Thursday, August 20, 2015

Great Scott!

Boston (and many parts of the country) are experiencing a heat wave. It’s August so it’s not all that surprising. It’s top of the news here because the weather service has determined that three consecutive days of 90-degree plus weather meet the criteria. Fortunately the Weather Channel has yet to name it, but it's still happening. Winter seems so far off. It was a few weeks ago (in July) that the snow pile from the record breaking winter fully melted. We’re another six weeks away from leaves falling and the nip returning to the air. But on July 30th President Obama did something that chilled Bostonians and should scare all Americans: he nominated Beverly Scott to the National Transportation Board.

Beverly Scott used to run the MBTA. She ran it into the ground. Yes, Boston had a terrible winter. A records setting winter in fact. Equipment failed, and it would have failed under any leader. The equipment is decades old. The failure of the primary transportation infrastructure costs millions in lost business, months of frustration and probably more than anything else killed the Olympic bid for the 2024 Games. 

At the time Beverly Scott took to the airwaves in a live Press Conference that has been described as “passionate,” “babbling,” “barnburner” and “bizarre.” Memorable phrases such as “Lord Jesus” as an answer to a rhetorical question stuck with many people as well as her self description: “this wasn’t this woman’s first rodeo.”

At the time there was considerable criticism of Scott and the MBTA. Many of my progressive friends took to social media to reinforce Scott’s narrative: the equipment at the T is ancient, it’s a record amount of snowfall and nobody could do better. There was also the insinuation and actual accusations that the negative comments about Beverly Scott were because she is an African American woman – so both a race and gender bias had to be part of the equation. 

My blog at the time looked at the issue differently. I went through many MBTA budgets and showed how the service actually had increased revenue and increased services in a disproportionate way to population and usage. I researched and found that the MBTA had expanded services and capital programs at the expense of day to day operations. In fact, the service didn't even had a list of what equipment needed to be maintained or repaired. So the Federal Government granted $1 million to them to hire staff and put the information into a computer system. 4 years later the money was spent but the work wasn't done. It was true, but not very sexy.

Governor Baker’s panel came out with a report in April 2015 which validated the thesis: the T doesn’t have a budget problem on the revenue side, it has it on the spending side. Practices such as paying regular staff positions through capital funds was cited as an irregularity. The panel also found the T had been expanding too quickly and not using its considerable resources to maintain their equipment. Management was cited as the cause.

The independent panel of transportation experts determined that most of the problems during the storms were not related to equipment failures but rather a failure to have personnel to maintain, repair and operate them. It wasn’t due to a lack of staffing (which increased dramatically during Ms. Scott’s tenure). During the worst of the snow there was an absentee level of nearly 53% while other snowstorms have had a 19% rate. That far exceeds the 4 to 5% cited in the report as industry standard.

Ms. Scott came to Boston with a tarnished record. Shortly after being appointed to the position in Boston – but before she actually started – it was discovered that she was leaving a track record of problems in Atlanta. The Boston Globe reported in November 2012 that the city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to get Scott to do the job she was hired to do. Governor Deval Patrick dismissed the report and pushed through the nomination.

Scott started at the MBTA and reports show she spent nearly one week a month out of state at conferences, running up tabs in the six-figures. There’s nothing wrong with professional networking and training – but she clearly didn’t apply any of the basics to snow management to the system she was running that were covered at those conferences. (Newspapers have gone back and looked at the agendas of those conferences and found that those subjects were covered.)

Scott resigned shortly after her public relations fiasco – and stuck the taxpayers with a $50,000 tab for a consultants report she ordered one week after the Governor established his independent panel to do its review. (The Scott consultant report was largely copies of web pages with statistics from

The issues around Beverly Scott are that she’s incompetent. She was when she was hired based on the failures in Atlanta and she demonstrated it during her tenure in Boston. That’s true whether she’s an African American or not, and whether she’s a woman or a man. Sorry to say to my progressive friends: a bad job is a bad job.

The expression “Great Scott” is now dated. Wikipedia says: “it is an interjection of surprise, amazement, or dismay.” It’s not an adjective describing a highly competent leader. It’s the nicest phrase I could think of when I saw President Obama was rewarding failure with a highly coveted position on the National Transportation Safety Board. The National Transportation Safety Board is the governing agency that looks into mistakes and accidents in transportation. Given that Beverly Scott has overseen so many herself, perhaps she is actually the right candidate?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Sharing the work

I’m pretty good at sharing. As kids we’re all taught to share but that doesn’t always translate to adulthood. Thanks to technology the sharing economy is one of the greatest growth areas in the economy. I think that Uber is one of the best inventions ever. Uber (and Lyft) allows people to request and drivers to provide rides via its smart phone application. It has disrupted the traditional taxi and limousine services, causing protests, a slew of legislation and the company has a nearly $50 billion valuation. For me it’s an absolute life saver living in a city like Boston where people who don’t live here rave about how easy it is to walk around.

In my recent travels the difference between traditional taxi services and Uber is stark. Arriving in Los Angeles and getting myself from the airport into downtown as a default I opened Uber and requested a car via the least expensive service – Uber X. No cars available because the City Council of Los Angeles has banned the ride sharing service at the Uber X level. So I went to the taxi stand and waited 15 minutes for a taxi to come. $70 dollars. On my next trip I opted to request an Uber at a more expensive level. 5 minutes later the driver arrived, $60 dollars and he had a bottle of water for me in his leather apportioned high end vehicle. On my way back to the airport using the Uber X service the cost was $25 and it was less than a 3 minute wait to be picked up.

In the college town of Cambridge which has a dearth of parking spaces and getting around from point a to point b is a particular challenge, Uber is banned from picking up passengers, though you can be dropped off. On August 4 cabbies went on strike in the city to protest services like Uber and Lyft. There are a number of issues around the strike – inconsistent regulations and concerns about background checks and safety are the most visible and passionate. They’re also the most legitimate. The answer is applying the same rules across the board – and the sharing economy is a great opportunity to minimize the regulatory process.

A more fundamental objection to the services by the taxi’s is economic. Medallions are issued by cities giving taxi’s the right to pick up and drop off customers. There’s a limited number so there’s an inherent value of supply and demand. In cities like New York and Boston medallions can be passed down generation to generation and many drivers count on the value of the license for their retirement. Services like Uber and Lyft have disrupted that – to the point that medallions have lost a significant part of their value.  In New York a medallion that went for $1 million is now worth half of that, and in Boston not one medallion has changed hands in 2015, indicating a crater in valuation.

The Democrats have seized upon the rift as a political issue. Candidate Hillary Clinton outlined her economic policy last month characterizing  “the on-demand economy as committing wage theft.” Companies like Uber and Lyft classify their drivers as freelancers – not as employees, saving on payroll taxes and a range of other costs. The drivers choose when to work, where to drive, how long to drive, etc. California’s Labor Commission ruled recently that Uber drivers are actually employees since the company controls the workers ability to earn a living, determines their skill set and appropriateness for the job, etc. It’s a determination that could upend the economic model of not just Uber, but the entire shared economy.

James Surowiecki in The New Yorker makes an excellent point: “The real problem here is that Uber drivers don’t quite fit into either of the traditional categories. Declaring them independent contractors or employees means forcing a square peg into one of two round holes. We’d do better to create a third legal category of workers, who would be subject to certain regulations, and whose employers would be responsible for some costs but not others.”

The shared economy is a hybrid  at its core – it takes the public’s demand for a service (room for rent, car ride, repair , etc.) and matches it with an individual who’s willing to provide the service outside of a significant corporate structure. Creating a hybrid work and compensation model that combines employee and independent contractor statuses and rules makes a lot of sense. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

License to Parent?

I parent my two dogs. I use that term carefully. When I lived in California the city of West Hollywood mandated the use of the terminology “Pet Guardian” rather than “Pet Owner.”  It was a way to make sure that people took care of the beings they were trusted with. Absurd and Orwellian as it is to have a government agency dictate language – and the temptation to mock and rant - the underlying point was and still is effective. Parenting is a job I’m in awe of. Not only from my own direct experience as a son, but as I watch my siblings and friends take on and nurture the life of another it’s clear there are unique skills required to be a parent.  Too bad so many people are ill equipped for the task.

I’ve been traveling a lot this summer – more than I have in many years. It’s been mostly by plane. (Nearly 40,000 miles!) I’ve been reminded that this season (along with the holidays) is when families travel. On a recent trip I had six toddlers and infants surrounding me in the rows behind and in front of me.  Junior opted to spend 5 of the 6 hours kicking my seat. His siblings screamed at the top of their lungs for 6 of the 6 hours, getting all the neighboring kids to chime in. Mama (probably in her early 20’s) was useless and Papa sat in an adjacent seat reading his text book, studying for something. Other passengers, flight attendants, etc.  all offered to help – to hold the kids, calm them, etc. All denied.

Society licenses nearly every activity that we participate in: hair stylists, food handlers, etc. so that there’s a minimum level of competency in getting the job done. In Massachusetts massage providers and manicurists must be licensed because it’s important to the state that its residents hair, nails and back be properly aligned. Want to be a parent? Have at it.

There was a moment in my life where my then partner and I were considering parenthood. Since the biology wasn’t in our favor we started looking into a variety of options – and attended a couple of Gayby classes on how to do so via adoption, surrogacy and other options. Today there’s a lot more options, including in most areas foster parenting. In all of these instances, however, there’s some level of screening. The consequences of having responsibility for another being’s life must actually be considered. That alone makes for good parenting – because the people are at some level choosing to be a parent.

Couples who are able to conceive sometimes don’t have the luxury of going through a deliberative process to determine their desire to become parents. Do they figure it out? Yes, most do. That’s life and that’s the way it should be. As a freedom loving, personal responsibility zealot – letting people figure it out is a core belief. As the witness/victim of bad parenting – I wonder why we don’t have a licensing process for parents. It’d never work and it’s a bad idea. Adding a governmental role to license parents is an anathema to me and I'm not proposing it. But when you’re in a metal tube with the decibel level reaching epic conditions even the strongest philosophy melts away.

In the meantime, maybe we can have some enterprising entrepreneur develop an adults-only airline?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Half Century – Half Measure?

Last November I turned fifty. In a burst of youthful energy I jetted to the West Coast for a party and back to the East Coast for a celebration all in a 24-hour period. Sure it’s just a number, but milestones are opportunities to look back and to look forward. Today, July 30, marks another half century milestone – the anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid. Like me, it’s showing its age and needs some fine tuning.

President Johnson said at the bill signing: “No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine. No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime so that they might enjoy dignity in their later years. No longer will young families see their own incomes, and their own hopes, eaten away simply because they are carrying out their deep moral obligations to their parents, and to their uncles, and their aunts."

Despite the noble goal, according to CNBC medical bills are the number one cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. “Even outside of bankruptcy, about 56 million adults—more than 20 percent of the population between the ages of 19 and 64—will still struggle with health-care-related bills.”

The report continues: “15 million people will deplete their savings to cover medical bills. Another 10 million will be unable to pay for necessities such as rent, food and utilities because of those bills.”

Today one in three Americans are covered by the program. It pays for nearly half of U.S. births and a little over half of the nation's nursing home bill. 3 out of 4 poor children are enrolled.

Over the past 50 years Medicare / Medicaid has cost hundreds of billions of dollars. It went from a small percentage of the federal budget to 23% today according to The Kaiser Family Foundation. It is funded by payroll taxes and fees charged for services. There is a gap between revenue and costs – with solvency at risk in 2030 (right around the time I’d be eligible for the program.)

There are plenty of examples of waste, fraud and abuse that are infuriating – and only 5% of the claims are ever audited. It’s also a program that many studies show is less efficient than private insurance, though its administrative costs are lower. (Private insurance can mitigate their costs by refusing claims, while the government program has a different mandate.) It grows at a pace that far exceeds inflation. It has an unfunded mandate of nearly $40 trillion.

Thanks to Roosevelt’s New Deal from the 30’s and a half century of Johnson’s Great Society programs, American’s historic support of allowing the private sector to sort out services has given way to having government be the answer. Medicare/Medicaid are now Entitlement programs because the citizens have been trained that the government will provide these services. The battle has been lost.

My family has directly benefited from these programs. I’ve experienced the extraordinary relief of having medical care provided a loved one who otherwise would be in pain and discomfort thanks to the Government. I’ve also been frustrated and outraged at working in a bureaucratic morass where paperwork is more important than people.

My 50th birthday wasn’t one of those moments where I looked and saw what I hadn’t done. Instead it was a time to celebrate what I have been blessed to have and recommit myself to what more I want in my remaining years. It’s time to fine-tune - make sure all is working in sync. Since Medicare/Medicaid is now the essential government provider of health care – perhaps it’s time to move from being a half-measure to providing Medicare for all. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

My God is MINE

Last month I had the privilege of visiting the Holy Land of Israel. The trip allowed for a very quick skim-through of Jerusalem. It’s a place where I could spend weeks absorbing the history, the architecture and the religious significance of the land. Circumstances were such that instead I got a preview – a few hours to get a sense of things. I remarked during the trip that this was like sightseeing on a cruise – a good sampler to learn where I want to come back and really delve in. I returned stateside to my worship community, glad to be back after having missed a number of weeks due to travel. The ritual in the service is one of the elements that resonates with me – that no matter what else is happening or wherever I’m participating in the service (spiritually or geographically) – that there is a constant of the service. I was not expecting to experience the service differently – why would it be any different? As the blessings and prayers were being said all of a sudden the impact of the ritual was deeper and more resonant for me because I had physically been where Jesus had. This reaction came after my brief visit. I can only imagine what it would be like after a real immersion. This moment reinforces how personal my God is to me, so I’m particularly troubled when I see God is bandied about as a political issue.

Gov. Bobby Jindal is one now 16 candidates vying for the 2016 GOP nomination.  Raised Hindu, he is a fundamentalist Christian who invokes religion on an evangelical basis. In January 2015 at a prayer rally he said: “We need a spiritual revival to fix what ails our country. It is like God has given us the book of life. He doesn’t let us see the pages for today and tomorrow. He doesn’t promise us everything will go the way you want, but he does let you see the last page of the book of life — and on the last page, our God wins.”

In North Carolina “In God We Trust” is being added to 33 government buildings. Advocates inform their opponents that the expression is the National motto and therefore is fine to use.

July 30, 1956 – just about 59 years ago – Congress passed a resolution and President Eisenhower signed it making “In God We Trust” the national motto. In 2006 on the 50th Anniversary of the adoption of the motto the Senate reaffirmed it as the official motto of the U.S.

The ACLU and other rights groups have failed in their attempts to keep government buildings, courthouses, money, etc. devoid of a reference to a generic God. The rulings have repeatedly stated that by having God mentioned in a statement on a building doesn’t “establish” or “endorse” a particular religious and therefore is allowed. One’s definition of God can be applied – it’s not the state dictating it. Even with my prejudice as a person of faith, it seems to be an awfully blurry and convenient line to use one part of the First Amendment to overshadow the other.

The quiet time that individuals have at their temple, in the mosque, at Church, on a Mountain or wherever they make their spiritual connection (if any) is theirs and theirs alone. Government shouldn’t impede by declaring it from atop the entrance. And would be Presidents shouldn’t be putting his God up against other’s. (When Bush 43 did that the U.S. wound up in a twelve year military conflict.) My God is MINE. Leave her alone!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Art of the Deal

I’m a great negotiator. It’s something I also enjoy. Since most of my professional life has involved negotiation – that’s a bonus! I’m not sure where the skill comes from – perhaps it’s part of my DNA, perhaps it’s part of the middle-child syndrome. Perhaps it’s something I’ve learned along the way. (Thanks to the 1987 book by the [pre-crazy] Donald Trump which I devoured!) I loved sitting with my Dad negotiating with the car dealer in the 1970’s as a pre-teen on the purchase of their Datsun. Decades later I fumed when I learned my parents had bought a car based on its sticker price, without negotiation. Turns out they were buying the car from a Church friend and the small amount of money that might have been saved through a hard-nosed price discussion was far outweighed by the value they put on the relationship. My parent were right (as always). On occasions when the car needed service or something happened the dealer took exceptional care of them based not on what they paid for the car, but based on their relationship. Would it be that all deals ended so well.

My own negotiating style reflects the heritage of my parents and thrives in the context of my running a charity. It’s a “win-win-win” philosophy where I try to find ways for everybody involved in a deal can walk away with something in the “win” column. I’m also a fervent believer that if a deal is bad, if it causes harm to one of the parties – then it’s up to that party to walk away. It’s right in line with my Libertarian personal-responsibility ethos, but it’s also common sense.

The political world both in the United States and around the world are agog these first weeks of July 2015 with the announcement of a nuclear deal with Iran. Some describe the deal as the biggest diplomatic coup in a generation; others see it as a capitulation to the very core of American strength and power. In reality the critics are both right.

My understanding of the nuances of the months-long negotiations that produced the deal is elementary at best. The overall points make sense – inspections, restrictions and demolition of existing programs to eliminate Iran’s ability to “get the bomb.” In exchange Iran gets some relief from economic sanctions and has a pathway to join the world as an equal.  Is it a good deal? I don’t know. As an anti-war pacifist, any deal where the risk of nuclear annihilation is mitigated is a good deal.

President Obama has been a “take-no-prisoners” negotiator domestically. He may have evolved to that stance after the Republican “our way or the highway” approach to legislation. It may just be his style. The result has been a bitterly divided and unproductive Congressional process that reflects the deep divides of the country. The Obama administration has also had a penchant for war and conflict – opting for killing over compromise (while claiming the opposite in its propaganda). And my particular pet peeve: the President himself maintains a kill list where he alone chooses who lives or dies. So there is a long documented and established practice by this administration/government where diplomacy and peace are at best secondary and often tertiary.

It is difficult enough to negotiate between staunchly opposing parties who don’t trust each other. In this case there were many countries and many interests involved. Now, for the first time, 635 American legislators are going to weigh in. Many will want to re-negotiate elements of the deal that they don’t like. As a passionate advocate and believer in transparency, the more Congress and the American people know the better. As a long time strategist and negotiator it’s unfathomable to have that many people and interests involved in a large complex deal. It’s also not how the U.S. Government is set up to manage international affairs. Congress’ impact on the Iran situation may further complicate the result, but makes the art of any other deal for any other issue in the future nearly impossible. The American Government is set up with branches that have pre-defined roles, for the sake of the country and the sake of the art of the deal, let’s keep those clear.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Fanning the Flag

One of my most distinctive memories of the Post-9/11 world was the abundance of U.S. flags everywhere. Living in Los Angeles, the car capital of the world, everybody seemed to have those suction cups holding flags flying from their car windows. I wondered what gas station was giving them out that I had somehow missed. The demonstration of patriotism also felt like code for whether you supported military action against Al Qaeda. It was obvious to me that I was one of the very few people who didn’t have an overt display, and it was uncomfortable…like going to a black tie event and wearing jeans. To mitigate that feeling and to better ‘blend in’ but still express my own authentic opinion on where the country was headed (war) I displayed a peace flag from my car window. The symbolism of the flag – whether it be the full stars and stripes or whether it be the peace sign – is visceral for most citizens. The current fight over the Confederate Flag proves the point.
Wikipedia informs that flags were used in wartime and have later become nationalistic symbols. The U.S. Civil War was fought from 1861 to 1865 and remains the deadlist conflict in American history with more than 750,000 deaths. Entire books have been written about the war and there have been movies and miniseries because the subject is vast. Simplifying it is perilous, but here goes: The division between the Union/Northern states and the Confederate/Southern states erupted into warfare because of issues of slavery and how slavery impacted industry and commerce.
After the North prevailed, the Confederate Flag remained in many southern states. Proponents argue that it is a symbol of Southern pride. Opponents insist that it represents racism. In South Carolina after years of debate and an all-night legislative session, the flag will soon be coming down.

The Dukes of Hazzard aired on Friday nights on CBS and was a cotton candy entertainment of good old boys, cars and their crazy adventures. Daisy, the leading woman was dressed in shorty-shorts and showed ample cleavage. The rich nemesis Boss Hogg was as two-dimensional as you could imagine and the lawman Sherriff Coltrane was inept, allowing our heroes the Duke brothers to save the day. It was not high concept, high art or any attempt to capture life in the south – it was escapist entertainment. The General Lee, a 1969 customized Dodge Charger, bore the confederate flag and is featured with the lead actors in a series of commercials for a car company today. The show ran for six years and has been in various forms of syndication ever since, spawning spinoffs, video games and follow-up movies. TV Land recently started airing the show but withdrew it in the wake of the confederate flag controversy.

Symbolism matters. The Nazi Party in 1930’s Germany effectively used symbolism in its war against its own people, especially Jews, the disabled and homosexuals. After the war the German Criminal Code section86a outlaws “use of symbols of unconstitutional organizations” – specifically Nazi symbolism.
At the June 29, 2015 gay pride parade in London: “CNN dedicated an entire six and a half minutes to covering, in a tenor of total seriousness and extreme gravity, what they said was an ISIS flag being waved at a gay pride parade, when in fact it was readily and painfully obvious that the 'ISIS flag' was in fact a joke flag covered with images of dildos and butt plugs."
Freedom does not equate being comfortable. Banning, subverting or hiding imagery and symbols that offend don’t take away their impact, it redirects it. Taking “The Dukes of Hazzard” off of the air won’t materially change the conversation of racism in the U.S. Outlawing Nazi propaganda in Germany didn’t eliminate the National Socialist agenda – it ran it underground where in 2011 many crimes were exposed by the group. CNN’s breathless coverage of an explicit joke mocking ISIS isn’t just a journalist embarrassment … it’s indicative that there is no tolerance for being offensive. Let’s fan the flags – let’s have passionate and breathless debates about these issues.