Archive for January, 2010

The “B” Side

January 7, 2010

Politicians have realized for decades the same thing that capitalists knew decades before that. In order to sell a product – or a politician – you need to create a bite-sized marketing message. For every marketing message there is a “B” side. It is a consequence of the message that was unintended or ignored for its unrelenting realness. It’s why McDonald’s hamburgers never look like the picture and why politicians rarely live up to their image.

For those readers born after 1975, single songs were sold on a 45-RPM record. The “A” side was the song that you heard on the radio wanted to buy. The “B” side was the other song you got when you bought the “A” side song – whether you wanted it or not.

Less Taxes

We all want less taxes. It would be helpful to be able to keep more of the money that we earn. Unfortunately, the reality is that taxes are what is used to fund our infrastructure. Those police officers and fireman that we all want available for us are funded by taxes. So is the military, social entitlement programs, road construction and a lot of ineffective bureaucracies.

If we want less taxes, we should have less spending. When a politician promises to lower taxes, ask them what they are going to cut – specifically what they are going to cut. Otherwise, we can’t have another thing we want – balanced budget.

Balanced Budget

It’s been a long time since we have seen a balanced federal budget. If we want to realize that goal, we need to raise taxes, spend less or both. (See above). It was a sad precedent that George H.W. Bush got politically penalized for raising taxes to be more fiscally responsible (Remember “Read my lips. No new taxes?”) We saw the alternative when his less pragmatic son lowered taxes, but didn’t understand that it should be accompanied by vetoing a spending bill or two along the way.

When (or perhaps if) we ever see an opportunity for a balanced budget, maybe we should pay down the debt or – gasp – create a surplus so we don’t have to deficit spend. Could you imagine the political furor of not giving back excess revue to the taxpayers? We know all-too-well know that good times are always sandwiched between bad times. Retaining excess revenue during good times is part of a strategy toward a balanced budget.

As much as I dislike deficit spending, a federal balanced budget law would hamstring fiscal policy during the bad times. History suggests that deficit spending during deep recessions are necessary. If you don’t believe me, research what happened in 1937.

An obvious consequence of balancing the budget is to look where we are spending the most money. That’s what capitalists do when they have revenue problems. Guess what, folks. That means we have to look at cuts in defense spending along with the other programs that are cited more often as the cause of excess spending.

Social Safety Net

I think all but the most insensitive people realize the value of a social safety net. However, we all know those who use the social safety net as a hammock. I think the Ted Kennedy-style liberals ignore the scope to which people figured out how to game the system.

While the vast majority of American begrudge multi-generational welfare families as a lifestyle, those entitlement programs also help those with physical or mental limitations. Cutting entitlements for adults mean that the children of those people suffer as well. It’s clear that conservatives had a problem with that part of the ideology and coined the “compassionate conservative” marketing message, although that failed to get much traction.

Smaller Government

This always sounds good, but it’s really quite esoteric. For conservatives, I think this is code for cutting spending on social entitlement programs. That has consequences, too. (See above).

For those with a libertarian streak, like myself, it means fewer laws that infringe on my personal decisions. For example, smaller government to me means getting rid of seatbelt laws and motorcycle helmet laws (although I always wear both) and especially drug laws (although I’ve never done an illegal drug in my life) and staying out of issues around reproductive rights.

Nanny State

Although the libertarian in me doesn’t like those seat belt and helmet laws, there is a social cost to not having them. Additional medical costs, and the social costs to families caused by accidental death are real.  I have to admit that.

Our current dysfunctional drug policy is an attempt at imposing legal consequences on what we do to ourselves. Again, there is a social cost to families as a result of excessive drug (or legal alcohol) use. There was a time with fewer drug laws and we saw the carnage of opium dens. We see that same problem today with meth addiction. The current policies add to the social problems by criminalizing even non-problematic drug-use behavior.

This is one of those issues were there are negatives on both side of the coin. This is where thoughtful political discourse can determine a worthwhile course of action. Unfortunately, that is quite rare right now.

Tough on Crime

It should be obvious that we want to reduce crime against our person and our property. Determining effective policy is much tougher. Being tough on crime means creating laws that create more criminals. Many of those criminals – like recreational drug users – aren’t really criminals, unless you ask the most extreme nutcases like Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County. I saw an interview with him and he stated that anyone that smokes marijuana should be in jail. Anecdotal evidence suggests that we would have to build a lot more jails.

It means we have “three strikes” laws where people are incarcerated for the minor “third strike” to a degree that is a stunning failure of the Constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. When the pundits advocate tough-on-crime legislation, ask about those consequences.

Political Correctness

Some liberals have taken the notion of political correctness to an extreme. It is as though they feel that it should be illegal to hurt someone’s feelings. The most evil manifestation of this is the convergence of the political correctness from the left and the zero-tolerance from the right derived from being tough-on-everything.

Zero-tolerance means high school kids get kicked out of school for having cap guns in their locker or simply smelling like marijuana. Zero-tolerance means that judges can no longer judge and school bureaucrats don’t have to think about individuals and context.

So What Can We Learn?

What it all means is that these marketing messages are for getting elected and not for governance or a basis for policy. Governance is difficult and requires that people are insightful enough to understand the consequences of policies. As the commentary above reveals, these policy issues are complex and intertwined.

I have been baffled by the whole “teabagger” movement. It isn’t conventionally conservative or libertarian, although there were some of that in the mix. Some small part (in my estimation, anyway) is simply racism. It dawned on me that perhaps the teabaggers are a loose confederation of people who can’t differentiate between political marketing messages and real policies. They are people disenfranchised with the complexity of reality.

If we want to solve the very real issues of our day and position our country for what lies ahead, we need to seek out and be honest about the “B” side of the marketing message.


The System That Fails

January 3, 2010

David Brooks wrote an intelligent, thought-provoking article in the New York Times a couple of days ago [1] entitled “The God That Fails“. It’s a pleasure to read such articles from political conservatives, in contrast to the largely incoherent and inconsistent rantings from the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. The Brooks article was a reflection on the recent terrorist attempt on the plane bound for Detroit.

One key point of the article is that regardless of the measures that we put in place, there will be circumstances at which they fail. In his words, “Human institutions are always going to miss crucial clues because the information in the universe is infinite and events do not conform to algorithmic regularity.” I agree with that. He also goes on to state that much of the criticism of the Obama Administration “has been contemptuous and hysterical.” I agree with that and his assertion that calls for the resignation of the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security won’t fix the problem. We are going to have incidents regardless of the political party controlling the White House or Congress.

Much of the current security is simply theatre and does nothing to enhance security in any meaningful way. We should, as Brooks asserts, be mature enough to hear the truth – that terrorists are going to get through sometimes. He castigates us for not being a mature nation and criticizes Obama specifically for stating “I consider that [intelligence failure] totally unacceptable.” Brooks asserts that the Obama statement is a reflection of a nanny state that has emerged in the last half-century.

There are two reasons why Obama made that statement and neither is a nanny-state syndrome. The first is political. If Obama would state that some terrorists are going to get through, he would be fodder for conservative pundits. You can see it now – “Obama admits that their approach to counter-terrorism failed.” Sadly, political pressures prevents complete candor, especially at the current level of political polarization.

The second and more salient reason Obama stated that is because it actually is unacceptable. I recently completed a project for the Department of Defense that was specifically assessing the cultural and technological reasons why there are intelligence failures in connecting the dots. I can tell you from that experience, there are things that can be done better.

Brooks postulates that “Many people seem to be in the middle of a religious crisis of faith. All the gods they believe in — technology, technocracy, centralized government control — have failed them in this instance.” He lost me there. I can’t tell if “many people” are the bureaucrats or the electorate, but I suspect this leap was to reinforce his notion that centralized government control is wrong-headed.

To those who implement it and use it, technology is a tool, not a “god” in which we have faith. This issue has nothing to do with centralized government control, either. In fact, the technological part of our recommendation to the Department of Defense was to use technology that enables decentralized management of intelligence information, while still being able to interoperate among agencies – possibly down to local law enforcement – in order to connect the dots. The facts of my experience just don’t support his assertions.

Brooks did make some good points, however.  He almost lost me out of the gate with his revisionist history that “the Federal Reserve and the Congress exacerbated the Great Depression“, but he recovered in his realization of the need to view the threat of terrorism in a realistic and mature way. When he tries to morph that notion into the conservative memes of the nanny-state, or the failure of centralized government, he fails to make a solid case.


The Non-Obama (Part 2)

January 1, 2010

Campaigns are all about creating a marketing message. It’s rare that the application of the marketing message is effective for governance. While Obama has been exceptionally consistent with his tangible campaign promises, the marketing message of hope and change has yet to be fulfilled in the minds of many. If any mistake was made on Obama’s part, it was a lack of tempering those unrealistic expectations. The recent editorial that I picked up from a friend on Facebook is a rather nutty example [1] of comparing the fictional Jesus Christ to the fictional Obama.

Many on the left apparently hoped for a far-left-of-center President that would take the same political approach of the previous administration in driving ideological goals into law. Bill Maher has expressed this point-of-view with a vengeance [2]. Lasting change is accomplished through moderation and patience. Bill seems to be lacking in this regard, but the president is not.

As a case in point, Dan Savage, a blogger [3] and gay rights activist, is a harsh critic of what he views as betrayal by the Administration for not being more activist on gay rights issues. Obama has not overturned the flawed Clinton Administration policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, but we are in the midst of two wars. Being an effective citizen-commander includes not alienating those who are necessary to accomplish our wartime goals. The time isn’t right. Instead Obama signaled in an October 2009 speech that the policy would end. He took a shot over the bow of those bigots who want to discriminate against gays, but fell short – apparently – of the desires of those in the midst of this social discrimination. Patience and pragmatism are always at odds with ideology.

Those on the far left would like to see healthcare to be the domain of the government. The medical system afforded to those in the military is truly socialized healthcare. Those administering care are employees of the government. Those left-of-center would like to see – not socialized medicine or even socialized insurance – but government competition in a capitalist marketplace in the field of healthcare. That notion has been dubbed the “public option.” Obama advocated for that, and I concur that competition in the form of the public option is a worthy government policy. Those on the left see the current state of healthcare reform legislation as a failure of the Obama Administration. Like so many things in politics, it was not what I hoped for, but the left needs to understand that progress short of a goal is not failure.

Obama has taken a hit in the polls, much of it from those considerably to the left of my political views. Passion for a general ideology or a single issue is at odds with effective governance. Lasting change comes slowly and incrementally (which I think was the original definition of political conservatism). Those ideologues on the left need to temper their passion with an appreciation for the patience and pragmatism that is the key to effective governance.