I’ve Got a Blog. So, Why Am I Launching a Brand New Kick-Ass Podcast?

  

 Co-host Jim Meigs and I on the How Do We Fix It? Facebook page.


We’re in the final stages of building a brand new weekly podcast, and I’m pretty excited about it.  If all goes well, How Do We Fix It? will be up on iTunes by June 10th.

That would be exactly two months to the day since I left ABC News Radio.

Why bother? Why throw our podcast pebble into the frenzied media firmament?

Unlike many news and public affairs shows, where the tired old left vs. right arguments are hurled across the table, our half-hour podcast is a spontaneous conversation about new solutions and fresh thinking.

Rather than shouting at each other, we take some of the best ideas out there, no matter where they come from. 

Jim Meigs and I are both good friends, who’ve spent decades in the news media.  Jim has been editor-in-chief of four magazines, most recently Popular Mechanics.  I covered politics, business, and finance for ABC News Radio.

We don’t agree on everything (far from it!).  But Jim and I are both practical guys who think there’s a big hole in the market for a show that tackles tech, teaching, taxes and many other controversial matters in a positive way. It’s time for a show that sheds more light than heat.
  
We’re building a website for our podcast at http://www.howdowefixit.me


In the first episodes of How Do We Fix It? we’ve had a lot of fun learning from some of the best in the business.  

Phil Plait, who writes the highly popular Bad Astronomy blog at Slate gives us some great insights into how to fix the space program.  Elizabeth Green, author of the excellent book, Building A Better Teacher, has solid common-sense advice for parents who worry about the quality of teaching in public schools.  And motivation expert Ron Friedman has fascinating thoughts on how to create a happier workforce. Those are just three of our shows.

Jim and I are thinking outside the box and going beyond labels.  How Do We Fix It? talks about practical ways to put theories into practice.

We’ve also had a ton of help from our producer Miranda Shafer, audio mixologists Jim Briggs, Denise Barbarita of MONOLisa Studio, and Joe Plourde, as well as composer Lou Stravinsky. Thanks all!

These shows came about after years of lively chats that Jim and I had together over dinner, coffee or simply out hiking together.  We want to make the world a better place, and are tired of politicians, pundits and others shouting the same phrases and making the same mistakes over and over again.

We hope you’ll listen and suggest new episodes and smart people who we can have as guests. Pull up a chair and join the conversation. Like and add your suggestions to our Fix It Show Facebook page, and please follow @fixitshow on Twitter.

Instead of kicking up a lot of dust, we like to bring people together as we talk about the stuff government, businesses, communities and all of us can do to improve our lives. 

That’s something new, people!

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Mind the Gap: Our Deep Military-Civilian Cultural Divide is Growing

  

“God, Duty, Honor, Country”. The Vietnam War Memorial on The Green in Guilford, Connecticut

America is more politically and socially divided than at any moment since the Vienam War – a time of massive protest and urban unrest. 

On this Memorial Day, add one more trend to the list: The division between the U.S. Military and American civilians has rarely been deeper than it is now.

“It’s a cultural gap that needs bridging, and that begins with mutual respect and understanding.,” writes former army Ranger Sean Parnell in The Military Times.  “Too often, civilians are hesitant to ask veterans about their combat experiences, because they fear saying the wrong thing.  At the same time, too many veterans “shut down” and decline to talk about their service with civilians, assuming they’ll never understand.”

50 years ago, during the Vietnam War era, well over two and a half million men served in the military from all parts of society.  Today, according to a disturbing article in The Los Angeles Times, the number has shrunk to 1.3 million –  0.4% of the U.S. population – the lowest number since before World War II. 

About half of America’s active-duty service members live in five states – California, Virginia, Texas, North Carolina and Georgia.

Many military personnel have limited contact with the rest of society.  “Surveys suggest that as many as 80% of those who serve come from a family in which a parent or sibling is also in the military,” the Times reports .  “They often live in relative isolation — behind the gates of military installations such as Ft. Bragg or in the deeply military communities like Fayetteville, N.C., that surround them.”

I’m part of the problem. Like most others in the media, I personally know very few vets.

The burden of protecting the nation and the world against the growing threat of ISIS, the Taliban and other Islamist fanatics, falls on a surprisingly small sector of the population. 

At a time of utter chaos in much of the Middle East, and threats posed by North Korea, Russia and Iran, we need to listen carefully to those who are on the front lines.  What are their opinions of what they are being asked to do?

“The last decade of war has affected the relationship between our society and the military,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in 2013.  “As a nation, we’ve learned to separate the warrior from the war. But we still have much to learn about how to connect the warrior to the citizen.”

Only 7% of Americans are vets, an ever-shrinking part of the population.  The Department of Veterans Affairs says the number will continue to fall over the coming decades. 

At a time of left vs. right political dysfunction, when many Americans prefer snark to substance, it’s time for all of us to pop our information bubbles: time to get into our discomfort zone and listen to those who have a different experience of the world than our own. 

More on my new podcast, How Do We Fix It? in my next post.  Spread the word!

Going Grumpy: Why The New York Times Is Wrong About the British Election, and Maybe U.S. Politics As Well.

  

A headline in The New York Times

“The suicide of Britain,” proclaims an apocalyptic and, (as the Brits would say) bloody silly headline on Ross Douthat’s op-ed column.
Arriving back in New York after a very pleasant and refreshing visit to England, I’m surprised by the response to last week’s U.K. election in my gloomy, grumpy edition of The New York Times.
C’mon guys. Lighten up a little.  It could have been a lot worse.
  

Conservative leader David Cameron’s surprising win gives Britain a better chance of stability than the outright muddle that was suggested by pre-election opinion polls.  Thank goodness the pundits and data experts were  wrong.  The nation could have faced weeks of confusing bargaining over how to stitch together a shaky coalition.

Reading The Times over the past few days, you get the impression that the crushing defeat of the socialist Labor party leader Ed Miliband means that Britain is going to the dogs.
In his panicky “suicide of Britain” column, Douthat is wrong to suggest that “the United Kingdom as we know it is on the ropes.”  A little over-the-top, Ross!
The “little Englander” UKIP actually won fewer votes than many had expected.  This anti-modernist protest movement will be represented by a solitary M.P.  Douthat’s foreboding claim that “the deep winners were the forces of nationalism,” is an exaggeration.
Yes, the Scottish Nationalists did score a stunning victory, winning 56 of the 59 seats they contested.  But thanks to Cameron’s success in England (where the great majority of British people live), the SNP simply doesn’t have the votes in the 635 member Parliament to demand another at-bat for independence.  
Last year, the cause of Scottish separatism suffered a clear defeat. Cameron has ruled out another referendum in the next five years.
Last week’s SNP election sweep was more about states’ rights than an overwhelming demand to break from the U.K.  The system of government is highly centralized, and ruled from London.  Scots, quite understandably, want more power over their own taxes and spending.  The demand for federalism will not inevitably lead to a weaker United Kingdom.
  
The line outside a polling station in Berkshire. U.K. turnout was the highest in 18 years.

As for the European Union, Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum by the end of 2017 on U.K. membership could actually strengthen rather than weaken the European cause.
Both The Times’ editorial writers and the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel warned that the election result is “bad news for Europe.”
Maybe not.  Antipathy to rules and regs from Brussels is nothing new.  For decades, right-wing British conservatives have been deeply skeptical about being part of Europe.  In the 90’s they caused misery for the Tory government of John Major.  
Holding a referendum at a time when when well over 50% of Brits say they support staying in the E.U. could settle the matter for many years to come.
Britain is not alone in calling for a more decentralized Europe.  “We have potential supporters, even among countries that have been reluctant to be associated with the curmudgeonly British,” says the Mayor of London, and Conservative M.P., Boris Johnson. 
“I have every confidence that our negotiators… will be able to achieve a reform that is in the interests not just of Britain but of the whole of Europe.”
Johnson may turn out to be wrong, and “Brexit” (Britain saying no to the E.U.),  might be in the cards.  But both his argument, and the positive case for what happened last week in the election, is getting short shrift in The Times.
The result of this election is more evidence that the left in both the U.S. and the U.K. has misunderstood the message sent by voters.  Conservatives in both countries simply seem more cheerful than their opponents, regardless of the strength or weakness of their cause. 
 
By all means, The Times and others should champion the cause of minorities, low paid workers and the unemployed, who don’t get a fair shake from our system.  But don’t ignore the contributions of entrepreneurs and wealth creators, and the aspirations of middle class taxpayers to better themselves.
Many of us want to read about hope and progress, instead of merely being subjected to a steady diet of whining and foreboding.
Note: After writing this I noticed this from David Brooks (himself of The New York Times).  Good stuff here

Women Are Winners in Britain’s Surprising Election.  So is the UK Economy.

  
Laura Kuenssberg, one of the new generation of savvy, smart women commentators on British TV

London – 

There’s nothing quite as brutal as politics.  No fewer than three party leaders resigned here within hours of the UK’s surprising election.

Scores of highly experienced Liberal Democrats and Labor politicians were stunned by their defeats as they saw their high flying careers crash to the ground in a sudden and very public way.

The sensibly centrist Lib Dems, who received absolutely no credit from British voters for their crucial role in propping up the coalition over the past five years, were unfairly punished by voters. 

But this was also a refreshing election in several ways.  The number of ethnic minorities in the House of Commons rose more than 50%.   The results also mean progress for women, who won one-third of the seats in the British House of Commons.  Authoritative female commentators and political thinkers today play a far more prominent role than in years past.    

  
Emily Maitlis analyzed gains and losses on BBC 1.

The vote was also a defeat for the politics of envy and class resentment.  David Cameron – now the Conservatives’ Tony Blair – reached out to young, middle class voters with a positive tone and an optimistic message about the future. 

The lessons of his success should be taken to heart by White House contenders in the 2016 U.S. campaign. The charming and easy-on-his-feet Cameron talked a lot more about wealth creation than income distribution.  But at the same time his one-nation message addressed voters’ insecurities, with promises to boost spending on Britian’s popular government-run health service.

While he did speak of more deficit reduction, the Tory leader is no libertarian.  He knows that people like their government benefits.  Unlike American Republicans and right-wing British Conservatives, Cameron put aside calls for smaller government in the future.

Labor (or, as my English friends say, Labour) seemed to be caught in the past, nostalgic for a time when large trade unions were more powerful than they are today.  While Cameron aimed for the center, Labor’s awkward leader Ed Miliband moved his party to the left, with calls for higher taxes on the wealthy and more business regulations.  Labour politicians talked about “protecting the working class,” when more Brits now see themselves as part of the middle class. 
  
David Cameron’s victory was more decisive than polls had predicted. 

The Conservatives’ majority means they will be able to form a most likely stable government lasting the full five years until 2020,” says IHS UK economist Howard Archer. This “should be supportive to economic activity.”  Financial markets loathe uncertainty, and they reacted positively to the clear Conservative win.

You may have noticed from my earlier blogs that pre-election polls were unanimous in predicting a much closer result.  They were flat out wrong.  In this age of big data and ever more powerful numbers crunchers, that too is encouraging.

I don’t want the polls to be right all the time.  The complexities of human behavior are often hard to fully explain or predict. And that’s one more reason why democracy and the marketplace of ideas are so interesting.
 

Why the UK Election May Send a Potent Message to the US in the 2016 Race for the White House.

  

An ad for “The Independent” at a London newsstand.

London- 

The warnings are everywhere.  Britain could plunge into political uncertainty after this election with no clear roadmap for what happens next.  
But what is all the arguing about?  The surprising thing for Americans is the issues here are very similar to the hot arguments in the U.S. 
Conservatives are for cutting government deficits, welfare reform and passing a “no new taxes” law.   The left-leaning Labor party wants higher taxes on the rich, more regulation of big business, and extra spending on health services and daycare for young children. Sound familiar?
The last opinion polls before the election suggested the two main parties would get roughly 33% of the vote each, with the centrist Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists, UKIP and Greens fighting over the remaining third.  Hardly a recipe for strong government. 
  
Front page headline warns of post-election chaos
What’s surprising to me is that while British voters believe David Cameron’s Conservatives are better at managing the economy, he is not way out in front. While Cameron has a stronger job approval rating than Labor’s Ed Miliband, the race has been very close.
This suggests that the current government’s record of economic growth, creating more jobs, and cutting the deficit is not enough.  As in America, voters here are profoundly worried about the decline of the middle class, and growing inequality between the rich and the rest.
While UK unemployment has dropped, and education standards have improved in the past five years, the parties of the left (Labor, the SNP and the Greens) skillfully exploited class resentments and the widespread concern that globalization and technological change are more of a threat than an opportunity.
If it forms a government Labor may be damaging to financial markets, entrepreneurs and wealth creation. But the fairness issue is front and center in this election.  This vote is about values as much as it is a referendum on competence.  The same could be true next year when U.S. voters pick a new President.

The Scary Thing About Britain’s Election: No one Has a Clue What Will Happen.

  

Flags flutter over British government buildings in Whitehall two days before the election 

London – Britain’s election this Thursday is coming down to the wire, and nobody has a clue what the final result will be. 
The excitement of electioneering brought me back to London this week.  British campaigns are noisy, breathless affairs with a boisterous, biased press that plays a leading role.  Headlines in nearly a dozen daily newspapers proclaim their support for one party while demonizing the rest.
To me the game politics here is a spectator sport.  I guess it’s in my blood.  My Mom stood for Parliament in the 1970’s, and my grandfather was a Labor MP right after World War 2.
  
A headline this week in The Independent newspaper.

The latest polls suggest an election cliffhanger with no single party gaining the majority it needs to govern.  The result could produce a constitutional crisis.  

For many decades, Britain just like America, had a two-party system. Conservatives versus Labor.  But in 2010 the perennial third party, the centrist Liberal Democrats, captured a surprisingly large 23% of the national vote and formed a coalition with the Conservatives.  The overall result of that vote was a fairly successful and surprisingly stable government.

But today things are far less certain.  While “Lib Dem” support plummeted (punishment for no longer being an anti-establishment underdog),  three other parties have emerged as power players, all with very different goals.

For the Greens the big issue is the environment.  To the right of the Conservatives, UKIP opposes Europe, free trade, immigration and modernity in general.

But the biggest destabilizing force is the Scottish National Party.  Despite losing a referendum last year on independence, the SNP is widely expected to come roaring back this week, grabbing all but a handful of Labor’s seats in Scotland.

It’s quite possible that a party which wants to break up The United Kingdom will hold the balance of power in the next Parliament. 
The day after the election negotiations are likely to begin in Whitehall (the seat of government power) involving as many as six political parties, all with different demands.  Financial markets and investors are freaking out at the distinct possibility of a weak administration, which could lurch from one potential no-confidence vote to the next.
In a country that places such a premium on stability and tradition, many are quietly alarmed about what could happen.
But at least until the votes are counted the election spectacle is fun to watch.  British democracy is anything but dull.
  
Britain’s Parliament 
Here under the shadow of Big Ben, Parliament is where the art of debate and the sport of political battle is the stuff of theater.
 
Every Wednesday, when The House of Commons is in session, the Prime Minister subjects himself to the howls of the opposition and the the “here heres” of supporters during Prime Minister’s Question Time.  Imagine a weekly State of the Union address frequently interrupted not by polite applause, but by shouting and chanting from Members of Congress!
Whether Britain’s next Prime Minister will be Conservative incumbent David Cameron, Labor leader Ed Miliband or someone else is anyone’s guess. But I’ll make one safe bet: the coming weeks will bring plenty of verbal jousting and lots of fireworks.

Travel To a New Place: What I Learned About Life and Politics at the Alhambra 

 

A view of the Alhambra in Grenada, Spain.

Gazing up in wonder at the mighty AlhambraI knew that coming here, even for just a few days, was a good move as well as a excellent photo op.

Travel is food for the soul, and wandering through alleyways and ancient buildings in Spain’s Andalusia has been a wow! experience.
I’m far from alone in raving about the place.  In 1832 Washington Irving published his classic collection of essays and stories, “Tales of the Alhambra,” and called Grenada it “a most picturesque and beautiful city.”
 
A palace and battlement inside The Alhambra 

This great fortress built high over Grenada was an imposing castle. But inside its walls there was a small town, beautiful palaces and intimate spaces with intricate and beautiful mosaics: A place where the Islamic Moors of Spain ruled this region for nearly eight centuries.
Before they were finally thrown out of Europe in the momentous year of 1492, the Moors presided over a land that has been praised in recent years for its many accomplishments and relative tolerance – at least compared with the  brutal standards of the Middle Ages.  In Andalusia at this time the classics of antiquity were studied. Jewish scholars wrote in Arabic.  Physicians, astronomers, horticulturalists and thinkers from three great religions exchanged knowledge and inventions.
Both The Alhambra and The Mezquita in the ancient Andalusian city of Córdoba, are surviving examples of a great civilization.

Columns and arches in Great Mosque at the Mezquita in Córdoba, Spain.
“In Al-Andalus, for eight centuries, communities of Moslems, Jews, and Christians lived side by side or intermingled the one with the other,” writes Steven Nightingale in his fine new book, Grenada, which celebrates
this long overlooked culture.  “There was no precedent for so extended an experiment in the history of Europe, and it has not been equaled since, for daring, brilliance, or productivity.”
After a centuries-long war, the Moorish era came to an end with the surrender of the Alhambra, and victory of Spain’s Queen Isobella and King Ferdinand.
After the initial Christian triumph, what followed in the 16th and 17th centuries in Andalusia was a long and slow decline for the region, largely caused by religious zealotry and the overreach of the monarchy and Church.  The Spanish Inquisition was responsible for the systematic, brutal, and cynical expulsions of Spain’s Moslems and Jews.
 
A narrow street in Grenada’s Albayzin barrio.
The lesson that I think I learned in the tender, scented narrow old alleyways of Grenada is that the relatively open-minded cooperation of the convivencia proved to be of more lasting value than the bombast of later centuries in rigidly Catholic imperial Spain.

Today, in a time of deep political divisions and dogma from the left and right in the United States, as well as growing cynicism over business, political and civic leaders, reaching back and learning some lessons from history is worthwhile. 

Soaking up other cultures and looking at the world from different points of view are great ways to put yourself in a new place, removed from the little dramas and hassles of everyday life back home. 

The author soaks up some local vino, with The Alhambra in the background.
Photos by Richard Davies