is less important than certainty of outcome.

Extreme times call for extreme measures and require extreme explanations and consensus building. Not the kind of consensus that delivers merely the lowest common denominator but the consensus that results from an intelligent conversation, with urgency, which improves the decision because people share the vision of what is possible. This will require communication above and around and through Congress directly to the American people who have so much at stake.

And make no mistake about it, true reform in Congress is going to be extremely difficult. No one has been successful in nearly 20 years and the stakes have changed remarkably. Every President gets one good shot at making their mark, of navigating their way to a destination. Course and speed affected by tide, set and weather. This is a true crossroads in American history and the Romney-Ryan ticket must have the guts to see it through.

This is where Paul Ryan can use his Roadmap for America to best advantage. Of the 435 members of the House, who had a better articulated vision for the sustainable future of America than he? Yet I don’t suppose even he thought that his proposal would sail through without debate and amendment. What he started two years ago was a dialogue, perhaps a monologue, with the American people. It was they who began to see the intelligence of looking under every rock and having a plan to do something about the consequences of the fiscal realities that were staring us in the face if we would only open our eyes.

So I am quite happy that this battle is drawn. I am pleased that there are two distinct options this November. The course to port leads us closer to rocks and shoals with no means of egress. The path to starboard, even if it is not hard right, offers us hope to lead us out to deeper waters to allow us to have grown up conversations about our great republic.

The choice is less about Republican versus Democrat or right versus left. It is about leading America in ways it wishes to be led and knowing how to execute a vision. The time between now and November must be used for building the vision in real terms so that Americans will look forward to the journey. No more hope and change on either side, please, just the facts.

Captain, let’s turn this ship of state around. “Helmsman, come starboard to course 180 degrees!”

Press on.

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On Turning Points: Essay for June 10, 2012

Great moments in history are most often noted in retrospect. We often do not see the significance of any one action, however large, in its proper perspective without the benefit of time. In politics a day can be can be can lifetime, a week an eternity. What a week it has been. The question I pose is this: Has the week of June 4th been the Waterloo for President Obama and his chances for reelection in November?

I know it is early and so much more can happen but it appears as though the wheels are coming off the wagon for the President. Here are just a few of the leading indicators of despair for him.

First and foremost, Scott Walker not only survived the recall election in Wisconsin, he thrived. It is a clear repudiation of organized public sector labor union thuggery. It also exposed a rift between the private and public sector union rank and file. It is quite a luxury that the public sector unions view municipal budgets as blank checks for their incessant demands while their brothers in the private sector are dependent upon the continued vibrancy of the private companies for whom they work.

But wait, there’s more. Bill Clinton, the Godfather of the Democrats, praised Mitt Romney for his tenure at Bain Capital. He said he did a great job. Of course he had to amend his statements later on but the horse was out of the barn. The jury shall disregard the remarks, as they say. Besides, he later went on to say that median income was down since his administration, an off-handed reminder that the Bush-era tax cuts should remain in effect lest we crush the 98%. The Obama big-bad-businessman reelection narrative was destroyed.

Next, Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, indicated that the Bush-era tax cuts should stay in place lest the economy fall off a cliff, raising the unemployment rate, curtailing consumer spending and bringing on another recession. There goes the Presidents’ “tax the rich” narrative.

Then the employment figures of May were released. A mere 69,000 people got work, tens of thousands more stopped looking for work, and the previous two months of employment statistics, already poor, were revised downward. That shoots the Forward narrative right in the foot.

Finally, reports surfaced in a new book that David Axelrod, campaign strategist to the President, got into fisticuffs with Attorney General Eric Holder over politicization of the Justice Department. Maybe that actually reinforces the “Team of Rivals” concept for the President’s cabinet.
And there is so much more. Did anyone mention that the Supreme Court decision on the Constitutionality of Obamacare should be out before the end of the month? A repudiation of the mandate would reinforce the Mitt Romney narrative that Obama fiddled with his pet project of dubious value while the economy was ignored.

Add to this some polling from Rasmussen that indicates a record number of Americans favor one-party rule in Washington and you have enough elements of a turning point week in the “Run for the White House” that favors the challenger, Mitt Romney. How unlikely did this seem only 2 months ago while the Republican primaries were in full swing and the candidates were talking trash about each other. Quick, name me five other candidates for the nomination. Bet you it took a few seconds. Now, there are reports that liberals will refrain from grassroots support and donating money. They may even stay away from the polls in November. Imagine that.

The battle lines are drawn very clearly. President Obama is pleasing nobody these days. It is a self-inflicted wound for whom he can only blame himself. People on both sides of the aisle are disappointed. The further from the center one gets, right or left, the more the disappointment grows. To the Right, Obama is too much a Marxist-Leninist and should be removed from office because he is not what he purported to be. To the Left, Obama is too little of a Marxist-Leninist and should be removed from office because he is not what he purported to be. It makes you want to scratch your head but I would be pleased with the outcome following each extreme.

In July 1863, General Meade and the Union Army of the Potomac defeated General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg. Today it is clearly perceived as the turning point of the Civil War. It was not as clear at the time. The war continued for nearly two more years at great loss of American treasure. As Kierkegaard once said, “Life must be lived forwards; but it can only be understood backwards.”
In a real sense, the turning point that may have just occurred is larger than the contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney itself. Evidence is coming in that suggests that so much more is at stake than electoral victory. At stake is world leadership in the 21st century. Are the best days for America behind her or still yet to come? We will find out in November.

Press on.

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On Political Crosshairs and the Massachusetts 4th: Video Essay for April 20, 2012

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On Political Crosshairs and the Massachusetts 4th: Essay for April 20, 2012

Politics cuts a wide swath across America yet there is a confluence of news items this past week that landed squarely in our backyard here in Massachusetts. There is a trio of happenings and utterances that would otherwise come as no surprise were it not for the local connection of the people who uttered them.

Here is the first revelation: Obamacare was a mistake. Congressman Barney Frank said so. He said, “I think we paid a terrible price for health care. I would not have pushed it as hard. As a matter of fact, after Scott Brown won, I suggested going back.” Mr. Frank counseled the President on pressing forward without a mandate and the risk of alienation of a country that was, and remains, intensely skeptical of a widespread reform. Of course, that did not stop him from voting the party line in lockstep with then Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation. Instead, Obamacare narrowly passed the House and technically passed the Senate. The newly minted 41st Republican Senator Scott Brown never cast a vote in the intense debate. His sword was never unsheathed.

Here is revelation number two. Enter former Congressman Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island. He now heads up a non-profit group that had sought Administration support. He wanted to ensure access to the White House. Funny, a Kennedy wanted to buy his way into the White House. Patrick Kennedy plunked down a maximum donation of $35,800 with apparent gladness. He said that this is the way the system works. Quoting Kennedy, “If you want to call it ‘quid pro quo,’ fine,” he said. “At the end of the day, I want to make sure I do my part.”
Do my part? To what end? Should public policy be left in the hands of well healed donors, only? Patrick Kennedy seems to think so. It is part of the process that guarantees access to decision makers and thought leaders. Money talks, nobody walks.

This brings us to the third revelation. Isn’t it interesting that 31 year old Joseph P. Kennedy III is running for the seat vacated by Barney Frank in the newly redrawn Massachusetts 4th Congressional District? He seems like a nice enough person: a couple of college degrees; a stint in the Dominican Republic as the only Peace Corps volunteer from the Kennedy family; and a few years experience as an Assistant District Attorney. He has not a lick of business experience. He is, at best, a lawyer.

But that has not stopped him from raising more money than any sitting member of the Massachusetts delegation by a factor of almost 3 to 1. He has raised $1.3 million dollars. About 20% came from PACs eager to ride that bandwagon once again. So eager was the AFL-CIO that he received their endorsement before he announced his candidacy!

So what does that money buy? What are donors expecting from young Joe Kennedy? Access.

What I want from my Congressman is empathy, understanding and action. So far, Joe Kennedy is failing in each area. He recently visited a diner that I frequent and asked the right question of the proprietor: How’s business? When he heard the truth about the state of small business in this Commonwealth, his jaw dropped.
Said the proprietor: “The federal government is in one pocket, the state government is in the other. When I put my hand into my own pockets, there is nothing left. All you guys want to do is take out more. It’s not there. I can’t give what I don’t have.” Joe the 3rd had no answers. He had not even a retort.

Like every small business owner I know, this one pays himself last and he hasn’t paid himself in a long, long time. Even if he were so inclined, he could not even conceive of making a political contribution to gain access to the House of Representatives no less the White House. This notion of quid pro quo that Joe Kennedy’s uncle praises falls upon deaf ears for this small business owner.

Small business is barely holding on in this country. Shops that depend upon discretionary income are folding their tents. Three quarters don’t need new employees as sales won’t justify the costs. Two thirds are worried about the state of the economy. Half worry about cash flows and their ability to make payroll. Half worry about the cost of healthcare and new government regulation. A quarter are worried about remaining in business for the next 12 months.

Economic growth is the surest way out of this calamity but we must also seek systemic and permanent cuts in taxes and fees that serve only to redistribute wealth. If our goal is to provide for the neediest in this country let’s do that. But do not make those who take the big chances and risk it all become poor in the pursuit of a utopian dream of equal outcomes for all.

This November, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney will top the ballot in what is shaping up to be a very close election. The most hotly contested Senate race is Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown versus Elizabeth Warren. Barney Frank is hoping to bequeath his seat to a member of the Kennedy dynasty who has not yet earned his stripes in life.

This will be the most interesting place to be in the country on November 6th.

Press on.

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On Taxation and Entitlements: Essay for March 17, 2012

Two articles of interest hit the New York Times this week that each of us should read. “A Nation of Too Many Tax Breaks,” by Eduardo Porter, graced the front page of the Business Section. It chronicled the seeming disparity between the collection of taxes and the distribution of tax breaks in America by quintile. The second was an essay by Thomas Friedman describing the state of American capitalism in the 21st century. They both deserve some air time.

Any analysis only provides a tiny glimpse of the complexities of the problem statement: Is taxation and redistribution of wealth in America a fair deal? First off, there is nothing simple about the distribution of government spending or about the manner in which such funds are generated through taxation. Neither is there anything fair about how it is done. Both policies reflect a complex series of compromises and programs designed to aid one sector of the population at the expense of another. Those policies cut both ways. Over time, the original intent of such policies become muddy indeed, yet we are saddled with their consequences seemingly forever.

Take the Porter article for starters. Said Porter, “Taxpayers in the top fifth of the population shoulder three quarters of the Federal tax burden and receive only 10 percent of the entitlement spending…[while] Families in the bottom 40 percent of income distribution pay about 1 percent of taxes and receive about 60 percent of entitlements.” He goes on to point out that on the tax break side, the upper quintile receives more tax breaks on an average of $214,000 in income than those in the lower quintile receive on $8400. No kidding.

This dichotomy would appear to emanate from the lower tax rates on capital gains and dividends, benefits associated with those who have investment income. They naturally reside in the upper income brackets, thus skewing any inequity conclusions that Porter asserts. The obvious conclusion one takes from this so-called analysis is that there is a disparity that can be reconciled by eliminating tax breaks for the wealthiest of Americans in the form of increasing taxes on capital gains and dividends. This timeworn and threadbare argument always suggests that the wealthy in America were all born with silver spoons in their mouths; that nobody actually worked to earn their wealth; or that they came by it unscrupulously. It is not true. Most wealthy Americans earned their money. And any distinction hardly matters.

Enter Tom Friedman. He is definitely a thinking man’s columnist. I don’t often agree with his conclusions but his presentation of fact is usually compelling. He’s the kind of man with whom I’d like to have a cup of coffee. Freidman sees, as do I, the necessity of a balance between the actions of public and private America. A country where the excesses of unchecked capitalism cannot stifle an economy and the excesses of government regulation does not strangle the private sector. It is more than that, he argues. He speaks of striking grand bargains between competing interests. Perhaps it is one like that nearly struck between President Obama and Speaker Boehner last summer.

There are many such bargains to be struck that involve repairing a crumbling infrastructure increasingly incapable of moving goods to market; invigorating an educational system that has become the most expensive in the world but is producing only mediocre results; that addresses the growing gap between the needs of the youngest against the needs of the oldest in our society.

Most importantly, the Federal budget deficit must be closed. And it must be done without smoke and mirrors and without demonization of the advocates on the revenue side and on the spending side. The truth is that the tax system is severely broken. Spending must be decreased through Mr. Freidman’s grand bargains and revenues must be adjusted through tax reform. Corporations do not need the special treatments the currently receive. They are quite capable, or should be quite capable, of competing on their own. If they are not, they should be left to mercy of market forces.

Capitalism was not invented in America but it reached pinnacles of greatness in the 20th century, a greatness that has lost some luster as we claw through this 21st century. Our objective in this political debate in 2012 should not be to paint either side as evil, unless they really deserve it. I am willing to recognize that eliminating a special tax break for a privileged constituency might actually result in them paying more taxes. Now that is what I call fair.

Let the spending cuts begin.

Press on.

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On the New ‘Okies: Essay for February 18, 2012

In a very visceral manner, there is something deeply troubling to me about the country these days. The dismal economy is taking a toll on Americans in a way unseen since perhaps the days of the Dustbowl. I recently flipped through John Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.” Is it me or is there a resurgence of Okies in America? Far too many people remain out of work. Far too many people fear for their jobs. Far too many people have lost hope and lost confidence. They no longer can look in a mirror without questioning the meaning of their entire lives. They sense judgment in other people’s eyes as they are forced to swallow their pride and put out their hand. First it is from their friends, then their community and finally, their government. In the words of John Steinbeck, “Okie means you’re scum. Don’t mean nothing itself, it’s the way they say it.”

A recent front-page story in the New York Times recounted tales of once proud conservative Americans in Minnesota. They were the type who never would support taking entitlements. They do now. The affect such charity on their souls is palpable. These are the same sort of Midwesterners of which Steinbeck wrote. They were guilt ridden and unsure if they would ever get off the dole. They qualify for Earned Income Tax Credits. Their pride is crushed as they accept school lunches for their children. Said the Times article, “…they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it.”

Some might call these entitlements a gravy train. In many cases, that is true. In the very same article a man described people who paid for their $400 tattoos with government disability checks. Ironically, the sister of that very tattoo artist was receiving disability payments and living in an assisted living facility.

Governor Romney had to remove his foot from his mouth when he said that he did not worry about the poor in America because they had an effective safety net. Crude as the remark sounded; there is a good deal of truth in that statement. There are many comprehensive programs to deal with the poorest among us. Here is the interesting fact, however: the poorest in America, the lower quintile, are receiving a far smaller share of entitlement spending than they did in 1980 when they received more than one half of entitlement spending. It is down to about one third. The middle quintile, those proud members of blue collar America, has actually seen their share grow by fifty percent.

What that tells me is that the poor remain so but are being joined by middle class families sliding down the scale to meet them in despair.

Ironically, statistics show that support for conservative Republican runs higher in States where government benefits outweigh taxes. The opposite also runs true. Liberal Democrats are favored where the outflow of taxes exceeds payout. Nobody can fully explain this phenomenon. What is clear, however, is that the majority of people who are forced to accept these payments would rather be working for what they need rather than extending their hand for a government check. They recognize the paradox of taking for themselves today while burdening their children with debt.

This brings us back to the subject of many of our conversations over the past year. The economy, job growth and the role that the Federal government can or should play in creating an environment that supports growth. Whether one loves or hates the corporation, business will drive growth for its own survival. It will do so wherever the environment for that growth is fertile.

The government cannot stop business from trying to remain in business. Government must lead, follow or get out of the way. While small business is the “canary in the cave,” so to speak, large business is the tail that wags the dog of small business. They control the vast majority of manufacturing jobs in America and drive small businesses to produce. They have the capacity, given the proper incentive, for determining the fate of those remaining jobs and the fate of those offshored already. Some indicators are leaning towards relocating some more highly technical manufacturing out of China. Given a proper environment many of them can come back to the United States.

Lack of talent in the American workforce will prove to be our Achilles Heel if we do not start getting the right people into technical pipelines. There is a group of manufacturers in Massachusetts who are taking matters into their own hands. They are Manufacturing Vigilantes. They see their future vitality directly connected to a steady influx of machinists, tool and die makers, CAD programmers and technicians. The vocational schools have not been successful in promoting manufacturing careers. These careers have an average pay in Massachusetts of $1500 -$2500 per week. That is a nice piece of change. These businesses have realized that they cannot afford to wait for government to solve their problems so they are willing to go it alone.

Nationwide, there are 600,000 open positions in manufacturing. Last count, some 19 million people are under or unemployed. The multiplier effect of filling those jobs would be to create perhaps additional 2 million more. In short order, there will be a steady influx of veterans either returning home from war or being involuntarily discharged under new budget guidance. This fresh crop of dedicated and intelligent people should be the ones targeted for placement in our manufacturing positions.

The New ‘Okies are everywhere. The economic dustbowl is very real. It is forcing contrarian behavior in our middle class ethos.

Steinbeck also said, “I know this… a man got to do what he got to do.”

Press on.

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