Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Are Americans Qualified to Dis-Qualify?

"Straight talk." 

Possibly the most ironic term used in politics. 

Remember the "Straight Talk Express?". Yeah, the one with John McCain and the pretty blue bus, the one that canvassed the country in 2000, then was brought out of mothballs for another run at the Presidency in 2008. The 'Straight Talk Express' was going to give it to America 'straight.' That, of course, was before he turned the wheel over to an inexperienced housewife from Alaska, without giving anyone the straight talk on why he chose her as a running mate. She drove it into a cliff...right around the time she accused Katie Couric of slipping her a mickey...

But, today, straight talk seems like a good place to start. 

So, I'll give it a try and give it to you straight. 

I'm not qualified to be a "political analyst" or a "political scientist". Despite an undergrad minor in history and a lifelong interest in politics, I am here to tell you that I am no more qualified to analyze an election, or tell you who to vote for, than I am qualified to surgically remove your gall bladder. 

There was a time, a much simpler time, where that alone would almost prevent me entirely from influencing votes, or political thinking. I'm not that old, but I'm old enough to remember when one was writing or spouting about something meant that one actually had to 'know' about that 'something', at least to generate an audience or following - aka - a constituency. 

But in this era of "new media", I can get on the web and blog away. I can tell you what I think. I can give you my opinions, call it ideology, call it rhetoric, call it my duty as a citizen to 'inform'; in other words: give you the 'straight talk' you apparently so desperately need. 

Yet, certainly, even my passionate concern for country - combined with an increasingly rabid political curiosity and appetite - doesn't qualify me to tell you how to vote. I mean, I cook some pretty mean meatballs, but no one is beating down my door with offers to open a Cantina.  

So, why is it then, that we're all seemingly clamoring to insert the next inexperienced politician into seats of Senate and Congress based purely on ideological rhetoric?

The Tea Party? Seriously? Do any of you really know what that means? Do any of you recognize the aptly named, "10 Commandments of the Contract with America" - the Tea Party's very own operating doctrine?

Wait, let me give you the 'straight talk' on that question:

No, you don't. At least not 19 of the 20 Tea Party backers that I recently polled. Yes, the poll was informal. I reached out to 20 people over the past few weeks whom I consider friends, who also represent themselves as "Tea Party supporters". No (disclaimer), I am not qualified as a political pollster. But the findings were surprising...or alarming...

19 out of 20 couldn't name a single tenet of the 'Tea Party 10'. 

For the cheap seats - that's 19 out of 20 - or 95%. Potentially 95% of Tea Party supporters - at least the ones I know - don't even know what the Tea Party is about. When I pressed the issue with each of them, I got consistently vague and generalized versions of the following responses:

"It's about smaller government"
"It's about defending the Constitution"
"It's about repealing things like Obamacare"
"It's about giving America back to the people, to the taxpayers"

Bailouts...blah, blah, spending...blah, blah...

I asked, all 20, if anyone could give me the very first of the 10 aforementioned "commandments". No one could. For the record, it reads: 'Identify Constitutionality of Every New Law."

Why is this relevant? Seriously, you may be asking that (though I hope not). 

In point of fact, I was asked that very question, in some form or fashion, by about half of the Tea Party people I talked to. It came out something like this, "Why does it matter if I know the exact wording, I just know I'm for smaller government and lower taxes..."


So, this is our current political landscape. Details, facts, substance - they no longer matter. The only things that do, in this day and age, are ideologies, rhetoric and sound-bites. 

I mean, how else do we end up with people like Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell? To be fair, I don't have the Constitution memorized either, but when the Tea Party came into the national spotlight, even just as an observer, I downloaded a copy of The US Constitution months ago on my PC and carry one on my Android phone. I don't know, call me a nerd, but if everyone in every race is debating the "constitutionality" of the issues, I'd like to think at least the candidates would become familiar with the Constitution. I even downloaded and keep a copy of the Tea Party's "Contract with America".

Have you actually seen this? I'll be the first to concede that it was produced by "left-leaning" CNN...but...come on...

(HINT: It's Christine O'Donnell. She's running for SENATE - as in US Senate - not Senator of the local Rotary). 

So the obvious question should be, "do we really want representatives in Washington voting on laws, voting on confirmation of justices to our courts, when they don't even remotely understand THE founding document of the United States?" 


"Do we want a Tea Party that claims, "We Are You" when they're not represented or supported by a single Democrat? I mean, does being "you" mean that I have to favor a one-party system, or that only one political ideology is going to give my family the best chance at success and prosperity?"

But we don't ask those questions. Not today. Most Tea Party folks have actually tricked themselves into believing that the Tea Party is a 3rd party alternative to the two-party system. Hey, smart guy, it's NOT. It's the Republican Party - only more ludicrously off-center. It's a party that would like to one day be called "Constitutionalists", even as they put forth candidates who haven't ever read the US Constitution. 

Today, all many of us care about is the loudest voice in the room. When people are frustrated - and given the US Economy's performance over the last 5+ years, a lot of people should be frustrated - we tend to get angry. We tend to yell. The difference now is, the ones doing most of the yelling are the ones that say the least. 

Being 'qualified to share an opinion' has eroded simply to 'being capable of sharing an opinion'. 

I mean, I'm bothered by the fact that Suze Orman can call herself a financial expert based on her 6 years as a stockbroker before launching her own fund. Yes, it's frightening that someone with so little experience and formal education was listed in 2009 as "Forbes 18th most influential woman in the media", but she's not running for elected office. 

And, yes, I'm legitimately bothered by the fact that people like Perez Hilton drive pop culture. He's undoubtedly the single most influential blogger on the planet. But again, he's not running for office. 

So, if I can be allowed to impress just one message onto the masses prior to election day, it would be this:
"Do a little research people. Not a lot. We know how busy most of you are piecing your life back together since Obamacare rolled off the senate floor. But do enough to know what side you're really on. Read the health care bill before you say you oppose it. Read the 1st, 14th, 16th & 17th amendments before you side with the Party that has indicated a desire to repeal or revise them. I mean, we all love the notion of lower taxes, and lower Federal spending. I like to think that most of us would consider ourselves supporters of the US Constitution, without necessarily knowing every passage and amendment. But, if you're going to vote, either for a party that bases it's entire modus on Constitutionality, then you should probably know more than you do."

Finally, yes, I'm legitimately bothered by the fundamental notion that I can hop online and spout about whatever. But I am certain that when I do, I have researched my topic and if challenged on my points, I can defend them. Even so, I'm not running for office...but...

Did I mention I cook some pretty mean meatballs? Care to fund my Cantina?

Monday, October 11, 2010

When can a Princeton degree cost you your job?

The 2010 Governor Race; what Governor Ehrlich needs to do to win and why MD needs him back.

Dear Governor Ehrlich,
The (once) great state of Maryland needs you back. You know it. After all, it's why you let the citizens and those close to you talk you in to running again in 2010. It's why, despite the sting from that 2006 election, you decided you'd take on O'Malley one more time. It's why, despite all the rhetoric and political ads, you truly believe that you're the best choice to steer our state. Finally, it's because you and just about everyone of sound mind and body, realize that we Marylanders are not better off than we were 4 years ago, not just as individual citizens (yes, there's a recession), but mostly as a state. 

But that's where this whole campaign loses its way. When it should be simple, it's complex. So, Governor Ehrlich, can we put away the signs, the ads, the rhetoric, the mudslinging and just ask the simple, obvious question?

Are you, as a Marylander, better off today than you were 4 years ago???

That's it. 

It's that simple. 

It's your mantra. 

Read and repeat. 

It's like novocaine. It may come on slow, but it works. 

Maybe it's that Princeton education. On an individual level, I get it. My brother graduated from Princeton. There is no legion of alumni more capable of over-thinking a simple problem than the Tigers...

To an extent, we all get it. We know that O'Malley is in a band. We know that he's got that Kennedy-esque sex appeal that comes from the type of suit, shirt and tie pairings that you detest. We know he thinks more about his complexion in a day than you or anyone should in a lifetime. We know he's a political artist, that he's going to take dirty shots at you, that his ads will be largely misleading sound-bites in lieu of fundamental fact. We know he's going to run more of them than you, that he's  going to target his base and that his ads are going to be sexier contortions of the truth than you are willing or able to put out. 

But that's not the message. The message is much more simple:

Are you, as a Marylander, better off than you were 4 years ago?

We know he's going to buy every vote he can in Baltimore City with that downtown, "we Democrats know what it's like in the inner-city" swag. We even know how he's going to pay for it - using your budget surplus from 2006. Yes, we know you left MD with a budget surplus - despite inheriting a deficit from Glendenning. And, yes, we realize that O'Malley has run up the tab on MD again, burying us in a $1.4B hole. Finally, yes, we know he's going to keep blaming you, even 4 years later, for having to fix it the only way he knows how, with more taxes... 

But that's not the message. The message is much more simple:

Are you, as a Marylander, better off than you were 4 years ago?

Speaking of taxes, we know that Mr. O'Malley increased our state sales tax by 20%. Yes, 20%. A 20% tax, across the board, on everyone in Maryland, during the "Great Recession". We know that there's no excuse for that. We know that you can't possibly mention it too often. We know it's a disaster. We even know you have said you wish to repeal it. 

But that's not the message. The message is much more simple:

Are you, as a Marylander, better off than you were 4 years ago?

We know he's going to run on his education record in Montgomery County. We know he's going to run ads reminding Marylanders how, even though Montgomery County was going broke, he invested in schools and test scores improved. We know that you did the same thing, only better, because your commitment to education didn't come with tax increases that pushed everyone who actually PAYS taxes out of Montgomery County (thanks Mr. O'Malley). We know you endorsed the Thornton Plan. We get it, O'Malley wasn't spending his money on MD schools - he was spending yours. 

But that's not the message. The message is much more simple:

Are you, as a Marylander, better off than you were 4 years ago?

We know that you and Mr. O'Malley are going to take turns blaming each other for the 72% BGE rate hike. We're just as sure that Mr. O'Malley is going to continue blaming you, even painting you as an energy lobbyist, ignoring the fact that it was you who negotiated the hike down from 72% to 19% - to be phased in over time, back in 2006, when every utility in America was raising rates 50% or more. 

But that's not the message. The message is much more simple:

Are you, as a Marylander, better off than you were 4 years ago?

We even know that O'Malley is going to paint himself as the 'environmentalist' in the bunch, as all Democratic candidates somehow manage to do, whether they are or not. We know he's going to point to his record on the Chesapeake Bay. Yes, we know that was your doing as well. And we know that the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Act, the one YOU signed in 2004, was hailed as the most sweeping environmental legislation in Maryland state history. We know Mr. O'Malley raided it like a kid's piggy bank when he came up short on the budget. 

But that's not the message. The message is much more simple:

Are you, as a Marylander, better off than you were 4 years ago?

We even know that O'Malley is going to take credit for slots, or at least when it benefits his campaign, even though you supported a plan 7 years ago that our state legislature was too inept to approve. We know that the measure's slow, painful death on the legislature floor was more Mike Busch's political gamesmanship than it was flawed thinking. We know that he's also going to take credit for passing the measure and potentially generating the revenue, but that he's going to do it while criticizing your law firm for representing the developers of the site. We know he called them "morally bankrupt" when you were Governor and he was Mayor. We know he's going to pick a side, then change it, to suit his political gain. We know he's going to bury us in rhetoric, in sound-bites, in diversion. 

But that's not the message. The message is much more simple:

Are you, as a Marylander, better off than you were 4 years ago?

We know Mr. O'Malley is going to flat out lie every time he talks about his 'pro-business' economic policies. We know he's going to appeal to the individual working voter by jumping on the Obama small business bandwagon. We know that, even with everything else listed above, this is by far his greatest departure from the truth. We know that CNBC ranks Maryland in the bottom half of "best states to do business", even though Washington DC gives us one of the most stable economic bases in the world and even as our neighboring Virginia ranks #2. We know we're also ranked #43 (out of 50) in 'cost of doing business' and #45 in 'cost of living' - in spite of having the 18th strongest overall economy. No, we don't need a Princeton Economics degree to realize that, when you have a great economy, and you border Washington DC - which spends money like Paris Hilton on vacation, you should rank higher than #43, and #45. 

But EVEN THAT'S not the message. At least not the message that's going to get you back in the mansion up the street from my house. The message you need to win is much more simple:

Are you, as a Marylander, better off than you were 4 years ago?

So, this is my plea, to you and your campaign. Put away the ads. Scrap 'em. Do what you do best: roll up your sleeves and remind Marylanders what's at stake here. Remind Marylanders that it's not about who's sexier, who dresses better, who can BS and glad-hand better. It's about the future of our state, about the future of our state's businesses. It's about one simple thing: Are you, as a Marylander, better off than you were 4 years ago? It's all Marylanders need to make their decision. I, for one, know it's harder today than it was 4 years ago. I know it will be harder still, in 4 more years. I know that I, like other local business owners, am looking hard at moving my business out of this state, and I know that's not what Maryland wants or needs. What Maryland needs is you. 

So, Governor Ehrlich, are you better off than you were 4 years ago?

For the sake of our state, let's hope you can answer that question with a smile this November. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Obamacare, Tax Cuts, Gold Teeth & The Boat Show

How America's "Culture Crisis" extends beyond the inner-city ER to burn like a wild-fire in America's sub-burbs and gated communities. 

By now, I think it's safe to say that virtually every American who both follows current events and has a Facebook account (at least every upper-middle-class white American) has seen and at least considered re-posting the op-ed letter to the editor from Starner Jones, MD written to the Clarion Ledger in Mississippi. It's turned into quite the rallying cry for the 50% or so Americans who oppose "Obamacare"...

For those of you who haven't, here it is, in it's original AND viral forms.

In essence, it's a patent condemnation of nationalized health programs, citing the apparent unwillingness of America's poor, to control their spending in a manner consistent with a level that America's middle class and upper-middle-class would qualify as worthy of supplemental assistance. We middle and upper-middle-class Americans have an incredible tendency to elevate ourselves to the level of 'savior' through the, if you work hard and play by the rules, we'll help you out when you're in a jam. The original letter from Dr. Jones reads, "Our nation's health care crisis is not a shortage of quality hospitals, doctors or nurses. It is a culture crisis - culture in which it is perfectly acceptable to spend money on vices while refusing to take care of one's self..."

So, as I watch our city crawl with boat show goers numbering in the tens of thousands, I wonder if, given the health of the overall U.S. Economy, there's a fair comparison to be made between Dr. Jone's 'culture crisis' of the working poor and what I term the 'accountability crisis' of the American elite. It's an interesting comparison, given that the two economic groups represent similar portions of the overall U.S. economic spectrum. It's a compelling comparison, given that the current poverty rate in America is 14.3% while the target 'boat show demographic', or households with over $100,000 in combined income, accounts for roughly 16% of the population.

Therefore, it's safe to say that roughly 1 in 7 Americans makes less than enough to survive comfortably, to send their children to college, or to purchase their own version of a luxury good - health care. It's also accurate to say that 1 in 7 Americans essentially makes enough to afford luxury purchases like boats, luxury cars, vacations and the like, while qualified necessities like college tuition and health care are virtual afterthoughts.

The above generalization is largely harmless on the surface - and certainly wouldn't be portrayed as anything less than reality by the 1 in 7 Americans on top. We hear it all the time, "America is the land of opportunity. If you're willing to work hard and take risks, you can live comfortably and achieve the 'American Dream'." Basically, it's a, "I work hard, I make decent money, I deserve a boat, etc", argument. But a closer look at the statistical data relating to each demographic as well as a study of bankruptcy data bears out a much more unsettling and completely ignored reality, instead pointing to a thesis as follows:

From 2006-2010, the 'boat show demographic' listed above has saved, spent and lived very much like the 'working poor' condemned by Dr. Jones and by the American elite at large.

A statement like that is sure to ruffle some feathers and moreover, be dismissed by the upper-middle class. But seriously, let's look at some statistical support for that notion, examining the period from 2006-2010 - considered by most to be a protracted period of economic decline, the housing market collapse, mortgage and banking meltdown, etc:

- Since 2006, there have been over 6 Million bankruptcy filings in the United States.
- The average person to file for bankruptcy during this period was:
   - White, Female, Over 40, Employed with a High School education or above. (this sounds a lot like the typical demographic for a career health care professional or nurse)
- The #1 reason cited by individuals filing for bankruptcy was, you guessed it, Mortgage or Credit Card Debt.  This is also known as, "buying things you can't afford."

Dr. Jones, and most of you who related to or even re-posted his letter, would like us to believe that our 'culture crisis' is responsible not just for the healthcare issues America faces, but the general economic hardships we face as a nation. In layman's terms - the young woman with the gold teeth and the smoking problem, who was using medicaid to pay her doctor's bills - is the reason we're struggling as Americans - so our desire to provide assistance to her demographic is therefore mis-guided.

In reality, the crisis is the work of those who look a lot more like Dr. Jones than they do his patient. They don't have gold teeth - but wear jewelry instead. They don't smoke 3 packs a day - but enjoy a cigar on the golf course. They don't spend money on pretzels and beer - but drink a bottle of wine at night while at dinner with friends. They don't have tattoos - but have a bi-weekly appointment at the salon or spa. They complain about income tax increases - without seeing the irony that a tax break is no different than a welfare check for the well-off.

Hey America - these are your boat buyers, your luxury car drivers, your spenders. They're also the people filing in court for the right to literally walk away from the significant financial commitments they made in the past - while pointing the finger at economic policy, taxes, or the working poor. The financial cost of these bankruptcy filings, both corporate and personal, has accounted for literally TRILLIONS of dollars in write-offs. Meanwhile, even the highest estimates for the cost of the 'public option' or 'Obamacare' come in at just around $1 Trillion over 10 YEARS.

Essentially, white, educated, middle-class America managed to write-off 3-4 times the cost of public funded health care, in less than HALF the time.

When the working poor does it, it's called irresponsible. But when the middle class does it, it's called a global economic catastrophe. When the wealthy elite does it, it's called a breakdown in fundamental economic policy or un-regulated capitalism run amok.

The biggest differences though, are in how each situation plays out for each demographic and who TRULY foots the bill.

- When the working poor go broke, it's true, government typically foots the bill and we get taxed to pick up the slack - but it's a relatively small tab @ $44M people x $20,000 = $880M

-When the middle class citizens go broke, they declare bankruptcy, the attorneys get paid, the judges get paid, and corporate America, your 401k and the banks largely foot the bill. But this time, the tab is in the Trillions.

- When the wealthy elite goes broke, government foots the bill, you get taxed for the bailout or corporate write-downs, the working poor lose their jobs. Again, the tab is in the Trillions, but is compounded by unemployment and protracted periods of economic recession. Meanwhile, the executives responsible retire to Martha's Vineyard.

So, the problem isn't the 'culture crisis' of the working poor - but instead the 'accountability crisis' of the middle class, upper-middle class and wealthy elite in America; those who complain about health care and taxes while debating over the purchase of boats or vacations.

It's time for us all to take a look in the mirror, to stop pointing our fingers, to work to re-establish accountability and responsibility. I'm not implying that the risk-taker, entrepreneur or business owner doesn't deserve what he or she gets, but it doesn't need to come at the expense of everyone else's well being. For the most part, given the standard of living in America today relative to the standard of living during the Baby Boom Generation, we're a generation of haves and have-mores, we don't know what it's like to truly have-not. We don't know what it's like to be a nation that creates things, even a nation that creates opportunity. We've always had it.

So, if nothing else, it's irresponsible to condemn those who still represent the fabric of our working nation, while acting hypocritically and irresponsibly at the same time.

Let's get back to work.

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