Archive for the ‘Eye Opening Experiences’ Category

Why I am Voting for Barack Obama for President of the United States

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I have been a registered Independent voter since 1994.  Like many Americans, I've given more thought to this election than to any previous political contest. Many of us share a deep sense of unease as we witness a degree of instability and see a snowballing lack of confidence in  our country's economic and political institutions that was considered impossible in America. I feel strongly that my vote in 2008 may well be the most important exercise of this civic duty in my life. 

In supporting Barack Obama, like General Colin Powell, I also believe that Senator Obama is a "transformational figure".  I trust Barack Obama's judgment and believe in his ability to successfully lead this country through the dark period that engulfs our national psyche.  I also believe he is sincere in his desire to "do the right thing" for America.  His specific position on eliminating capital gains taxes for start-ups supports long-term investing through innovation and venture capital.  This approach recognizes that there are no quick fixes to our economic problems and that America needs to resume a path toward sustainable long-term economic growth through new job creation.  

In my view, the Washington Post's endorsement of Barack Obama for President on October 17 most closely reflects my own personal opinions.  Below, I have quoted some excerpts from the Post's editorial which capture the essence of my strong support for Barack Obama:

"Mr. Obama is a man of supple
intelligence, with a nuanced grasp of complex issues and evident skill at
conciliation and consensus-building. At home, we believe, he would respond to
the economic crisis with a healthy respect for markets tempered by justified
dismay over rising inequality and an understanding of the need for focused
regulation. Abroad, the best evidence suggests that he would seek to maintain
U.S. leadership and engagement, continue the fight against terrorists, and wage
vigorous diplomacy on behalf of U.S. values and interests. Mr. Obama has the
potential to become a great president. . . .

A McCain presidency would not equal
four more years [of the Bush administration], but outside of his inner circle,
Mr. McCain would draw on many of the same policymakers who have brought us to
our current state. We believe they have richly earned, and might even benefit
from, some years in the political wilderness. . . .

There are two sets of issues that
matter most in judging these candidacies. The first has to do with restoring
and promoting prosperity and sharing its fruits more evenly in a globalizing
era that has suppressed wages and heightened inequality. Here the choice is not
a close call. Mr. McCain has little interest in economics and no apparent feel
for the topic. His principal proposal, doubling down on the Bush tax cuts,
would exacerbate the fiscal wreckage and the inequality simultaneously. Mr.
Obama's economic plan contains its share of unaffordable promises, but it
pushes more in the direction of fairness and fiscal health. Both men have
pledged to tackle climate change. . . .

Mr. Obama also understands that the
most important single counter to inequality, and the best way to maintain
American competitiveness, is improved education, another subject of only modest
interest to Mr. McCain. . . .

A better health-care system also is
crucial to bolstering U.S. competitiveness and relieving worker insecurity. Mr.
McCain is right to advocate an end to the tax favoritism showed to employer
plans. This system works against lower-income people, and Mr. Obama has
disparaged the McCain proposal in deceptive ways. But Mr. McCain's health plan
doesn't do enough to protect those who cannot afford health insurance. Mr.
Obama hopes to steer the country toward universal coverage by charting a course
between government mandates and individual choice, though we question whether
his plan is affordable or does enough to contain costs. . . .

It is almost impossible to predict what
policies will be called for by January, but certainly the country will want in
its president a combination of nimbleness and steadfastness — precisely the
qualities Mr. Obama has displayed during the past few weeks. When he might have
been scoring political points against the incumbent, he instead responsibly
urged fellow Democrats in Congress to back Mr. Bush's financial rescue plan. He
has surrounded himself with top-notch, experienced, centrist economic advisers
– perhaps the best warranty that, unlike some past presidents of modest
experience, Mr. Obama will not ride into town determined to reinvent every
policy wheel. Some have disparaged Mr. Obama as too cool, but his
unflappability over the past few weeks — indeed, over two years of campaigning
– strikes us as exactly what Americans might want in their president at a time
of great uncertainty. . . .

…Mr. Obama, as anyone who reads his
books can tell, also has a sophisticated understanding of the world and
America's place in it. . . .We hope he would navigate between the amoral
realism of some in his party and the counterproductive cocksureness of the
current administration, especially in its first term. On most policies, such as
the need to go after al-Qaeda, check Iran's nuclear ambitions and fight
HIV/AIDS abroad, he differs little from Mr. Bush or Mr. McCain. But he promises
defter diplomacy and greater commitment to allies. His team overstates the
likelihood that either of those can produce dramatically better results, but
both are certainly worth trying. . . .

Thanks to the surge that Mr. Obama
opposed, it may be feasible to withdraw many troops during his first two years
in office. But if it isn't — and U.S. generals have warned that the hard-won
gains of the past 18 months could be lost by a precipitous withdrawal — we can
only hope and assume that Mr. Obama would recognize the strategic importance of
success in Iraq and adjust his plans. . . .

We also can only hope that the alarming
anti-trade rhetoric we have heard from Mr. Obama during the campaign would give
way to the understanding of the benefits of trade reflected in his writings. A
silver lining of the financial crisis may be the flexibility it gives Mr. Obama
to override some of the interest groups and members of Congress in his own
party who oppose open trade, as well as to pursue the entitlement reform that
he surely understands is needed. . . .

… the stress of a campaign can reveal
some essential truths, and the picture of Mr. McCain that emerged this year is
far from reassuring. To pass his party's tax-cut litmus test, he jettisoned his
commitment to balanced budgets. He hasn't come up with a coherent agenda, and
at times he has seemed rash and impulsive. And we find no way to square his
professed passion for America's national security with his choice of a running
mate who, no matter what her other strengths, is not prepared to be commander
in chief. . . .

… Mr. Obama's temperament is unlike
anything we've seen on the national stage in many years. He is deliberate but
not indecisive; eloquent but a master of substance and detail; preternaturally
confident but eager to hear opposing points of view. He has inspired millions
of voters of diverse ages and races, no small thing in our often divided and
cynical country. We think he is the right man for a perilous moment."

The SEC’s Colossal Failure of Oversight– Isn’t This a Violation of the Business Judgment Rule?

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The damning New York Times headline, “SEC CONCEDES OVERSIGHT FLAWS FUELED COLLAPSE,” from a September 26th article by Stephen Labaton, will hopefully end up as more than a footnote in the long list of misdeeds by the ‘stewards’ of the American economy that have brought American capitalism to the precipice of systemic financial collapse. According to the article, a report by the inspector general of the SEC asserts that “voluntary regulation does not work” and that the SEC’s oversight program for the investment banks “was fundamentally flawed from the beginning.”

The article goes on to state:

The report found that the S.E.C. division that oversees trading and markets had failed to update the rules of the program and was “not fulfilling its obligations.” It said that nearly one-third of the firms under supervision had failed to file the required documents. And it found that the division had not adequately reviewed many of the filings made by other firms. The division’s “failure to carry out the purpose and goals of the broker-dealer risk assessment program hinders the commission’s ability to foresee or respond to weaknesses in the financial markets,” the report said.

We should not gloss over the importance and the far reaching nature of this indictment of the SEC by the SEC’s inspector general. The most fundamental fiduciary duty in business is the Duty of Oversight. Oversight is a theme which binds together the more commonly referred to fiduciary Duties of Care, Loyalty, Confidentiality, and Disclosure. Violators of the fiduciary duties listed above often seek refuge in the Business Judgment Rule and try to to hide behind ‘squishy’ judgment call concepts like “good faith” and “honest belief”. But the Business Judgment Rule stands on oversight, and the SEC clearly failed in its duty of oversight of the investment banks. In my view, in addition to the bankers, the regulators themselves should also be held responsible for this crime against America.

Below is a definition of the rule, taken from the white paper, “A Simple Guide to the Basic Responsibilities of VC-Backed Company Directors”, written by the Working Group on Director Accountability and Board Effectiveness:

Business Judgment Rule
Creates a presumption that in making a business decision, the directors of a company acted on an informed
basis, in good faith and in the honest belief that the action taken was in the best interests of the company.
The business judgment rule helps protect a director from personal liability for allegedly bad business
decisions by essentially shifting the burden of proof to a plaintiff alleging that the director did not satisfy
its fiduciary duties. This presumption and the protections afforded by the business judgment rule are lost if the directors involved in the decision are not disinterested, do not make appropriate inquiry prior to
making their decisions, or fail to establish adequate oversight mechanisims.

All corporate directors and persons in positions of accountable oversight responsibility need to commit these rules to memory– and, more importantly, to act on them in the daily course of business.

Some Thoughts on Inappropriate Language, Dignity, and Bill Clinton

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The word ‘scumbag’ should not be in the lexicon of any current or former U.S. President, living or dead.

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I was disappointed, but not surprised, to learn that former President Bill Clinton went directly into the gutter to berate Todd Purdum, the Vanity Fair reporter who wrote a thoroughly scathing article about President Clinton’s penchant for excess in the current issue of the magazine. Recognizing that President Clinton threw out the ‘Dignity’ baby with the Lewinsky bath water some years ago, it is still hard for me to believe that a man with Clinton’s vision doesn’t consider himself to remain a steward of America’s image as he defines an unprecedented public role for himself in the election of 2008. Clinton’s instantly infamous ‘scumbag interview’ will not soon be forgotten (click here for links).

As much as they are reprehensible and undignified for a former President, Clinton’s cutting remarks are also symptomatic of the American disease and reveal more about the sorry state of this country than they do about Clinton.

As we ask ourselves what it means to be an American and search for something to bind us together as citizens this pivotal election year, we need to recognize that we can only cure the American Malaise of the early 21st century if we pull our country’s image out of the “I want it all, and I want it now” hole that has swallowed former President Clinton and many others in positions of trust and leadership.

President Clinton is speaking at Radio City Music Hall on June 17 in New York as part of The Minds that Move the World Speaker Series.

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I was in a cab driving up Avenue of the Americas last Monday morning and saw the famous marquee wrapping around the Radio City Music Hall, announcing ‘Cindy Lauper’, the ‘Indigo Girls’, ‘President Bill Clinton’, and the ‘Steve Miller Band’. My big question is whether, by the time Bill Clinton is scheduled to open for Spinal Tap, will he precede or follow the Puppet Show?

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Driving in the U.S. DECLINES over 4% since last year– let’s get it down 10% by year-end!

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The Department of Transportation revealed a very important statistic today:

Compared with March a year earlier, Americans drove an estimated 4.3 percent less — that’s 11 billion fewer miles, the DOT’s Federal Highway Administration said Monday, calling it “the sharpest yearly drop for any month in FHWA history.” Records have been kept since 1942.

Americans are starting to act. This is a good thing. How’s that for a grass roots twin initiative in American foreign policy and energy security policy? And nobody in Washington even called for it. Imagine what could happen if we had leadership in this country?

The Black Knight and Hillary Clinton– Separated At Birth?

Pay no attention to any collateral damage to the Democratic Party…. it’s just a scratch.

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Click here to see the entire Monty Python and the Holy Grail Black Knight scene on YouTube

Smart Car Scores Exceptionally Well in IIHS Crash Safety Tests

The Smart ForTwo, which is the smallest “micro-car” ever tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) scores very well in safety crash tests!

According to the reviewers at IIHS:

The ForTwo is the smallest car the IIHS has ever tested. “All things being equal in safety, bigger and heavier is always better,” said institute president Adrian Lund in an statement. “But among the smallest cars, the engineers at Smart did their homework and designed a high level of safety into a very small package.”

The car scored extremely well for frontal and side crashes but did not do as well in protecting passengers from whiplash. Comparing the IIHS data to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA):

In the NHTSA front crash test, the ForTwo earned the top rating of “Five Stars” for driver protection, but just “Three Stars” for passenger protection. Few vehicles today get ratings as low as three stars in NHTSA’s front crash tests.

The IIHS uses a different type of front crash test and does not place a crash test dummy in the passenger seat. While NHTSA tests vehicles by crashing them straight into an immovable barrier, the institute crashes vehicles into a deformable barrier so that just part of the vehicle’s front end strikes it.

My takeaways: This car is an ideal urban vehicle and should not be driven at high speeds. See my forthcoming post on the maiden voyage of my Smart ForTwo (including my first experience with ForTwo highway driving)!Newschosmartcarscnnmoney216x164

Memo To United Airlines Management— Don’t Forget Who’s The Customer

My business partner and I landed at Chicago’s O’Hare airport at High Noon today, having awakened far too early for a Sunday, Mother’s Day to boot. We were en route to Rochester, New York, to kick off a week of East Coast business meetings.

With raindrops battering the airplane windows as we approached the gate, we learned that a massive storm system had forced the cancellation of many United flights into in out of Chicago, including our connection to Rochester.

We entered the terminal and saw a line of at least five hundred people trying to re-book their connecting flights—the wait for the “rapid, self-service kiosks” made us wish for unconsciousness. A large dose of good luck and membership in the Red Carpet Club succeeded in getting us re-booked onto a flight to Buffalo which left in 45 minutes, and both of us were upgraded to First Class… As we waited to board, an announcement was made that the First Class cabin had checked in full and that the ten other passengers waiting to upgrade would have to fly coach. We were lucky, indeed.

But that’s not the punch line to this story.

We were the first two passengers to board the 737 and, to our surprise, five of the eight first class seats were already occupied—by United employees. They had even completely filled the overhead bins with their bags, and I had to politely ask for one of the dead-heading flight attendants to move her bag into coach so that I could keep my own bag with me. I even offered to carry her bag to do it!

The flight was 100% full. At least 1,000 paying customers of United Airlines were massively inconvenienced due to cancelled flights throughout UAL’s Chicago hub. There is no doubt that other passengers on Flight 1142 to Buffalo had been re-routed onto this flight. Did United have an opportunity to build goodwill with five more of their loyal customers by moving the extremely unhappy paying passengers up front and having the employees fly coach to Buffalo? Yes.

But that would be another airline in another world and another time. And this blog is about the real world, where airlines, companies that used to be in the customer satisfaction business around circa 1975, no longer consider the lasting impact on every passenger who will not forget the image of five employees hogging 63% of the First Class cabin on Mother’s Day during a massive disruption of service to paying customers.

And I’m one of the lucky minority who got to ride up front…

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Democracy’s Byproducts and American Exceptionalism– Prison System Update

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Adam Liptak of The New York Times has recently written a very informative and insightful series on America’s prisons. Updated statistics and analysis from “Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations” support comments made in my April 13 post, “Have Prisons Become America’s New Social Safety Net?“:

Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences.

The United States has, for instance, 2.3 million criminals behind bars, more than any other nation, according to data maintained by the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College London.

There is little question that the high incarceration rate here has helped drive down crime, though there is debate about how much. …

Criminologists and legal experts here and abroad point to a tangle of factors to explain America’s extraordinary incarceration rate: higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racial turmoil, a special fervor in combating illegal drugs, the American temperament, and the lack of a social safety net. Even democracy plays a role, as judges — many of whom are elected, another American anomaly — yield to populist demands for tough justice.

Whatever the reason, the gap between American justice and that of the rest of the world is enormous and growing.

It used to be that Europeans came to the United States to study its prison systems. They came away impressed.

“In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States,” Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured American penitentiaries in 1831, wrote in “Democracy in America.”

No more. …

Mr. [James Q.] Whitman,[a specialist in comparative law at Yale] who has studied Tocqueville’s work on American penitentiaries, was asked what accounted for America’s booming prison population.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the answer is democracy — just what Tocqueville was talking about,” he said. “We have a highly politicized criminal justice system.”

For a detailed analysis of the rise in gunfire incidents leading to more murders across America and contributing to the growth in American prisoners, read James Beldock’s blog series on gun violence, “Putting the Bullets Back in the Gun”, and “A PAX on Gun Violence”.

Have Prisons Become America’s New Social Safety Net?

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Yesterday, during a break at the Socrates Society San Francisco Salon on “The Future of American Democracy” moderated by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, I had a conversation with one of my fellow seminar participants that shook me. She is active in helping transition convicts out of jail back into society by facilitating initial job placements in charitable organizations.

Commenting on the issues of income inequality in our country that we had just been discussing in the seminar, she asserted that, from her own personal experience working with convicts, “prison is now the safety net for low income people in San Francisco. You know where your next meal is coming from and you have greater security than out on the street.”

The most profoundly disturbing thing about what she said was that it makes total sense to me. When we consider some of the root causes for this grotesque fraying of America’s social contract with the less fortunate, we can start by recognizing that the decimation of the US public education system has negatively impacted upward economic mobility in this country for decades.

Today, as we approach the November election, one must recognize that America is at an inflection point in many ways. My greatest hope for our country is that we will not look back a decade from now and recognize too late the clear signposts of the beginning of the end of the American dream.

Some 2006 year-end statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs on the American prison population:

Summary findings

On December 31, 2006 —

– 2,258,983 prisoners were held in Federal or State prisons or in local jails – an increase of 2.9% from yearend 2005, less than the average annual growth of 3.4% since yearend 1995.
– 1,502,179 sentenced prisoners were under State or Federal jurisdiction.
– there were an estimated 501 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents – up from 411 at yearend 1995.
– the number of women under the jurisdiction of State or Federal prison authorities increased 4.5% from yearend 2005, reaching 112,498, and the number of men rose 2.7%, totaling 1,458,363.
At yearend 2006 there were 3,042 black male sentenced prisoners per 100,000 black males in the United States, compared to 1,261 Hispanic male sentenced prisoners per 100,000 Hispanic males and 487 white male sentenced prisoners per 100,000 white males.

Our American democracy houses more prisoners than any other country in the world. Recent research from the Pew Center supports the case for a steady decline in upward mobility for the lowest segments of our society. At the multi-year prison population growth rate stated above, today we have approximately 0.77% of the American population in prisons. Is this any way to think about providing sanctuary for the poor in the American social contract? I don’t think so, and I hope that we will elect political leaders who will be honest enough to not only call-out the social crisis that afflicts the poor in our country, but actually galvanize the political will that we must summon if we are to break this devastating trend.

“We are Robbing Posterity to Live Today.”

Header_aspenlogo_subpage I am at the Aspen Institute to attend a Socrates Society seminar this President’s weekend, and the headline for this post is a quote by Zeke Emanuel, Chair of the Department of Bioethics at The Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health, who is moderating a session on "Resolving Bioethical Dilemmas" (believe it or not, his session is exclusively for teenagers– see Teen Socrates).

Zeke made this comment during our opening dinner panel discussion in the context of answering the following:

"What is a key question that you believe the next President of the United States should consider upon taking office?"

This simple statement is a profound and concise rendering of the American malady.  Think about it– American society has devolved to the point where virtually everything we experience is driven by a lust for instant gratification– from the mainstreaming of pornography to celebrity-seeking reality TV shows; from hasty tax stimulus packages to hedge funds; from inscrutable financial derivatives to ignorant day traders.

The popular media is consumed with the NOW.  The basic concept of long-term stewardship in public policy, of the obligation that we have as a society to bear responsibility for our children and their children, is a novelty.  Many people debating the impact of accelerating rates of climate change on the future of the world are missing the point– it’s all about posterity.  Have we truly forgotten that we are here on earth for something more than just our brief and individually insignificant moments of existence in time? 

I come to the Aspen Institute, where I currently co-chair the Socrates Society Advisory Board with Laura Lauder, for the luxury of being able to learn, for the gift of being able to step outside the narrow hallway of thinking that governs my everyday business life.  I come to the Aspen Institute to be able to hear truly insightful observations from brilliant people like Zeke Emanuel.

Tonight, 65 of us who are participating in four different seminars were fortunate to be able to hear other answers to this question from former CIA Director Jim Woolsey, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations Isobel Coleman, former Republican congressman from Oklahoma Mickey Edwards,  and Princeton University Professor of History Sean Wilentz

Now what are we going to do to get more people who can impact the future to remember that posterity matters?