Thursday, October 31, 2013

Dysfunction Junction: Our Federal Government

 Have the Republicans given up or are they simply trying to destroy the country?  I get the role of the opposition is to challenge the party in power and make sure you extract something during legislative debates, but for the last five years, and I imagine for the next three years, they will be willing to induce significant harm to this nation.  I accept there will be some instances when the opposition will take a firm ‘no’ position and I get that.  But this is completely different, and what’s worse about it now is it is no longer about ideology, but politics.  Not the good kind of political bargaining and gamesmanship, but the nasty personal, damaging, and selfish kind.  Our government is dysfunctional and I just had to break out my copy of Patrick Lencioni Five Dysfunctions of a Team to analyze further.

Lencioni’s leadership fable has been read by millions and it is simple and effective lesson in rooting out the sources of a team’s inability to succeed.  So let’s look at Congress shall we?  Lencioni’s pyramid of dysfunction is included below and we shall start from the bottom.

Dysfunction One:  Absence of Trust

It all starts here, and in the case of politics and our government, it could very well end here.  Trust in this case comes down to three simple tenets: The legislative and executive branches need to be open and honest with one another, individuals cannot be crippled with a fear of failure, and mistakes cannot be covered up.  Think about it, when was the last time an elected official admitted making  a mistake, when was the last time a political party didn’t go after a scalp when something bad happened, and for as many times as these old white guys in the Senate call each other ‘my friend’, they certainly have a hard time being honest with one another and honest with their constituents.  Government oversight is important, but when the likes of Darrell Issa abuse their power, you create an environment of cover up.  And finally, for once I would like our leaders to admit they screwed up, which is not the same as saying mistakes were made.  We would be better off if President Bush admitted that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake and we would be better off if President Obama said the failure to prevent the Benghazi attack was a mistake and he is ultimately responsible.

Dysfunction Two: Fear of Conflict

You may be saying how can we have a fear of conflict if it appears is all we have is conflict between Democrats and Republicans?  Let me start by saying, conflict is good if it leads to constructive debate.  Teams that struggle at this stage often lack debate on the merits of the issue at hand and tend to embroil in personal-attack type conflict and not issue conflict, they tend to take things ‘offline’ (haven’t we heard the term kick-the-can enough recently to describe Congress), and the best ideas, often a combination of different proposals, never develop.  As for Congress, there certainly is plenty of conflict, none of it healthy.  Instead we have Middle School name calling from the likes of Alan Grayson, Joe Wilson, Alan West, Steve King, and many others.  Debate?  More like grandstanding and self-promotion.  Try watching an hour of floor coverage from the House or Senate on C-Span or watching a hearing, there is no debate, just self-promotion.  And finally, if debate is to create the best ideas, then why did the Republicans  completely retreat from working with Democrats on economic recovery, job growth, healthcare, and immigration?  They refused to debate.

Dysfunction Three: Lack of Commitment

If you cannot debate the topic because one side retreats, how do you build commitment?  Keep in mind, commitment isn’t consensus.  It does not require unanimity, but it does require all parties to accept the decision and move forward.  Yes it may be difficult to lose a debate, but there comes a time when discussing it is over and you put your energy into supporting the group’s decision.  Instead we have a Republican controlled Congress that has taken dozens of votes to repeal the constitutionally upheld Affordable Care Act, and to go as far as shutting down the federal government.  The situation will continue to deteriorate as the sides refuse to even talk to each other, but instead go to the media or outsiders and criticize the vote or decision taken.  We witnessed this firsthand when Congress agreed to reopen the government and avoid default and those that opposed continued to oppose, and took to the media.

Dysfunction Four: Avoidance of Accountability

If there is no commitment to succeed, then how can there be accountability?  Yes there have been some public spats between and amongst the political parties, but it’s up to party leadership to hold its members accountable.  As Lencioni points out, avoidance of accountability leads to mediocrity, leads to failure to meet deadlines, and puts unfair burden on the leader.  It is why so many pundits and politicians want to blame the president when Congress fails to act, remember the super committee?  Of course unlike in the private sector, the public, in the form of elections can hold our representatives accountable.  We need to demand more of our government.   We need to demand that compromise is not weakness.

Dysfunction Five: Inattention to Results

And now we reach the top of the pyramid, a place where a true team will set aside personal, departmental, or political party goals and rewards in favor of the greater good.  Does anyone believe that in today’s political maelstrom a majority of our elected representatives are willing to put the greater good ahead of the individual?  The primary allegiance is to themselves to get re-elected and maintain the sweet life, feed their own ego, to make even more money, and gain greater prestige.  Mr. Smith may have gone to Washington, but Mr. Cruz now goes for personal reward. 

Yes, we have a dysfunctional government because our elected officials are unable and unwilling to focus on the greater good, the common goal.  Why?  Because to do so, just may cost them personally.  The power and the prestige makes them unable to trust, unwilling to accept the notion of losing  a debate,  reluctant to commit after a vote is taken, loath to hold one another accountable, and averse to putting the greater good ahead of individual glory. 

We have a failure of leadership and individual accountability.  The good news is, if latest polling is an indication, the public may have reached the same conclusion and are deciding it’s time to change the players and hopefully the game.  The bad news, the rules are still the same and political parties and special interests control too much.  The odds are long and the deck is stacked, but we do not have to accept the status quo.


Saturday, October 19, 2013

Another Super Committee? Forgive My Pessimism

24 hours after most Congressional Republicans came to their senses we have effectively kicked the can into early 2014.  The president is feeling a little cocky, Boehner is holding on, the GOP is ruing the day it hooked up with the Tea Party, and many in the Tea Party are upping their Thorazine dosages. But what is in store for America?  The economic recovery is sputtering, labor markets are anemic, political will is absent, fiscal policy is missing, and too many of our representatives are preoccupied with re-election.  So how do we get this ship righted?

For starters, fix immigration now.  It is the single biggest reason why we have few start-ups today than before 2001.  Start-ups become small businesses and small businesses are the labor engine of America.  According to The Economist, start-ups created 2.7m new jobs in the 2012 financial year compared with 4.7m in 1999.  The Republicans need to accept that they have no one to blame but themselves for driving immigrants into the arms of the Democrats.  After all, when you talk about electrified fences, moats, and self-deportation what do you expect?  But if you truly are patriotic pro-business Party of Lincoln lovers of American exceptionalism, you will fix our broken visa system.

Of course, the Democrats and the White House could meet the Republicans half way and look to scale back some of the 100 new regulations that are impairing small business growth.  America needs regulations, but I also believe we need to follow the axiom of Mr. Alfred E. Khan, the man who led airline deregulation under President Jimmy Carter in 1978: “I believe in deregulation where regulation is unnecessary, inefficient, and injurious to consumers.”  Scaling back could be a valuable bargaining chip with Republicans while also enabling job growth.

Then there’s the tax code.  Special interests and various business lobbies will try to protect their pie over the greater national good.  The tax code needs to be simplified, carve outs and loopholes closed, and the myriad of tax credits that creates manipulation bordering on cheating need to be replaced by grants.  Our byzantine tax code does cost us jobs as companies retain their foreign earned cash overseas to avoid high repatriation taxes and lower effective corporate tax rates entice companies to set up operations in these lower cost sovereignties.   Offer a repatriation holiday, but tie it to domestic economic development in the form of capital investment, education, and employee training.  I know this sounds like governmental meddling and there may be unintentional consequences, but leaving the trillions of dollars offshore does no one any good. On the individual side, increase or remove the payroll tax cap to bolster social security, increase the gas tax to fund infrastructure, and most of all stop penalizing success.  Simply taxing by income level dis-incentivizes many and leads to cheating, lower the rates, cap deductions, and institute a national sales tax.

Did I mention spending?  If you think revenue and immigration are contentious, wait till we start talking about spending.  I don’t see boom times coming anytime soon like we have seen in previous recoveries, simply because the most recent bursting of debt, housing ,credit, and bond bubbles has handcuffed the economy.  The new millennium technologies are not job creators to the same degree as even the most recent ‘new things’ and the level of education required to fill the millennium jobs exceeds what we are turning out.  So without growth and income to reduce our deficits and debt we are face with the short term discretionary spending on stabilizers and defense and the lone term mandatory spending on Medicare and Social Security.  What do you do? Sequestration resulted in broad cuts and while no one was happy about that, suddenly democrats are talking about how the deficit is shrinking.  Yes the same people that opposed any spending cuts, while the republicans can’t admit that a democratic president has cut spending especially after the republican spending spree under Bush.  What the sequester has taught us is, dire predictions from pols and economists are less accurate than a soccer game picking squid.

I expect many oppose these concepts, and some sacred cows will need to be touched.  Yes it will be controversial and painful.  I believe there is a lot of common ground in everyday America and that compromise is possible.  Sadly, I do not believe our elected representatives can get the big deal done.  I am especially pessimistic knowing that the Republicans have eight legislators, including Paul Ryan, that voted no Wednesday night as members of the latest incarnation of the Super Committee.  And the democrats have offered up Bernie Sanders the leftiest of the left.  What could go wrong?

If only our elected officials would make a New Years’ resolution to actually get something done in 2014.  Not holding my breath.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Hell is empty and all the devils are here

A famous quote in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and a colloquialism to describe today’s fiscal policy impasse.  And while pollsters take polls to find out who the uninformed ill-informed and often misinformed public blames for the government shutdown and the media rushes to share these shiny new data sets with the very same public, we are stuck in neutral with a sputtering engine.  I refuse to believe that our sclerotic government is at its worst right now, not when you look at the first hundred years of our nation’s history, and anyone who compares today’s situation to the Civil War has stretched credibility.  No today is bad, but not as bad as the ratings searching media and talking heads would like you to believe.  No, we just need to deal with these devils. These usual suspects:

For starters, the mainstream media, especially the beltway brand that is more interested in playing the blame game and deciding which party or politician is winning or losing.  Elections are about winning and losing, running the world’s biggest economy, most powerful military, and richest nation is about governing.  Can you imagine the 24 hour cable news shows during the 1860’s?  Sean Hannity calls for Lincoln’s impeachment, Lou Dobbs calling slaves property, and CNBC reporting which stocks are good buys during civil war.  Unfortunately, none of that is going to change any time soon so we are stuck with the noise.

Then there are career politicians, many of whom have forgotten why they are in D.C., a la L.A. Confidential’s Detective Jack Vincennes who answers “I don’t remember” when asked why he became a cop in the first place.  You know the type, the ones who call the guy from the other side of the aisle ‘his friend’.  Good old boy club, love the perks, and the benefits are awesome, Yes, I think many of them have forgot why they sought office to begin with.

There are the grandstanders and media whores like McCain, Graham, Schumer, Cruz, and Paul that are about self-promotion and their Q rating.   These are the politicians that are routine weekly guests on the Sunday Morning Talk shows displaying the innate ability to respond to a question as if they heard a different question.

As bad as the career politicians may be, they are matched by the loud mouthed sound bite chasing hacks.  This cabal is represented by both sides of the aisle (Alan Grayson I am talking to you) , but let’s face it the Tea Party takes the cake here.  Our only satisfaction is that some of the most ridiculous personalities such as West, Walsh, and Quayle were all defeated in 2012.  These people are not here to create, but to destroy.  They confuse snark for intelligence, they pander to their base and they demagogue the shut out of everything. 

Of course all of the above are really just representing their real constituents: business.  Schumer is Wall Street’s guy, McCain and beltway delegations are there for Defense, Coburn, Cornyn, Inhofe, Barton, and anyone else from an energy state are there for Oil and Gas, the Midwest ethanol connection, and we haven’t even touched guns, tobacco, coal, multinational industrials, and the religious fundamentalists.

We have legislative rules that means a majority is actually 60, not 51, a GOP controlled House trying to repeal a law that is already in action, the resurrection of the culture wars, things called continuing resolutions that don’t resolve anything, and inability to do anything, never mind anything grand.  Why would GE want tax reform when it can pile on the costs in its U.S. operations, run a loss, actually get tax credits, and book the profits overseas. 

Suddenly money is speech, corporations are people, and if you thought Citizens United brought money into politics, wait for the Supreme Court to rule on McCutcheon vs. Federal Elections Commission.  More and more money pouring into elections squeezing the very people who are to be represented and completely mocking President Lincoln’s famous words “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  Sadly, it has perished.

Democrats mocked the Tea Party for swearing off all compromise and now they beseech the president not to compromise.  Bernie Sanders says Social Security has not contributed to the debt, but to ignore the dual nondiscretionary spending associated with Medicare and pensions is short sighted a both increase significantly in the coming decades.  Spending has increased under President Obama as the government has tried to fill the economic void left after the great recession.  And while both sides demagogue the issues, no credible short or long term plans are created.  The right is convinced Americans on government aid are lazy and need to be cut from the teat while ignoring defense spending waste and corporate handouts.

Everybody calls for growth, heck there’s even a Club for Growth, yet both sides are wrong to believe you can spend your way to prosperity or cut your way to prosperity respectively.  Growth is stagnant because we haven’t created the next bubble.  Since the flattening of the earth, as Tom Friedman calls it, the U.S. economy has relied on a series of bubbles,, housing, bonds, etc. to drive growth.  Each successive ‘new economy’ creates fewer and fewer jobs and there is nothing the government can do about that other than to make us as competitive as possible to design, develop, and manufacture these goods and services.

We are drowned out by the noise, our voices have lost their timbre, our officials talk past one another, and compromise is considered weakness.  Where is reason?  True patriotism, not the Fox variety?  This is American exceptionalism? 

To beat the devils, we’re going to need more than just a few good men and women.