Friday, August 26, 2011

Post No. 174: Tornadoes, Earthquakes, and Hurricanes, Oh My!

© 2011, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

We’re not big fans of folks who let their values dictate their thought processes. It seems to us that one’s analysis of issues ought to be a thing apart from their values. How else does one solve problems?

As the Laughingman often says, “If you think that every problem is a nail, a hammer becomes the only tool in your kit.” Some problems are screws, for which you might need a screwdriver, or two.

Despite this, any reasonable, thinking person would say that God does not approve of much going on in the United States these days, or of President Obama. Seriously.

AIR Worldwide, the catastrophic modeling firm, estimates that insured losses alone, for commercial, residential, and industrial losses following the severe thunderstorm activity in the U.S. in early 2011, will amount to $3.7 billion to $5.5 billion. That storm, under Obama's watch, lasted a mere 6 days in April. Imagine the figure for the entire year, stemming from God’s displeasure with our descent into socialism.

Earlier this week, a fairly significant earthquake shook Washington, D.C. and surrounding areas, sending the government’s work force scurrying for The Ark. The President, obviously prescient, was out of town on vacation.

But now, the heavily populated northeast looks like it may be battered by Hurricane Irene, which many expect to be of a force not seen in decades. Damage estimates in the range of $10 billion are already being made. This may prove to be Obama’s Katrina, God willing. The lines down at the New York City Harbor, where The Ark is currently docked, are reportedly getting pretty long.

There’s a message here somewhere. At least according to some. And of course, all of these so-called natural events can be traced directly to the President.

We are often reminded by the Optimizer of the celebrity who, during her campaign against homosexuality, claimed that God inflicted gays with AIDS as punishment for their wicked ways. And if you thought that the sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright were a distraction for then-candidate Obama, you may have missed that one of John McCain’s spiritual advisers was John Hagee.

Hagee claims that God willed Hitler to kill the Jews, so that they would eventually return to Israel, thus hastening the 2nd coming of Christ. In one of his less controversial moments, he argued that Hurricane Katrina was an act of divine retribution due to the presence of homosexuals in New Orleans.

One need not be a celebrity or a televangelist to appreciate that natural forces are somehow related to God’s displeasure. Earlier this week in this part of the Bible Belt, we heard many a person laugh shortly after the tremors were felt in Washington and New York City. In their view, the domestic infidels were getting their due. They opined that citizens in large cities on the coastal shores have led lives justifying their exposure to this impending danger.

Once again, all of this is somehow related to the current Administration and our slide into socialism.

Either fortunately or unfortunately, there is an opposing camp. Back in January, just prior to the Super Bowl, we generated a post, God, Obama, and the Green Bay Packers. After reflecting on how championship athletes claim that God resides in their locker room, we told the story of a fellow who, after dismissing the travails of the Obama Administration, claims that Obama’s opponents will be surprised during the next Presidential election. Why? Because he knows that God is on Obama’s side.

We’ve been mulling this over all week, and we’re at a loss as to what parents (without a direct line to God) should tell their kids about the athletic team, the political party, the city or region, or the ethnic group that God supports.

We suspect that we should all get down on our knees and pray to our higher power this evening, before the full brunt of Mother (or is that Father?) Nature hits our fragile east coast (and our fragile national economy), and hope that God picks our team in the fantasy game.

When President Reagan, never at a loss for words, was being wheeled into the ER after the assassination attempt by John Hinckley, Jr., he reportedly looked up at the operating team and quipped, “I hope you’re all Republicans.“ The lead surgeon responded with a smile, “Yes Mr. President, today we’re all Republicans.”

We could use all of the players on the field being of the same team on occasion, or perhaps all having the support of the Lord.

Finally, there is one other thought that occurred to us this week, namely the difference between for-profit corporate entities in the private sector, and governmental entities. While we watched governors and the President speak of preparations for, and warn their constituents of, the impending storm, we observed the spending of millions of tax dollars to minimize the possible damage and the criticism post-Irene.

In the corporate world, the focus would be on risk assessment and management, insurance coverage, and probabilities. We could see a corporation reasonably examining the pattern of hurricanes over the past 50 years, and betting against the forecasters, by doing nothing.

That would never do in the public sector.

But we’re still having difficulty figuring out whether God supports governmental intrusion in our lives, which might be termed socialist in nature, or whether God supports limited government, lower taxes, and the functioning of the free markets without excessive regulation.

But as Tina Turner said, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Post No. 173: Pigs Get Fat; Hogs Get Slaughtered

© 2011, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

We once generated a post, Where Have You Gone Joe DiMaggio? At the time, we felt that the nation’s lonely eyes were searching for someone like the Yankee Clipper.

If one were to believe the rants and raves of many out there, one might be hoodwinked into thinking that the solution to our leadership vacuum lies with them. They have all the solutions (although few of them are willing to assume leadership roles), and they are so sure of their positions. To them, pulling us out of economic quicksand is a simple task (not to mention getting other world leaders to go along).

We hate to throw slop on their parade, but we have concerns about their qualifications, motives, and quite frankly, thought processes. We’d rather place our faith in the young and the untested, namely the college students to whom we direct our messages about personal responsibility. We find them less extreme in their ideological leanings, more pragmatic, and in possession of more common sense.

Recently, folks have been comparing Obama to Jimmy Carter. Both rode into office with high expectations and a message of change. Many expect Obama to join the ranks of the one-term presidents, and he probably will, although even Carnac the Magnificent figured that out before Obama was elected. Anyone with any sense knew that the global economy, of which oh by the way the U.S. is a part, was not going to significantly pull out of its slump within 3 years. There was simply no precipitating, motivating factor down the pike.

Unfortunately, the President recently made a reference to American society’s malaise. He obviously did not learn anything from Carter. A leader cannot place any responsibility or blame on the American people for the condition in which they find themselves, even if it’s true.

So we’ll do it. Simply put, we Americans became fat, lazy, and greedy. The title of this post, Pigs Get Fat; Hogs Get Slaughtered is a quote from Reggie Fountain, the Richard Petty of speedboat racing.

The former multi-millionaire, having fallen on hard times leading to bankruptcy, was asked about his demise. He said he lived too high and too fast for too long, and became bloated. His summary of his experience is the title of our piece.

Part of our problem is that we can’t handle a straight shooter. We want someone to tell us what we want to hear. George Kennedy was a friend of fellow actor Jimmy Stewart. Turner Classic Movies is currently airing a mini-biography of Stewart, narrated by Kennedy. During the piece, Kennedy refers to Stewart’s “everyman” image. What is interesting is that he refers to “how Americans wanted to see ourselves,” not who we actually were.

We talk a lot about being the greatest country in the history of humankind, but there are some very common sense things we ignore which complicate that assessment.

In the world of business, when a company performs poorly, management re-examines its business model. In the world of governance, the last thing we examine is our governance model.

What we have here - is a failure to appreciate.

Appreciate that there are limitations associated with ANY governance model.

Several (well, maybe more than that) points:

1. In terms of education, we were never really as smart as we claimed to be;

2. When you allow people to live where they want, pursue whatever educational pursuit they desire, marry who they desire, pursue whatever vocational pursuit they want, and retire when they want, you are going to have difficultly managing them. We are a very conflicted people;

3. When you allow or encourage your work force to retire when they still have valuable skills, knowledge, and experience to offer, you become less efficient and you take a loss;

4. You can’t as a people take children out of the work force and continually drive down the number of hours worked from 70, to 60, to 50, to 40, and then 35, and expect your global competitors to do the same;

5. You can’t place the burden of inspiration and motivation on the shoulders of elected officials. Either individual citizens are sufficiently motivated and ambitious enough to pursue their goals, or they are not. And oh by the way, many are not;

6. Spending more than you have coming in only works for so long;

7. When it takes one 30 to 40 years to pay for something, one should re-consider whether it is worth purchasing, since it assumes that you will have 30 to 40 years of steady income;

8. Alexis de Tocqueville warned us in the 1850s that there would be long-term negative consequences associated with slavery. That we engaged in this treatment of other humans for over 200 years says much about us as a nation;

9. When people do not care enough about their personal health to eat properly, exercise, and avoiding smoking and use of certain substances, you really can’t expect them to care about other things in life;

10. It was only so long that we could continue to make millionaires out of people betting on and selling intangible and illusory products;

11. Something is seriously “something” about a country which fought communism so vigorously, abhors socialism, and yet allows the largest communist country in the world to have it by the economic balls (and we’re not referring to Cuba); and

12. Our last point came to us during us during an exchange with a friend. He said that he knew something was shaky about America when his university offered a course entitled, “The Challenge of Leisure.”

Any one of these issues would be a problem for any country. We have all of them at work.

We’ve got some work to do.

P.S. The Roman Empire lasted how long?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Post No. 172a: Why Dumping on Royal Dutch Shell is a Bunch of B.S.

Royal Dutch Shell sprung a leak in the North Sea recently. Once again, a tsunami of criticism has evolved. While we did not come to the defense of British Petroleum (BP) and TransOcean last year in connection with their problems in the Gulf of Mexico, we noted that....

© 2010 and 2011, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

Yesterday, C-Span aired Tuesday’s Senate hearings in connection with the Gulf of Mexico oil “spill,” which is still spilling.

It was interesting to watch the corporate representatives, including the CEO of BP America, perform mental and legal gymnastics in responding to the questions. The world watched as Senators, on both sides of the aisle, posed questions reflecting their incredulousness that this “disaster” even occurred.

While we were impressed with the tap dancing on the part of the spokespeople, we were more impressed with the political savvy of the Senators. President Obama was justifiably incensed at the multi-lateral finger pointing going on, but, we submit, for all the wrong reasons.

We’re willing to bet, and even invest some money in the derivative ultimately crafted, that in the years to come (be it 10, 50, or 100), (1) “accidents” of this type will continue to occur, (2) the companies involved will be no more prepared to deal with them and their consequences, and (3) Senators investigating future accidents will continue to fake their incredulousness that such “accidents” still occur.

Many things in life have less to do with people or the humans who happen to exist at any given point in time, and more to do with the structure or organization within which they function.

We here in America, for a variety of psychological, historical, legal, and systemic reasons, have a “perverted” sense of “corporate responsibility.”

First of all there really is no such thing as “corporate responsibility.” In America, if a corporation screws up, it’s generally going to pay. Being a responsible corporation or a good corporate citizen is only pursued to enhance the bottom line. The consequences of the screw up are generally based on the particular screw up, and even punitive damages can’t be avoided by a “good corporation.”

Second, those Senators asking questions are pretty savvy. They are well aware that a corporation is a legal fiction. They also know (although you might have difficulty believing it considering the way they run the government) that in conducting business, the goal of that entity is to generate profits and try to stay afloat.

Third, and most important, every corporate decision is made in an effort to maximize profits, and is theoretically an educated and calculated guess. However, the reality is that some of the guesses are going to be wrong. Corporate management knows, and the Senators should know, this dirty little secret.

The rest of society apparently does not.

And so we dump on corporations when there is a screw-up, accuse them of mismanagement and devious, under-handed activity, and then slap our jaws and open our mouths with our eyes all bugged (like the kid on “Home Alone”), when the 27th screw-up occurs.

A corporate entity does not have a mind or a conscience similar to that of a human.

Repeat: A corporate entity does not have a mind or a conscience similar to that of a human.

Even though humans run corporations, corporations are separate and apart from humans, somewhere between a human and an inanimate object.

Whereas a human will occasionally make a judgment call against his or her personal interests in pursuit of other goals (like unprotected sex with a stranger), rarely will a corporate entity do so because it is not really its money. It's not even the money of the folks managing the company, at least in the case of a publicly traded corporation.

It is the money and interests of others, the shareholders, which are at risk, not that of the decision makers.

It makes for a unique dynamic.

As a result, fines, penalties, and lawsuits (which are quantifiable and really only about money, not lives) have to be figured into the economic mix as necessary evils.

An entity may try to minimize them, or even delay them if possible, but they know that they are always just around the corner. Corporate management recognizes this for what it is.

They keep this in mind when they're engaged, and then walk away from it and try to live a human life.

Speeches, press conferences, hearings, investigations, fines, and lawsuits, are all perversions designed to distract us from really getting to the root of the matter. Talk about irresponsibility.

If you really want to know what’s going on, talk to the bean counters. It’s all about probabilities and risk management. It’s not about humans, wild life, or the environment.

It’s about time that we recognize that, and then get on with the business of trying to reduce, not eliminate, such “accidents” from happening in the future.

Corporations are not human. They can't be. It's an inherent conflict of interest.

If they don’t make enough in the way of profits, they will not have any put away for a rainy day, or to respond to the fickle changes in consumer tastes.

And as they pass through St. Peter’s bankruptcy gates, we’ll accuse them of mismanagement and sleeping at the switch.

And that ain’t no BS.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Post No. 172: What’s Personal Responsibility Got to Do with the Debt Ceiling Impasse?

© 2011, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

We once read an article suggesting that despite his technical brilliance, director Martin Scorsese never achieved the full recognition he could have (from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) because his films always had an edge. The author suggested that what gets to the Academy each year is a film which explores the depth of the human condition in a universal way.

We saw a film yesterday which took us to a whole new place in terms of appreciating this issue, and reminded us of the importance of personal responsibility in our dealings with our fellow human beings. Imagine a film with the power to potentially unite people. (We also appreciate the potential of images to divide.)

The film is The Band’s Visit, an Israeli film. It is the story of an 8 member, police, ceremonial orchestra from Alexandria, Egypt, which has been invited by an Arab cultural league to play at an event. Upon their arrival in Israel, they promptly get lost, and end up in some out-of-the-way locale in the desert, far, far from their intended destination. Dressed in their formal, Carolina blue uniforms with gold spaghetti on their band hat brims and epaulettes, they drag their instruments and suitcases on wheels across the desert. They encounter a woman who runs a diner, and who confirms that the area is removed from civilization.

Realizing that they will not be able to return that evening, the band members allow the restaurateur to make arrangements for them to spend the night in her apartment, the apartment of a friend, and the restaurant itself. It’s during the time spent together that evening that the film takes us on a truly fascinating, human journey.

There are lengthy periods of silence, where the participants cannot communicate with one another due to language difficulties. They periodically exchange furtive glances accompanied by distrust and discomfort. However, they all gradually connect in simplistic, human ways – enjoying a familiar song, asking about family, seeing a new-born, and by just sharing "stuff." In fact, stuff gets so basic that you almost think that the forty-something restaurateur and the reticent, formal, tightly wound sixtyish leader of the band (whose wife died 3 years earlier) are going to end up in the sack together.

The next morning, they realize that they all have become the richer for the experience, and quietly question the tension which has existed for so long between Arabs and Jews.

In thinking about the film, we wondered whether nations and their political and military leaders really drive wars and tension, while ordinary citizens stand on the sidelines. It made us examine whether we ordinary citizens are really in control of our lives, and our nation’s destiny. For many years, the citizens of our nation have questioned whether our leaders have our best interests at heart, and whether we are headed in the right direction.

Over the past several months, we have noted an increasing pessimism on the part of our readers, and an air of resignation. With the budget and debt ceiling impasse currently enveloping Washington, ordinary citizens seem to be watching a new form of sport on ESPN, while our leadership plays strip poker.

Somehow and somewhere on the continuum, individual, personal responsibility ultimately translates into collective responsibility as a nation of people. Somehow we have to do more as ordinary citizens to figure out those commonalities of interest which bind us, and set aside those issues which divide us. Because our leaders apparently have not done so.

There is one other point which we should make – music plays an important role in the movie. In several instances, it is a song which the minstrels and the desert dwellers share which exposes their bonds.

Back in 2005, while “cruising for chicks” in a soon-to-be defunct Border’s Bookstore, we ran across a copy of Einstein’s Violin. Upon opening the work of the Conductor of the United Nations Philharmonic, we discovered that the Father of the Theory of Relativity was a fairly accomplished violinist. The author goes on to discuss how the physical attributes of music have the ability to affect the social interaction of humans. After all, we are all just a mix of protons, neutrons, and electrons.

Next to Einstein’s Violin was a copy of Classical Music for Dummies. We once again saw references to the universality of music and how it had bridged divides in many instances over human history.

You all should go out and rent this one, or figure out how to download it. It is film making at its very best. Check out any of the reviews and what they have to say.

Perhaps if we all contacted our elected representatives in Washington and asked them to view the film, we might get an agreement on the debt ceiling issue.

But that’s not science – that’s science fiction.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Post No. 171b: Whose Life Is It Anyway?

© 2009 and 2011, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

Back in 2009, we generated a post in which we made reference to Ghulam Hamidi. Hamidi, an Afghan national, lived in Washington, D.C. for close to 20 years, before returning to war torn Afghanistan, to become the Mayor of Kandahar. In our post, we spoke of people who took risks to pursue something of value for society, and to make statements. At times, those risks may be significant, and they may be deadly. Yesterday, the risk was deadly for Hamidi. In light of this development, we are re-posting our original post.

We try to stimulate thought amongst our young citizens, when their worldviews are still malleable. Yesterday, a couple of us participated in a brainstorming session for a non-profit organization about which we previously wrote.

B.E.S.T. addresses issues affecting at-risk young men. We highlighted the efforts of its founder as an example of how private citizens can do something meaningful for their communities and society.

Before the meeting, we bounced around ideas. We recalled that we Baby Boomers had such idealistic goals. We were going to change the world, right all wrongs, speak the truth (which would set us free), and do nothing but good, positive things in life.

In addition, we planned to transform the world, perhaps through astral projection or Transcendental Meditation, to a “kinder, gentler” place. One of us recalled pledging to become a brain surgeon following JFK’s death.

It didn’t exactly turn out that way. It’s been said that life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans. If anything, we’ve been surprised at how many Boomers have transitioned from card-carrying liberals (and committed to “living off the fatta’ the lan”, like Lennie in Of Mice and Men), to hard core conservatives. (Why have so few traveled the opposite road?)

When P.J. O’Rourke was asked about his transformation from liberal to conservative, he blamed it on his daughter. Upon realizing she was vulnerable, and a potential target of all sorts of nasty forces, he resolved to protect her, at any cost.)

We know hundreds of business people, accountants, engineers, investment bankers, lawyers, and doctors, who abandoned those dreams and principles. We lived comfortably, and did little that we can identify in pursuit of those principles, other than occasional pro bono work.

(A prominent activist in speaking to a professional group once lamented that some of the best and brightest were in the audience, and members of a profession whose primary goal was making money for themselves and their corporate clients.)

Last week, we heard a report suggesting that today’s youth are possibly skipping the self-delusion phase. Far fewer minors, when asked, expressed interest in pursuing goals which might also “give back to the community.”

We’re not sure what to do with that. Virtually every generation seems to think those succeeding will go to hell in a hand basket. After 13,000 years, we still have faith in humankind’s ability to adapt, use our bigger brains, and “be guided by the better angels of our nature.”

We heard 2 stories recently. The first involved a Sudanese woman, who is facing fairly severe punishment. She and some other women committed a crime - wearing trousers in public. Some immediately pled guilty, and only received 10 lashes.

The remaining subject chose to go to trial. She faces a possible $100 fine and 40 lashes. She’s not a professional activist, and had some UN position which would have allowed her to side-step the charges.

Instead, she chose to resign, and waive her immunity.

The other story revolved around the mayor of Kandahar, Afghanistan, one of the more violent cities on Earth. He enjoyed a comfortable, middle class existence in Washington, D.C. for 25 years, until he was motivated to return to his native country and “make a difference.”

He put himself at risk, and returned to the heart of the violence. He said we’re all going to die from something one day, be it cancer, a heart attack, or a car accident. He questioned whether there was any real difference between dying from violence doing something in which you believed, and dying from one of the other causes.

That caused us to pause.

While a 25 year old might see lots of differences, those of us 55 and beyond might reflect on what we’ve done, and whether we’ve made a ”real” contribution.

The Logistician and his best friend were sitting at a side walk cafĂ© in the Copacabana in the late 1990s, reflecting on what, if anything, they had accomplished... and whether it had been of any benefit to anyone beyond themselves. They had always hoped to able to say that they did something more than “raise a good family.”

The founder of the at-risk male youth non-profit, the Sudanese lady, and the mayor of Kandahar might be better examples of those we should hold up as role models in our society, than the folks to whom we usually direct our plaudits.

Whose life is it anyway? We might all consider making it more than just our own.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Post No. 171a: Another Talented Performer Lost

Amy Winehouse is no more, except through her music and in the hearts and minds of her fans. During the time that the Fellows here at the Institute have been on this earth, we've lost some talent because of the complicated lives they led, including Hendrix, Joplin, Elvis, Belushi, Marvin, and Michael. When we read of her death, our hearts were instantly heavy, and our thoughts shot to Michael, with whose music we Fellows grew up. We also thought about how we'll never really know how talented she could have become, whereas we had lots of product from Michael.

However, whatever the age of the talent, as the Laughingman says, "Drugs be drugs...."

© 2009 and 2011, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

In Post No. 126, we mentioned a number of the Laughingman’s sayings, including “Common Sense should be a way of life.” The Logistician, still on sabbatical in Brazil, has a few too, albeit somewhat strange.

He claims he only needs a woman in his life 12 days each year. Why? For the highs and the lows.

He’s always viewed intimate relationships with women like prescription drugs – beneficial, on occasion, when administered by a licensed physician, and in moderation. However, he considers them, let’s say, problematic, when administered intravenously on a regular basis.

Our mission is to engage college students in a discussion about Personal Responsibility, the options / choices they have, and decisions they make.

We’ve been watching this freak show since MJ’s death, trying to figure out whether there are some not so obvious lessons to be learned, which we can discuss with students.

We did observe an incredible, international outpouring of love, sadness, and admiration. We also noted an intense dissection (primarily on the home front) of his career, values, and character, supporting the conclusion that he was a bad, evil human being.

What we found most fascinating was the phalanx of critics, who had little appreciation of his work, but who clearly had views about his lifestyle and eccentricities.

We watch Turner Classic Movies religiously. Last week, Judy Garland was a featured artist.

We were reminded how much we were dazzled by her talent. We viewed a bio-documentary, which outlined her life-long relationship with prescription drugs, which ultimately led to her demise at age 47.

She started performing at 2-1/2, and thus performed for 45 of her 47 years. For decades, she fought addiction with prescription drugs. Movie industry officials used them to control her weight, and regulate her productivity. Coupled with her perception she was not “pretty” enough, and you had a recipe for ….

One of our heroes has always been Howard Hughes, the great aviator, inventor, industrialist, film director and producer, and philanthropist. We loved his passion for life, and his intensity. There was also a down side. What some called his fearlessness, others termed recklessness.

As a result of various plane crashes, he spent a significant part of his life in pain, eventually becoming addicted to prescription drugs in many forms. When they finally wheeled him out of the “Acapulco Princess Hotel” on the way to the morgue, he weighed 90 lbs.

The more intriguing sub-plot to MJ’s story was the fact that his wife, Lisa Marie Presley, walked away because of, and in spite of, her love for MJ. He confided in her that he would probably go the way of her Father, Elvis, “The King.”

A siren, who in her own way was like a drug, and caused the Logistician to stutter many a starry night at the Hollywood Bowl while listening to classical music, said it best.

“Everything in moderation.”

And that applies to drugs, plastic surgery, driving at high speeds, skydiving, sex, food, wine, dancing, paragliding, and perhaps most things in life. (Even physical exercise.)

Some years ago, the History Channel aired a program on the literary creation of heaven and hell. Although various religions have different versions, in every instance, mortals here on Earth, through their conduct, walk a very thin line. Stepping on either side could determine their descent or ascent.

Lest you be confused about this drug thing, there is little difference between illegal/recreational drugs, and prescription drugs, with the exceptions being the legitimacy of the “entity” which produces them, who gets to prescribe them, and whether politicians benefit. Drugs be drugs.

Take it from some guys who matured (arguably) during the drugs, sex, and rock and roll years. We know lots of successful doctors, business people, family people, accountants, judges, and pillars of society who once used drugs in many a form and fashion. Fortunately for most of them and for society, they appreciated that drugs might be an interesting pastime, but not a life long journey.

Two final thoughts, one of which is a line from a TCM movie:

“A man ought to be appreciated for more than the worst thing that he has ever done.”

By doing so, we can keep an eye out for the good in people, not just the bad.

The other is the Logistician’s:

“If you’re willing to walk into a courtroom looking like a freak, you’ll be judged a freak.”

Just ask Phil Spector. At least O.J. had the Common Sense to put on a suit the first time around.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Post No. 171: It’s Only Money

© 2011, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

Early this morning, we came across an article indicating that Rupert Murdoch’s aides “long tried to blunt [the] scandal over hacking.” How long? At least 4 years. They tried to save their financial derriere.

More than a year ago, at the time of the Gulf oil spill, we generated, Why Dumping on BP is a Bunch of BS. We argued that a corporate entity does not have a mind or a conscience like that of a human. They are legal fictions.

“Whereas a human will occasionally make a judgment call against his or her personal interests in pursuit of other goals (like unprotected sex with a stranger), rarely will a corporate entity do so because it is not really its money. It’s not even the money of the folks managing the company, at least in the case of a publicly traded corporation…. It is the money and interests of others, the shareholders, which are at risk, not that of the decision makers…. It makes for a unique dynamic.”

One of our regular readers, the Independent Cuss, argues that many U.S. corporations should be tried for treason, for having compromised our national security by taking jobs off shore. But he appears to be in a minority of one.

The reality is that our federal elected officials are beholden to, and feeding at, the corporate trough. That’s not going to change anytime soon. (On the other hand, a socialist country like Great Britain will do something in the criminal realm, and we wouldn’t want that.)

Consequently, an expectation on the part of anyone here in the U.S. that a corporation should do anything other than pursue its own selfish goal of improving its bottom line is a pipe dream. In fact, wouldn’t it be a conflict of interest for a corporate officer to do something adverse to the corporation’s financial interest?

We in Western, industrialized, representative democracies are confused right now. We can’t decide what we want out of corporations, somewhat akin to how we treat our spouses and kids.

There’s a whole bucket full of people who feel that corporations should be allowed to do whatever in the name of free market enterprise, and free of government interference.

There’s another bucket whose tenants claim that corporations should be allowed to do whatever to generate a profit and stay in business, no matter the amount of the profit.

And then there is the bucket whose occupants believe that profits should be “reasonable,” whatever that is.

Rebekah Brooks, formerly of News International, was arrested in Britain earlier this week, and may lose her liberty for quite some time. However, if money and the maximization of profit are the driving forces within a corporation, why should society’s sanctions spill over into the criminal realm? Aren’t civil lawsuits adequate to keep corporations, which step out of bounds, in check?

But, how is the pursuit of money or property, incapable of being attributable to what society deems a fair, responsible effort, any different than the acts of a common thief, or a con man, or a prostitute, or a host of other individuals whose financial pursuits we label criminal in nature?

Did this corporation actually engage in conduct which hurt people? If so, some argue they can file lawsuits. If there is merit to their claims, some attorney will take the case, won’t he or she? Or did the conduct shock our conscience? Does shock equal criminal? Is that how we distinguish between legitimate corporate conduct from the criminal exploits of non-corporate criminals?

If we slap corporations with fines, monetary judgments, and punitive damages, don’t they derivatively adversely affect innocent shareholders, who had nothing to do with, or say about, the offending conduct?

In addition to Ms. Brooks, Britain’s highest ranking police official resigned yesterday. This morning, we received an e-mail alert, “Tabloid Scandal a Fresh Threat to Cameron’s Survival,” Cameron being the British Prime Minister.

Stuff’s about to get real complicated over there; but not here. No corporate official’s liberty is at stake here in the U.S. Maybe this will prove to be a positive thing for America in that corporations will run to our shores to perform their financial magic without fear of criminal sanction. Hell, that’s better than a tax break. We’re more likely to throw our elected officials in jail.

After all, it’s only money. And to interfere with the generation of wealth will discourage entrepreneurs from pursuing vital commercial projects, which produce jobs. The folks arguably hurt are just collateral damage, like that experienced in the war on terror - just another risk management calculation in the corporate world.

The less enlightened and communist Chinese executed construction company officials whose buildings collapsed on school kids during their massive earthquake a couple of years ago, and essentially forced parents of the deceased kids to accept pensions as compensation and to stop complaining.

You see, it’s only money. Or, is it?

We don’t know where we are on this subject. Like many others, we’re confused.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Post No. 170: First We Get Rid of All the Jurors

© 2011, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

Last week, a staff member made a pound cake, and brought it into the office. Although the cake looked fine to us, she said that she became distracted while baking it, and that we might find the bottom a “little crunchy” because she baked it 20 minutes too long.

While we were transforming into Pillsbury Doughboys, Betty Crocker’s Father stopped by. He was serving as a juror on a jury trial at the courthouse down the street, and wanted a piece of his daughter’s cake. She also warned him of the potential crunchiness and the reason for it.

He appeared to enjoy the cake, but insisted that she baked it with the oven rack at the wrong level in her stove. Thinking that he did not hear her say that she baked the cake too long, she mentioned it again.

“I heard you the first time; that doesn’t matter.” he snapped, “What I’m saying is that you need to change the rack level.”

For the overly analytical ones of us here at the Institute, our thoughts instantly went to, “And this guy is serving as a juror?” We all hoped that he was serving on a civil jury, where only money was involved, and not someone’s liberty.

But there were 2 other experiences we had last week which made us further question the ability of criminal defendants to get a fair trial, apart from the efforts of the Nancy Graces of the world to convict them immediately after arrest and before booking is completed.

We previously mentioned our connections to the O.J. trial when the Institute was headquartered in Los Angeles. A friend of the Institute who knew of those connections called us shortly after “Tot Mom” Casey Anthony was acquitted in the death of her daughter, and said that it reminded her of the O.J. trial. The acquittal made her once again question our entire legal system.

She was apparently a fly in the jury room during the deliberations. Shortly thereafter, another tenant in our building asked whether we had heard of Anthony’s acquittal, and then immediately launched into how Anthony’s delay in reporting her daughter missing led her to believe that she was guilty. We suspect that there were enough stale donuts left in the jury room to support multiple flies.

These days, we aren’t quite sure how anyone receives a fair trial, with electronic media spewing sound bites at the speed of light. We seriously doubt that many take the time to digest even 1/100th of the evidence or facts involved, and yet they arrive at a conclusion.

To which they are entitled, no doubt.

We recall a friend once suggesting that because she saw photos of the mayhem inflicted on Nicole Brown Simpson’s body, she knew that O.J. was guilty. And of course, the former head of the International Monetary Fund was guilty, because the rich prey on the poor and consider themselves above the law.

We’re not quite sure whether this is what the Founding Fathers envisioned early on.

But as they often say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

For most students of the law, the line between civil and criminal offenses is fairly clear, and there is even a different burden of proof built into our system of jurisprudence. And white collar folks, whether rightly or wrongly, don’t expect to find themselves locked up in a jail cell with “common criminals.”

(We can almost guarantee you that hundreds of our readers across the globe, upon reading the preceding paragraph thought out loud, “But they should!”)

Horse manure is about to hit the fan soon, and the whole notion of innocence until proven guilty is about to be severely tested. Just continue to follow this phone hacking scandal involving News of the World. What prompted us to write this piece was an e-mail alert from the New York Times just a couple of hours ago, entitled, “An Arrest and Scotland Yard Resignation Roil Britain.” Upon reading the e-mail further, it noted that Britain’s most highly ranked police official resigned, and Rebekah Brooks, the former Chief Executive of News International, was arrested.

Over the years, there have been calls in some circles for expert or professional jurors to address some of the imperfections associated with lay jurors. But one of the principles built into the system is that one is entitled to be judged by a jury of his or her peers.

For the sake of the system, and all involved, we sure hope that neither our pound cake crunching retiree, our disillusioned friend in California, our fellow tenant in our building, nor Nancy Grace are on Ms. Brooks’ jury.

She wouldn’t have a chance in hell.

Well, but then again, it could be worse. We could only allow politicians to serve as jurors….

Hmm..., but then they would never reach a verdict.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Post No. 169: She was No Madonna, or Even a Selena, but She was a Heck of a First Lady…

© 2011, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

We’re about to deviate from 2 long-standing practices. First, we don’t usually write about people who recently passed. We leave that to the professionals. However, in this instance, we were concerned that the public might not appreciate who this grand lady was, and what she did, considering its obsession with Casey Anthony, and the phone hacking efforts of pulp rags to get the juice on private citizens.

Second, we avoid getting into discussions about “role models.” We are members of the Charles Barkley School and believe that parents and teachers should be role models, and not public figures, such as entertainers and athletes.

But we made an exception this time, because an exceptional woman, who was an equal team member in her partnership with her husband, recently left our ranks – Elizabeth “Betty” Ford.

We’ve always been fans of independent women who are strong enough to do the unexpected, and deal with the consequences, such as:

(a) Cornelia Wallace (who at the age of 33, and realizing that Alabama Gov. George Wallace had been shot and that his bodyguard was also injured, threw herself over her husband’s body to shield him from further injury. She then endured the abuse and anger of this paralyzed man during his rehabilitation years); and

(b) Katharine Graham, who (after years of being a rich, pampered debutante with no apparent marketable skills), allowed her mentally ill, cheating husband to return to their home, later witness his suicide over the weekend while he was on leave from the sanitarium, and then march into The Washington Post on Monday morning, and say (paraphrasing), “I’ve got a newspaper to run, and I don’t have a clue what to do. I have a lot to learn quickly.”

We were also big fans of Betty Ford. She was a dancer, who taught dance to disabled kids, and along the way became a model. She danced for 38 of her first 46 years on this earth, until she pinched a nerve while lifting a window. Thus began the start of her addiction to prescription painkillers. While in the White House, she added alcohol to her daily diet.

Shortly after the Fords moved into the White House following the resignation of Richard Nixon, doctors found a malignant tumor in her breast, which led to a radical mastectomy and chemotherapy. Although still a relatively taboo subject, she chose to reveal her illness and talk about her treatment.

Following her husband’s defeat to Jimmy Carter, her addictions to alcohol and pills became worse. Her family ultimately conducted an intervention. Although initially angry at, and resentful of, the participants, she found a way to put that anger, as one of our Mothers used to say, in her hip pocket and fart on it. She publicly announced that she had a problem and checked herself into a hospital.

We will not try to recount all the things she did during her life. An article in the Los Angeles Times succinctly outlines her contributions to society.

According to it, John Greene, a historian who also wrote a Ford biography, said, “Rarely does anyone’s name become a noun. [However,] [e]veryone knows what you’re talking about if you say, ‘I’m going to Betty Ford.’”

We often refer to the governance model of the United States as the “herding cats” model. During the 27 times we read the article, it occurred to us that one of the beauties of existing in a representative democracy (where so much emphasis is placed on freedom to think, live, learn, explore, and express one’s self), and at the same time, one of the systemic challenges in terms of governing such citizens, is that each one of us is a very complex being, molded by our experiences, with disparate motivations and priorities.

Trying to pigeonhole or lump us into groups, or define us, or apply labels, is inherently… problematic, and probably inaccurate, and should be left to advertising pros.

When someone connected with politics dies, we frequently see their predecessors and colleagues attend their memorial service or funeral. It was no different here. In the pew sat former First Ladies Rosalind Carter, Nancy Reagan, and Hillary Clinton, and current First Lady Michelle Obama. In most cases, press agents and protocol dictate their attendance. But we sensed something a tad different here. Their faces, body language, comments, and eyes suggested sincerity, and the lack of a philosophical divide amongst them about the greatness of this woman.

Under a “herding cats” governance model, it is noteworthy when people of different faiths, walks of life, and philosophical points of view, come together and celebrate the good that's possible in us all despite philosophical differences. Perhaps our current political leaders could learn something from these First Ladies.

Thank you Betty Ford – for simply being you.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Post No. 168: Our Dissatisfaction with "Something" in America

© 2011, The Institute for Applied Common Sense

These days, virtually all we hear is noise – people complaining about this and that. While we appreciate the many factors contributing to their discomfort, and their concerns about the future, as one of our former Fellows used to say, “Bitching gets no one anywhere fast.”

Crafting solutions to problems requires a constructive mindset. We recently saw a movie on Turner Classic Movies which reminded us that (a) sometimes we have to let go of those things important to us individually to advance the interests of those around us; and (b) we need not feel like Communists when doing so.

The movie is The Yearling (1946), starring Jane Wyman and Gregory Peck. It’s the story of a young boy who adopts a wild fawn as a pet, and falls in love with it. Because the family lives in the woods and has little contact with people, the parents permit the relationship to evolve, despite the fact that the fawn threatens to destroy their crops as it gets older and hungrier. Over time, the family employs all sorts of approaches in their effort to keep the fawn, and their farm. At some point, the boy has to make a decision so that the farm survives. He comes to learn that time and emotions change, and people have to make adjustments.

In the mindset ether, we all might consider the following:

1) The concepts of “freedom” (particularly its link to “pursuit of happiness”) and “governance” are contradictory. Governance is about managing (euphemistically) or controlling (no B.S.) people. In theory, we hope that our government achieves the optimal balance. However, that is an educated crap shoot every day, there are hundreds of thousands of factors which go into the equation, and reasonable people will differ as to what they want and what they are willing to accept;

2) The United States is particularly complicated by virtue of its 50 different states and cultures. At one time, that complexity appeared to be a good thing; but nothing in life remains the same for very long, and now the benefits of complexity are not so clear. However, stop and think about what would happen if we divided the States, and allowed each one to function as a separate nation. In the short term, each new nation might rejoice; but in the long term, each would develop a better appreciation of cooperation, unity of purpose, and how every segment of society has a valuable contribution to make;

3) When citizens generally speak of correcting problems in this nation, the conversation always gets muddled because it’s based in emotion, and each faction cites examples of things that work and don’t work, tailored to support their particular arguments. Rarely is the discussion about the entire system or the big picture and how it affects us all;

4) Money (or something of value) is always going to be needed to do anything in the Universe. Because some segment in society is disappointed with the results they see does not mean that we should stop doing something. Although permanently outlawing marriage outright, thereby eliminating all of the negative consequences which flow from it, might not be a bad idea; 

5) In our view, the real issue is how the funds are used, and when they are used. When one buys into the democratic, free market, representative leadership governance model (which we refer to as the “herding cats” model), one should realize that society will not implement pro-active policies, but rather after-the-fact, too late and far more costly, band-aid policies. Additionally, society and government rarely do what we advise individuals to do, namely plan for the future. We’d rather see social program dollars spent on kids ages 0-3, than the problematic citizens ages 21 onward. We’d venture to guess that dollars spent early (like tune-ups and oil changes on automobiles) lead to less dollars (costs) on the back end. A society does not have to spend more. Just take those dollars spent on the back end and transfer them to the front. Talk about reducing the debt;

6) Everyone dislikes something about America. That “something” is magnified in significance when economic times are bad, and people ignore or diminish the significance of that “something” when economic times are good. However, in reality, the problems were there all along;

7) Victims be victims; if you think you’re insignificant, you will be; and every day Jerry makes a fool out of Tom. People change when they are sufficiently motivated to change. We’re going through a period of insufficient motivation right now. We, as a people, are not even motivated to stay healthy, and yet everyone bitches about the opposition’s approach to health care. Imagine a “three-peat,” world champion team getting old, not bringing in new talent, not practicing as much, putting on more weight, and then losing the championship the following year and bitching at the coach, the opposition, and expansion teams;

8) If the complainants in American society really want to do something, invent something, be creative, figure out a way to become sufficiently motivated to kick some Chinese economic ass. As Donny Deutsch recently told Pat Buchanan on “Morning Joe,” bitching about the corporations taking jobs offshore ain’t working;

9) If you are a member of the school of thought that one President, one political party, one act or event, or one policy created the economic conditions extant in the U.S., you are an idiot. This economic evolution has been going on at least 35, and perhaps 50 years, if not longer, and all of us contributed to it and are responsible for it; and

10) Where we find ourselves today is global in nature, if not Universal.

For those who aren’t fans of movies, there are two books of note, the first being Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: 1500-2000, and the other, From Third World to First, by the Prime Minister of Singapore who marshaled Singapore’s emergence as a world player.

To pervert a line from our former Fellow, “[This] bitching [will get] no one anywhere fast.” And that’s just plain Common Sense.

"There Are More Than 2 Or 3 Ways To View Any Issue; There Are At Least 27"™

"Experience Isn't Expensive; It's Priceless"™

"Common Sense Should be a Way of Life"™