Sunday, November 28, 2010

Giving Thanks 2010

In these days of endless drumbeats of gloom ’n doom, it can seem a fertile time for bountiful pessimism. But as this year’s Thanksgiving holiday comes to a close, perhaps we need to counterbalance that pessimism by focusing on a broader view of our current state of things.

Our biggest shortcoming is that around 9½% of our working population is not working. But 91.5% are working, even if some of them are not in jobs of their ideal preference. That is nine people of potential help to every one unemployed individual. How do we bring that potential support network to bear?

Most small businesspeople are struggling. But most big corporate/multi-national businesses are enjoying record profits. A significant portion of that profit is coming from international business, not domestic. Yet corporate CEOs complain that they cannot hire because of supposed “future business uncertainty” out of Washington rather than admitting that they are doing just fine, thank you very much, with higher productivity and more work from the employees they have already. Executive pay continues to grow comfortably; middle-class employee income has been stagnant for years. How can that profitability be spread around among those who are truly generating it – or need a new opportunity?

1½ years ago, our American-iconic automobile industry was verging on collapse. Decades of incompetency, can’t-do and non-competitive / non-innovative thinking had finally caught up to them. Today, in spite of all the rhetoric of a “government takeover,” the industry is plunging forward, creating the cars they said for years couldn’t be made, competing successfully on quality, all under long-awaited new leadership. Left alone, supposed free-enterprise capitalists almost caused 2 million industry and affiliated jobs to be lost; a supposedly “socialist” government intervention restored capitalism to a nearly dying industry. Who woulda thunk?

Two years ago John McCain “suspended” his presidential campaign (for about 3 days!) to race back to Washington to “help save our economy from collapse” at the hands of the financial / banking industry. As it turned out, McCain had no ideas to offer, and went back to campaigning. Talk of a full-scale depression with 20+% unemployment filled the airwaves. Economic indicators were all in the negative. It was a truly frightening time, with no parallel experience in the lifetimes of all Americans born after 1940. Today all these discussions have magically disappeared. Now we spend our time instead arguing about how we did/did not accomplish this return to stability, and talking endlessly while avoiding the hard steps needed to prevent a future recurrence of this catastrophic greed. But now there is no economic depression scenarios backdropping our conversations. I may not like that a “too big to fail” strategy let a lot of guilty financiers off the hook without impact on their personal finances. But I will accept that Grapes of Wrath – The Sequel has so far not had to be written.

Credit card and other consumer debt has thankfully continued to fall as people restructure their finances to something more viable. Selling one’s home takes longer than in memory, but prices are no longer continuing to drop significantly. Many home mortgages are still in jeopardy, but hundreds of thousands have been redone by the FDIC to prevent foreclosure. The shameful tragedy is that commercial banks did not follow the FDIC’s lead, even thought they could have – which had they done so would have actually improved their income statements instead of depressing their profits through foreclosures. Short-term thinking one again trumped long-term investment and the public good.

Yes, we still have our problems, issues to resolve, hurdles to overcome. And there are many different voices pitching many different proposals for “next steps.” Far too many of these ideas are ill-thought and/or self-serving for personal benefit. But somewhere in that cacophony of hollering are the thoughtful, innovative, free-thinking and substantive ideas that have the potential to lead us all to a collective better place. But those beneficial ideas need nurturing to survive, grow, and stand out from the meaningless noise. That nurturing includes our willingness to listen and discern carefully; to think unselfishly in favor of a greater good; to take a step or two backward in order to advance two or more steps forward; to be willing to live and work differently from before if we want things to be different; to separate out true thinkers and leaders from the hucksters who want our votes and/or money for their own reward.

Coming back from this deep a hole, while fighting political battles instead of creating economic solutions, with unpunished guilty persons preventing future course corrections, was never going to be quick or easy. Our short-term impatience is quite unrealistic (and immature), however justifiably frustrated we may often become. But Americans are bright and creative people – we have not yet lost that national characteristic. We are a pretty resilient people, and after a grief period we typically go about what needs to be done – and get it done. And when we have come together to act collectively in the same direction, we typically have come out of our adversity stronger than ever.

So that is our focus for this Thanksgiving. In the midst of our struggle, we have endured far worse. We have stabilized the patient, and have moved out of ER and into intensive care; almost every indicator is moving in the right direction. Progress has been achieved; more progress is on the radar. For those bright candles within the large darkness, we do give thanks. And give ourselves an interim pat on the tush.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Election 2010 - Reflections

Another bi-annual election has come and gone. One that confirms that our level of enlightened discussion about truly relevant and critical issues continues its decade-long free-fall into a new modern-day era of the Dark Ages. Regardless of one’s political views or party affiliation, we should all collectively hope that a new Age of Reason is around the corner. But such a corner frankly escapes my present view. So what did we see and hear in the many months leading up to this election? And what did we learn and take away from this election day?

In sum, the American people are confused, angry, impatient, and willing to strike at anything they can hit in order to express those feelings. It was clearly an “agin’er” election, a search for the lesser of unacceptable choices – logic or rationale be dammed. It was the third straight major swing of majority representation, with all the potential for a 4th straight swing again in 2012. It demonstrated the heightened volatility of our electorate, with a mixture of winners and losers scattered about like roadside litter. So let us set aside for the moment all the self-indulgent and self-promoting claims and hyperbole of the politicians, political consultants, and cable TV pundits, and see if we can sort out some modicum of sense from these latest results.

Clearly, this election was one that in the end mostly favored candidates with “Republican” beside their names. And for a party pronounced “all but dead” after 2008, they are entitled to be complimented for their achievement. Yet, something I have not seen before, in almost every political TV ad that I saw, candidates never identified him/herself as either Republican or Democrat. Some claimed to be “the conservative choice,” but generally it was a race between this person versus the evil / corrupt / unethical “other guy.” Given that both political parties are currently rated so low by the populace, their hiding of political affiliation shouts at a high volume. And it also thereby seriously undermines any claim to victory by the Republican Party.

Similarly, the dramatic shift in majority party was in the House, where Republicans replaced over 60 Democrats. But statistical analysis showed that most of these shifts happened in already-normally Republican districts. These were districts Obama and Democrats had stolen away in 2006 and 2008 given high dissatisfaction with Bush Republicans. Now these voters were returning to their traditional fold. This has to be a big disappointment for Democrats looking to court red states turning blue, but it is not an unnatural cycle.

Democrats also won some key, and perhaps unexpected, victories, e.g. California, Nevada and Colorado. In one recent post-election poll, only 40% of voters supported “the Republican Agenda” – whatever that may prove to be. This further reinforces the view that this was an “agin’er” election, not an endorsement of much of anyone on either side. Especially when you factor in all the Republicans who were turned out in their own primary elections and who never even made it to November. Which is why the number of new faces in Congress is significantly higher than just the winning seat count. There are now a lot of new kids on the block thumping for attention the next two years.

Which brings us to the phenomena of the Tea Party movement. A fair number of candidates claiming that label got elected, so that “movement” will have to be paid attention to and courted by some future political candidates. But such candidates also lost some key races – mainly statewide versus district races, often fielding some pretty marginal (flaky?) candidates. So the Tea Party appeal clearly has its limits, not just with the obvious liberal voters but also with a significant core of Independents. Quality of the candidates still thankfully matters. Sarah Palin’s endorsement helped some, but it was no guarantee of success. Witness her inability to oust her avowed nemesis Murkowski in her own home state of Alaska. Talent still matters too. The Republican establishment tried to corral and manage the Tea Party, but with limited success. This group will likely cause more problems for Republicans than the Democrats will!

It was not a good day for rich CEOs – not a group with much fan support these days. The three biggies (California, Connecticut) spent millions of their own money, and all three lost. Being a CEO seems less attractive today than being a politician – incumbent or otherwise. After the Wall Street excesses, being a good CEO is not much of a job qualification right now.

So with all these outcomes and the public temperament, why would anyone (besides the highly limited and untalented Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell) try to claim an endorsement for their political party or agenda? John Boehner, incoming Speaker, has so far spoken cautiously, unlike senate counterpart McConnell. Marco Rubio, the sanest and most charismatic of the “new conservatives,” spoke accurately when he said voters had not endorsed Republicanism, only given it a second chance – because they did not like what Obama and Democrats had delivered versus their expectations. It is not that the vast majority are so upset at things like “Obamacare” or other such campaign rhetoric; their anger is over the economy combined with the political process of Washington. Jobs, secure employment, loss of income, loss of homes, slippage in real income, loss of faith that tomorrow will be better – these are the electorate’s concerns, while they perceive corporate America to be doing fine with all kinds of assistance from Washington lawmakers. They wanted a new “transparency and cooperation” from our legislators, but the political deal-making they watched unfolding only affirmed how badly distasteful the legislative process has become.

Economic insecurity and unfairness are driving voters today, and a Washington that continues to be consumed with self-serving political gamesmanship while problems and needs go unaddressed may well be the foundation for another potential sweeping in 2012. People are looking for action that yields results that creates positive outcomes for them. Political distrust and lack of confidence is at an all-time high. Political party affiliation, infighting, and “business as usual” – for business and not for people – will be the likely climate of the next two years, with the prospect of little substantive accomplishment. It is a climate that people will not tolerate, because they are still looking for a representative government that they feel represents them and their goals, and they could care less about party, incumbency, or political/governmental philosophy. They are impatient for a real change in political life, and jaded about the likelihood of achieving it. Party/incumbent loyalty runs very shallow, because people are still shopping for the person(s) who can deliver on their real goals. This is the true message of 2010. The politician, or the party, who ignores that message does so at his/her own political peril.