Archive for the ‘Eye Opening Experiences’ Category

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?

Alan Greenspan– From Washington to Wall Street

Greenspan What’s wrong with this picture? A couple of weeks ago it was widely reported that Alan Greenspan, who, in case anyone forgot, was the chairman of the Fed prior to Ben Bernanke and the man behind things like ‘irrational exuberance’ and the housing bubble, has joined the hedge fund Paulson & Co. as an adviser.  Paulson & Co. is best known as the fund which made billions being short the sub-prime loan market, a great trade which I respect.   A company statement asserted that the contract with Greenspan was exclusive.  Mr. Greenspan has recently signed similar agreements with Pacific Investment Management Corporation (PIMCO), a bond specialist, and with the German banking giant Deutsche Bank.

Two days ago, on January 24th, during one of the most volatile trading weeks in market history and in the wake of an unprecedented Fed emergency rate cut, Alan Greenspan announced to the world that he’s worried that an “inevitable’‘ global recession will create a backlash that forces countries to retreat from worldwide markets. “Globalization has been extraordinarily valuable,” Greenspan said in a speech in Vancouver sponsored by BMO Financial Group, also known as the Bank of Montreal. “I’m concerned that if we get into some form of global recession, which after this extraordinary boom is inevitable at some point, that there will be a very significant retrenchment in the opening up of markets.”

OK.  Alan Greenspan moves markets.  He is the pied piper, the master of economic verbal obfuscation, the man whose every word captivated financial analysts and generated interpretive angst for years.  Now, Alan Greenspan is a trader.  He speaks his book– he is obviously short, and he is in the unique position of being able to front-run his own public comments.

I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, except that something about Alan Greenspan selling out, just like everyone else in America eventually does, makes me feel a little soiled and a little less respectful of the powerful people who cash in very big after having been stewards of the public trust.  Perhaps Alan Greenspan’s comments are now equivalent to just another rant from Jim Cramer

See, I’m feeling better already and will soon forget about this silly notion that there is some dignity in public service that should continue after the completion of that service.  But that’s just me, and I’m an idealist, so I guess it doesn’t matter– or does it?

Shark Tales– and A Question

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QUESTION: WHEN ENCOUNTERING ONE OR SEVERAL SHARKS IN THE OPEN OCEAN, ARE YOU SAFER AS A SNORKELER OR AS A SCUBA DIVER?

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Assume that you are not in immediate danger in either scenario described below, then consider the implications of each:

SCENARIO A:  You are scuba diving at 60 feet and have 30 minutes of air left in your tank before it’s time to go up for your safety stop.  You are 15 minutes into a 45 minute dive.  A white-tip reef shark approaches you (and your buddy).  You are feeling calm, but you do have to eventually go up to the surface.  You have no weapons. The shark does not leave.  It slowly circles you at a distance that feels OK, but…

SCENARIO B: You are snorkeling above a reef in about 30 feet of water.  Coral formations are variable.  Your boat is 30 yards away.  Swimming to shore is not an option due to the coral that surrounds you.  A pair of grey reef sharks pass you by, then turn around and stay within 30 yards of you.  You are armed with a rusty bolt of a spear gun and a rubber hose slingshot to propel it.

If the sharks get aggressive, are you safer as a snorkeler or as a scuba diver?

In my view, since I recently experienced both scenarios on the same day, I felt less nervous as a scuba diver because I mistakenly considered myself to be on a more equal footing with the sharks.  However, as I’ve considered this further, it strikes me that, if a close encounter at 60 feet did turn into more than a mutual look-see, the probability of equipment malfunction caused by user stress, a panic-induced emergency ascent, or other "limited-resources-under-water" type problems could put the scuba diver in dire straits.  Having said that, I can’t remember hearing of a scuba diver being attacked by sharks unless they were chumming the water and asking for trouble, whereas we always hear of surfer/snorkeler it-looked-like-a-tasty-seal attacks.

What do you pick as the safer place to be? On the surface in Scenario B or Down Under Pc290034 Pc280049 in Scenario A?