Friday, October 31, 2014

New York And North Korea

Today's scary news had nothing to do with it being Halloween.  It came out today that a letter was sent to one million citizens who are registered Democrats in the state of New York.  I won't quote the whole thing, but the message was rather explicit: We know who you are, and while we can't determine for whom you voted [the letter actually said "for who"], it is a matter of public record if you voted; if it turns out that you didn't vote on November 4th, we're going to come after you and ask you why not.

I saw a report on this early this morning while on the old exercise bike.  My mind wandered to asking myself what I would have done had I lived in New York and received that letter, and I didn't like the track the wandering mind took.

I don't know if the letter was illegal, or just unethical, but we have reams of Federal election law, and I thought that if I lived in New York and received it, I would at least report it to some investigative authority to put it in their hands.  Then, for the first time in my life, I thought negatively of a Federal law enforcement capability.  "Sure", I thought; "I would probably have turned it over to the FBI."

The FBI, boys and girls.  The FBI of Eric Holder's Justice Department, which has been so frighteningly politicized that it critiques the performance of local policemen trying to arrest a convenience-store robber and sends representatives to the thief's funeral.  It's the same Justice Department that is staying as far away from the IRS scandal as it possibly can, despite the fact that IRS officials appear to have conspired in such a way as to influence the 2012 election.

I imagine that if I supplied the letter to the FBI, some Special Agent would diligently begin to look into evidence of wrongdoing and illegality, dedicated men and women that they are.  Shortly thereafter, some senior official would politely tap the agent on the shoulder and suggest that she spend her time on a different case.

OK, that's a strawman, and I usually hate strawmen.  But the point of it all is that there are certain egregious offenses which we can no longer expect Federal law enforcement to investigate, if there is a chance of potential embarrassment to the president, the executive branch, or any Democrat or left-leaning organization.  And that, friends, is scary.

All of a sudden I realized that Federal law enforcement was not 100% devoted to ethical pursuit of their mission, and that at some point I could be in the position of relying on them in vain.  It occurred to me that for all my life I have been comforted by the knowledge that, along with the brave armed forces defending our shores, Federal law enforcement was here defending our rights.  No longer, though, is that a given.

I really don't care about the letter itself; it's probably perfectly legal.  It is what it made me realize that was frightening.  And I thought, well, this is what they must feel like in dictatorships like North Korea, where there is no recourse for indignities because, well, the state is the one causing them.  But this is America, where not only do we not expect indignities from the state, we expect the state will leap to the protection of its citizens from them.

Not with this FBI.  A nice scary thought for this Halloween.

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Surface Tension

More frequently than one could wish, the Microsoft Corporation has been putting on TV a spot advertising its new version of the Surface tablet computer, which is, of course, a competitor to the Apple MacBook, iPad and whatever else is out there.  I'd love to be able to tell you more about the Surface's great qualities, aroma, taste and whatever else I could, save for one little problem.

I can't tell from the ad.

There is a picture of the Surface along with a MacBook, and then a few facts about each start appearing as graphics.  Of course, by that time, they have started running some kind of electronic sound effects in the background, at which point, three seconds into the ad, I simply turn back to my 2048 game or whatever I can see that is in my native language (the sound effects are, hopefully, not) and wait for something comprehensible to reappear on the TV screen.

I could, I suppose, reasonably be interested in one of those tablet computers.   So I suppose you could categorize me as one of those who are Sufficiently Turned Off By The Ad To Lose Interest In The Product.  I'm not going to buy one anytime soon, but the ad has thoroughly convinced me to look elsewhere.  Since I apparently don't get why I have to listen to bizarre electronic sounds in order to find out that the Surface has more gigapixels than the MacBook has RAMs in it, I clearly am not the target audience, and assume the product wasn't designed for my needs.

Aside: for the purposes of this entry, I did actually try to find out what the electronic sound effects were, on the off-chance that those rascally 20-year-old scamps the product was designed for would recognize them and buy.  Sure enough, they weren't sound effects at all, but a "song" called "I Am the Best" by some group of apparently Korean sound-makers.  I would infer that the point of all that sound was that the target audience would know that already, and relate the Surface to being "the best."  Once again, I was detached from the target audience and assume myself to be not a candidate to buy the product in the eyes of Microsoft.

Surely I would not pretend to tell Madison Avenue how to advertise the products it is hired to promote and drive us to buy.  I certainly trust that the gazillions of Bill Gates's dollars that went into the ad were wisely spent, according to the laws of advertising and the collective wisdom of the ad biz community, and lots and lots of Surfaces will be purchased, really soon now.

But I won't be among those buying one of them.  I took the message of the ad to be that there is indeed a target buyer group for whom the product was designed, and I am not one of them.

I get that TV ads perpetually advertise things that a large percentage of the viewing community would never buy.  As a guy, I don't use or buy lipstick, for example, so I don't feel put upon when I see a lipstick commercial; I just take it as a matter of course that it is for a different segment of the viewing audience.

But I really am a potential customer of the Surface.  So when the commercial for a product I could have been persuaded to buy tells me that I'm not whom they're interested in -- and with those execrable sounds, they surely have -- you have to ask yourself if maybe Mr. Gates's gazillions could have been spent in a slightly more appealing way.

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Trickling Up

We are in a three-day news cycle regarding the odd comments from Hillary Clinton at a fund-raiser in Massachusetts.  While the media are scrambling to decide whether she had or had not restated the fairly embarrassing Barack Obama "You didn't build that" line, there's another issue here, and that is rewriting history, which is a cardinal sin.

“Don’t let anybody tell you", she said, ". . . that, you know, it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs. You know that old theory, trickle-down economics. That has been tried. That has failed. It has failed rather spectacularly.” 

Ummm, really?  I suppose that, in the view of liberals, anything promoted by conservatives that actually works is a failure in their eyes, but we need a more rational appraisal.  That first takes a definition of the action, and then an actual metric for success.  I would like to think that we could generally agree on those, but they're worth restating.

Trickle-down (or "supply-side") economics is generally taken to be the concept by which tax rates, particularly at the upper income levels, are lowered to, and maintained at "reasonable levels".  In that approach, marginal rates (the marginal rate is the percentage of taxed on the next dollar that would be earned) are reasonable enough so as not to deter the taxpayer from earning any more, or the taxpaying company from expanding sales.

Theoretically, by lessening the tax burden, the taxpayer would have more left to put into the economy, either by saving (which generates funds for lending), investing (which generates funds for expansion and hiring) or spending (which puts money in the economy). 

Liberals oppose this economic model, because at its essence it is supposed to take choice from the government and vest it in the taxpayer.  Because their belief is in the basic capability of government to do everything better than we taxpayers can, their ideal is huge tax rates and income distribution directed by that government.  However, in their drive to fight taxpayer economic choice, they simply rewrite history by ignoring what it does positively for the government, and Mrs. Clinton has done that, as we will see.

How, then, do you measure whether trickle-down economics works?  Paradoxically, for a metric you have to measure its effect by looking at tax revenues.  When you think about it, that makes the most sense -- if trickle-down is doing its job, the economy is enlarging, and the primary way you can measure economic enlargement is to look at whether tax revenues are increasing.  Taxes are on the transactions of an economy -- wages, etc. -- and the more (and larger) transactions the economy drives, the more revenues.

Thus, for trickle-down to be deemed successful, we would have to see a measurable increase in tax revenues subsequent to an organized tax-cutting program.  Fortunately, we have one of those, the USA in the 1980s.  During that time, the tax-cutting program driven by Ronald Reagan through a Democratic Congress, lowered tax rates over three years by a cumulative 23%.  Now -- in that lower tax rates are in and of themselves a good thing (forgetting the revenue impact to the Government, it is never good for taxpayers to take money from them), even if tax revenues in total stayed the same, we should be thrilled, since Washington got the same amount and the taxpayer had more to spend.  Tra-la.

But in fact, the revenues from the individual income tax went up.  Starting in 1983, the first year any impact of the cuts could hit the economy, the revenues were $289 billion.  From there, they went only upward -- $298 billion in 1984, $334 billion in 1985, $348 billion in 1986, and $392 billion in 1987.  Over a four-year period starting in 1983, despite the fears of the liberals, the USA received over $100 billion more per year than before the cuts.  Of course, the Democratic-led Congress then went and spent all that increase and then some, but the tax cuts did what they were supposed to do.

Now, the facts can't be allowed to get in the way, so the liberal argument against the success of trickle-down economics goes straight to the increase in the national debt over that time.  However, deficit spending is not even in the topic of trickle-down, simply because the theory has nothing to do with the spending side, only the revenue side.  We taxed lower and got a lot more tax revenue.  Congress may have accelerated spending faster than the increase in revenue (check who ran the House at the time), but that only served to offset the benefit that trickle-down provided.  The deficit is a red herring.  As now, we didn't have a revenue problem (tax cuts helped that); we had a spending problem.

Hillary Clinton may think that trickle-down economics was a spectacular failure, but if it was, it was only in that its success made it historically impossible for her to argue against tax cuts.  It failed her; it greatly succeeded for the country.

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton

Monday, October 27, 2014

Oh, Say, Can You Sing?

In case you were not privy to either the "performance" of the National Anthem at last night's World Series Game 5, or to any of the subsequent replays on Embarrassment TV, here's a quick summary.

Someone named Aaron Lewis, a member of the rock group "Staind" (the lack of an "e" apparently represents a lack of something beginning with E, presumably "excellence"), was asked to sing the Star-Spangled Banner before the game.  He messed the words up fairly radically, becoming a BFTA (Buffoon for the Ages) for the rest of his life.  In his anointment as a BFTA, he joins the huge Chicago Bears defensive player Lamarr Houston, who made a tackle in a game his team was losing by 25 points.  He then celebrated his having done what he is paid to do, by jumping high in the air in self-celebration at finally having done his job, and landed on legs whose knees were not designed for that kind of stress.  He limped badly off the field and is having an MRI today.  But I digress.

Back to the Anthem.  Generally, when there are position pieces written on our glorious SSB, they're about how terribly hard to sing it is, and why don't we get a new one, or use a different song, wah, wah, wah.  Well, I'm not going down that route.

No, my tack is not about the song, but the singer.  Forgive me, but there is a very reasonable analogy here to a lot of what many of us think is the wrong direction of our country.  Instead of improving the singing, they whine, let's just make it easier for everyone by changing the song.

Poppycock and balderdash.  First, let's ask ourselves what Aaron Lewis was doing out there in the first place.  He is a rock entertainer, and the SSB is not a rock song, it is our National Anthem and is a formal piece of music (in its current role, despite the tune's origin).  When sung for the public in a formal event, like baseball games and certainly the World Series, it should be done by -- let's say it clearly -- singers.  Singers are people trained to know how to sing, which includes "knowing the right words and notes."  Having a good voice is also a prerequisite; knowing that the SSB is in 3/4, not 4/4, is probably good too.

What happened last night is the natural, expected outcome of a terribly flawed process for selecting singers of the SSB.  It appears -- there's no logic, so just guessing here -- to be that singers are selected by a lobbying process, wherein agents of the current "music" industry line up outside the door of the harried home team PR office to get publicity for their client.  In the case of last night, you ended up with someone who couldn't be bothered to point toward the scoreboard screen (where, hopefully, the words were), or take off his sunglasses so he could see them or, for that matter, learn them in the first place.

How about, O ye in charge, we get off this whole "And now, please rise for our National Anthem, which will be 'sung' by X-time Grammy-winning celebrity Etaoin Shrdlu, whose tenth album, 'My Kitten is Dead and I Don't Know How I Should Feel' is available for download ..." thing.  Please, please, ask a singer to sing.  Our armed forces have many in their ranks, most of whom are actually disciplined enough to know the words and the music.  Our music conservatories are loaded with people who can sing the song.  Our opera companies have nothing but people who can sing the song.  [And somewhere I have to write that it's just fine (though not for a national broadcast) for, say, a 13-year-old girl with a remarkable, precocious talent to sing at a game, that's the exception that should not divert from the point. as long as they can actually do the right notes and understand whom it's about (hint -- not the 13-year-old girl)].

May we please disassociate ourselves from any connection between today's recording entertainers and actual singing?  May we please decide that the song is actually what is important -- in fact, it is our country which is more important -- and stop letting the performer be the spectacle?  Because it inevitably leads to the "other" kind of spectacle, as it was last night.

It's not a rock song.  It's our National Anthem.  Let us treat it as such and save the public performances for voices suitable for it.


Disclaimer -- I have had the proud experience of singing our National Anthem before many major-league baseball games in my lifetime and in my career.  I am equally proud to say that in every single case, whether before 15,000 people or 50,000, with or without stadium-organ accompaniment, I sang it quickly, professionally, and with due respect for the song and for the nation it represents.  This only amplifies my contempt for the teams who invite incompetent singers, and for those performers who use the performance as self-aggrandizement or to sell their albums.  I feel a right to voice my opinion.

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Foolish Inconsistency

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds", so the saying goes, at least in some of its many versions.  We might, however, yearn for a bit of consistency in the utterances of our liberal brethren and sistren sometimes.

My curiosity was piqued in a piece in ESPN the Magazine's current issue, which I receive as a penalty for wanting to provide commentary on their pieces online once in a while, and to see the works of some of their more popular online baseball writers.  It's called a "paywall", meaning no pay, no read.  Authors apparently have to gain enough popularity to be hidden from the non-paying public.

But I digress.  The Magazine's latest issue had an essay by the writer Mina Kimes, protesting the lack of women in senior executive positions in major league baseball.  Now, I will not be the one defending MLB for not having female executives.  In fact, if there were twenty females in executive positions in MLB tomorrow, I would sleep just as contentedly as if I were to awake tomorrow to the status quo, which is zero such females in MLB executive positions.

If I were, in fact, a team owner, neither my first, second or third criterion for hiring a new executive would be whether the candidate had (or did not have) a uterus.  Experience, yes ... competence, yes ... creativity, yes.  Probably a few more thereafter.  In fact, I can't imagine gender actually coming up anywhere on the list, because my primary objective as an owner would be making money and winning championships, perhaps in that order.  I suppose I am one of those conservatives who is not part of the "war on women", much like, well, all other conservatives aren't either.

However, it isn't quite as simple.  Many years ago, before Frank Robinson became the first black manager to be hired (and, inevitably, the first to be fired), the media were assailing MLB for never having hired a suitably-racial manager, even though "so many of the players were black."  Similarly, there was and is a similar complaint toward the NFL, where even more of the players are black.  The leagues were even obliged to show their racial neutrality by mandating that black candidates be interviewed whenever there was an opening, a form of affirmative inaction that redefined the word "token", and not in the good way.  I'm sure more than one such interviewee asked the logical question, "Why, exactly, am I here?"

The issue then, and now, and certainly replicated into the executive suites of the leagues once the head coaching and managing ranks were integrated, was the disparity between the percentages of black players and black coaches/managers.  "How can that be?" shouted the press, indifferent to the fact that the skills involved in knocking a ball carrier into the next zip code don't really resemble those needed to coach a team.  In fact, given the common progress of coaches, it would seem more logical to count high school and college coaches of applicable race first, right?

So Mina Kimes now writes that it is a terrible thing that there are no women MLB executives, despite the fact that there are indeed no females playing major-league baseball and haven't been, though I imagine Jenny Finch would have been a bit more productive over the course of a hypothetical season than Eddie Gaedel would, and the late Mr. Gaedel does indeed appear in the record book.

Well, which is it, O ye of the left?  If the argument mandating more black owners, executives and coaches is that there are and were so many black players, then it would seem there should be no female executives at all, wouldn't it?  It just seems that, even though as noted, I couldn't care less if the entire MLB executive ranks were female, or black, or Pakistani or Martian, the two tacks don't coexist very well. 

Socialists, as Margaret Thatcher famously noted, eventually run out of other people's money.  They also run out of disparaged minorities, at least before the aims of those minorities start to conflict, and render consistent treatment impossible.

It is truly hobgoblinous to be foolishly consistent, but when your inconsistencies sap your credibility, your points fall more likely on deaf ears.

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Baskin-Robbins Journalism

Some of you may recall that about two weeks back, the Washington Post finally did a little investigative reporting -- we thought they'd forgotten how -- and discovered a cover-up in the investigation into the Secret Service prostitution scandal in Cartagena, Colombia.

Lest you have forgotten, a White House advance team member apparently dallied with a prostitute, a foreign national, prior to the president's visit there.  A number of Secret Service agents, who "enjoyed" similar dalliances, were relieved of their jobs, and the White House (in Washington, buildings apparently can talk) sternly denied that anyone associated with the White House had anything to do with it.  They even conducted a couple "investigations", including through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), from which they concluded that only the Secret Service men were involved.

Well, not so fast.  The Post blew that up, writing in their piece, "The lead investigator later told Senate staffers that he felt pressure from his superiors in the office of Charles K. Edwards, who was then the acting inspector general [inside DHS], to withhold evidence — and that, in the heat of an election year, decisions were being made with political considerations in mind.  “We were directed at the time . . . to delay the report of the investigation until after the 2012 election,” David Nieland, the lead investigator on the Colombia case for the DHS inspector general’s office, told Senate staffers, according to three people with knowledge of his statement."  [Post, 9 October 2014]

In other words, the president tried to save his reelection chances by disassociating himself from the scandal, and to do so, his own DHS Secretary (Janet Napolitano) and White House counsel (Kathryn Ruemmler) apparently conspired to suppress the information about the staffer's involvement until the election was over.  They are lucky to be Democrats in a country with a slavish left-leaning media.  The young man who engaged the prostitute is now serving his president in the Office of Global Women's Issues, a position for which he seems supremely qualified.

But that's not the issue for today.  May I ask, dear reader, has anyone seen a hint, or smelled a whiff of follow-up on this scandal, one that certainly is as corrupt as Watergate?  Has the Post done anything since?

Does anyone even care?

After a pleasant diversion into actual investigating, the Post apparently has descended back into Baskin-Robbins journalism, that sad practice by which there is a flavor of the week, never to be offered again.  Was there any testimony under oath about this affair?  Did anyone commit perjury or, less illegal but more corrupt, lie to the American People ourselves?

Who knows?  The Post has gone on to bigger and better things, trying to figure out what the White House wants it to say about the Ebola virus, and who will quarterback the Redskins next.  Woodward and Bernstein are still around, aren't they?  Couldn't someone write a series on this?

Kathryn Ruemmler, the White House counsel mentioned above, is apparently Obama's choice to nominate to succeed Eric Holder as Attorney General.  If he has those plans, wouldn't the readership of the Post like for their reporters to rip this story apart, and help the public know if it's getting another Attorney General whose contempt for law enforcement trumps their commitment to obedience to all the law.  Surely even the Democrats in the Senate would like to know if they have to hold their noses before voting for her.

I'd just be happy if the Post would embrace its discovery of the scandal and stay with it longer than a day.  I like interesting flavors of ice cream, too, but I'd like to think that just because the Flavor of the Week has been replaced, doesn't mean I lost interest in it.

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Be Careful For What You Ask

There was, a long time ago, a TV ad for the ABC network's election coverage, or maybe its newscasts.  It featured the late Harry Reasoner, so "long time" must mean well over 20 years.  In the ad, he was trying to make a point about the fickle nature of the American electorate, saying that the same electorate had voted for Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.  "If there is a pattern," he noted, "I fail to discern it."

Perhaps he didn't exercise his discernment hard enough.  I think there is a pattern, although it is a bit variable.  The pattern, such as it is, is a kind of herd mentality that derives from the wearing out of one's welcome.  It becomes the conventional wisdom over time, that President X, who was once the darling, or at least enough to get voted in, is no longer capable, or has lost his mojo, or had to deal with an unplanned crisis and was not successful at it -- whether or not it was even possible to succeed (think Katrina, a losing battle with no possible good outcome).  Every 2-4 years, we allow the prevailing narrative to push us from right to left and back again.

I believe that the electorate's basic individual predilection doesn't really change, especially given the fact that our tendency toward liberalism or conservatism is a very environmentally-driven thing.  We're not going to become liberal (or conservative) suddenly tomorrow, although we might choose to vote for one in a certain situation.  But the prevailing narrative can very well make us do that, and the prevailing narrative changes in long arcs.

Two weeks from last night, we will go to the polls, produce our IDs and vote, likely for a very different direction from the one the USA took two years ago.  Is it a good thing?

It appears likely that the Republicans will capture the Senate, by however small a margin, but in any respect large enough to become the majority party and, thereby, dictate what bills get voted on.  The House, under Republican control since the famous 2010 "shellacking", has passed numerous bills, dozens really, including actual budgets, which have festered on the desk of the current majority leader, Harry Reid and never presented to the Senate for a vote, without a peep from the press.

If indeed the Republicans were to define their electoral goal, it would be to avoid anything bad happening between now and Election Day 2016, and to persuade the USA to vote for a Republican president and maintain both houses of Congress at that time.  If that indeed is the goal, then how valuable will it be actually to win the Senate next month?

I ask, because while the USA is decidedly not supporting Obama at the moment, and his poll numbers are pretty poor, he is not running again in 2016.  Will the back-and-forth wave of national feeling be sufficiently conservative in 2016?

The answer is this -- it all depends on the actions of a Republican Congress in 2015-16 and their success at managing the narrative from the legislative side.  The situation is different from the 1994 shocking Republican congressional wins, in that they ran then on the Contract with America, a clear platform of what they said the USA needed and what legislation was to be passed.  The expected upcoming 2014 "win", like the 2010 one, will be a backlash against the incumbent president, rather than a specific request by the USA for direction.

So if it is to be a good thing for America that the Republicans take over the whole Congress, they must manage Congress, not just change offices.  They must develop and promote a vision of the country early, despite a challenging press and an expected obstructionist, veto-wielding president, and then control the narrative of why their legislative agenda is good for the USA and should have been signed by the president.  As I noted in an earlier piece, the economic ice doesn't break until business starts hiring and people feel better about their jobs.  The next Congress needs to show its ability to present legislative vision that will break that ice and encourage the trust business needs to invest in capital expenditures and long-term hiring -- and then get credit.

The clearest path to another Democratic president in 2016 will be if a Republican majority in Congress is not united in its legislating and looks just as impotent as the current gridlocked one.  Promulgating ideas, developing good legislation and passing it as a unit is the clearest way to elevating Congress's stature and that of the conservative policy it will promote.  If Obama chooses to veto everything and the economy is just as stalled in 2016 as it is now, the electorate will be very willing to seek a Republican candidate to lead as president.

The leaders in Congress need to be seen as leaders.  They need to go to the USA repeatedly and explain what they're doing and why.  They need to get more new faces seen, not just the Mitch McConnells and John Boehners and the like; the agenda they'll be presenting needs to look new and have new names associated with it.  [BTW ... getting leaders to speak who are not heavy smokers or come from tobacco states will be more helpful than you think.  There's an image to deal with there.]

Election Day 2014 is a timing situation.  Republicans can win the Senate but then lose the country, and history tells us the arcs time for that to happen.  It is up to a new Republican Senate to seize the narrative in step with the House and ride it for two years, lest the fickle sine wave of public allegiance go the other way.

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Debating the Debates

Two years hence, we will be in the middle of "debate season", that charming quadrennial period when we change over from deciding our next president based on "agreement with the voter on the significant issues of the day", to deciding to vote for the one who didn't make a "gaffe" in the debate, or had less 5 o'clock shadow (particularly male candidates), or got in the best "zinger".  As we all know, those are the criteria which best show us how well the candidate would lead as the President of the United States.

That said, presidential debates are with us for the indefinite future, meaning that we will continue to allow them to influence our voting, despite the fact that they are immensely artificial.  I mean, really -- what is it in anything a candidate says or does in a debate, that remotely suggests that he would be a good president?  Once you get past the fact that at least 80% of voters are going to vote for Candidate X because their views agree far more with that candidate than the other one, then literally nothing he does in a debate will change that.

[Note -- for this piece, I will refer to the candidates as "he" and the voter as "she" to avoid the awkward alternatives like "he/she".  I mean nothing by it.]

Any voter not in that 80% will learn nothing she didn't already know in the debates.  If she is that unclear as to how closely her views align with the candidates, well, Al Gore invented this amazing Internet thingy just for that.  Using it, you can actually look up each candidate's position, written in the calm peace of a non-debate environment when it can actually be thoughtfully expressed.  If you are too lazy to do so and depend on the debates to see the differences, pity the USA.

Here's my point -- do we remember any sharp repartee from any debate that helped us limn the differences between candidates?  Well, no.  We remember that Nixon needed a shave.  We remember that Obama was shockingly unprepared for his first debate with Romney.  We remember Reagan agreeing not to hold Mondale's "youth and inexperience" against him.  And we remember Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle he was "no Jack Kennedy" (to which I wish Quayle had had the presence of mind to say "no, Sen. Bentsen, I am not Jack Kennedy.  I have been faithful to my wife.").  Of course, he won the vice presidency anyway, so what the heck.

So from a purely sane perspective, I would be quite happy if the debates went away.  But since they won't, can we possibly start thinking now, two years ahead, how to make them better?  By "better", of course, I mean "actually useful and not just a gaffe-fest or zinger counter."  As always, we need to start with the end.  What do we want to accomplish with the debates?

I hold that the purpose of the debates should be to help the voter see the candidate stating opinions they hold, actions they would support, tacks they would take, etc., regarding issues of the day.  Ronald Reagan was respected as president to a large degree because you knew where he stood on everything.  He might horse-trade with Congress on certain legislation, but you knew, if his back were to the wall, what his core values were that he wouldn't bend on.

Perhaps that's what we most need.  Good, solid questions that would help show the undecided voter what the core values of the candidates are.  I would provide those questions to the candidates in advance, so we can get better answers.  "What??", I hear you say.  Yes, let the candidates prepare what they're going to say, so we get better answers and fewer slip-ups that distract from the message.  I would much rather rely on prepared answers, because they better reflect the candidate's actual views.  If you think it's more important, and a better gauge of presidentiality, to hinge your precious vote on performance in a debate (i.e., gaffelessness or zingerfulness, or a good shave) rather than positions, I pity you and the country.

Newsflash -- the media are biased.  NBC is left, Fox is right.  CNN, CBS and ABC are left.  Get over it.  ABC has Bill Clinton's press secretary as the host of its morning show.  They're not going to be shrink-government types over there.  Obama's just-departed press secretary was at Time, ABC and CNN.  So the networks cannot be trusted to produce an unbiased product, as was shown when a CNN debate moderator in 2012 tried to fact-check the Republican candidate -- incorrectly, as it turns out -- while the debate was going on.

We need to be solving the problem of providing actual, productive debates if we're going to have them at all.  As I noted, I'd have all the questions be submitted -- not vetted or changeable by the candidates, but produced and submitted to the candidates in advance, to prepare solid answers.  That will also minimize the role and influence of the moderator.  I would have either joint moderation between, say, CNN and Fox co-hosts (they're both cable news organizations expected to balance each other out), or an even number of debates, which each produces.  Eliminate the audiences completely; there is no need for live applause, laughter, or anything else distracting the message.  Have the microphones automatically silence after the allotted time.

Let's start working this stuff now, not after the 2016 conventions, OK?

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Foggy, Foggy Dew Not

In those great cartoons out of the 1930s, cars smiled out at you as they toodled along the road, swinging back and forth in their lane.  The "face" of the car was marked by the headlights serving as the eyes.  One set of eyes, one set of lights.

Unfortunately, actual cars have two sets of lights, and therein lies the rub.  There are the "normal" headlights, with two settings (normal and bright).  And then, for reasons which no longer make sense, there are these things called "fog lights", which are low-level lights with much smaller strength.  By virtue of the name "fog lights", most drivers would assume that they are what you are supposed to use when driving in fog.

Until, of course, they kill you.

Some time ago, I was driving on a long, gradual downgrade on a four-lane divided highway, meaning that two adjacent lanes were going in the same direction.  Traffic was at speed, in this case about 60, and I was in the right lane.  It was in the twilight hours, right after sunset.  At some point, I needed to move into the left (fast) lane, and looked back up the left lane to see if I was clear to move over.  What I saw was a large 18-wheeler with his normal headlights on.  The headlights were bright (as they should be), and showed the truck to be far enough behind me that I should be able to change lanes in front of him pretty easily.

I signaled my lane change and started to move, whereupon I realized that in front of the truck was a car with only its fog lights on.  I was lucky -- as were my passengers -- not to have been killed that day.  The car with the fog lights was completely obscured by the fact that the truck behind it had its full headlights on, showing above the car because of the downgrade.  Of course, if the car had had its headlights on, it would have been readily visible and I would not have tried the lane change.  But it didn't.

So why, we ask, would a driver in twilight, or at any time, for that matter, have fog lights on?  Lights on a car do two things (duh) -- they help you see and let you be seen.  Fog lights do neither; they're impotent as far as lighting up your path and, as I noted, not only do they not really help you be seen, they can actually obscure you relative to headlights.

If there is really no reason to have them, and they are obviously dangerous, then:
(1) Why aren't driver ed classes and driving schools telling students never to use fog lights under any circumstances?
(2) Why is their use not being made illegal by all 50 states, DC and every Territory?
(3) Why are car manufacturers continuing to put them on cars?
(4) Why, in fact, are not Daytime Running Lights (DRLs) not simply be mandated on all cars, to take the choice out of the hands of the driver?

Headlights should be on all the time.  There is really only one tolerable function of fog lights -- they can be wired in to go on as an emergency accessory when the headlight on that side burns out -- as a minimal aid to the other drivers to give them an idea where you are, until you can go get your headlight fixed.

Can I possibly be the only one who thinks this?

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton

Friday, October 17, 2014

But I Really Like Warm Weather

The Earth's temperature may be getting warmer, or it may not, depending on whom you believe.  If indeed it is getting warmer, it may be the result of mankind, or it may not, again depending on whom you believe.  It's obviously a bit challenging to tell for sure on both counts, since temperature varies all over the globe and, moreover, there is a host of natural influences on planetary temperature, between El Niño events, cloud covers, volcanoes, that sort of thing.

I have sat on a jury for a murder trial before (don't panic; this is still about global warming).  When you're on a jury and you are given a case to start deliberation in a trial, you are given a set of instructions by the judge.  Both sides are aware of the instructions to give the jury, and they come out of a canned book of instructions.  One of them deals with how jurymen are to handle circumstantial evidence: to be acceptable, "it must be consistent with guilt and inconsistent with innocence."

When something comes up that doesn't make sense, I often hearken back to that line, even when I'm not deciding a murder case.  In the case of global warming, I'm there a lot, and here's why.

It is entirely possible that the globe is warming some, and it is entirely possible that there is a significant human influence helping it to warm.  Let's even stipulate for this piece that it is happening and that it is human-aided, because it doesn't matter for my purposes.

Where I live, there is plenty of warming, and plenty of cooling.  In February, we can have temperatures in the 20s (F), and in August the temperature can reach 100.  To my knowledge, that has been the norm for these parts for as long as anyone can remember, and no one has ever done anything about it, nor has anyone felt they needed to do anything about it.  We call the variance "seasons" and accept it as a matter of nature. Why do I mention that fact?  Simply because change in temperature is not, in and of itself, a "bad" thing and, in context, it is perfectly normal, even if the change is 80 degrees over the course of a year.

Not a "bad" thing, right?  So then please tell me why, in years and years of debate over global warming, and Al Gore movies, has not even one time anyone presented a vision of the world a few degrees warmer, in which even one thing on Earth is better?

People are still flying to Florida in the winter time to sit by the palm trees and soak up the sunshine now; for all the polar ice cap melting and fears of relocated harp seals, wouldn't it be better if there were palm trees and sunshine on the coast of Connecticut or Oregon? On a much more productive note, would it not be a positive outcome if thousands of square miles of Canada and Russia became suitable for agriculture or ranching to help feed the planet?  With even a little thought, I don't doubt that we could look at a few degrees higher temperature and come up with plenty of benefit.

So why, pray tell, does no one ever do that?  Probably because no one wants to.  The global warming panic lobby doesn't want to raise the possibility of any "good" happening, and the global warming deniers don't want to concede it is even happening.  But since we're conceding the point for argument's sake, we only care about the panic lobby.  Why are they making it out to be all bad?

"Consistent with guilt and inconsistent with innocence" is the applicable phrase (finally tied it all together).  J'accuse!  If the GW panic lobby were actually concerned about changes in the Earth, they would provide a far more comprehensive portrayal of the impact of temperature increase, and at least some of it would be positive.  But no, it is all bad, and all to be terrified of.  Moreover, they are not lined up outside the halls of Congress trying to get more nuclear plants -- the cleanest energy source per unit -- built and certified immediately to minimize fossil fuel usage.  Why?  Presumably because it is countering progress that is their aim, not cooling the planet.  It's surprising they don't make a beeline for Lancaster, Pennsylvania and become Amish.

I am on the jury in the trial of the GW panic lobby, who are being charged with using global warming as an excuse to try to shut down the use of fossil fuels worldwide -- or at least in the USA.  If it were actually global warming they cared about, I believe their actions would be different.  They would be promoting nuclear plants; they would be presenting an actual comprehensive portrayal of threats vs. benefits to boost their credibility.  Their actions are consistent with guilt and inconsistent with innocence.  Moreover, the corrupt nature of their actions puts at risk any trust in the science they are promulgating.  It may be correct, but their actions put everything in question.

In the case of Global Warming Fear-mongers v. The World: Guilty as charged, and not to be believed.

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Giant Sucking Sound No One Mentions

A few posts back I provided you with your humble servant's situation relative to the impact of Obamacare on our family finances.  In case you had forgotten, we are privately insured, since neither of us is an employee of a company, let alone one offering health insurance.  Our insurance coverage will become illegal at the end of December, according to our insurer, and replacement coverage, worthy of the oppressive minimums forced on us by the Obamacare law, will cost us $13,086.64 next year. That is $6,486.64 more in 2015 than what we will have paid for health insurance in 2014.  Yep, our health insurance cost will pretty much double.

I've already stated my piece about the above, from the lying by the President about its impact on insurance customers, to the absurdity that raising minimum coverages should even have been part of the law that was supposed to be about covering uninsured Americans.  This one is about the economic impact.

How many Americans are like us, independently covered with adequate but soon-to-be-illegal policies?  Three million?  Ten million?  I do not know the answer, but in any case, it is worth the effort to look at the economic impact.

We are supposedly in a "recovery", which conveys the message to the USA that an economy is in a recovery even when it is going from "putrid" to "slightly less putrid". Generally when economists are on the talk shows, they modify the term "recovery" with words like "fragile".  The reason for that fragility is that this "recovery" differs from previous ones in a few ways, probably interrelated.  The recovery is painfully slow, for one, and also corporate America is sitting on cash in unprecedented volumes.

Now, before you say "Well, spend it!  Hire people!", think about this -- with interest rates close to zero, keeping cash is not a very productive use of it.  Corporate America is not hoarding money because they want to; they would much prefer to be hiring, because that would mean they need to hire, which means that demand for their products and services has risen and they can sell more -- that is what drives hiring, not an abundance of cash.  No; they're not hiring because demand is low, because people have become risk-averse about spending because the economy is in the tank and they're not confident in their jobs.  Since fewer people are working now than at the 2008 elections, they're justified.

So -- the crux is Americans' reluctance to spend for fear of their jobs, and when they don't spend then manufacturers don't build, and if they don't build they don't hire.  So we have to ask a question I've not yet heard asked: What happens when billions of dollars are yanked out of American household economies to pay for doubled health insurance that is mandated by law?

Seriously, we need to consider this.  Our household will have over $6,400 taken out of our home by Obamacare that we weren't paying in 2014 or had budgeted for in 2015, and there is no corresponding increase in income possible to offset it.  It is going not for goods or services, per se, but for health insurance, paid in total to an insurance company.  If there are even five million people in the USA in the same boat, that is thirty-two billion dollars sucked out of American consumers' pockets per year.  It is over thirty billion dollars no longer available for food, clothing, corn dogs, cutlery, cricket bats and cauliflower.

Worse yet, that frightening amount is only for those independently insured; it is a safe bet that the increased costs of insurance for business -- especially for small business -- will be passed on to employees in the form of smaller raises than expected.  Factor in even a 1% smaller raise across America and that $32B gets much larger.  And all those increases in health insurance cost are going from the American family's pocket to insurance companies (if you follow the money, you become much less surprised that the American insurance companies are just fine with Obamacare and always have been; the law essentially forces people who happily drive Chevys to buy Cadillacs, so naturally the Cadillac dealers would be happy). 

Starting January 1st, something quite frightening will strike America.  To quote H. Ross Perot (since I did meet him once), that giant sucking sound you hear on New Years Day will be tens of billions of dollars disappearing from the American home economy.

Why is no one mentioning this?

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

If the Pen Just Sits There, It Isn't Mighty

I'll start this with a couple of familiar quotes.  One is the phrase familiar to all of us -- "The pen is mightier than the sword", meaning that the written word is a long-lasting object and, when used properly, it has immense power, even relative to more familiar weapons.  Information, when spread, is extremely potent.

The other is the creation of our president, Barack Obama, who famously or infamously says "I have a pen and a phone."  His message is equally clear.  When Congress is ready to take action on his agenda (as opposed to anything the USA actually needs), they should call him for guidance on his phone, and he has a pen to sign a bill whenever it is passed.

We have seen repeatedly how this president leads from behind in foreign engagements -- if memory serves, that phrase actually came from his own White House team.  Talk and talk, and when an ally actually takes action, we're right there standing behind them wishing them well.  Maybe we'll give them money or a tank.  Such, however, is not leadership, and in the analogous domestic concerns of our day, "leading from behind" is not going to produce a legislative solution to our current woes -- a non-existent recovery, for example, a health insurance crisis that has not yet hit the economy (next post), immigration reform, whatever.

When I voted for the other guy in 2012, it was with full knowledge that he was a very competent manager who had actually run things -- a company or three, an Olympics, a state.  He might have a whole house of Congress of the other party, but he would be expected to talk to them, to meet, cajole, work together to hammer out solutions to problems.  He was able to work with a Democratic legislature in Massachusetts, and it seemed as if he knew the drill.  Reagan did it, Clinton did it, Romney could be expected at least to know how to do it.

Obama's approach is so insular as to be frightening.  He appears to have read the "5 Habits of Incompetent Executives" book and fixated on the chapter entitled "Surround Yourself with Yes-Men; It's Less Challenging."  You will get nothing done, Mr. President, sitting in the Oval Office waiting with your drumming fingers on the desk for Congress to send you things to sign.  You are the leader; you need to lead.  Leading is getting people in a room regularly to produce compromises that transcend politics.  Pick up that phone of yours and start calling people who disagree with you and listen to them.

Obama seems not to do this, either because he has zero actual people skills or, absent any leadership experience, he just doesn't know how. 

It isn't a pen and a phone he should have.  He needs a spine and a clue.

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

They Were All In Step But Jessie

There are doubtless blogs with a wider readership than this one -- every other one on Earth, at this point -- so I'm not figuring my opinions will make it all the way to the marbled halls of ABC, but then this is an opinion piece and not an advice column, so I will have at least vented.

Last night, we were treated to an appearance on the ABC show "Dancing with the Stars" of the UK singer Jessie J., singing a song at the opening of the show.  Unfortunately, instead of going back to the dressing room, the green room or the audience, she then took a seat as a guest judge, next to Carrie Ann Inaba, Julianne Hough and Bruno Tonioli, all of whom are professional dancers and choreographers of immense talent and experience.

What was ABC (or the show's producers) thinking?  First of all, I doubt anyone had heard of this singer prior to the blitz of her name being all over ABC in recent weeks with guest appearances, so her opinions on the dancers were not grounded in anything the audience would recognize.  Second, even before she gave her rambling and uneducated scores and opinions, each twice the air time of the actual experts, it was evident that she didn't know anything about professional dance.

What is "Dancing with the Stars"?  It is a show where experienced and talented professional dancers work hard with celebrity non-dancer competitors, to learn a new 60-90-second dance or two each week, and then perform it in front of millions, live on TV.  They are normally judged as to the content of each dance, each of which has "rules" known to dancers everywhere, as well as on the choreography and, of course, the performance.  They are scored by the judges and voted on by the TV audience, under a system where the relative scores of the expert judges are of equal weight with the relative number of votes of the fans.

Accordingly, the celebrities and their professional partners no doubt want the evaluation of their performances to be accurate and reasonable, since their continuation on the show is dependent on being positively responded to and, perhaps more, they have worked their tails off all week and are due that respect.  There are plenty of disagreements between the competitors (particularly the professionals of the pairs) and the judges, in that within the artistic bounds of choreography, if you are assigned to do a samba, say, your result needs to look like a samba.

So how is one to react when right out of the gate, the guest "judge", this Jessie J., gives the first competitor a score clearly two points (on a 1-10 scale) lower than the professional judges?  My first reaction was that she'd better run low on all the rest of the competitors, otherwise the first scores will skew the spectrum for the evening.  Knowing that she wasn't going to do that (she clearly didn't come across as astute enough to know that she had to do that to be fair), the first team is probably still steaming.  I certainly would be -- a cheap publicity stunt for a singer that ABC clearly had a financial interest in, affected the integrity of the competition.

If ABC is listening, please, please drop the whole "guest judge" gig.  After 14 seasons of this show, its viewers deserve a level of sanctity in the way the judging is done and the scoring recorded.  Last night's episode was clearly going to be a problem from the moment the first scoring paddles went up.  You added a fourth judge this year; this solved the problem of what to do in those weeks when head judge Len Goodman was back in the UK periodically; you had three professionals remaining to cover.  Then you went and made it a problem all over again by corrupting the judging with someone who wouldn't know a rumba from a Roomba.

Just don't do it.

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton

Monday, October 13, 2014

Why a "Living" Wage?

First, it was a mainframe software company, then a CPA firm, a Canadian avionics company, a huge IT contractor/shipbuilder, a computer products reseller and a small IT consulting company.  In my long career, these have been the companies from which I have been laid off.  Also, I jointly owned a small retail business that in three years of operation did slightly over $2 million in revenue.  Although we paid about $650,000 in salaries to employees over that time, I was paid not a dime, ever, though I was the CFO, because the business was not profitable.

I start this piece with that assertion for a reason.  In each case, the firm in question had finite resources, and they valued the product I could provide them such that they could not afford it, whether they thought their resources inadequate for a valuable (and thus expensive) product -- my services -- or they thought the value of my contributions not high enough to warrant paying someone what they were paying me to produce it, when matched against the limits of their resources.

If that seems to be being awfully nice to a bunch of companies who had taken away my living at the time, it's because I understand the decisions involved, and also understand the value of work products.  I've been the boss, too, and been on the other side of the table.  When you are tinkering with someone's livelihood, you know it.  But waste in labor is only a little more concerning than waste in expenses, and a dollar of each affects the viability of a company the same.

So here's the thing.  There's a pile of written words out there from the "income inequality" crowd about the minimum wage, and about the concept of a "living wage."  And I want to take that whole argument and blow it up and start over again, not that I'm a violent person or anything.

There are two micro-economies going on in the discussion: 
(1) There is a human being, looking at his/her expenses for the month and recognizing that, in order to make bills, whatever they are, she needs $X to pay them (I'm going to use the female pronoun for a while for convenience).  She is the employee, and has control over what she spends and has to spend based on choices she has made.
(2) There is the employer, trying to produce a product or service for sale, and recognizing that the costs of production, fixed and variable, need to be offset by the revenue from sales of the product or service.  If, between rent, raw materials, utilities, labor, taxes, permits and whatever, it costs $100 to make a product that the market will only pay $90 for, the company needs to reduce its costs to get down to $85 or less in order to be viable and pay its own bills.

The company's viability is every bit as fragile as the bill-paying capability of the employee, especially in a small business where every penny affects its profitability in a large way (watch a few Shark Tank episodes and extrapolate if you don't believe me).  So why is the economy of the employee more important to the press than that of the employer?

Truly, it is this simple.  At the risk of the "corporations are people too" accusation, the value of an employee is based essentially on the value that employee brings to the productivity of her employer, without any regard to the financial needs of the employee.  In other words, you have to start with the assumption that, in the absence of that employee, the company could not produce the number or quality of salable items or hours of service.  Therefore, the employee has a value that can be quantified by removing the employee from the equation and looking at the impact.  The basic value estimate for the worth of that employee starts from what her absence would cost and what her presence adds.

Then and only then can you factor in the ancillary matters -- the value of an experienced employee in terms of efficiency, the value in subsequent hiring that a happier work force affords in attracting talent, even in certain cases the ability to take into account the needs of the individual employee external to their value to the company.  But if the company's books show that the value of a position is $3,000 per month, and the company can only afford $3,000 per month, it doesn't matter that the employee's home costs are $3,200, does it?  The employee cannot generate enough value in that job to produce the extra $200 in revenue she needs to pay her personal bills -- unless they jointly change the duties to add that value back in.

That is why the whole concept of a "living wage" makes no sense once we put away our sympathetic handkerchiefs.  In fact, the "minimum wage" really doesn't make much sense either, except as an artificial floor on wages; it is the Government saying to companies that if your job need doesn't produce more than $7.25 per hour, or whatever, in value, you don't have a legitimate job opening and may not hire anyone, even if there is an agreement with a potential employee that your job is worth $6 per hour and they're willing to take that (because their needs allow them to take it).  "Nay, nay", says the Government, "thou canst not do that."

I can stretch a bit to accommodate the concept of the minimum wage if a good enough argument can be put forth.  But I stop right there at the "living wage."  I simply don't care what it takes to live on.  OK, actually I do care; I just don't see how what an employee's needs are should by mandate affect what they're paid.  I salute those employers who can allow it to affect them; it will produce happier employees.  But it is not the Government's role to tamper with the determination of the value of labor at that level of granularity.

"To each according to his need; from each according to his ability" -- the closer we get to that precept of Karl Marx, the further we fly from a free society.  The "living wage" is a hideous mask over the face of socialist intrusion into that society

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton

Friday, October 10, 2014

It's OK, I Can Keep My Doctor -- I Think

As an independent consultant, I do not have employer health insurance and am obliged to buy insurance as a private plan for "the Mrs." and me.  Although I would prefer that someone else pay a big chunk of it as an incentive for me to go work for them, I build a fraction of that into my consulting fee, such as I can and such as it is.

At the end of last year, I received a letter from my then-insurer informing me that they would no longer provide my plan after 2013 due to Obamacare, and that I would need to find a new plan.  I shopped around and found one from Aetna, a well-known company.  The plan was workable for two married adults; although it has a high deductible, it covered what we needed to have covered, and offered a very workable premium at $550 per month, $6,600 per year, not much more than 2013.  We needed to maintain our family physician, and he was under that plan.  Perfect.

Yesterday we received a nice surprise in the mail.  After 31 December, Aetna will no longer offer that plan, as it is not "good enough" to meet the part of the Obamacare law that reflects the fact that the White House apparently knows a lot more about the medical risks I'm willing to take than my wife and I do.

Let's get this on the table -- whatever one thinks about a law that is supposed to be about providing access to health insurance for people who don't have it, there was no reason that the Federal government needed to butt its nose into the insurance marketplace and tell people who were already adequately insured in their own eyes what level of insurance they should and should not have.

This piece has nothing to do with the "covering the uninsured" part of Obamacare.  There was no reason that the existing market needed to be regulated to impose a minimum level of coverage.  Americans are perfectly capable of taking on the level of medical risk they deemed best for their family.  If this was one of those great things that Nancy Pelosi meant when she told America we had to "pass the bill to see what's in it", well, we're going to differ right there.

The letter from Aetna provided the details of the 2015 plan they deemed closest to what we were already getting from Aetna.  It's called the ... oh, who cares what it's called.  The important thing is that if we were to take the plan they suggested, we would be paying Aetna $1,090.54 per month, a few bucks short of double what we are paying now.  In other words, solely due to the Nanny Effect of Obamacare, and their mistrust that my household's collective education is enough to decide what's good for us, we would pay Aetna $6,486.40 more in 2015 than we will have paid this year.

Since the plans of the various insurance companies for 2015 are mostly unavailable as of this date, I can't get much in the way of competitive quotes.  However, most companies have been able to provide estimates of their minimum plans for 2015 as non-firm quotes.  Some have been as low as $980 per month, which is still well over $5,700 more for 2015 than our household pays now.

But shoot, I can keep my doctor, probably.

Ironically, when the president goes out and proclaims the wonderment of his "signature legislative achievement", he does not speak to this.  Equally ironically, none of the additional payment we have to make does a single thing to provide medical insurance to people who didn't have it!  It is simply the result of the Nanny Effect of impulsive liberalism, the part that says how much more it knows than I.

Well, Mr. President, you went to Occidental College and always claim to be the smartest guy in the room; but I have a biology degree from M.I.T.  I can count, and I'm not so dumb that I can't decide what's best for my family.

And, oh, yeah, I can vote.  And plan to.

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Just Say You're Sorry, WaPo

This morning's Washington Post carried something it hadn't had in recent memory.  No, I don't mean not that wrapped-around ad covering the first page that you have to rip off to read anything, although in fact it did have one of those today.

No, it was a piece of actual investigative reporting done by a couple of actual investigative reporters, negating any thought that the Post had laid all of them off.  In point of fact, the reporting was that in 2012, during the Secret Service prostitution scandal, a White House staffer was involved as well and his involvement covered up prior to the presidential election.

You remember the story.  The advance team for a presidential visit to Cartagena, Colombia, had engaged local prostitutes and were busted for their actions; a dozen or so were summarily fired and the White House managed to turn it into a Secret Service scandal over which they had no control, as usual, and managed to insulate themselves from any blame, also as usual.

Well, according to today's report two years later, well, not so fast.  Apparently a 25-year-old Yale Law student, on the White House staff as some kind of intern because his father had given the Obama campaign $20,000, was part of that advance team and had hired a prostitute himself.  Worse -- far worse, at least by Watergate standards -- there was a nicely organized cover-up including Janet Napolitano, the DHS Secretary, and Kathryn Ruemmler, the White House counsel.  This included the lead DHS investigator being told to back off any investigation of the White House staffer's involvement in prostitution in Cartagena, at least until after Election Day.  "Being told" means through the Inspector General's office, and given the definitional independence of IGs, it had to come from an office at least as high as Napolitano.

The humor in this, if it can be funny to some, is that the former law student who engaged a foreign national as a prostitute while preparing in-country for a visit by the president of the United States, has been since hired by that president and is now, hilariously, working at the Office of Global Women's Issues.  You can't make this stuff up.

Corruption piles on top of incompetence in this White House, according to the lemmingly left-leaning Post, which actually supported and endorsed Obama in 2012.  For the past year or two, the paper which told us to vote for him has been detailing failures of competence, lack of confidence, incapability, indecision and other negative words on a regular basis.  Now its own investigative reporters have shown not only that the Administration is incompetent, but worse, corrupt.

It is time for something I suppose we have never seen.  Here's my letter to WaPo:

Dear Washington Post,

Please say you are sorry.  In 2012, you advised the voters in the USA to vote for Barack Obama to be president again, despite your chronicling, before and since, the incompetence, the scandals and the other failures that screamed for a competent administrator like, well, the guy running against him.

While it is not that likely that your endorsement tipped the election, it is also true that, had the Washington Post, a leading light amongst the left, actually based its endorsement on what it had been reporting, and suggested that we not reelect the president, that would have gotten people's attention.  It might even had started a real discussion that might have gotten real people thinking, perhaps even voting.

If all you are reporting is true, then you are complicit in the disaster that the government of the USA has become, and you need to be accountable.

Take some responsibility.  Man up.  Say you're sorry.  

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Easy-Peezy Election Day Solution

I have invited my brother over to the house this year to watch the Election Day returns this coming November 4th, hoping for a result that we agree upon.  When he asked me what time to show up, I got to thinking a bit.

Polls will close in some states around 7pm Eastern, and then every hour thereafter some other states will close their polls and results will start trickling in.  The news media do a "reasonable" job of keeping their polling-at-the-polls a secret until the polls in the local area close, but at 7:00:00pm all bets are off.  While folks in California have not even gotten off work yet to vote, we know that the Delaware U.S. Senator race has been called for Candidate X, throwing the Senate in the hands of the Whigs no matter what else happens.  The poor guy in California might as well stay home.  Worse, when states are called in a close presidential year while others are still voting, it's really troubling.

This is forever debated for the issue it truly is.  We are a nation that spans many time zones; it is patently wrong that political results should be publicized while others are still at the polls or haven't even gotten to vote yet.  I'm not sure that there is a left-right debate on this; there is a reasonable vs. status quo debate -- and that is so easy to fix it is pathetic.

I propose a Federal law under which the period of Election Day shall be a fixed 24-hour time from 7pm Eastern time the second Monday in November to 7pm Eastern time the next day.  That equates to 4pm-to-4pm Pacific, and whatever-to-whatever Hawaiian and Alaskan time, but it is the same 24 hours such that all polls close at exactly the same moment.  No results may be released until the polls close, even if every voter in Dixville Notch, NH, has cast his vote in the first five minutes.

How is this not perfect?  Since the polling schedule everywhere is 24 hours, no one's work schedule is affected; there is always a period where you can go vote.  Local precincts with limited volunteers can optionally choose to have blocks of time (say, 1am to 5am) closed with the doors locked and armed guards, if they choose, but the polling places are manned and active up until the universal closing time.  The mechanics are workable.

The best part of this is simply that -- all polls close simultaneously, so the only difference in when the news media call their winners is how fast the returns are counted.  Since the announcements can't influence anyone, because the voting is done by then, all prejudice and disincentives go away.

I really do like this approach, and I have no doubt that it can be successfully implemented in some fashion; whatever the logistics, as long as all stations start and end simultaneously and there's a 24-hour window, this will accomplish its purpose.

Now if the media can maintain their silence regarding exit polls, perhaps ...

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Is That All You Care About?

We are supposedly in the middle of a Republican-driven "War on Women", the outcome of which, like most wars, would be -- well, I don't know, which is part of why I don't subscribe to the idea that there is such a thing -- that and the large amount of fraternizing with the enemy.  Subscribing as I do the notion of seeking a steady state rather than fixing the "now" and then going on to something else, I think there's a war going on, but it's against something else.


OK, let's break out the "A-word", because we know the topics in this mythical war are only two -- contraception (minor) and ABORTION.  I capitalized in their relative priorities.  And, in fact, I'm going to dismiss the issue of contraception quickly, because the only real consternation regarding contraception is who should pay for it.  The strange situation of the unmarried Georgetown Law student complaining because the taxpayers weren't paying for her pills aside, no one in his/her right mind would think that asking people to pay for their own responsibility choices constitutes "war."

So back to the A-word.  May I be excused for thinking that the number of people for whom abortion is their sine qua non political issue and reason for voting whichever way they do is far, far lower than the noise made by both sides in its regard?  I mean, it is not exactly a "who cares" issue, but it's not far behind.  The economy, public health, ISIS, tax policy, welfare statism, the Packers, my lawn, oh, I don't know.

The problem is that the screaming on the issue has made it to be far more than it is.  There is no "settled law"; there is the case of Roe v. Wade, and a bunch of state laws which vary all over.  This is no surprise, and is actually appropriate in the USA, given that moral issues default to the state and local governments, and abortion is surely a moral issue.

Moral issues are those of right and wrong, simple as that.  In some cases, these are absolute -- murder is wrong, theft is wrong, and the list goes on.  The overwhelming number of faiths, belief systems and societal norms have decided such.  Abortion, well, not so much.  If you believe that life begins at conception, then abortion is murder.  If you believe it begins when the child can live on its own outside the womb, then abortion before that time is not; it is a "choice", although I take issue with the contention that only one of the two authors of the new volume gets to make that choice.

How, then, do we deal with a case where the opinions on which the morality rests divide sufficiently that there is no consensus and isn't going to be one?  Well, two things:
(1) Legally, we dump the issue on the states and let the local opinion dominate, as the Constitution suggests we do; if you don't like the way your state deals with it, vote for the other guy or move.
(2) Go worry about something else and stop trying to persuade the other side.

Does it not occur to you that the vast majority of Americans have done exactly that, moved on and started worrying about other things?  When, after 50 years of loud argument by a very few, the morality meter has stayed put, the very few need to concede that they're not going to change the American psyche.  Move on, as the rest of us surely have.

In my idle thoughts, I sometimes wonder what I would say if I were running for Senator and were asked "What is your opinion on abortion?"  The answer is pretty simple.  "Regardless of my own personal feelings on abortion", I would say, "of which, for the record, I have none, this is a moral issue on which the populace is split.  Where moral issues become the subject of legislative concern, they default to local government.  I'm running for U.S. Senator, therefore I will oppose Federal legislation which either subsidizes or prevents abortion.  Laws should be written at the appropriate level for the nature of the issue and for the Constitutional direction, and for abortion, the Federal government is not it.  The American taxpayer should not pay for someone else's medical treatment thought by half the country to be murder; nor should it proscribe such treatment thought by the other half to be a rightful action to seek out." 

Then I would add, "I also challenge the question.  This is not an issue which more than 5% of the country feels important enough to base their votes on.  It makes more sense to spend valuable time discussing tax reform, the deficit, foreign threats and shrinking government, where we can do some good, than a fringe issue on which no one should rest their vote."

There's a war going on, but it is on common sense and rational priorities.

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton

Monday, October 6, 2014

Give That Girl a Cheeseburger ... Quick

Two years ago, the image below caught my eye.  It was the advertisement in a bridal magazine for a collection of wedding gowns from the designer Reem Acra, which was being offered at the bridal section of Saks Jandel, a Washington DC store.  I was the part-owner of a bridal salon at the time, so I did occasionally look at such magazines, in case you were wondering.  So please indulge me and look at the picture, and react as you might normally before reading ahead.

If you are a normal guy, you will look at the picture for 1.66 seconds and think "Yeah, a wedding gown.  What time do the 'Skins play?"  A normal woman will look at it relative to what she might choose to wear, or did wear, on her wedding day; "more (or less) poof than I want", "right (or wrong) neckline", that kind of thing.

I saw the picture for the first time, and my first reaction was to ask what, pray tell, the expression on the model's face was supposed to show.  Really, having watched innumerable bridal scenes in my life, including the live one wherein I married my best girl, I expect that a girl on her wedding day is supposed to be happy as all get-out.  Now, I confess that the cell-phone camera shot of a magazine photo may not exactly portray the expression on this model's face well, but trust me -- happy it ain't.

Let's face it; there are only two things one could infer from the expression on that girl's face that she is trying to say:
(1) I'm a captive in a photographer's basement and he's making me dress in this gown
(2) I need a cheeseburger so bad it hurts

So I have to ask the logical questions, and there are three:
(1) What was Reem Acra trying to portray, showing an obviously unhappy girl on her wedding day?
(2) What did the photographer ask the model to think of to get that expression?
(3) For lack of a better way to phrase it, why?

I really don't care that you're supposed to look at the dress, not the model; I'm a guy and I'm going to look at the model, however briefly.  And here's what I see ... an obviously malnourished model in something like distress, except that she's dressed in a wedding gown.  What in Heaven's name was Reem Acra trying to show?  That girl is not happy, but they think brides are supposed to look at that picture and run to Saks Jandel to buy the gown, so that they can be ... what, unhappy?  Malnourished?

Without getting too far into the whole anorexic-model in the size minus-2 dress thing, it does play a part, especially combined with the distressed expression.  I seriously want to know what the image they were going for was, and I want to know, from women, why they think that picture would get them interested in pursuing a dress from either the manufacturer or the people involved in selling that image.  I would love to have the photographer sitting across from me and tell me not only what he/she was going for and asked the model to express, but what he/she was told to project as an image for the dress.

I'll tell you right now, I don't like it.  I don't like the depiction of women cowering away from the camera; I don't like the starving of models to get clothes to hang a particular way; I want brides to be happy and portrayed as such; and I seriously suspect some kind of not-too-subliminal message going on in this picture and I absolutely want to know what it is.

Because, friends, that poor girl needs a cheeseburger and I want to know why she doesn't have one.

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton

Friday, October 3, 2014

There's Snow on the Roof, But We're Still Valuable

We're on to you.

"You" in the above means "employers", and you have a dirty little secret that you might not even be aware of yourselves.  You don't like older employee candidates and don't know how to avoid hiring them.

Here's what is going on.  We're all aware that personnel departments, which somehow started being called "Human Resources" or "HR", are paranoid at the prospect of being sued for any kind of discrimination, while they're perpetually making themselves VPs and SVPs of HR or some other title too senior for their actual responsibility level.  So they start developing practices that insulate themselves against lawsuits.

Five years ago my wife was looking for a new job as a contracts manager.  You need to know, if you're not familiar with the contracting profession in metropolitan D.C., that "contracts managers" are the people who ensure that when the Government buys something, the seller (contractor) of the service or product complies with the myriad regulations associated with that purchase.  Openings for such people abound, and good ones are hard to find and seldom available.  One would have thought that one such as the Missus, with many references, long experience and an excellent work ethic, would have been snapped up in a minute.

Well, not so fast.  A funny thing happened on the way to employment.  She was repeatedly interviewed by a number of companies in need, certainly.  But then she noticed a pattern -- the company would bring her in for a second interview, the president or CEO would tell her how much they looked forward to working with her, and then ... radio silence forever.  Not a letter that they'd changed their minds, not an email that they were interviewing other candidates, or had closed the requisition, or been acquired by another company.  There was no communication, and no response to inquiries or returned calls.

The interesting thing is that these would be precisely the actions you would think a company would take if they had called references and came up with a felony conviction, or a history of lying or stalking or something.  Only one problem -- she had a sterling reputation in the industry, and her references were loud in their chorus of praise.  There were no mitigating circumstances, except for one little problem.  She was 58 years old.

I respect her viewpoint enough that when she started to see this pattern among companies that she'd interviewed and suspected age discrimination, I listened, but I couldn't imagine that it was true, given the tight market to find people with her background.  Yet after two years and no offers, it was difficult to come up with an alternative answer, even though I had never experienced that specific treatment in an interview.

Then, remarkably, my company was forced to lay off half its work force and I was in the searching mode myself.  Although I was almost immediately consulting privately to pay the mortgage, I was avidly interviewing for permanent employment.  Funny thing -- I started to experience the same peculiar treatment, the great words from executives followed by total cessation of contact, that my wife had.  At 59, I was startled to discover that there was a pattern, and I didn't like it.

Having never discussed this with anyone to prejudice their answers, I started polling my colleagues about their experiences in the job market -- and I have many friends in the business to ask.  Rather surprisingly, I discovered that the pattern of post-interview silence was almost universally experienced at some point by one group of colleagues, while another never encountered it at all.

The former group was of those at least 55 years old.  The latter group was of those colleagues under 50.  Eureka, and not in the good way.

I was logging onto a Careers site for a large company a while back, and found myself forced to put in the year of my college graduation.  I balked at that, and called the company, telling them that effectively they were asking applicants to state their age, which is illegal (if you graduated college in 1973 as I did, you can be assured they know you're over 60).  I'm getting a bit sensitive about that sort of thing.  LinkedIn has it if anyone's that interested.

I have to think there is a better way to deal with us, ye of HR.  I don't need to tell you that we bring experience, maturity, good work ethics, etc.; you know that.  You have chosen to pay less for less experience, less maturity, etc., and that's fine.  We get what a business decision is; we're not stupid.  But we're also human beings and Americans, and we deserve the respect to be treated in a reasonable manner even when you want someone younger and cheaper.

It is illegal to tell us that we're too old.  It isn't illegal to tell us that you don't need to pay extra for our experience and are going with someone more junior.  If that's the way you think, then for God's sake say so.  Don't blow smoke up our butts; don't stop talking to us because your HR Executive Senior Lord High VP doesn't know how to tell  people they're too old for their plans without getting sued.  Show us the respect our experience has earned.

I'm still consulting four years later, and just this week encountered the same silence pattern after an initial interview for a permanent position, which reminded me I wanted to write this piece.  It's not, as I said, about what we have to offer.  It's about honesty and honor.

We're big boys and girls; you can tell us.

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Other Reason for Term Limits

Back about twenty years, the Republicans somewhat startlingly captured control of the US House of Representatives, a body they had not been dominant over for decades.  The rout was so complete that the reigning Speaker, Tom Foley, was defeated in the State of Washington for his own district.

The strategy behind the Republicans centered on the "Contract with America", a set of principles stating what the Republicans would try to do if they took the House.  Among the Contract's planks was that of implementing limits on the length of time a Senator or Representative could serve.  I don't recall if the objective were two Senate terms and six in the house, but it was something like that.  We certainly have had some voluntary term-limiting, some individuals agreeing in advance to serve only a certain number of terms and declining to run thereafter, but in general little has changed.

The typical reasons for promoting the concept of term limits seem to center on encrustation -- too many people there for too long, corrupting them; or proponents feel that the purpose of service is not a lifelong seat in Congress; or the risk that they lose touch with the taxpayer whose money they spend.  There is a host of reasons for this concept.

I want to point toward one specific one, though it is seldom mentioned.

Congress does its work under the committee concept.  Ways and Means handles budgetary concerns; Foreign Relations works with State matters; Armed Services works with the military, etc.  The committee chairmen are powerful individuals whose availability for assignment as chairmen is driven by and derives from one key attribute -- seniority.  And therein lays a powerful reason to promote term limits.

We have suffered through the impact of judicial rulings which suggest that congressional districts can or must be revised to ensure majority-racial composition.  The presumption, which should make our skin crawl, is that "black districts" (which universally vote far left) are needed in order to ensure that there are black congressmen.  That, of course relies on the further presumption that people should be represented by those of their own race, which is more contemptible when you realize that the USA is perfectly capable, even without court direction, of electing a president whose father came here from Kenya.

The Law of Unintended Consequences (which sometimes trumps gravity) applied thereafter; with black voters concentrated in certain districts, they were in turn carved out of whatever district they were in, pushing those former districts further to the right as the new districts were pushed to the left.  As a result, both districts became less heterogeneous and more "safe", and the more-entrenched congressmen became more liberal or conservative to match their newly-polarized constituency.  Ta-da, instant polarization and gridlock, thanks to your court system meddling.

Look at the result one more time: polarized, long-seated congressmen.  Keep that thought for a moment.

So term limits ... the power in Congress is held by those who are around the longest and achieved the seniority whence comes the committee chairmanships.  The seniority is achieved by those in the safest (meaning "most left and most right") districts.  In the Senate, where the "districts" are the whole states, the power is in the most politically homogeneous states -- reliably leftist states such as Massachusetts, California, New York, and reliably conservative states such as Idaho, Utah and Mississippi.  A senator in one of those states can serve 30 years -- many have -- and have plum committee chairmanships for years.

So if the expectation of the Founders in creating a bicameral legislature was to provide equivalent representation to all citizens of all states, then I have a problem.  A state like Florida, which has a mix of viewpoints in its populace and can send either party's candidate to the Senate, ends up without long-serving senators, while Idaho or California voters can have far longer-serving senators.  With the power accruing to the long-tenured through committee chairmanships, the voters of Florida are less-capably and less-powerfully represented in Congress, and are accordingly being punished for their heterogeneity.

In this argument, it is not so much the term length as the seniority system that is the culprit, producing largely unequal representation dependent on one's address.  Term limits would necessarily impose some type of replacement system for doling out key positions -- and how many years someone had been able to persuade his constituency to send him back would no longer be a factor in their representation.  More importantly, incumbency for incumbency's sake would no longer be a campaign strategy -- "I will be powerful and can bring home the pork" goes away.

Let's think that one through, shall we?

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Put the Great Teodoro on the List

I happened to come across an item on Al Gore's Amazing Internet recently that celebrated the greatest Latino ballplayers in history.  I've no issue with the inclusion of those who were honored -- Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Albert Pujols, Omar Vizquel, Tony Perez ... the names ring true as great ballplayers in pantheon of the major leagues.

Conspicuous in his absence, however, was a Latino outfielder who played in the majors in four decades, and whose entire career was spent with a single team, at least when he wasn't off fighting in two wars (or one war and a police action, depending on whom you ask).  His greatness as a player is unquestioned.  In fact, in the history of the majors, this amigo ranks second among all players in history in OPS at 1.115, behind Babe Ruth. To give you an idea of what 1.115 means, the leader in the majors this year was the Tigers' Victor Martinez at 0.974.  In other words, taking the two offensive figures most closely tied to run production and combining them, our Latino was some 15% more productive for his career than the best hitter in 2014 was for a single season.

No doubt you have discerned that our amigo is none other than the Splendid Splinter, old Teddy Ballgame himself, the immortal Ted Williams.  And you have also inferred that the piece is not about his greatness as a player, which is inarguable, but his Hispanicity.

The facts are the facts (a Sheldon Cooperesque tautology).  Ted was the older son of Samuel Williams, a Welsh-English-blooded photographer, and Micaela "Salvation May" Venzor, a Texas-born daughter of Mexican immigrants and unquestionably Mexican on both sides.  This leaves Ted Williams as 50% Latino, and ironically leaves us in the curious position of looking at Ted Williams as being exactly as Hispanic as Barack Obama is black.

So why, pray tell, do we call Obama the "first black president" and yet no one ever offers up Ted Williams as the "first Latino superstar ballplayer"?  They are precisely the same percentage of "preferential" blood, and yet society simply does not celebrate their status in the same way.  In fact, while had he not left us in 2002, the conservative Williams would never have voted for the very-left Obama, he certainly would have shaken hands with him (and yelled at him, if you know Ted), much as he made it a point to warm up before games by throwing with Pumpsie Green, the Red Sox' first black player in the '50s.  Always conscious of his roots, Ted was simply not a prejudiced man.

I can't help but link this point to my piece yesterday about granting preferential treatment in government contracting based on the race of the owner of a company.  I'd love to have seen a discussion at the Small Business Administration if Ted Williams and Barack Obama each showed up to apply for certification for each of their businesses as "disadvantaged."  One grew up in dire poverty in San Diego, living off fried potatoes and dying for his next turn at bat; the other with a Harvard Law education and no ancestry of slavery or ghetto life ... the former a Caucasian half-Hispanic, the latter a black but half-Caucasian.  Why, pray tell, should either, neither or both be treated differently from, say, an immigrant Bosnian escaping war with the shirt on his back, or a privileged child of physicians in India who comes here well-heeled to start a new life, but is eligible for the "disadvantaged" title.

We either start by deciding Ted is a great Latino, or we simply stop worrying about blood and focus on accomplishment.

Copyright 2014 by Robert Sutton