Friday, July 17, 2009

Reasoned Political Analysis

Dear Readers:
As I am wont to say, I don't like to write about politics, as I am more committed to communications than ideology. However, I direct to an article by Ted Van Dyk, a career Democrat and assistant to Hubert Humphrey. He writes that Barack Obama should "reset" his Presidency. I don't include include it here for the political stance, but because in all the partisan bloviation and vitriol that's out there, this is a very even-handed piece of writing. Regardless of our politics, I wish there were more analyses like this out there.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sen. Coburn, you and your ilk have some 'splainin' to do!

I couldn't believe it when I heard it during Sonia Sotomayor's hearings yesterday. And even though I know I heard it, I still can't believe it.
Sonia Sotomayor was responding to an abstract question about the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She was talking hypothetically, and good-naturedly, to Sen Tom Coburn (Republican of Oklahoma) about getting a gun to shoot him in self-defense. He said to her that if she did that, "You'll have lots of 'splainin' to do."
Let me repeat that.
A white, male U.S. Senator said to a judge who is about to become the first Hispanic woman on the Supreme Court, "You'll have lots of 'splainin' to do."
Class, let us review the sins that have been haunting the Republican Party of late as they entered these hearings. I will read from the latest polls:
The Grand Old Party is viewed as being out of touch.
As being insular.
As being a country club.
A group that, when faced with economic problems, turns to tax cuts for rich people and hardly ever proposes solutions for the common citizen.
And remember, these are the voters talking, not me. In my line of work, I deal with images and impressions, not politics.
So in light of all these perceptions, a Republican senator evokes the 1950s stereotype of an Hispanic character that has long been disavowed.
Look, what he said isn't the crime of the century. It was merely THE STUPIDEST THING I HAVE HEARD A POLITICIAN SAY IN A LONG TIME!
However, this is only part of the problem of this show. When you add it to the entire hearing, many of the Republican Senators have done their image no favors. First, let's all agree that Sotomayor's "wise Latina" remark was thoughtless and controversial, and it deserved examination. And let's also agree that if a White Man had said it, his career would be over. (Perception is a powerful but often unfair animal. It is still quite incredible to me that George Allen lost his Virginia Senate seat and possibly a shot at the Presidency with his "Macaca" comment.) But guys, do you know when to quit? You made your point days ago. I'm a white male too, and even I'm tired of hearing this. How do you think Hispanic voters are feeling, hearing this line of questioning over and over?
Let's also consider the condescension that Judge Sotomayor has faced. There are too many to list, but today contained a particularly egregious example. Sotomayor was asked why she wanted to be on the Supreme Court by Senator Al Franken. (Once again, a fact I'm trying to get used to, and the funniest, most incongruant combination of title and name since "Congressman Sonny Bono.")
Sotomayor made a point about her commitment to the job with a story: Her mother asked her if she would have to take a pay cut if she got the job, and Sotomayor had to admit that, yes, it was a huge cut, apparently about 75 percent.
Nice story. Shows how the job and her service to the country is more important to her than money, right? So how does the tin-eared Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Georgia) respond? He points out that the salary of $250,000+ is four times that of the average U.S. household and says quite acidly, "If you can't live on it, you probably shouldn't take the job."
Way to go. Now is the time for all big dopes to come to the aid of the party.
All that we heard in the media for days leading up to the hearings was how risky they would be for the Republicans, as the party have been losing the Hispanic vote, a bloc the party cornered for years after the leadership of Ronald Reagan. The strategy was clearly spelled out. Instead, quite a few of these guys decided to behave counter-intuitively.
Sen Lindsay Graham of South Carolina was a model for his party, and perhaps all citizens, in his decorum. He clearly had issues with Sotomayor, but he was able to express them in a courtly and respectful manner, calling to mind a level of discourse that we once had in this country until we Rush-ed in another direction. And as a former Judge Advocate General (JAG, like the TV show), he was well-qualified to question Sotomayor on legal issues.
For those of us in the public eye and ear, we should remember that tone and context are so important in our communication. Even the most seemingly innocent comment can come across in a way never imagined. But this is not news. There is no excuse for much of the attitude that was displayed over the last few days, given all that was at stake.
I heard something else today. Did you hear it? It was the sound of Coburn, Sessions and others shooting themselves in their feet and many others.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Why the Economy is Interesting (and should be presented that way!)

Tomorrow I am scheduled to speak at my Siemens Toastmasters club. According to this, and I'm supposed to open with a light-hearted or amusing story. Then the rest can be about whatever I want. I am going to write about the economy and the austerity that we are facing in the near future.
In preparing this speech. I was reminded about how little we really teach about the economy. We should really pay more attention, as it affects so many matters, some as large as the numbers of jobs available, others as seemingly minute as where a toll road will be placed (or whether it should be built at all). But many of us are reduced to calling it "the dismal science," or resorting to Shaw's overused quote about how if all the economists in the world were place end-to-end.... You know the rest.
I'm not an economist, though I studied economics as part of my MBA. I tried to make it more interesting to the laypeople who will hear this speech by giving them background, such as:

  • Growth in the economy of two to three percent each year was normal until the end of WWII, and then our economy took off because of post-war demand. Also, our foreign competitors were bombed out of existence. Once we got back to two to three percent growth before the actual recession of 2008, it seemed like bad times for us. But actually, that is quote normal. However when all you know is an "up" market, then skyrocketing growth looks normal to you.

  • Productivity has improved to the point that we need fewer workers. Therefore, the job creation rate for American workers has fallen. As a result of fewer jobs and many bodies to do them, the wages for the average American worker has been falling since 2001. We should not expect to see higher wages in the foreseeable future. (I remember reading years ago that we possibly face a permanent underclass that cannot find work. Are we there now?)

  • The prices of everyday items that we take for granted are bound to rise once we pull out of this recession. The demand for food, raw materials, fuel and water will increasingly outstrip available supplies. T. Boone Pickens, the famous oilman, is trying to buy up water rights in some areas, because he sees it as "the next oil."

Still, there is promising news on the horizon. Since the credit crunch started in late 2008, the average U.S. household savings rate has jumped from 0.7 percent to 4 percent of income. Many Americans have already relearned the value and satisfaction of saving, which is a promising trend.

Is this all learnable? I believe so. Many economists I was reading predicted this credit crunch for years before it happened. As a result, I stopped investing in my 401k's inflated stock prices and paid off my mortgage instead. The benefit has been that I have more disposable income during a rough patch in the economy. And I admit again, as I did earlier, I'm no economist.

My point is that our popular media are failing us in informing us of the economy. Our business media, where I got my information, are doing fine. Still, I don't think most people turn to those media. We need more than a crazy man on basic cable television ranting and making largely inaccurate predictions (you know I'm talking to you, Jim!). We should be demanding more.



Monday, July 13, 2009

The King is Dead; Long Live Real News!

Be still my beating heart. I turned on my TV today and there was news that did NOT include the late. great Michael Jackson. I am hearing about the efforts of U.S. Congressman Patrick Murphy -- an Iraq war officer and veteran -- to keep gay soldiers in the military. I am hearing about Judge Sotomayor's confirmation. Yes, there is hyperbole there from her Democratic supporters. (Is there a hook we can use just for Sen. Chuck Schumer? Jeez, what a windbag!)
There is also some puffery from the Republicans (Sen. Cronyn from Texas and Chuck Grassley who is "concerned" about her empathy). Lindsay Graham was actually statesmanlike, giving the President his due and allowing that Chief Executive has a right to pick his own justices. (Call me naive, but I think he was sincere.)
Days ago, I complained of a "Gresham's Law" of news, in which Mr. Jackson's untimely death supplanted coverage of other events. Cap and trade, anyone? Did we vote on that? Oh yes, we did,. while cameras were inside the empty Neverland farmhouse.
Did we suffer any losses of soldiers in the last couple of weeks? Yes, although you would never know it.
I am the first to say that I have been a Michael Jackson fan for 40 years, and I think he was a musical visionary. But what passed for "news" in our recent dark days is shameful. We should all be writing to our networks and some print outlets and taking them to task for this.
Not that it would do any good, unfortunately. But maybe it will make us feel better.
Now rest in peace, Michael Jackson.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Jack Welch Predicts a Brave New Workforce from this Recession

Jack & Suzy Welch wrote a timely commentary in the latest issue of BusinessWeek. They predict that plenty of people will work for themselves as a result of the recession, and the main reason is a lack of trust in employers -- that is, ALL employers, both present and future ones. "Plenty of talent no longer wants to work for 'the man,'" they say in their commentary. "Wooing them will require candor, innovation and the excitement of a start-up."
Having worked for seven years for GE under Mr. Welch's leadership, I can tell you that the man is sincere. He insisted on honesty. For example, he was against social promotions of long-time employees, saying that it was unfair not only to the organization but to the employees themselves. I was also the point person in several business throughout the company that were facing seismic changes, usually resulting in layoffs. It was tough to bring this news to my audiences, such as the media, the community and the employees. We would often communicate the state of the business for months in advance, preparing them for change. It was tough on everyone, but no one could say they were surprised.
My employers since then were the exact opposite in their practices. They pumped up the businesses' standings, even in the face of conflicting financial reports. Leaders would communicate when the results were good, but disappear when there was a downturn. Yo, you don't have to be Peter Drucker to figure that one out! Employees learned quickly that this meant that the business was in trouble.
I always advocated open communication to the business leaders. I argued that the employees would value knowing the condition of the company and the plan to deal with that condition so that they could rally behind it. The usual response was that honesty would cause their best employees to leave, because those were the people who had the most options. I countered that the employees had a right to know the condition of the company so they could plan accordingly. But, I repeated, if they heard the company's plan, they would rally behind it.
No employer of mine other than GE ever accepted this philosophy.
I also never worked again for a company that was as successful as GE.
I agree with the Welches that there will be payback for this from the best and the brightest. These smartest of the employees have learned that most organizations cannot be trusted. Besides, the job is a 20th Century invention that may have run its course. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most people worked for themselves on farms or at crafts. But when factories expanded, they needed people to work in them. Good wages attracted many people away from the crafts and farms they knew.
Now that covenant has changed, and we seem to be returning to the natural order of employment, opting for work that fills our hearts in addition to our wallets. People used to say, "I can't quit my job to go out on my own. I need the security." Well, how is that security thing working for you now, Bucky?
I write about this in my book, "The Six P's of Change." My very first principle, the first "P," is the Perception that change, some change, is going to happen to each one of us. For so many, that change has come to our jobs.
For those of you who still have employees, it is not too late to practice this philosophy. Be open with your people, and empower them in the process. Build your employees' loyalty to you by showing loyalty to their interests. Don't just take it from me. Take it from two masters of business.

Friday, July 3, 2009

"Public Enemies" Draws Route from Gangsters to Kardashians

I saw "Public Enemies" last night, drawn to it by its prinicpals: the brilliant Johnny Depp, the ravishing Marion Cotillard of "La Vie en Rose" fame, and director Michael Mann, whose handsome handiwork I have admired from his earlier days in the TV ("The Longest Mile," the seminal cop show, "Miami Vice"). While my opinion of the film itself is best left in another commentary (HINT: I found it more stylish than substantive), I found myself interested in an issue that was as timely in the 1933 time frame of the film as it is today: media personalities.Depp plays gangster John Dillinger, who enthralled the nation during The Great Depression (yes, a depression greater than the current one) with his daring bank robberies. You would think that ordinary folks down on their luck would not care about someone making a living through dishonest means, but there must have been a Robin Hoodian element to it all. The film shows ordinary folks lining the streets to get a glimpse of him, and I can attest through my own research that this really happened.
This was not the first time for unlikely public adulation. George Burns wrote in "All My Best Friends," his memoir about vaudeville:

"Not only didn't you have to be good or bad to be a headliner (on the vaudeville stage), you didn't even have to be a performer. The vaudeville stage was the only place people could, 'live and in person,' the same celebrities they were reading about in the newspapers. Famous criminal, particularly women who were involved in 'crimes of passion.' appeared in vaudeville after being acquited or after being released from prison.... After Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic, he turned down a $100,000 offer to play a West Coast theater for one week."

Note the phrase ''the same celebrities they were reading about in the newspapers." Now look at the fascination for people like the Ozzy Osbourne family, the Kardashians, and the necrophiliac coverage of the late, great Michael Jackson. If we look at the early history of television, the performers who were most popular and successful were those who came from vaudeville, such as Milton Berle, Ed Wynn and Jack Benny. While television has often been called "the electronic fireplace," is it possible that it is really vaudeville-in-a-box?
Furthermore, is our desire for celebrity news and worship in our genes, a natural function that can be traced back to the Greek and Roman stages? ("And here for your listening pleasure, folks, is Nero. He will entertain you with his fiddling while Rome burns.")
Maybe we shouldn't be so hard on ourselves. What do you think?


Thursday, July 2, 2009

GLARE OF THE SPOTLIGHT, Part 3 - The Gosselin Effect

Psychologists have various laws and effects that purport to explain our behaviors. One is the Hawthorne effect , where when workers improve while they’re being observed. The theory goes that the very act of observation affects the behavior being studied. The name derives from worker research on industrial psychology, which was conducted at the Western Electric Company Hawthorne plant near Chicago. The “Pygmalion effect” says that if teachers have higher expectations of some children and show that expectation, the improvement of those children was roughly twice that of the other children in the same class. And there is the straightforward “Principle of Cause and Effect,” which says that nothing happens for no reason. There is always a distinct origin for that effect.

I’d like to promote Pat Rocchi’s Gosselin Effect:

The presence of a motion picture camera lens will
magnify the subject’s flaws to the point of destruction

Exhibit one, counselor, is a recent cause célèbre (dethroned, of course, by Governor Marc Sanford and Michael Jackson): the disintegrated marriage of the now-infamous Jon and Kate Gosselin, parents to eight unfortunate children and stars of Jon & Kate Plus 8. For you readers who have been in a cave in recent weeks, Mr. and (nee) Mrs. Gosselin, the parents of twins and sextuplets, traded their home life for a so-called reality series on The Learning Channel. This exchange provided them with a new home, free trips, and free merchandise. However, the bill came due in the most recently season, and the cost was their marriage.

Jon was accused of having an affair. Kate was accused of shrewish behavior that seemed to merit infidelity. Jon says he never wanted to be a TV star. Kate luxuriates in her fame, which came complete with a million dollar home, a tummy tuck and, apparently, at least one friendly bodyguard.
As Hank Stuever of the Washington Post so aptly put it, “(T)his is not a documentary in any true sense, nor is it reality. In searching for a word that describes Jon & Kate Plus 8, the subtlest forms of the word abuse spring to mind, which, alas, is why the show is so alluring.”

Didn’t we learn this nearly 40 years ago with “An American Family,” the PBS documentary of the Loud family? The Louds (an appropriate name, it turned out) comprise Dad Bill and Mom Pat, their eventually uncloseted son Lance, sons Kevin and Grant, and daughters Delilah and Michelle. They were filmed relentlessly for a quotidian total of 300 hours. In that time, Lance came out famously, and the other children showed their unhappiness more subtly, less flamboyantly. In a spooky bit of foreshadowing, Bill and Pat’s marriage came apart before our very eyes.

A cliché says, “the camera doesn’t lie.” That’s not really true, for cameras shed light only on the subjects on which they are focused. But it is fair to say that cameras are good at uncovering truths. Just look at the Gosselins’ twin daughters, Madelyn and Cara, both 8 years old. You don’t need to look very hard to see their resentment not only of giving up their own childhoods for the sake of this program, but also to serve as built-in babysitters for the sextuplets. The camera also shows Jon’s urge to end this intrusion.

If you don’t believe in the power of the camera to see, try looking back at your own family movies or photos. Distanced by time, you may finally catch the disaffected gawk of that one family member who was not really interested in being there. Perhaps you’ll see the gauzy gaze of that funny uncle who, it turns out, was hiding a substance abuse problem. Or maybe much of that smiling was de rigueur and not genuine.

Perhaps it is time to ignore shows that bring people into our homes whom we would not normally invite. Are they really worth our time? What are our motives for watching them? Are they really illuminating in any higher sense of the word? Are we really interested in the mumbling, stumbling former rock star? Or are we laughing at them?

Perhaps we should turn off the cameras in our own lives, too. It is very possible that we are not capturing reality in our own lives as well. Why not look through our eyes rather than our lenses and just interact with our family and friends one on one? You may be surprised at what you learn. Pleasantly so.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

GLARE OF THE SPOTLIGHT, Part 2 - Exposing the Two Faces of Mark Sanford

Mark Sanford is the gift that keeps on giving to us bloggers! First the South Carolina governor disappears without his staff knowing his whereabouts. Then there is conflicting information on where he is. Next, a hastily called press conference in which he admits that he had an extramarital relationship.

But wait, folks, there is more. Today there is news that he says he "crossed the line with other women" -- the newest euphemism to describe hanky-panky by politicos. Still, in the end, I'm not inclined to make much of it...

Except that Sanford already made much of it himself, and so he sets himself up for criticism. After all, as I often tell you, my dear readers, this blog is not about politics, it is about communication of all sorts. And when public figures say one thing about morality and then do another person, we have the right to examine it.
You have probably seen the evidence on umpteen other blogs. That as a member of the U.S. House, the dis-Honorable Rep. Mark Sanford voted to impeach one William Jefferson Clinton because he found his actions "reprehensible." That when fellow Republican Infidel Bob Livingston was found cheating, Sanford found him guilty of lying under "the oath to his wife." And that he was was against gay marriage because such unions would undermine the institution of marriage. (As though cheating doesn't.) As one wag on Twitter put it, apparently Sanford thinks that marriage is between one woman and one man and one Argentinian woman.

There aren't too many people in public life who can claim to be so perfect. One notable example to the contrary was Senator Joe Lieberman's public examination of Bill Clinton's behaviors with Monica Lewinsky. I say "examination" because "condemnation" seems much too harsh a word for the serious, temperate and dignified way with which Lieberman chose to handle the issue. And I dare say that, given his reputation as a religious and spiritual man, an observant Jew, Lieberman had the moral authority to make the statements that he did.
My point is that if you are going to be a public scold, you better be pretty clean of those sins yourself. Sanford tried to earn political capital on the backs and backsides of others. Now he must answer for his own transgressions, and others are about as forgiving as he was, which is to say, "not much." It serves him right, and it is a lesson for all in the public eye.

NEXT UP: The Gosselin Effect of a Ubiquitous Camera