I’m Going to Buy President Obama a Calendar

I think I’m gonna buy President Obama a calendar.  Not because I think he is a busy guy that needs the organizational help that only a planner can bring.  I’d like him to look up in the corner.  The one that says it’s 2010.  Maybe he already knows this, but you can’t tell by the way he’s governing.  More often than not it seems like he thinks it’s 1935.

This week President Obama announced another Federal program to try and create jobs that will help the U.S. economy climb out of its current rut.  Basically, $50 billion dollars will be spent in the first phase of a new public works program to repair runways, roads and railways.  It’s straight out of the WPA playbook that was largely credited with allowing many Americans to ride out the Depression by providing labor for large scale infrastructure projects.

I have a few problems with the logic behind this program, the least of which at this point is that it is unfunded and further increases our national debt.

First of all, its was neither the WPA nor any other Roosevelt program that pulled the U.S. out of the Depression.  It was World War II.  So unless the other half of Obama’s plan is escalating the war in Afghanistan, he has actually just proposed a bandage.  Something to keep people quiet until the “invisible hand”  that governs capitalism kicks back in.  Based on the mood of the people I talk to, it would appear voters want something that will end the recession and improve incomes, not a short term bridge to prosperity.  What I don’t hear is a lot of people asking to spend more time barely getting by.

A second problem I have with the Obama approach is that the face of our workforce has changed dramatically since 1935.  I guess these jobs will be fine if you are young, healthy and, most probably, male.  You’ll also probably find it easier to accept these jobs if your most marketable skill is physical labor.  But what do you do if you are a 58 year old woman?  Or a 28 year old in a wheelchair?  Or, heaven forbid, an electrical engineer?  We have spent the last quarter century diversifying our workforce and learning high value skills and that’s what he has to offer?  Asphalt?  Really? What he ought to do is offer up jobs shoveling free cow manure for fertilizer, because he seems to be creating a pretty endless supply.

The final problem I have with the newest Stimulus project is that it seems to apply the same kind of magical thinking that many new managers succumb to.  It’s trying to apply the “two birds with one stone” theory to justifying your projects.  In his speech, Obama mixed the idea of job creation with the worthy goal of improving eroding infrastructure.  Forget killing two birds with one stone.  Based on recent execution, the Federal Government would have trouble killing one bird with two stones.

If your idea is a good one, you don’t need 20 reasons why.  If you are trying to create jobs, present a plan to create jobs.  If you want to improve roads, then get the bulldozers going.  But don’t try to convince us you can do both of these competently at the same time.  “But wait!  There’s more!” won’t work any better in the history books than it did in ads in the back of comic books. Mr. President.

If we accept the idea that the Federal government has some role in managing the nation’s economy, I’d at least like to ask the administration to propose projects that impact a broader part of the population.  For instance, a fraction of $50 billion is a heck of a lot of daycare – a need that is felt by employees across all sectors of the economy.  And we have an awful lot of young teachers who can’t find work.  We might not be able to provide full time classroom opportunities, as many experienced teachers can’t yet envision a retirement in which ends meet.  Even part time work would help these new educators pick up valuable experience before they are able to land a full time job.  But in a country where we offer up our Presidency as an on-the-job training program, this might be asking a bit much.

When the electorate sent President Obama to Washington, it was on a platform that promised change and that things would be different in the future.  Given this, why does he seem so determined to delve only into the policies of the past.  We need something new.  Something different.  Something uniquely American.  And I don’t want to to have to wait for a bigger war to bail us out.  I really hope that’s not where we are headed.  Because in the book Obama seems to be reading, that’s the next chapter.

He Said What?

Take a look at this quote by Barack Obama from a town hall meeting this week:

“The challenge for the tea party movement is to identify specifically ‘What would you do?’” to help turn around the economy and produce jobs.

“It’s not enough just to say, ‘Get control of government.’ I think it’s important for you to say, ‘You know, I’m willing to cut veterans’ benefits or Social Security benefits or I’m willing to see these taxes go up.’”

Is he serious?

Let’s see: We have a total Federal Budget, not counting stimulus spending, of around $3.3 trillion dollars.  Veterans Affairs account for $110 billion and Social Security around $500 billion.  So above any other program in the remaining $2.7 trillion, the first ones worth mentioning are Veterans and Social Security?  Wow.

This your plan, Mr. Obama?   Come on.  Shouldn’t we just go for it? I know. Maybe we could push the old people out on icebergs into the oceans.  Or better yet, make them into crackers for the Veterans to eat.  That’s save a ton of money.

I hope you forgive me that ludicrous bit of imagery for a moment, but I just seems like the Obama Administration is quickly becoming bad fiction.   Either that or they think we are dumb.  “Oh, we better agree with everything Mr. Obama says or they’re gonna cut Grandma’s benefits.”  Or he must think senior citizens don’t vote.

Vote for real change.  Start getting rid of these all talk, no action, corporately funded suits out of office beginning in November.  Don’t assume that swinging back and forth on a trapeze between the Republicratic parties is going to get you anywhere.  I’d like to invite you to vote for the common sense that is the Green Party.  That is where you are going to find a real difference.

Here’s My Idea: Guns (Part 2)

I am in favor of gun owners rights. First of all, I grew up in a rural community and I believe hunting and sport shooting to be normal, healthy and generally safe hobbies.

I also call on my experience of living in England, where gun owners face far greater restrictions and handguns are basically forbidden.  At one point during my stay it was reported that around 80% of all property crime was occurring when the homeowner was present.  That simply doesn’t happen in a country in which a large portion of its law abiding citizens are allowed to keep firearms stored is a safe, but accessible fashion in their home.  It is also a fact that the UK has a steady year-on-year increase in handgun crime since enacting legislation that restricted handgun ownership.

There were a couple of more basic elements in play when our forefathers drafted the amendment in question.  First,it was meant as a matter of national security that we could call on an armed citizen militia should the need ever arise. It was also created asa balance against a concentration of “police power” in the government. While the signers of the Constitution might not have envisioned the kind of inequity in the technologies available to the armed services and the average citizen, it does not diminish the idea that this same citizen has a right to protect the interests of home, property and family – by taking up arms, if necessary.

My preference in this area would be for a simplification of gun laws.  In the process I would hope they would be liberalized in many instances.  For instance, many gun laws currently regulate only cosmetic features of a firearm.  Our concern should be its function, at best, not how a weapon looks.  All guns can be scary if they are used irresponsibly.  To that point I would like to see firearms education as part of local school curriculums, though I would not favor Federal mandates to teach it.  The local community knows what issues it has with guns, from recreation to accidental discharges in the hands of children to street crime.  If we teach Sex Ed, I think a few hours on Gun Ed might be one step in building a more responsible populace.

Why I Am For Single Payer Health Care

One of the big issues in this election is the recent health care legislation,  which the Republicans are calling Obamacare.  For completely different reasons, I am no fan of the new rules, which I would hardly call reform.  In fact, I feel let down that he didn’t just “rip the scab off” the system and go for a single payer system.

First, I lived under a single payer system in the UK.  I had to travel a lot in those days, creating a number of opportunities for me, my family members or coworkers to sample the medical systems around the world.  There is no doubt that the US has the best overall quality of care.  We also spend the most  – $2.25 trillion annually and rising – so there is enough money in the system.  The problem is how we connect the money to the provision of the service.  Basically, we have a billing problem.

This is my first issue with the Obama health care plan.  It leaves insurance companies entrenched in the system.  While most people think of insurance as something that kicks in when a catastrophe happens, it is actually a “fixed” return investment, the kind of thing you put at the foundation of a portfolio of stocks.  There is no good reason to insert a financial product in the middle of this system.  The profits that are skimmed off by the insurance industry should be in the system.  Take a look at the profits declared and the bonuses paid by MetLife, AFLAC and others and then picture how much more health care those sums could buy.

Another reason that I am for a single payer system is that the current method of providing health insurance saddles employers with costs not borne by their foreign competitors.  I used to help make decisions on where to locate plants and where to manufacture new product lines.  I can tell you from experience that a big “$0″ or two in the employee benefits columns of a spreadsheet can go a long way toward making one location more attractive than another.  We can’t keep saddling our businesses with the full cost of our health care system if we want to produce products competitive in the global marketplace.

From the workers standpoint, we would actually enjoy more personal freedom if basic health care was a societal benefit, rather than an employment benefit.  Under the current arrangement, we are somewhat indentured to our jobs.  The provision of benefits gives the company a little more control over our lives and it makes it just a little bit harder to leave.   It places too much power in the hands of the employer as “lord and master,” with the ability to completely pull the rug out from underneath your life.

A good single payer system would leave the providers – doctors, hospitals,etc – in the private sector, competing in a free market against each other.  The vast majority of the UK’s NHS is paid for in gasoline, “sin” and modest payroll taxes.  If we take a fee hands out of the cookie jar, we should have more than enough money in the system to pay for care.

One other thing we could adopt from the systems in place in the UK and Germany is delegating the work a little differently.  Pharmacists can do more, as can physicians assistants, nurse practioners and RN’s.  Many medical services can be handled quickly and inexpensively by professionals who work under the guidance of a doctor.  With everyone in a more coordinated system, we will be able to reduce the cost person as compared to the current fragmented system.

The last reason I would give for a single payer system is that it is simply the right thing to do.  It is a hallmark of a modern society.  The US is the only major industrial country without a national health care plan.  We have far too many resources to leave such a large portion of our population “uninsured.”  You get insurance on a motorcycle or on a house.  Things you buy with cash and can replace with cash.  You basic health doesn’t seem to be the same sort of asset.  It’s a lot more fundamental to your general welfare, which was promised to be protected in the preamble of the Constitution.  That ought to be enough to set our course all by itself.

Productivity

The term “productivity” is used a lot when discussing or reporting business results.  It’s an easy concept to understand when you realize it is reported in some form of revenue divided by an increment of effort, such as dollars per man-hour.  “Profit” over “labor,” if you will.  And this is the crux of the productivity problem.

America enjoyed a steady gain in productivity in both the manufacturing and agricultural sectors over the last century.  There are a lot of reasons behind this.  Automation, quality improvements, “design for manufacture ” and worker focused systems like “Self Directed Work Teams .”  This was fine as demand grew.  Not just American demand, but global demand.  In fact, demand grew so fast we found that we needed as much help as we could get to keep up.  And that came in handy, as it is a lot easier for many people to accept diversity when there is enough work for anybody will to do it.

But then two things happened.  First, profits began to take on unprecedented importance as a measurement of business success – especially against a backdrop of a global economic lull.

And there lies the second problem.  As demand flattened or even fell, we didn’t need all that output. But businesses did feel the pressure to prop up profits.  To keep the equation of profit over labor in balance, we had to get rid of some increment on the “effort” line.  The robots weren’t going anywhere.  We aren’t going to start hiring the middle managers and supervisors it would take to put a “command and control” management system in place.  And we weren’t going to roll back quality.  So production labor gets let go.  Many for good.  And those finding their way back into the business of adding value through honest labor are faced with the fact that their new jobs pay much less than their old careers.

Years ago I worked for a company that had its European headquarters in Denmark.  They ran a great operation.  Staffed with really smart, hardworking people.  During my visits, I came to the conclusion that it was one of the best atmospheres I have ever experienced in a workplace.  One little problem -  they never made money.

Like clockwork, our Danish operation finished every year within a few Kroner of break even.  One year up a little up, one a little down.  It was a conundrum for the American management, who saw the same positive things I did.

The secret was finally cracked when I began to delve a little bit into the Danish language.  It’s not an easy task, because it’s not just words you have to translate – it’s often whole concepts.  And that’s where the light bulb went on for me.  The Danish word for “profit” loosely translates to “the money you kept from your business partners over and above what you needed.”  What this meant is that the Danes could express good intentions of a “profit” in budget meetings,  but when it came to executing day to day business it became an impossible task in the “win – win” world that is Denmark.

The productivity concept is also at the root of the current debate over whether or not Michigan should become a “Right to Work ” state.  Under this designation, workplaces may organize, but individual membership in the bargaining unit is not required.

Many might believe the union debate has its focus on the factory floor.  The fact is the most energetic supporters of “Right to Work” are large construction contractors and those who would like to reduce the strength of the teacher’s union.  The ability to hire a larger percentage of non-union labor offers the chance to reduce their labor costs.  In practice this often is consummated by hiring a larger proportion of recent immigrants, many of them aren’t here legally, and almost all of which are willing to work for less than their peers.

A recent study called Michigan 10.0 , conducted by the Booth Newspaper Group summarized the “Right to Work” debate as a trade off – “more jobs at lower pay .”  That’s management’s offer here.  They are offering the possibility of expanding the number of people employed, as long as it doesn’t increase labor cost.  So down go wages.  It’s as cynical as “let them eat cake” in the history of labor relations.

The math of productivity is pretty straightforward.  The more profit grows and the more the cost of the necessary efforts decrease, the higher resultant productivity.  That’s the basic principle of our current system.  Profit over labor equals success.  It’s impossible to for the profit line to be “too much” and equally unimaginable for the labor line to be “too little.”  How does that sound to you?  It makes me wish we had imported a little more than a breakfast pastry from the Danish.