Make It Unanimous

This may be the first time in Webnerhouse history that Richard, UJ and I have agreed on something political, but I also think that everyone — especially the public — benefited from the civil, respectful, yet candid conversation between the President and the House Republicans last week.  The first step to engagement is discussion.  We would be well served if such discussions were to happen more often and our leaders would communicate directly, rather than through assistants, spokespeople, or professional spin artists.  They might actually identify areas of common ground that would allow them to get things done.

A Damned Good Idea

At his meeting with the House Republican caucus on Friday, President Obama said that some Republicans had misrepresented his health care bill as “some Bolshevik plot.” The Republicans in the audience responded with good-natured laughter. There was a lot of laughter at the event, actually. I joined in when Obama called Republican Illinois gubernatorial candidate Paul Ryan “a pretty sincere guy” then quickly added, “by the way, in case he’s going to get a Republican challenge, I didn’t mean it.”

It’s nice to see Democrats and Republicans laughing together at how ridiculous partisan politics have become in this country. Public dialogue between the two parties has reached a new low. Better we all find humor in it than be overwhelmed with frustration and spite.

One party makes a big deal out of a supposedly bombastic statement made by a member of the other, usually taken out of context. Guests on TV news channels blame their ideological opposites for refusing to compromise. Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann warn us that certain politicians would steal America’s soul if they had their way. The media, which loves drama as much as any reality tv show producer, stokes the fire.

All this bickering helps explain why Congress had so much trouble getting anything done in 2009. As Obama said at the caucus, the Republicans spent so much time demonizing his health care bill that any Republican who wanted to support it would fear the ire of his constituents and would become a pariah within the party.

Friday’s meeting was a welcome break from this mayhem. No one accused Obama of trying to force elderly Americans in front of “death panels” or asked him to provide a birth certificate. There were no shouts of “you lie!” Instead, the tone was friendly. A handful of Republican congressmen politely criticized the President, who actually admitted to some mistakes – like that he should have done a better job of keeping his campaign promise to put meetings between health care interests on C-SPAN. Like I said, there was lots of joking: the transcript I linked to above indicates 22 breaks for laughter. The President and his audience disagreed a lot, but always in a civil fashion.

It just shows what is possible when all that separates the two parties is a microphone cord. The other party doesn’t seem so bad when everything they say and do isn’t filtered through the bloodthirsty media and party leaders who want to demonize them as much as possible before the next election.

The New York Times notes that Britain has a tradition similar to Friday’s meeting. I’d like to see this become an American tradition. I don’t know if any compromises will come from it, but it’s certainly better than the way things are. At the very least, political dialogue will distract less from the real issues.

Keep on Trying to Reach Across the Aisle Mr. President

I’ve not had a chance to view in full the Question and Answer session that the President had with the Republican caucus this week, but I don’t recall in my lifetime a time where a sitting President was willing to take unscripted questions from the opposing party and answer and address them.

Once I’ve had a chance to view the session in full I’m sure I will have some thoughts. There is a phrase “never say never” but he air in Washington is so poisoned I’m not sure there will ever be bipartisanship !

As with everything else I am hopeful this will change and to steal a line from one of my favorite movies “hope is a good thing maybe the best of things and no good thing ever dies”, but this is a huge obstacle that the president will have to overcome if anything is to get done in Washington and we shall see how it plays out .  

4 x 4

Russell’s artwork is going to be featured, along with that of three other Vassar students, in the “4 x 4” exhibition at the James W. Palmer III Gallery at Vassar College.  The news release is here; scroll down to see the information on Russell’s exhibition.  The exhibition runs from February 24 to March 4.  Stop by if you’re in the Poughkeepsie area.

Redefining The CEO

The Marketplace radio program recently carried an interesting interview with the CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, about redefining the role of the CEO.  She believes that a “maniacal focus on the shareholders” led to the financial crisis, and that now CEOs should focus on the “stakeholder” rather than the shareholder.  The “stakeholder” concept is a bit ill-defined; it is “multifaceted, has different interests, represents different constituencies.”  Nooyi also contends that corporations should redefine their profit and loss performance to reflect “revenue, less costs of good sold, less costs to society — and that’s your real profit.”  At one point in the interview, Nooyi said “a lot of the CEOs I interface with have real desire to do good for society, have a real desire to make change that’s positive, want to help governments address issues.”

I’m a bit skeptical of the “stakeholder” approach.  For starters, I disagree with the notion that a “maniacal focus on shareholders” caused the financial crisis.  Instead, I think the breakdown occurred, at least in part, because Boards of Directors weren’t really paying attention and approved compensation packages that gave CEOs economic incentives to favor exceptionally risky, but in the short term lucrative, transactions over long-term investment and sustainable growth.  I therefore question a model where CEOs are given some vaguely defined charter to try to do good for society.  Who knows what they might decide, and why should corporate money be used for anything other than developing and marketing better products, increasing market share, and increasing profits to the benefit of shareholders?  If American companies don’t focus on their business they are going to get their clocks cleaned by foreign competitors who are ruthlessly focused on the bottom line.  I also think that people who are upset with the Supreme Court’s recent campaign finance decision would be uncomfortable with Nooyi’s formulation.  If corporations are expected to advance social causes as part of their charter, they will have even more incentive to participate in political campaigns. Why should we encourage such behavior?

I think the better course is to adhere to the “maximizing shareholder value” model, which at least provides a measurable basis for evaluating CEO performance.  That model, however, also requires Boards of Directors to actually play a significant role in supervising the activities of the corporation, to insist that management focus on business issues, and to develop CEO compensation packages that assess value after an extended period — say three to five years — so as to discourage short-term conduct that causes long-term problems.

Audition Tape

My niece, Brittany, loves the TV show Glee and prepared her own audition tape for the show, which is posted on Youtube.  In the past, she has said that the Webnerhouse blog is boring, so maybe posting her audition video is a way to jazz it up.

Good luck, Brittany!  Let’s hope you hear from the producers!

Priorities, Priorities

Sports Illustrated is reporting that the Justice Department is considering whether to take some kind of action to determine if the Bowl Championship Series violates federal antitrust laws.

I don’t know whether the BCS violates antitrust laws, and frankly I don’t care.  Whether the college football national champion should be determined by a playoff as opposed to the current BCS process should be at the very bottom of the list of issues confronting our country.  The fact that people are still losing their jobs is important; the fact that TCU, Boise State, Cincinnati, and other teams did not have a chance to compete for the national championship is not.

I imagine that the letter described in the SI story is a political sop to those people who think the BCS is some kind of significant problem, and I doubt whether the Administration really will spend much time on this issue.  Still, perception is important.  If voters believe that the Administration is thinking about college football when it should be thinking about jobs, or that the Justice Department is focusing on sports playoffs when it should be focusing on terrorism, they won’t be happy come November.