Thursday, July 17, 2014

Membership had its privileges

Groucho Marx resigned his membership in the Friar’s club, sending a wire that said: “I don’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.” On the other end of the spectrum American Express for years marketed their cards (which all carry hefty annual fees) with the tagline “membership has its privileges.” It was quite successful, getting millions of people to part with hundreds of dollars a year in order to get a piece of plastic that enables them spend even more money. In both of these instances there is a criteria, whether it be high or low, to participate or belong. U.S. immigration policy establishes the standards for entry to the country – and there’s millions who don’t follow it. Even for those who do work within the system, it is a hotly debated procedure with some 50,000 Central American youth flooding the southern U.S. border in recent weeks.

The current influx of unaccompanied, undocumented minors is putting a strain on the system. It puts into question the mythologized phrase “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  Poet Emma Lazarus wrote that in her sonnet to help raise money for the pedestal to the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the people of France. It was never U.S. policy though the ethos of the quote speaks to American folklore – we’re a country of immigrants, a mixing pot, a place where all are welcome.

Like most folklore – it’s just not completely accurate. Throughout American History immigration has been a hotbed issue. The 1790 Act established the first rules: free white persons of good character. Various rules and definitions refined the Act and in 1921 the Emergency Quota Act passed nearly unanimously and “restricted the number of immigrants admitted from any country annually to 3% of the number of residents from that same country living in the United States as of the U.S. Census of 1910.” Then in 1965 the Immigration and Naturalization Act passed which was  “a preference system that focused on immigrants' skills and family relationships with citizens or U.S. residents. Numerical restrictions on visas were set.”

George H.W. Bush (41) signed the Immigration Act of 1990 that raised the numbers and relaxed the reasons people could immigrate, increasing the immigrants by more than 40%. President Clinton revised the policy, reducing immigration by 800,000.  President George W. Bush (43) revised the Clinton procedures, allowing a wider range of people to qualify.
The current issue is related to people who come to the U.S. outside of the legal channels. They’re undocumented or illegal – depending on your perspective. They’re actually both, but labeling people isn’t helpful at finding a solution. Estimates range from 11 to 30 million for people who are in the U.S. without a legal status.

Allowing the Government to determine who can and who cannot enter its borders is ripe for discrimination and corruption. There are generations of examples supporting that. Being a free and open country that allows anybody who wants to show up to show up is nice in concept, but not practical. Neither is sending back people who are here. Rewarding law breakers isn’t helpful either. Sending people back to harms way isn’t consistent with U.S. morality either. Clearly the system is broken.

There’s no easy solutions. Minds that are much brighter than me have proposed solutions that set people who are here on a path to legalization. The challenge with that is that since 1986 Congress has passed seven amnesties – and still people enter illegally.

Figuring out how to stem the ability to enter the country in an undocumented way has to be priority one. If a faucet is broken and water is spewing forth, the first thing to remedy is closing the water line before determining if a new faucet is needed, there’s a break in the main, etc. Building a wall to enclose the country is na├»ve and impractical, as is posting National Guardsmen every few feet around every possible entrance to the country. Individuals attempted to enter outside of the system must be turned away on a go-forward basis, and their attempt noted so that if they try to enter the legal system, there’s an additional consequence for the failed effort. It has to be a fast and immediate process. Due process, something that is at the core of who America is should kick in for people who have respected the system.

When “new” undocumented individuals have slimmed, then the existing system of legalizing immigrants must be updated. Children from broken families, children escaping various horrors, other people needed to be safe from persecution – must all go into the system and be processed in a fast and fair way. The idea that immigration takes years and years is bizarre.

An expanded and efficient immigration process leaves tens of millions who are long-established and not legal. Fines and a new type of exempted visa just for their circumstance would close that gap and be a way to fund the updated system and processes.

Coming to America has its privileges and its responsibilities. We must adapt to allow for both. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Forget me not?

I’m a romantic. One year for Valentines I had 200 flowers delivered to my sweetie. Even though there’s a flower dedicated to making sure your love remembers you – I went with the traditional red rose. (In a German legend, God named all the plants when a tiny unnamed one cried out, "Forget-me-not, O Lord!" God replied, "That shall be your name.") Being remembered is more than just for the lovelorn on a February day. We all want to make an impact, have an imprint on the world. It’s not limited to lame duck politicians looking to mark their legacy – it’s part of how individuals make sense of “existence.” That is now easier in Europe where you can now pick and choose what the world knows about you.

The BBC reports: “The internet (almost) never forgets. Google - and other search engines - are extremely efficient at crawling the web to find and store data. Even if websites are taken offline, a cache is kept - meaning they can still be accessed.”

A Spaniard, Mario Gonzalez hit financial difficulties in 1998 and a property he owned was put up for auction to pay his debts. A decade later web searches kept pulling up the now dated information of his financial difficulties – so he sued Google. The European Court agreed – and despite appeals and counter suits - ordered the company to find a mechanism to allow people to make requests to cull certain information. The “right to be forgotten” law was passed and implemented.

The BBC reports on some of the 250,000 requests that have flooded into Google in the first weeks of the new law: “Google has received fresh takedown requests after a European court ruled that an individual could force it to remove 'irrelevant and outdated' search results, the BBC has learned. An ex-politician seeking re-election has asked to have links to an article about his behaviour in office removed. A man convicted of possessing child abuse images has requested links to pages about his conviction to be wiped. And a doctor wants negative reviews from patients removed from the results.”

The Internet – this generation’s most important transformation and innovation – is just a bunch of data. Search engines – whether it is Google, Bing, Ask, or Yahoo – mine data and sort it in a way that is useful. The industry is worth multiples of billions of dollars and I would gather than few of us today could imagine day to day living without immediate access to information.

The European Court has now changed the role of search engines – and instead of being a dispassionate technological algorithm, they now must interpret data. It's rife with problems. While I’d love for some of my past indiscretions to not appear on a search, the reality is that they did occur. Why censor the data? Couldn’t weighting the results based on the age of the material have been a solution? And easier to program? Something 12 years old maybe shouldn’t top the list – but it shouldn’t just go away because it's old and 'irrelevant.' The examples of requests that have already come in are chilling enough – just think of what Americans would do with this option.

The U.S. is a celebrity driven - both in politics and in culture. Richard Nixon would certainly have appreciated the ability to have things “forgotten” (beyond 18 minutes on an audio tape). Monica Lewinski wouldn’t have had to reappear and write a book to rehabilitate her image, she could have just disappeared from search results. Do we really need to create another way for public figures to more easily shape the truth?

A popular meme around elections is based on the Daniel Patrick Moynihan quote: you can have your own opinions, but not your own facts. Let’s not forget that having facts, having the truth means the unpleasant stuff too. That romantic gesture of 200 flowers? It freaked out the recipient – so while I remember it as a grand loving gesture, he remembers it differently. The truth? We’re both right and it should not be up to one of us to choose what is remembered.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

So sue me

I’m a musical theatre aficionado. It wasn’t always so. During my early years as a theatre student I looked down my nose at my MT brethren. I was focused on “serious” work. A few short years later – while still a student - I was directing and producing my first musical after realizing that performance halls only fill when audiences actually want to see something…and “important” and “serious” work isn’t so when nobody comes. “Guys & Dollsis a classic American musical. The 1950 Tony-award winning show with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser was selected as the winner of the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Book writer Abe Burrows had troubles with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) so the Trustees of Columbia University vetoed the selection, and no Pulitzer for Drama was awarded that year. In between two show stoppers in Act II (“Luck Be a Lady” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat”) is a lovely song “Sue Me” where Miss Adelaide and Nathan verbally joust, resulting in the lament, ‘so sue me.’ The phrase was picked up by Steve Jobs in his dispute with the Beatles Apple Corps. when in 1991 Apple Computer introduced a system sound into the Macintosh System 7 operating system - called 'Sosumi'.  In the past 20 years as society has become more litigious the phrase has become a gauntlet to an adversary challenging them to escalate a dispute. President Obama, in fact, used the expression this week – mocking the Speaker of the House’s threatened lawsuit.

House Speaker John Boehner suggested last week that he would use his authority as speaker to convene the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, a five-member legal panel appointed by GOP and Democratic House leaders. BLAG has authority to direct the U.S. House Office of General Counsel, to participate in litigation and represent the U.S. House itself. Boehner said: “The Constitution makes it clear that a president's job is to faithfully execute the laws. In my view, the president has not faithfully executed the laws."

Commenting on his frustration that Congress won’t take action on any legislation, the President responded: “Middle-class families can't wait for Republicans in Congress to do stuff. So sue me. As long as they’re doing nothing, I’m not going to apologize for trying to do something.”

It’s not the first time this President has publicly stated that he’d work around Congress. When running for re-election he said: “Where Republicans refuse to cooperate on things that I know are good for the American people, I will continue to look for ways to do it administratively and work around Congress.”  In his 2014 State of the Union address  – the entire speech was framed around his mantra: “I will act on my own.” Let us not be surprised that he is doing so.

This week we celebrate the 238th birthday of the United States. The balance of power envisioned by the founders is that the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches would all be a ‘check and balance’ on each other. It’s cumbersome, messy...and it actually works.

The Supreme Court slapped the President this week on the three recess appointments he made to the National Labor Relations Board. It is rare for the Court in a high profile case to garner more than the bare 5-4 majority. Here it was unanimous: the President overstepped his authority by going around the Senate.

President Obama is an activist pro-government progressive who is anxious to do more. Congress has a vocal minority of anti-government, tea-party conservatives who have been elected to do less. This contingent has convinced other conservatives to side with them, making it a majority opinion to not take action. The political sides have been unable (or unwilling or uninterested) in finding a path towards a common ground. So be it. That means the system is working. All voices are being heard. Yes, it’s political paralysis, but that actually reflects the country. It doesn’t mean that one branch should do an end-run around the other.

There are 435 seats in Congress. During the 2014 primary season only 2 incumbents have lost. Two. Congress has a 7% approval rating, but a near unanimous re-election rate! This dichotomy shows why our electoral policies are in dire need of revision. But that’s the way it is. Come November the makeup of the Congress will remain as it has been: a true reflection of the country’s discord. If the country wanted government to do more it’d elect people to make that happen.

It’s childish, unproductive and an embarrassment that the leaders of the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branches can’t find a way of working together. But it’s our system and I’m proud to support it, even in its dysfunction. So sue me.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Ugliest of Americans

The solstice has passed and this thing called ‘summer’ is underway. After a quarter-century in Los Angeles the meteorological changing of the seasons on the East Coast is still surprising to me. With the rising temperature and school vacations the travel season is underway. It is the season of ugly Americans – a pejorative description of American behavior on foreign soil. People who expect a different place to have the same amenities, values and traditions of home and are vocal about it are pigeon holed as loud, obnoxious and arrogant American tourists. Having been abroad and both participated in such behavior and observed it, the United States is not well represented in such situations. As embarrassing as that can be, however, it pales in comparison to ugly, arrogant and misguided American foreign policy.

The U.S. has been at war for most of its history. Presidents Harding through Hoover (1921-1933) oversaw the longest period of peace. After that, World War I and all of the subsequent wars, military conflicts have moved the United States into such a global role that in many ways America is the policeman to the world.

The nuances of a particular conflict should be looked at on their merits. Defending a friend/ally or supporting a particular regime over another at least provides a choice between two specific options. More recently the conflicts have given way to something far more troubling. Nation Building – where America comes in and instills what the Administration thinks is best. (Congress has little say, other than budgetary, so policy is really up to the executive branch.)

In Afghanistan, a country that was conquered by Alexander the Great in 330 BC has been in military conflict non-stop since 1978. Americans (like Russians before them) have tried to instill its own sense of government over that of the citizens. Neither succeeded.

President George W Bush (43) campaigned heavily against an interventionist foreign policy. He said: “If we don't stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions, then we're going to have a serious problem coming down the road. And I'm going to prevent that.” After the attacks of 9/11 he changed course, saying that circumstances required America to instill its values around the world to defend itself. His successor continued the drive to Americanize Afghanistan and has increased troops, spending and training on what he describes as the “legitimate war.” Recently he has indicated a deadline for all troops to leave that country, much to the horror of some.

President Obama actually fulfilled his campaign promise to “end the war” in Iraq. In December 2011, the ninth year of the conflict, all U.S. military personnel left the country. There remain at least 7,000 military contractors on the ground – paid for by private enterprise under contract with the Defense Department – but official U.S. soldiers have been gone from the country. Last week Sunni protestors reignited the sectarian violence that has defined the country for decades.  Hundreds of U.S. troops have been sent in to "observe."

Former prisoner of war and chief GOP warmonger John McCain attacked the administration over its “losing” Iraq. He ultimately wants troops to be used to restore the ‘peace’ that had been imposed on the country during a near decade of U.S. control after the invasion. This idea is the ugliest of American stereotypes – thinking that we have the answers to every country’s problems and will use our strength and might to impose it. That’s not democracy. That’s imperialism. And it’s un-American.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

It should be all Greek

In sports, rooting for the home team is part and parcel of living in that community. The conundrum comes when one home team is playing against a former (or soon to be) team. Such is the case in the current battle for Olympic gold – the U.S. site for the 2024 Summer Olympics. Boston and Los Angeles along with San Francisco and Washington DC are in the running. One of the cities will become the potential host that then competes with other cities in the world for the privilege of hosting the games. I’m not much of a sports fan, but I recognize the value of the Olympics as a global force for amateur athletes to compete on behalf of their country. What I don’t get is the whole host competition.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) makes the determination about which site will host the Games. With the selection come civic pride, and not a small financial commitment to building infrastructure.  The 2014 Sochi games were the most expensive costing Russia over $50 billion. NBC agreed last month to a $7.75 billion contract extension to air the games through 2032 Olympics. That’s before the millions spent on equipment, personnel and satellite transmissions.

Tourism dollars in the short term and the long term are often used to justify the exorbitant costs. It’s a claim that has not born itself true in recent years. In Athens, after the 2004 Summer Olympics less than 10 years later 21 out of the 22 building are shuttered, gathering graffiti. Sochi is a described by locals as: “dead city.”

The Olympics have been tainted by politics over the years – this winter’s games were just the latest scuffle. Whichever country takes on the event does so a decade out – leaving plenty of time for building improvements and infrastructure changes. In Brazil the current World Cup was used to finalize long standing transportation woes in the country. These long timelines also don’t allow for political changes – Russia in 2004 was quite a different country on the world stage than 2014.

Why not build a permanent Olympic Village? It could be in Greece, home of the original Olympics, or maybe Switzerland so there aren’t any political battles. Maybe one village for the Summer Games and one for the Winter in climate appropriate areas. The tens of millions of dollars cities spend competing in their own country, and then against each other would be used for other things. IOC members wouldn’t get to travel the world on somebody else’s tab. If that winds up being the thing that stop it - each participating country could kick in some dough to keep the fat cats fat.

The facilities would then be consistent Olympic to Olympic – so whether the air is thinner in one place, or a field is ‘faster’ than another – allows the games to be consistently competed against prior records. That’s probably a good thing athletically.  The cost would be a one-time capital cost with ongoing improvements as technology and other needs change.  The communications costs would be mitigated as an entirely new community doesn’t have to created every couple of years.

A permanent Olympic Village would alleviate the political football between countries, save money, provide a better competitive environment. It’ll never happen – because it’s all Greek to the IOC.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

And Behind Door Number 2

Monty Hall is synonymous with most generations as the host of “Let’s Make a Deal!” Average folk are given the opportunity by the host to choose one prize over another. Sometimes the items are fabulous, and sometimes they’re “zonks.” Contestants wear outlandish costumes to get the hosts attention. The show has been on the air for more than 50 years on various networks in multiple of configurations. 20 non-U.S. countries have their incarnations, though it’s only currently in Egypt and Indonesia. Afghanistan is not one of the places the show has ever aired, though the Taliban have shown remarkable adeptness at the concept.

Bartering is the fundamental premise of a capitalist society. One thing has a certain value and it is exchanged for something else of a similar value. I started my consulting business on a barter – a friend’s company was in distress and asked if I thought I could help. I did – in exchange for 3 in person referrals since they didn’t have cash. And, like the old Prell commercials, they told 2 friends, and so on and so on and so on.

Today running a not-for-profit feels often like the days of bartering, especially when the auction season kicks in. We’ll give you ___ from our organization if you give us ____ from yours.

In the workforce, internships are another form of barter. People without direct experience will trade long hours and little to no pay for the opportunity to learn, gain experience and the potential of being hired. Many a Hollywood career was born out of lowly internships in mailrooms.

Applying the same concept towards diplomacy seems to have ruffled feathers. Conservatives who usually have capitalistic principals as the bedrock of their values are beside themselves that the President swapped 5 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay for 1 American, the only known U.S. prisoner of war. According to some it was a great deal, saving the life of a soldier and not leaving a man behind. Others have suggested this is ‘treason’ and an impeachable offense. Beyond the hyperbole- there’s no actual law saying whom the President can or cannot talk to, despite longstanding protocols. He’s entitled to change them. In this case he actually told everybody he would. (This is, in fact, in line with the transparency he promised, that so often has gone missing.)

The frothing at the mouth and the near round-the-clock ‘analysis’ is curious. Candidate Barak Obama in 2007 whipped up some excitement when in response to a question of whether he would ever negotiate with the leaders of North Korea and Iran. He said “I would.” It was his whole premise that personal diplomacy and negotiation would be a marked contrast to President Bush (43) who seemed to choose military action over diplomacy. There was a lot of discussion at the time. In fact, some think that the President’s Nobel Prize came in part from his willingness to embrace discussion over bombs.

My own antipathy towards war makes these analyses more difficult since the easy answer is that if the U.S. hadn’t barreled into a military conflict, there wouldn’t have been a prisoner of war to have to rescue. Since that’s a bit too convenient, being able to rescue an American without additional bloodshed makes sense. It seems that this individual may not be the piece of Apple pie that the Obama marketers were hoping for. That shouldn’t matter.

Now that the world sees that the President is willing to give a little to get a little, perhaps the Republicans can barter a little more like the Taliban. Nah, that’s like  Door #3. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014


I’m a nomadic homebody. It’s not an oxymoron - it just means that when I’m in a particular place I settle for whatever time I’m going to be there. Generally when I leave a location, I often focus on the excitement and exploration of something new rather than reminisce about what I'm leaving. That said, no matter the attributes of Boston, I find myself longing for the meteorological certainty and temperate climate of Los Angeles. (Every day!) There are favorite haunts from when I was in other areas as well. There’s no question that I miss the people and friends from all of my prior haunts. This week I'm jealous of what’s happened in Minnesota.

Gov. Mark Dayton and the Democratic legislature repealed 1,175 “obsolete, silly” laws in the land of 10,000 lakes during an 'Unsession.'  The Governor said: “In addition to getting rid of outdated laws, the project made taxes simpler, cut bureaucratic red tape, sped up business permits and required state agencies to communicate in plain language.”

How many laws are on the federal books? According to the Library of Congress: “The current Code has 51 titles in multiple volumes. It would be very time consuming to go page by page to count each federal law, and it also does not include case law or regulatory provisions.” In other words, nobody knows!  According to Wikipedia “The Code of Laws is the official compilation and codification of the general and permanent federal laws of the United States. The current edition of the code was published in 2012, and according to the Government Printing Office, is over 200,000 pages long.”

That’s just federal law. The bulk of the laws that affect everyday people are local and state laws. Even if each state has a fraction of the code the U.S. does, there are millions of pages of laws in existence. Since it’s impossible to calculate a total number, but let’s agree there’s lots of laws. Wikipedia: “As of April 2011, there were 1,225,452 licensed attorneys in the United States.” So there are plenty of lawyers to keep track of the various laws.

State law used to govern nearly all criminal violations and federal law addressed more civil and regulatory issues. Now there are nearly identical federal criminal laws that allow law enforcement to determine which legal venue would yield the “best” result. (Law and Order would have lost many story lines if this wasn’t the case!)

One of the more notorious examples is the Rodney King case. After a local jury found the (white) police officers not-guilty of the beating that was captured on video, riots ensued in Los Angeles. The U.S. attorney then charged the officers with a hate crime and they were found guilty and went to jail. Without getting into the details on either of those cases, the actions of the officers against King were adjudicated twice, once in state court (assault) and once in federal court (hate crime). Yes they were different types of charges, but clearly Double Jeopardy was circumvented in this case, and in many lesser famous trials. That happens when there's one action and multiple tries at convictions.

It is no longer illegal to carry fruit in an illegally sized container in Minnesota. That’s a good start at reforming the code. There’s much work to be done in other states and at the federal level. I might even put up with another MInnesotan winter for more Unsessions.