Category Archives: Politics

A damn good reason to interrupt the Donald

It has taken a while to sink in…  I wasn’t sure what significance it really had in the end, so I wanted to think on it a while.

Do you remember what you were doing when bin Laden was killed?  I was watching “Celebrity Apprentice” waiting for some low-level Trump-induced drama to come to a head.  I don’t particularly like Donald Trump and I don’t particularly like the show, but there is some entertainment in observing how B-list celebrities put up with the contrived situations.  I take some of that back…  Marlee Matlin is a classy woman, and she is definitely still on the A-list.

As the network broke away and there was some guarded speculation that Osama had been located, I couldn’t help but think that our President had found the right moment to get back at Trump for inflaming the Birth Certificate crisis.  No doubt there was some obscure lead or tantalizingly close call involving the elusive terrorist.

But we got him.  It was real.  With al Qaeda acknowledging his death it was VERY real.  My first impressions were sinking in that this was a first class operation.  I will admit that I was very proud of how Obama had handled the planning, the decisions, and the implementation.  No consulting Pakistan or any other country, no hesitation to take him out, and no body to bury.  Just a watery grave, devoid of fanatical mourning, idolatry, or martyrdom.  While we had enough evidence to convince ourselves he was dead, there was no need to prove it to anybody else.  We knew he was dead….  More importantly, THEY knew he was dead.

Over the next few days I remembered how I felt when the World Trade Center was attacked.  Before Facebook and blogging I wrote down my thoughts in November 2001.

There is something very wrong with a world that produces people capable of believing their only choice is to systematically plan and execute suicidal terrorism.  Even the Japanese Kamikaze aimed at our aircraft carriers.  I don’t think the average American understands what we’re up against.  I don’t think they are all up for the discipline and sacrifice it will take to transform the world and still retain our dignity and respect as a caring nation.  So far, however, I have been impressed with the tact our government has taken.  We are after a defined target, for now.  We are going to extremes to separate the terrorist threat from the urge to condemn an entire regional culture.  Like with any war there are real motivations for the enemy.  Unfortunately, the only military threat they can prosecute is against innocent civilians.  

I would like to be in on the stoning of Osama bin Laden.  I only hope we can do something lasting to ensure he is not replaced with another impoverished Muslim with a hankerin’ to train pilots for one-way trips to Paradise.

To this day, I still have some of the cynicism I had back then about the American public’s commitment to the “War on Terror”.  Few people truly understand the commitment it has represented and the continuing commitment it requires.  Or at least they don’t openly talk about it.  Bush made mistakes prosecuting the war, but there was a true vision of transforming the Middle East over decades.

I will admit, however, that the commitment of our government has shown has been truly heartening.  Despite some dove-like posturing through the election and early in his term, President Obama has stayed the course, even in Iraq.  And his Nobel Prize winning cult of personality tour through the Middle East has succeeded in adding still another front against terror by inspiring the next generation of Muslims to take charge of their future.  That motivational element and Obama’s blitzkrieg success vanquishing bin Laden must represent a compellingly iconic figure to the uprising youth in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and even Iran.  It has impressed this Reaganite…

So, does this all transform my hope for peace throughout the world and confidence in our future?  Well, yeah….  OK.  There are still a few things I would change.  A strategy for space exploration perhaps…..  But that is a well worn story that is still being written.

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Furlough Bucket List

As intransigent Congress members, White House staffers, and political pundits debate the merit, waste, and/or efficacy of federal spending, some 2 and half million federal workers will be pondering their compulsory free time.  There is still a chance that our elected officials will work something out, but it seems this time that there are bunches of folks on all sides of the fight just itchin’ to make a point….  So, we are making plans to be shut down for some indefinite period.

Way back in the late 20th century this furlough thing happened.  I remember it well.  The first shot was for a few days in November 1995, and then again for a longer second stint through the Christmas and New Year holiday season into 1996.  It wasn’t a very pleasant time.  At first it felt like a breather….  Not a restful vacation, but just some time to ponder what’s going on.  I remember being defiantly pissed on the first day.  I went and played 9 holes of golf on a sunny pleasant fall afternoon.  But by the time the holiday season got going, it was a frustrating, but subdued vigil.  Simply waiting for the stalemate to end.  Waiting for something to happen that you don’t have the power to resolve is a draining experience.

Essentially we were all unemployed, but still retaining the obligations and responsibilities that go with representing the US government.  I remember that Christmas visiting my ex-in-laws.  I was a walking representative of the federal government, consistently introduced by my ex-mother-in-law as an “unemployed NASA worker.”  There are just so many times you can feign a chuckle at that.  People would sympathize and ask thoughtful questions about how it’s going.  I would smile and say, “Well, we’re sure it will get worked out soon.”  It did…  But I had just made the last mortgage payment I could afford.

Working for the government, especially for NASA, you develop a level of dedication where you feel honored to contribute uncompensated effort to fulfill the mission.   In contrast, the last extended furlough felt like a prolonged dentist visit.  By association with the budget wrangling, we were made to feel wasteful and unnecessary.  And yet we were not fired or laid off….  We were in limbo.  Made to stand in place.  To add insult, we were later compensated for the forced time off.  “Gee, Dave,” you may exclaim….”You poor thing!!!”  It just didn’t feel right, and it was a detail you just didn’t want to admit to taxpayers.

This time is going to be different.  I can’t necessarily do anything to compel a budget agreement….  But I can make some decisions about how to use the time.  So, here is my Furlough Bucket List.  I can mix and match tasks to fit the length of the stalemate.

1.  Practice my sax.  Especially that tricky lick with the palm keys on “Le Jazz Hot”.

2.  Finish sanding and sealing the deck.

3.  The endless Jeep projects: carburetor, exhaust system, electronic ignition???

4.  Read….

5.  Train the bastard, Mishka!

6.  Wash dishes.  Wash clothes.  Vacuum frequently as instructed.

7.  Reorganize home office.

8.  Catch up on grading student homeworks and papers.

9.  Get back to the Rosetta Stone Russian!!!

10.  Take a breather…..

So, don’t be checking to see what I’ve done!!!  I will be productively unemployed…  Which means I get to decide what I’m  not going to do while I wait to find out when I go back to work.

Trying to figure things out without decimals

There have been a number of events, issues, conundrums, and frustrations throughout life, politics and work lately….  I have tried to figure it all out.  What’s wrong?  What’s right?  Is it just change?  Or is there something much more fundamental going on?

I recalled many periods of time during my career where the mission seemed unclear and the path forward seemed clogged.  These periods always seemed to be frustrating trips, but finite in their duration and effect…  We kept testing flight hardware.  We kept flying or getting back to flying shuttles.  We kept designing, redesigning, and then building the space station.

Other old hands told me of bleak periods after Apollo, where things were really slow.  A lot of folks found other work, chased their fanciful dreams of coffee shops, consulting, teaching, or just playing music or pursuing hobbies.  Still others gutted it out waiting for that multi-purpose space shuttle.  But all of them said they were confident that something else would come around.  It was just a question of how long it would take…  How long they were willing to wait…  What they were going to spend their time on while things got sorted out.

Our current clogged state of government seems particularly vexing in its duration, intensity and effect.  There are tugs of war going on not just with the federal budget, but with the very nature of what our space program is.  Is it different than those post-Apollo days?  Is it different than those post-shuttle catastrophes?  Is it different than designing and redesigning the space station?

It’s not just work….  I read recently about the Mississippi State Legislature voting about 10 years ago to remove decimals and fractions from the public school curriculum.  It is so absurd that I am skeptical if it is true.  I searched the net for a time to confirm  or deny, but I still haven’t found the smoking gun to settle the reality of this claim.  I suspect it is either a fanciful tale, or saner heads prevailed.  But more important is that it wouldn’t surprise me if it was true…  Why?  If it was even debated in Mississippi at all, it points to a level of ignorance that we can’t tolerate.

One of my neighbors has a huge collection of toys.  A Hummer, a Harley, a golf cart for his daughters to drive about the neighborhood, a very large SUV for his wife to do the family chores.  While I am sure she is a very good mother and works hard to care for her family, her labors are not compensated by a paycheck.   Every couple of weeks dad takes the family on long weekend camping trips in a very large and modern travel trailer.  He doesn’t seem to be the only “Jones” on the block with this kind of lifestyle.  He manages a flooring store.  I am not sure when he actually works.  Am I jealous of his toys or his free time??? Not really.   But I wonder if this is the American Dream and I am wondering what will perpetuate it…

Back to work I spent a frustratingly long meeting last week debating the various Powerpoint bullets necessary to tell the “budget story” in the right light to a very high official.  There were about 8 of us participating for the better part of 2 hours, looking at about 6 charts.  I had about a $200,000 interest in a multi-million dollar story.  I cared about that $200,000 and the people and work it represented.  But it was a painful realization that we were appealing to the limited attention, emotions and idiosyncrasies of one man.  It is a noble task to appeal to the logic, regulatory realities, and fiscal constraints at play….  But I can tell you without a lot of elaboration that none of those factors were focused on in this negotiation.  The reality was that the money was available and the requirements are undisputed.  We were negotiating with power.  And we had to cater to the idiosyncrasies.

Perhaps what is most responsible for prompting my rant today is a missive detailing the executive take aways delivered to our agency leadership.  The message that resonated was that these are tough times.  Yes, that is true.  Our guidance is to continue to leverage other resources and apply innovation even in the absence of clear mission definition or direction.  I will let that paraphrase speak for itself.  I will innovate.  I will tinker.  I will leverage.

It is tempting to go down a partisan political trail here, but I will honor my Hatch Act obligations. I can find lots of Tea Party inanities that resemble the ignorance of the fabled Mississippi decimal-banning legislation.  I can rant about liberal atrocities promulgated with or without the tacit approval of our president. This is not about partisan politics.  Nope…  Not gonna go there.

My point today is that I keep seeing signs that the American public, and more troubling, American government, is fatigued, even hostile to, the concept of complexity…of commitment.  We want comfort.  We want refuge.  We want entertainment.  We want our stuff and we want it now.  We’re not concerned about what it takes to build our stuff.  We are not concerned with what it takes to keep our nation strong, smart, and productive.  We are not concerned about what it takes to keep our world safe and secure.  We’re going camping….

So is this just the ranting of an old man who has lost his youthful enthusiasm for life and work?  Perhaps….  I recall that I was thinking just a few years ago that it would be great to push back to the moon before retiring.  Now we talk about some day decades away we might go to an asteroid….  Who’s idea is that?  What do we do when we get there?  Not near the resources available on the moon for continued exploration….  Returning to a lunar landscape — that we have since learned has water, methane, and raw materials for construction — represents a variety of possibilities.  Instead we look forward to leveraging resources and  applying innovation in the absence of clear mission direction.

I want to help fix things.  I want to make progress.  I want to follow an AMBITIOUS plan.  I want to get ‘er done!!!  But I am pretty damn sure we will need to use some fractions and decimals to get there.

Consultants need love too!!!

It occurred to me that my last post may have been slightly offensive to those hardworking consultants out there…  I know quite a few that are very forthright, honest, diligent and ingenious.  Jennifer and Cindy come to mind.  And at least Ward stuck it out for a while.

My sincerest apologies to many consultants…  Not all, but many.  After all, they have to do a good job otherwise they probably won’t find the next customer willing to pay them.  A great many consultants, like my ex-brother-in-law, have a very unique skill that just needs a few hours of specifically focused work to get things in place.

But policy consultants???  Nope…  No love…  Maybe we could talk about it….and keep talking about it…  then argue about it….  Then walk out in a huff until you find someone in power gullible enough to listen to you.

Where do these people come from?

I recently read about a key figure leaving the President’s administration.  I won’t name this person and I don’t want to get into specific politics here.  This is more about how ideas and personalities rise to the point that they shape the realities we all must work toward for at least 4-year periods of time that we know of as presidential terms…

The longer you are in federal service, and if you rise to a level that has at least a bit of influence, you come into contact with various public leaders that carry their philosophies, grudges, idiosyncracies, and agendas with them to VERY influential places.  These are the people often referred to as career senior executives.  Mostly these people have strong drive and many have some pretty strong egos.  If you are lucky, a good proportion of them don’t let their egos drive their most important decisions.  But egotistical or not, at least these folks have collected a lot of experience along the way that has some merit in shaping the future.

Then there are elected officials.  These are the folks that have all the ego and stamina to sustain themselves through successive elections, campaigns, fund-raisers, etc.  What makes them tick?  What makes them keep going?  Many are idealists, who care about the future of their constituents and have a passion for learning how to shape that future.  Others have the egos that drive them to crave adulation in the form of votes, media attention, and power.  Unfortunately, benevolent or not, that passionate pursuit of  elected office doesn’t often afford much time to learn the details of how things work.  Legal and management professionals most often pursue political glory.  They understand politics, they understand processes and laws, and they usually understand communication.  But technology, science, medicine, manufacturing???? That’s where the consultants come in….

I’ve had lots of experience with consultants.  I’ve seen the best of them in action.  I’ve seen how some of them get started.  I’ve seen some disappear into oblivion.  Unfortunately, many elected public figures are very dependent on consultants.  The higher you are in the political stratum this is particularly true.  It’s not that the politicians want to be dependent, it’s just that consultants are everywhere and their baubles are very shiny.  And politicians need to at least be perceived as understanding some of the most complex issues, concepts, and processes.

Let’s analyze the consultant.  There are big consulting firms and large lobbies.  Consulting firms and lobbyists are pretty much the same beast.  When it is a central mission they’re after, they are hired to deliver that message in timely, persistent, and compelling ways.  They are often led by very driven people with money and/or ideals propelling their zealotry.  But they need an army to hit all the places that decision-makers frequent — conferences, fund-raisers, town hall meetings, government procurement seminars, exclusive watering holes, country clubs, etc., etc., etc….

This brings me to how the big consulting firms recruit.  This is a time-tested formula I have witnessed and validated often.  They go to colleges looking for the brightest, shiniest, in-crowd, most appealing graduates.  Think the articulate cheerleader, the handsome football player (a skill position player), the suave fraternity president.  Even the bubbly sorority girl who gets an ‘A’ on her Cold War political science paper when she routinely confesses to me that she doesn’t understand geopolitics!!!  Uhhhh….. Just momentarily obsessing over a past injustice.  Anyway, the goal is to give these pretty, young prodigies a script they can internalize and deliver in a glib, confident manner.  If they are successful, they have mesmerized the most hardened bureaucrats because they sounded really good and looked even better.  If you’ve peppered them with enough reality and tough logical questions, they often wilt.  But then you have earned attention from one of the ideologues in the background.  Quite a bit less attractive, but particularly more substantive, the ideologues are still selling the same product.  But at least they still understand why they are selling it and they are masters at the deal.  This is the same tactic used to sell cars.

Now there is the INDEPENDENT consultant.  This is typically the brainiac that got great grades and routinely argued with his college professors.  After graduating at the top of his class, he gets a high-paying job with a think tank, the CIA, a Wall Street firm, IBM, or some exclusive software company.  After a short few years working horrendous hours, belittling his co-workers, and condescendingly dismissing his superiors, he decides he’s had enough of being a “team player”.  He is smarter and more ingenious than any of his so-called peers.  He will out-work all other competitors.  And his clients can’t help but succeed wildly if they will just sit down and listen to his wisdom.  He talks a good game and working up a frenzy, he leaves clients with a lot of data, narrative, and direction.  They are impressed because he sounded so smart and outlasted many of their hardest head cases.  Then he leaves and nobody quite understands all the stuff that he left behind.  The cycle continues because the independent consultant is good at finding people who know less than he does.  And he’s good at talking around all the latest problems that vex business, industry, government, and POLITICS.  The real downside is that he doesn’t have the patience to live with your organization and nobody likes working with him for long periods of time.  Many of these types ultimately find happiness railing against the establishment on the Internet.

So, what does this have to do with the Presidential aide who recently left the Administration???  Well, when I plug his name into Google, I find that his previous position was with a self-named consulting firm with average employment of 1, making an average annual income in the mid 5 figures.  His business specializes in technological innovation and commercialization.  Sounds an awful lot like an independent consultant.  And it sounds a lot like either he ran out of patience with the White House, or perhaps they ran out of patience with him.  I can definitely say that as a career government employee I am among the many who must figure out what to do with the stuff he left behind.

I am tempted to name the name, but as I consider the reaction, it occurs to me that this one person doesn’t really matter all that much.  Because there are scores of others just like him that are still working in our nation’s capital selling their stuff.  They are not the ones doing the work, nor will they be doing it in the future.  But we will be the ones cleaning it up in the long run.  Whether you are a Republican, Democrat, or Zebra-striped Libertarian, it all comes down to the quality and character of people you ask to help you.  Just please, please, please take a long time to consider what their qualifications are, what they’ve accomplished, and whether they will commit to stick it out with the people who will be left to do the work.

The Keen, New, Innovative, Uniquely American Idea!

I voted the old-fashioned way this evening after work. On Election Day. Yes, November 2, 2010. I got in line at the neighborhood middle school gym. I showed my identification and signed the roster. I had done the absentee ballot thing in years past. And I actually had an opportunity to do early voting a few days ago…..

Early voting…. I don’t get the concept. Seems like it was our responsibility as American citizens to get to the polls to vote for the candidates of our choice. Get to the polls!!! Sometime after the time they open and before the time they close. Have we gotten so lax that we must have several opportunities to vote at a time of our convenience???

Last week I was getting my car registration taken care of at the county annex. I was a bit irritated to see the parking lot full and a small crowd of people milling about a specific distance away from the entrance. They had signs. They had cupcakes. They had smiles as they offered the cupcakes and small cups of cold water. “Are you here to vote, sir?”

I glared back. I wasn’t ready for this. I was girding my loins for the DMV, not for kindly political soccer moms offering me cupcakes. “No,” I muttered as I rushed to the door to the DMV netherworld.

Then as my mind wandered in the DMV line, I thought….early voting….hmmmm….. Am I ready to vote early? No, not really… But, what if….maybe…. Could I get an absentee ballot and contemplate the choices in the comfort and convenience of my home? Now that’s American thinking! I had neglected to mail in my ballot request, but how could they possibly turn me down now that I was at the county clerk’s office? Especially with all this early voting hub-bub going on! Well, you would think…

I quickly took care of my truck registration and hopped over to the county clerk’s office. As I approached, the woman at the counter asked me, “Are you here to vote?”

Now I was ready for the question! I explained my keen, new, innovative, uniquely American idea…. “Could I just get a ballot and take it home???”

“But early voting is going on right now!”

“I understand, but I’d really like to take a ballot home so I can make some informed decisions.” Man, what a smart, responsible idea!!!

“Would you like a sample ballot?”

What was it this lady didn’t understand? I calmly explained that didn’t fit my keen, new, innovative, uniquely American plan.

“But, you need to send in your ballot request and the date has passed for requests and the completed ballots need to be post marked by tomorrow.”

She sounded like one of the adults on a Peanuts cartoon….Wah wah wah…. wahwahaaahhhh…. She just wasn’t grasping the keen, new, innovative, uniquely American voting scheme. I gave her a sarcastic smile and rushed off to put on my registration sticker.

The moral of the story? I wasn’t sure whether I was angry with “the man” for oppressing my creativity, or if I should be ashamed of my audacity for expecting just one more accommodation to exercise my voting obligation. I have since decided I was ashamed of myself.

What happened to everyone in America voting on Election Day? What happened to every employer accommodating their employee’s obligation to vote on Election Day? How can the latest poll results mean anything if half of the voters already voted two weeks ago? What about those sudden blizzards that throw the election out of whack in the Midwest states and offer the underdog candidate a prayer of a chance to pull off a win?

Bottom line…. I voted on THE DAY. If you didn’t vote, then you basically have run out of excuses. You had early voting, absentee ballot voting, and just plain ordinary voting. But don’t try doing any combination of those at the same time… That old-fashioned bureaucratic oppression still exists….for now!!!