How Do We Fix It? 2 Cheers For Compromise 

  
Ready for a word that Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders would consider to be an obscenity?  

Compromise.

Insults, anger and disgust are in, while deal-making, compromise and governance are so old school.  We’re all too busy having a national hissy fit to sit down and do the boring, important stuff. 

My friend Mark Gerzon, author of the fine new book, “The Reunited States of America“,  puts it this way. “We can’t solve any of the problems we face if we’re tearing each other down the whole time.”

Ratings for the Republican debates shot up this year and cable TV networks are loving the slugfest. Watching candidates exchange insults can be entertaining, even if we are appalled by the spectacle. 

But the news media obsession with clashes, controversy and contests only get us so far.  If politics is a permanent campaign, when is it time to govern?

“There’s a whole America out there that’s not getting any news coverage. And that’s the America where Americans work together,” Mark tells us in the latest episode of our podcast, “How Do We Fix It?

He’s right. My years of business reporting taught me that when successful executives face four bad quarters, they throw out the old rule book and re-think what they’re doing. Flexibility and pragmatism are essential to their survival.

Only if Congress would do the same.  

For the past 4, 8, 16 years, mainstream politicians have been fighting over the same old stuff. Their goal is simply to score points at the expense of the other guy. 

No wonder we’re fed up.  

But outrage will only get us so far.  What’s really constructive in the messages and speeches that we’re hearing from Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders?   Beyond talk of building walls or making health care and college free, how will these “outsiders” turn their promises into reality? After all, the nation’s founders did invent separation of powers with checks and balances.

The first step to radical reform of government, Congress and our political culture is to reform ourselves. The most radical thing many of us could do right now is to ask questions.  

In business it’s often called brainstorming.  

“Do you want to get drunk on being right and enjoy that feeling of being with the people you agree with and bad mouth the people you don’t?,” asks Mark. Maybe yes. But a nasty hangover may be the result.

Perhaps we’re at a national turning point. It’s time to sit down and spend time with those we disagree with.  Listen and learn from the other tribe. Not declare and defame.

Smoke filled rooms, anyone?  

(If not, maybe vape-filled rooms would do.)

Advertisements

Hey Congress: The Playground Was Never This Bad!

  

The way Obamacare is being debated is infantile.  

Instead of a detailed prescription for change, we’re hearing slogans.

Despite claims to the contrary by Republicans and Democrats, The Affordable Care Act is neither an unmitigated disaster nor a glorious triumph.

The truth lies between the two extremes, which is so often the case. The delivery of healthcare is complex and the law was only passed after Democrats responded to widespread demands for fundamental reform of the previous system.

“We have decreased the rate of the uninsured by about a third,” says Megan McArdle, an Obamacare critic and columnist at Bloomberg View.  That’s an impressive achievement. More than 12 million people who did not have coverage before the reforms are covered now.

Nevertheless, McCardle told our podcast, “How Do We Fix It?“, Obamacare is “much more expensive and much less comprehensive than its architects and certainly the people who supported this politically…. were expecting.”

UnitedHealth, the nation’s largest health insurance firm, is losing money on the government-run exchange and has warned it may have to pull out if market conditions don’t improve.

“What people are doing is they’re gaming the system.” Some with health emergencies, who have inadequate medical insurance are “signing up for a few months, using a ton of services and then dropping it again,” says McArdle.

While Obamacare has lowered rates for many people with pre-existing conditions and helped millions of young prople under 26 stay on their parents’ plans, costs are rising and too little thought has been given to the efficient delivery of needed treatment. 

Demand for healthcare often exceeds supply. Many Americans have unrealistic expectations about the cost of coverage. Rationing, whether by insurance companies or government employees, is inevitable.

American consumers should be more involved in cost decisions. But the inconvenient truth is that whoever wins in November, there is little appetite in either political party to start all over again. 

It would help if the messy complexities of healthcare were more openly discussed.  We need serious fixes a lot more than catcalls from the political playground.

Don’t Put His Views In a Political Box.  What The Media Are Missing About Pope Francis.

  New Republic

“We in the press are about to over-politicize his visit to America,” writes New York Times columnist David Brooks.

How right he is.

The media are awash with bland, secular generalizations. The trumpets of left and right are already at blaring with either praise or denunciations of the Pope’s message.

House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Pope Francis to address Congress “will be at his own party’s expense,” declares Brian Beutler in the increasingly hardline liberal journal “New Republic.”

In a scathing article, curmudgeon conservative George Will blasts The Pope for “his woolly sentiments that have the intellectual tone of fortune cookies.”

  The New York Post

But comments from both sides that seek to put the Pope in a box miss this importance of his message and above all, his example.

American Catholics don’t fit neatly into frames tethered to snippets extracted from a hugely complex spiritual leader,” writes conservative Catholic Ashley McGuire. As “a capitalism-loving, pro-life advocate who is quite possibly obsessed with abortion, I could not be more excited to welcome Pope Francis to America.

Regardless of political affiliation, many Americans appreciate the Pope’s emphasis on love and mercy over dogma and orthodoxy. 

He is humble and a warm presence in world of snarky pundits and fiercely opinionated politicians. As a Jesuit, Francis takes his vow of poverty seriously. He believes we can learn from the poor. His heart is with those who suffer and are in need.

As a devout Catholic he understands how symbols send a message. After arriving at Andrews Air Force Base and being greeted by President Obama and Vice President Biden, the Pope hopped into a small Fiat instead of the usual large limo reserved for dignatories.

He says the church should be “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out in the streets,” instead of being unhealthy “from clinging to is own security.

As Gerald Seib points out in The Wall Street Journal, this Pope is a disrupter: “in sync with the dissatisfaction with the status quo” and also recognizing that The Catholic Church establishment has lost its way.

Many of us like leaders who would shake things up. Think Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. This Pope challenges the existing order. An overwhelming majority of American Catholics approves of what he’s doing.

“I don’t think the categories Left and Right are very useful for understanding the Pope,” says theologian and papal expert Lawrence Cunningham of Notre Dame.

On some social matters he is deeply conservative. “Francis unflinchingly maintains the church’s ancient teaching about the sanctity of human life and total opposition to abortion,” writes Timothy Carney in a highly perceptive piece in The Washington Examiner.

“Although he has urged Catholics to drop their “obsession” with such issues, Francis would also stand with his predecessors against gay marriage. In fact, he clashed with the Argentinian government when it was expanding marriage to include same-sex couples.”

“On economics, Francis would look more like a Democrat than like a Republican, but so would his “conservative” predecessors,” writes Carney.

On the environment he has been more outspoken than those who came before him. But with rising carbon levels in the atmosphere and a growing sense among global leaders that action is required, the need is greater than it was years ago.

Fact is, whether  we’re conservative, liberal or independent, most of us like the guy.

“Pope Francis is an extraordinary learner, listener and self-doubter,” says David Brooks. “The best part of this week will be watching him relate to people, how he listens deeply and learns from them, how he sees them both in their great sinfulness but also with endless mercy and self-emptying love.”

 

My Favorite Holiday:  July 4th Fireworks and Festivities Celebrate Our Freedoms and Democracy.

  Symbols of pride:  flying the flag for Independence Day.



Happy July 4th!   Independence Day is my favorite holiday.

On this vacation we celebrate something that many of us complain about for the rest of the year: our democratic institutions.

As a first generation American I love the freedom that this country represents.  239 years ago, The United States was the first nation to be founded with a formal statement that asserted the people’s right to choose their own government.  

That’s a pretty cool fact.

The Declaration of Independence was a bold statement of ideals by profoundly practical men.  It’s signficance rolls down through the ages, and continues to be an inspiration to oppressed people around the world.

The words were chosen carefully.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  These most famous lines from Declaration give me chills. 

As a radio guy, I applaud NPR’s Morning Edition for its annual tradition of having hosts, contributors and commentators read the Declaration aloud.  

From the beginning – “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another” – until the end – “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” – the sound of those profound words, written at a time of great danger, never fails to impress.

Despite a steady decline in trust in national institutions in recent years,  “questioning the aims and efforts of government is a foundation of American citizenship. It’s how the nation was born,” writes Lynn Vavreck, a professor of political science at U.C.L.A. in The New York Times.  “The colonists didn’t trust King George III, and they carefully laid out their reasons for breaking away from his rule in the Declaration of Independence.”

But still we celebrate the 4th with fireworks, parades and barbecues.   For one day each year it’s time to put aside our complaints about the President, Congress, law enforcement and our system of justice.  We are lucky to be Americans.

At a time of doubt, division and even disgust with government, this country is still a beacon of hope for tens of millions of immigrants and many others who wish they could live here.

Although I was born in the USA, my parents were British and moved me back to England as a child.  After going to school there, I chose to leave my family and return.  I am glad that I did.  

So grab a burger, pour a cold one, and celebrate the Fourth with pride and gratitude for America and the best of its principles.

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!

Burger King’s Northern Exposure: Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire?

gty burger king 2010 kb 140826 16x9 608 Controversy Erupts Over Burger Kings (BKW) Move

(Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

This blog is adapted from my ABCNews.com daily business blog

Burger King is facing a grilling from critics of U.S. companies that move overseas to cut their tax bills.

“I’ve eaten my last Whopper,” is among the many angry comments on Burger King’s Facebook page. That one received more than 1,000 “likes” at the company’s social media site.

BK announced on Tuesday that it would buy the popular Canadian coffee and doughnut chain Tim Hortons for more than $11 billion, and move the corporate headquarters of the combined firm to Canada, where corporate tax rates are lower than in the U.S.

Liberal Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, wants U.S. consumers to spend their burger dollars elsewhere .

Other Senate Democrats are calling for legislation to limit tax inversions by American companies that takeover foreign firms largely for fiscal reasons.

But the CEO of Burger King insists the deal is not about taxes. And there appear to be strong competitive reasons for this move.

While the fast-food giant is much better known and has many more franchises, Tim Hortons is the most profitable of the two. The merger could also heat up the company’s share of the fast-growing breakfast market and create the world’s third largest fast-food chain.

And besides, say BK boosters, why shouldn’t a firm look after the best interests of shareholders by lowering its tax burden?

Perhaps the move will also re-start the stalled debate over complex U.S. corporate taxes.

This is not merely about high American rates, with loopholes and write-offs for some businesses but not others. The controversy also involves global taxes.

“The U.S., unlike most developed-world governments, insists on taxing the global income of its citizens and corporations that have U.S. headquarters,” writes Megan McArdle of Bloomberg Businessweek. “Because the U.S. has some of the highest tax rates in the world, especially on corporate income, this amounts to demanding that everyone who got their start here owes us taxes, forever, on anything they earn abroad.”

Critics of these rules say the system is to blame for billions of dollars being parked off-shore by subsidiaries of U.S. firms.

The argument, they insist, is about more than businesses paying their fair share. It also involves Congress and whether it will act to reform the corporate tax code.

Shutdown Dysfunction – It’s Far From Over!

Obama_meets_with_congressional_leaders_20090513

President Obama discusses healthcare with Congressional leaders in calmer times

So maybe you’re relieved that the US Government stepped back from the brink and did not default on its debt.  A return to more civilized debate perhaps?

Um…  no. Sadly, this mess is far from over.  The harsh partisan divide, with both sides talking past each other, drags on.

While some like to portray the Tea Party as representing the views of a mere two or three dozen members of the House of Representatives, the truth is quite different.

After 16 days of government shutdown, a battered economy, and massive disapproval in opinion poll ratings, 144 House Republicans – two-thirds of their members – voted against the Senate compromise.

They’re proud of what they’ve done, believing  that their stand against funding the government and risking an unprecedented US debt default was worth it.

“You know it isn’t about winning. It’s about were we on the right path,” says Congresswoman Michelle Bachman.

A defiant Representative Ted Poe of Texas argues: “We should be talking about cutting spending before we start raising America’s debt ceiling and that’s just the way it is.”

No compromise there.

Some members of Congress are clearly exhausted, and a ceasefire has been declared for now, but the this deal is only a short-term band-aid.  The resolution passed by Congress only funds the government until January 15th. And without a new bill the debt default threat will return in early February.

The damage to the economy is already becoming clear. Retailers worry that the recent drop in consumer confidence will drag down holiday spending. Car sales fell last week compared to earlier in the month.

America’s standing in the world has been damaged. China and other US critics will use this standoff to their advantage.

So how to fix this?  We have to change our national conversation.

After years of frosty relations, the face-to-face meetings by Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell in the past few days were a start.  But they are only two men.

It’s about all of us, not just “them”.

Just as Americans celebrate diversity of religion,race and ethnicity,  it’s time to welcome different points of view into our own political discourse.  Those who denigrate others and hold on to a rigid ideology should occupy a much smaller space in the public square.