28 October 2008

Best day ever...

I was just a number.

That number was seven hundred and forty-five to be exact.

I stood in the West Atlanta recreation / senior center gymnasium and stared up a bleachers full of people. People just like me. Citizens. They were old and young. There were the well dressed and shabbily attired, some with children in tow. They read newspapers, books, talked on cell phones and chatted quietly. That quiet chatter collecting to become a buzz among the concrete walls and parquet floors.

I was also not like them. I was number 745 for advance voting. But I was also the only white male in the African-American audience at that early hour of the day. Scarcely a person paid me any attention as I crossed the open floor and ascended the bleachers to sit and wait for my number to be called.

If this was advance voting, I mused, then election day will be chaos.

But the scene was far from chaotic. As I perched on the backless benches, I asked what number we had reached. The answer came quickly from a petite woman calling up to the stands,

“If your number is from 85 to 115, please form a line down here”, gesturing to the top row of the bleachers. She then disappeared around a wall. I stared at my near three quarters of a thousand number and then at my watch. This would require patience.

A ring of my cell phone alerted me to a call from Citizen Prime. She was on the north side and also seeking to perform her patriotic duty (no, not paying more taxes). I told her about my number and we collectively groaned. It was likely that our respective votes would cancel each other out, but the effort was required.

The morning dragged on and soon figures were visible on the far side of the gym. They carried in box after box of potato chips, granola bars and cases of water. One by one, the waiting voters walked across the vacant gym and retrieved a bag or two of chips and a water. An enterprising little girl, no more than five years old, made several trips across the floor delivering her bounty to a variety of people seated in the bleachers. Finally, her mother was called to vote and, lifting her daughter on high, ended her first job as a waitress.

The mood in the gym was electric. These were people on a mission. They were poised to deliver their opinion in the action of their vote. A woman back and to my left had the lucky number of 999. There was no way she would be deterred from her duty. Asking my seatmates if they would like some water or chips, I made my own trek to the oasis of Frito-Lay. Upon turning about, I was stunned to note that the population of the gym had seemingly doubled in the last two hours.

I climbed back to my perch, continuing to exchange pleasantries with my seatmates, an older woman, a well dressed young man and a dapper lady in a rhinestone banded fedora who proclaimed herself to be 57, although she looked ten years younger.

We never traded names. Each person was content to clutch their secret prayer, as if en route to the wailing wall. They were eager to cast it into the electronic ether and await the deity’s answer.

At long last, around 1:30pm, my set of numbers was called. Obediently, I lined up and presented by credentials to the poll worker. Why people complain about picture IDs is beyond me. There was no one in that hall who didn’t have one form of acceptable ID. After our initial vetting, we were ushered into the halls of the senior / recreation center.

I was greeted with the sight of rooms of seniors, talking and waiting for various services – flu shots, financial counseling and a voting. The staff moved smoothly among the eldest and exhibited quiet respect for people who had likely stood on the front lines of the battle to secure the civil and voting rights for the bulk of citizens here today. One older gentleman sat directly across from the entryway and looked each of us in the eye. His navy blue ball cap proclaimed “World War II” veteran.

He looked each of us over as if weighing our worth to cast a ballot. I felt a moment of utter transparency as I passed in front of his gaze. I acknowledged his service with a brief nod. I could sense that he expected me to carry out my task with seriousness and reverence for the actions of all those before me.

I arrived at the terminal where my registration was verified and accepted the small yellow card which was my key to vote. I stood next to one of my seat mates, number 736. As I approached, I could see over his shoulder that he had selected Senator Obama. He was a young, earnest man – about thirty. Married, he had taken this day to vote – Tuesday’s were his days off and he wanted to insure his choice was counted.

Smiling, I stepped up to the touchscreen display. The ballot was full. President, congress, senators, a host of judges and a variety of funding initiatives for various purposes, all stared at me in LCD illumination. I consider myself well informed. But I confess, some of the names and slots were mysterious.

Most disappointing to me were the number of unopposed seats for various positions. My personal nemesis, Congressman John Lewis, sat unchallenged on the screen. In an act of sheer frustration, I wrote in my own name to oppose him.

At last I touched the green CAST YOUR BALLOT square. With a sharp click, the yellow card popped out of the machine. It was a far less satisfying sound than the sliding lever pulling back the curtains surrounding voting machines of yore. Machines I only saw with my mother as she dragged me along to vote in Florida so many years ago. She always seemed satisfied as we walked into the autumn sunshine – ever present in Florida.

Now I walked out into the sunlight. My own inner spiritual citizen refreshed by a seemingly simple process which transpires, like clockwork, every four years. Simply basking in the glow of fellow citizens exercising their right replenished my own faith on our nation.

It was the best day ever.

20 October 2008

A tale of two citizens...

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

I travel a fair amount. It is a benefit and curse. I truly prefer the comforts of home and family, but relish the exploratory feelings and experience of travel. As I sat down on the outbound and inbound flights over the past weekend, I had the opportunity to meet and talk with two citizens of this nation. Two citizens who represent, I think, the wide gulf among the political views of the country.

These citizens are alike in many ways. They will have an impact on our nation and come from two of the battleground states. One, a MIT educated mechanical engineer starting his first real job. The other is a college educated, professional mother of two who runs her own business and works in the PR field.

As I sat down on the flight from the relative chaos of Atlanta Hartsfield, I noted a young man making his way down the aisle, sweeping his eyes along the seat row numbers for his place on the packed airliner. He had a youthful, grunge style beard topped by an unruly mop of black hair. Had he been clean shaven, he would have looked about fourteen. He wore a large scale Obama t-shirt, one of the ones with his picture emblazoned upon on it in Warhol style.

Lo and behold, this young, pale kid was going to sit next to me. Sliding in next to the window, he looked about with the eagerness of someone who still enjoys air travel. I scanned him for some opportunity to talk with him, that didn’t start with;

“So, you’re an Obama supporter, eh sonny?”

Looking him over carefully, I noted my opening. There on his right hand, looking like a Super Bowl championship ring was the golden beaver. For the uninitiated, the mascot of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a beaver. It is displayed on their rings prominently and referred to as the “golden beaver”. MIT is one of the top technology schools in the nation. It’s students have contributed to the innovation and growth of our nation in every major field of science.

As it turned out, this young man was a mechanical engineer, as am I. We engaged in the sort of discussion that only engineers, upon discovering their commonality, can. I learned that he was newly employed by Johnson and Johnson in their surgical tool design division. He was one of the few, bright handpicked graduates to enter the J&J management development program. He was an intelligent guy with a wide range of interests. We talked about his motorcycle, his love of rock climbing and his recent prize possession, a Volvo C30, five cylinder turbo he bought directly from the factory in Sweden. He traveled there, bringing along his mother, and then drove to Denmark where his father resided.

He was excited to be in his new career and loved what he was doing. Although he expressed some dissatisfaction with the social scene in Cincinnati, he was engaged in trying to improve his lot. Traveling home for the first time in more than a year, he was looking forward to doing some scuba diving and an early Thanksgiving dinner with his family. As we got around to politics, he described himself as a social and fiscal liberal. The son of a described “hippie” mother, he seemed comfortable with the promise of a better world, without really worrying about the details.

Like many engineers, I think he expected people to approach problems rationally, without being swayed by outside, irrelevant influences. When he learned that I was in the Navy, he asked me if I supported McCain because he had been in the Navy. And this is when it struck me, his vote was a vote of affiliation. He seemed to support Obama not from some deep alignment with his policies, but from a feeling of affiliation. Obama’s Ivy league academic credentials, his message of hope and change resonated with this young man without really connecting on policy.

There was no real thought as to how an Obama presidency might affect him, his career or his future potential. Senator Obama's initiatives will have an impact on all of these elements. It may prove to be especially hard on his company's surgical tool division. It was ironic that Jake the Engineer’s company was manufacturing all these components in Juarez, Mexico. A fact possibly affected by Obama’s promise to unilaterally rewrite NAFTA at the behest of his Union supporters. Additionally, I expect his career in Johnson and Johnson will likely be very successful, at which point he will cross the $250,000 mark in income (most directors in major corporations can earn this amount in salary and bonuses). It is there he will find himself with a significantly larger tax burden, which he will seek to reduce - substantially. Finally, the impact of the Obama adminstration will likely be negative to J&J’s surgical division with a possible reduction in innovation and growth as the healthcare market is regulated by the government.

On the return trip to Atlanta I staggered through the narrow aisle of the MD-88 looking for my middle seat. The plane was loading horrendously slowly and the woman ahead of me slid her rolling bag smoothly into place and slipped gracefully into her window seat. I took note of her fluid movements and pegged her as a veteran traveler. Looking at the row sign, I also realized that she would be my seat mate. With decidedly less grace, I landed in the middle seat while at the same time praying to the airline gods to make sure the size of my aisle partner was not overwhelming.

Prayers answered, once again I tried to determine if there was a way to open a conversation. I had my new book, The Strongest tribe, by Bing West, but was too tired to read. And then that magic moment of Chopra synchro-destiny occurred. She pulled out her phone. It was a Sprint update of my own HTC model. I leapt on the opening and we chatted about phones. She immediately demonstrated a fairly hardcore approach to selecting her phone and I found her rational style refreshing.

As we talked, I learned that she had served as a public relations manager for Chrysler and ran with the corporate wolves in Michigan. We talked about energy policy and the various approaches underway to address the challenges in the world. She was well versed in policies and shared with me her occupation was as a freelance public relations expert working on a number of projects.

What was most compelling was her personal story of she and her husband’s (a mechanical engineer who had been an electrician in the 1990s before returning to college to obtain his degree) experience with buying, owning and operating a business. The business was a Goodyear tire and auto center. They had ten employees and felt confident in their ability to succeed in a growing area of the nation. They provided employee family health insurance, solid benefits and service to the community. As she described it, she and her husband thought themselves the “smartest people on the planet”.

Then the housing crisis hit and one by one the builders stopped their developments and abandoned the area. Their business began losing money and they applied for a catastrophic SBA loan to carry them through the hard time. What they were told was that since they were “coping” there would be no loan. They sold the business at a terrible loss and were forever soured on government intervention in the market.

They picked up the pieces and carried on, providing for their two daughters and retooling their plans. She was adamant in her opposition to Obama and support for McCain. The toll from Obama's plans upon her liveliehood was that she was expecting, as a small business owner, (making less than the much bandied about $250,000 per year) was going to be crippling to her plans for growth.

She was also fierce in her abhorrence of the media’s complete support of Senator Obama without any real scrutiny and she was frustrated with Senator McCain’s inability to successfully explain his plans – which even Consumer Reports indicated as superior to Obama’s (the healthcare portion). Naturally, her position and contacts afforded her some access to people and information the typical citizen would not have. But we now live in a remarkably more transparent world. Anyone with the will and wit may distill the truth from a myriad of suspiscious claims.

I found the conversation invigorating and oddly parallel to that on my outward bound flight. My spouse, Citizen Prime, in her own world view, would immediately attribute this to some universal force providing me with this opportunity. In this instance, I may agree with her.

Jane the Publicist and Jake the Engineer represent two distinct spectrums of thought in America. One is the unbridled optimism and expectations of someone just beginning their journey as a citizen (I don’t consider college students full citizens as they typically do not pay taxes – citizens in training would be a better moniker). That is the model put forth by Jake the Engineer, or more appropriately Jake the Idealist. He lives in the world of the theoretical, where the ideals of the nation are enshrined. In his world, all things can be solved with the right application of government guidance and human acceptance. He has yet to face a crisis in which his worldview is challenged.

Jane the Publicist, or Jane the Pragmatist, carries those ideals as well. They have been tempered with having to raise a family, meet a payroll and deal with the myriad crises of real life. Some of which include being laid off from a supposedly “secure” corporate job. Jane wants to improve her life and have a positive impact on as many people around her as she can. She wants to be fair and provide incentives and support for her employees. She expects those who work for her to pull their weight in order to share in the reward. It is a reasonable and typical independent American philosophy.

It is not a dissimilar view from Jake the Idealist. A view that he will likely share in a decades time.

With Senator Obama we have an idealist – setting aside the burden you believe he carries to special interest groups. With Senator McCain we have a pragmatist – setting aside whatever connections you believe he has to the present administration.

It is the individual who understands the balance between government facilitation and government control who I want leading the nation. I am just not sure if the rest of the country understands this choice.

At least Joe the Plumber had the courage to ask the question, even if our media will not.

14 October 2008


I was lucky enough to have some free time in Washington, DC, this past Wednesday. The weather was beautiful and the mall was fairly empty. I traveled in the company of several business colleagues, many from outside the United States. Their mission was to see as much of our nation’s capital as possible.

If you ever get the chance, take a foreign tourist through Washington. Their responses to the city are amazing. It is not simply the elegant design of L’Enfant or the magnificent WPA buildings, but rather their comments on the diversity within the city and the openness. Just the fact that all the Smithsonian museums are FREE was enough for a friend from the Caribbean.

The capital takes on a whole new meaning when viewed through the eyes of a foreign visitor. I was particularly honored to hijack one mf my friends from Canada and take him through the National Archives. As we wound our way through the magnificent 1933 structure, we encountered the Magna Carta (ca 1297) and then the three crown jewels of our nation, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I jokingly pointed out that he could read the second amendment, in its original form, for himself – we have a running joke about Americans and their arms.

I did not, however, spend all my time as tour guide. Being on my own in DC gave me a rare opportunity. I went to visit the Holocaust Museum. Perched one block back from the Mall, the museum has a Victorian fortress like feel to it. It is one of the newer national museums in Washington and reflects some of the most cutting edge elements of design and composition. On previous visits to the capital, I was in the presence of the Proto-Citizens and this museum is decidedly not for children. In fact, I would recommend no visitor make the trip until the middle of high school.

I entered the building through the now ubiquitous security screening foyer. I was wanded, patted and scrutinized by several “special police”, essentially armed security guards – they are thick as flies in Washington. Upon entering the main hall, I was struck by the size of the museum and its initial emotional impact. The design recalls a factory from the period covered by the museum, essentially from 1933 through the end of the European portion of the conflict. One picks up an “identity card” from the bin adjacent to the elevator and proceeds to the fourth floor where the journey begins.

I picked from the male pile. My chosen card reflected the story of a young Jehovah’s Witness from France. He was interned and survived the conflict. Many of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were rounded up owing to their refusal to swear allegiance to the Nazi state. The journey through the building opens with the rise to power of the NASDP (Nazi) party in Germany. In a chilling representation, one begins to feel the descent into collective madness which Hitler led the world.

Moving slowly through the exhibits, the visitor is immersed in the events. Beset by photographs, first person testimonials and video, I could imagine the tightening circumstances for Jews within Germany. As one travels down through the halls, the scale of the holocaust becomes more horrible. And yet there are spots of human resistance, dignity and hope peppered in the overwhelming images of state sponsored evil.

I will not burden you with the details of the museum; suffice to say that it is comprehensive and relentless. The facility was also hosting an examination of propaganda, as exemplified in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and a look at Darfur. Both displays are extremely relevant to our modern world circumstances.

What I found most intriguing were the patrons of the museum. There were older people (folks who may have lived through the conflict that was World War II), there were younger groups (some clearly Jewish by virtue of their yarmulke) and then the most interesting of all, young military men. These young men were outfitted in what I would describe as typical off duty wear of American soldiers everywhere. Short cargo pants, polo shirts, running shoes and a gi-normous backpack (typically with a water bladder inside). These men moved quietly and reverently through the museum. They seemed most taken by the discussions and displays of the American military’s role in liberating the camps and the decision not to bomb the camps. It was in this persona, more than any other, that I felt compelled to visit this museum.

At the conclusion of the tour is a large hall of remembrance. There the names of the primary places of lass were inscribed on the wall. Votive candles flickered in alcoves along the six sided room. An eternal flame burned along one side of the stone room. As I set alight one of the candles, I reflected on what role we have played as a military and a nation in the face of events like these. In almost every instance it seems like we have not done enough.

And yet, I also take some heart in knowing that we have always done something. As a nation, we have struggled with the expenditure of our blood and treasure in service to the defenseless. But when unleashed, we have expended every ounce of each.

The visit was sad and difficult. It was also necessary and uplifting. It buoyed me to know that humanity could act to save itself. That it can learn from its mistakes and that sacrifices made for one’s fellow human are never in vain.

06 October 2008

When all is said and done...

The polls are swinging consistently in favor of Obama. The economic crisis has proven the old adage that all politics are local. When people begin to worry about their savings, jobs and ability to pay their bills, they will grasp at any new idea - no matter how flimsy. Ironically, during an external crisis (war, for example) people are unwilling to swap leadership as the risk appears too great. Make no mistake, Senator Obama has no better plan for the economy than John McCain and his economic viewpoint is more at odds with a capitalistic, free-market society than anyone. What will mitigate his approach will be the economic reality on the ground. He can not possibly make fundamental changes with entitlement programs consuming the bulk of his budget and potentially flat revenue.

The next president will have to face down excessive spending, reignite capital movement and (hopefully) foster innovation as a source of growth for the nation. Unlike those on the far left of the spectrum who boldly proclaimed their intention to depart the United States for other lands, I have no intention of doing so. A nation run by Barack Obama will STILL be head and shoulders over ANY other nation on the planet. It will be my civic duty to make sure that the new President doesn't wander into areas I consider unhealthy for the nation (second amendment issues, income redistribution, abandoning free trade, national defense, etc.). At the same time, the new president will have to perform.

We don't live in an era of blind trust anymore. The watershed collapse of that began in the 1960s and has continued through the ultra-transparent years of the internet ascendancy. Individuals who wish to blindly blame the current administration for the financial problems reveal themselves immediately and either uninformed or ideologues. What we have seen is that a 14 trillion dollar economy requires careful handling and something as innocuous as extending the envelope of risk acceptance for capital investment (i.e. dicey mortgages) can precipitate a global catastrophe.

That is a change we certainly could have done without.

03 October 2008

Fear and whining on the campaign trail.

Joe Biden may be lying about his son’s deployment to Iraq. He may be lying about his own feelings and certainly appeared to manufacture his “emotional” response during the debates on October 2nd. He may be all of these things, be may be none of these things. But one thing is certain.

Joe Biden is a whiner.

His mediocre performance in the vice presidential debates established him as the bloviating do nothing he has been in the senate for nearly four decades. One may infer from the debate that either he is far less capable than Obama paints him to be (if you subscribe to the school of thought that Sarah Palin is a rank amateur) or Sarah Palin is as capable as Joe.

Fending off the obvious disdain from moderator Gwen Ifill (an avowed Obama fan), Governor Palin stood her ground well with Joe’s rhetoric and demonstrated that hey, she is as capable as the politician from Delaware. I continue to be less worried about the election than ever. The recent financial crisis, nearly the sole result of ill conceived democratic sponsored legislation, has shown how powerful external events are in regards to shaping government response. In my estimation, John McCain still represents a far better candidate, if only for the fact that his record actually reflects some insight and principal in consideration of the effect on future events.

But there is one area of concern that I feel especially critical of with regard to Joe Biden. His son, Joseph Robinette Biden “Beau” III, is likely to deploy to Iraq in the next few days. This was used by Joe Sr. during the debate as a point of connectedness to the American people and a counter to Sarah Palin whose own son recently deployed.

Let me cite a few critical differences between his son’s deployment and that of Sarah Palin’s (and by extension John McCain’s youngest sons two tours as an enlisted Marine) son Track Palin. Beau, who is a captain in the Delaware National Guard, will be assigned as a JAG officer (Judge Advocate General) with the unit (261st Signal Brigade) when (and if) it deploys to Iraq. Track has been assigned to a Brigade Combat Team in Diyala Province and will face action almost immediately upon arrival in theater, as an enlisted soldier.

Beau joined the National Guard after a visit to Kosovo and (as near as I can tell) prior to September 11th. Beau joined at 34, just shy of the cut off date for enlistment. There were likely many reasons for his joining, some of them were likely political. I took on my own commission late in life for my own reasons, none of which were political!

Beau and Track differed in age by 17 years. Beau, the present Attorney General of Delaware, may or may not deploy. He will serve in a potentially dangerous area, but his decisions were made with the full cognizance of an adult. Track will be serving in a combat zone, on the front lines of the conflict. His decisions were made with the zeal of youthful patriotism and conviction.

I respect Capt. Biden’s service and commitment. He is juggling a lot of responsibilities and reflects the best of our nation. That small percentage who elects to serve the public good. I am sure his father’s concerns are real – no parent ever truly let’s go of their children, no matter how old they are.

But to call a thirty-nine year old father of two, who is the Attorney General of Delaware, a “child” is beyond pandering to the American public.

Get a grip Joe, your whining is simply pathetic.

01 October 2008

Media doesn't get it...

I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!

The M3O (Mass Market Media Outlets) have contributed more hysteria, misunderstanding and confusion to the current financial problems than the entire membership of the FASB. I am no longer going to use the term "main stream media" anymore as it no longer adequately describes the reach of mass market media. All throughout the problem period these past few weeks, the M3O mischaracterized the proposed stabilization plan (a better term than rescue or bailout) as a free ride for a few market insiders and corporate entities. In reality, the proposed plan was a purchase of radically discounted equity in a market stalled by the burden of toxic debt (meaning high risk and even some default). At no point was the federal government going to give a handout to anyone.

A concerned citizen, with a modicum of ability, could have easily begun to piece together the origins of the crisis and the basics of the possible resolution. What happened was that every talking head, pundit, news outlet and other mass market outlet started screaming about "bailouts" and "interfering with the free market" (as if the onerous regulations of SARBOX, the SEC and cruel mark-to-market accounting rules are not interference enough). The American public, rightly concerned about funding a program with no hope of return pressured their infinitely malleable congressional representatives and the whole initial house of cards collapsed in a flurry of grandstanding.

Add to the sound and fury the din of angry liberals/conservatives, goldbugs and TLC conspiracy freaks and the public all but stampeded to halt any meaningful action on the crisis. If the American public (read rest of the world) can not grasp the basics of a global economy and why having free flow of capital and credit is important, then having a hysterical media harp about "free rides" and other ridiculous comparisons will not aid that understanding. To be fair, the government did nothing to help educate the population on the issue. I am not sure that anyone would have believed them, but at least make an effort!

Our society has become extremely complex. Every action has implications far beyond expectations (for good and ill). And yet we are making decisions largely from a place of fear and emotion. As citizens we owe it to ourselves and our society to be as educated on the facts as possible. Almost nothing offered by the M3O is of any value. The details we must understand are challenging to grasp and open to interpretation. Taking a purely partisan approach (whether ideological or philosophical) is ridiculous and dangerous in the extreme.