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.

The Sad Decline Of Office Coffee Consumption

Yesterday at the office I went to get a cup of coffee at about 9 a.m. and saw, to my slight surprise, that the pot I had made an hour or so earlier had remained untouched by any other person on the floor.  It brought home the fact that fewer and fewer people, at our firm at least, drink coffee brewed at the coffee stations on their floors.

When I started at the firm, my office was on a floor of serious coffee junkies.  The rule was that you brewed a pot if you were the first person in to the office in the morning, and woe betide the individual who left a mostly empty pot on the burner so that the remnants would turn first to thick sludge and then to a rock hard coating on the bottom of the pot.  Our three-burner coffee station was kept working from morning to night and people guzzled coffee throughout the workday.  The office coffee matrons sprinted from floor to floor to stay up with the overwhelming demand.  Even at 6 or 7 p.m. there was a fresh pot ready to be consumed by the lawyer cranking out a brief or putting finishing touches on a deal.

No more.  Now, pots of coffee get brewed and then barely get touched, and fewer and fewer pots get brewed in the first place.  I still drink the “firm coffee,” and I feel like an endangered species.  I’m not sure that there is anyone else on the floor who drinks more than a half cup a day.

Why is that?  Some of it may be health concerns; I seem to recall hectoring news stories saying that drinking too much coffee (like overconsumption of just about everything) is bad for you.  I have noticed more people walking around with water bottles or energy drinks or cans of Coke.  I also see people sauntering by with Starbucks cups, so no doubt some folks have stopped drinking firm coffee with the rise, on every corner, of tony coffee shops that offer expensive, sugary concoctions.  The simple unflavored black coffee offered at the firm may just be fighting a losing battle against the appalling coffee snobbery that is sweeping the nation.

These kinds of minor social changes are interesting and inevitable in ever-changing modern America.  Still, I miss the old days, when the fourth floor of the 68 building was proud of its robust coffee consumption and it was commonplace to meet a fellow lawyer at the coffee station and have a quick chat as you each poured the next cup of joe.

What the Heck Are you Up to Mr. President ?

A few weeks ago I was checking out the newly published books at the Upper Arlington library and I came across one with the title mentioned above written by Kevin Mattson. To my surprise someone had written a book on Jimmy Carter, America’s Malaise and His Speech That Should Have Changed the Country.

I knew Bob had written a blog on the speech back during the summer and I also know that Bob tends to write his political blogs with a bit of a slant to the right so I thought I would read up on the issues surrounding the speech myself. What a truly fascinating book this was ! I highly recommend it to anyone that would like to revisit not only what happened during that time, but what could still happen today with our dependence on foreign oil.

As the book mentions the 70’s was the “me decade”, people lived their lives to excess with “unrestrained consumerism” and “mindless self-indulgence” . President Carter had tried several times in speeches to warn American’s that there was going to be an energy crisis if we all didn’t try to cut back and conserve, but people just wouldn’t listen to him.

So what happened in the early summer of 1979 is Iran stopped shipments of oil to the United States which in turn caused a shortage of gasoline, however most Americans still believed that the gas crisis was a BIG CON. The gasoline shortage caused many gas stations to close and those that were open would have long lines. Fear started to spread and there were incidents of shooting, property damage and personal injury.

The president was planning on giving another speech on energy in early July of 1979, but his pollster was seeing a growing pessimism amongst the people. So Carter decided to ask for input from eight governors and after that meeting he sought counsel from an even wider array of prominent citizens, businessmen, labor leaders and religious leaders. He also went to the homes of several average American’s and they all said the same thing, there was tremendous political apathy in the country, a loss of faith in public institutions, a disrespect for government, churches and schools.

So Carter felt the need to give the “Crisis of Confidence” speech. I’ve included a clip of the speech below. Immediately after the speech there was overwhelming support for what the President had to say and his approval ratings rose 11% over night. I think the thing that I found most interesting about the speech was that some of the issues and recommendations Carter touched on are still relevant today.

As he said in his speech “we’ve got to stop crying and start sweating, stop talking and start walking, stop cursing and start praying. The strength we need will not come from the White House, but from every house in America. 

The Single Digits

After a brief warming spell where we flirted with the 50s, the weather in the Columbus area has turned very cold again.  Today, when I took my morning walk, the temperature was 8 degrees.

Temperature is all relative, but when the thermometer dips to the single digits it feels like a change in kind and not just in degree.  The cold has a more brutal, invasive quality.  It seeps through your jeans and attacks any bit of exposed skin, and even a slight breeze makes it seem like your face is being sliced with razors.  Your nostrils freeze and your cheeks grow numb and your eyes dry out.  When you finally get back home and out of the elements, it takes a while to lose the tingle of cold.

About the only positive thing about the single digits is that they are a great inducement to speed up your walk, generate more internal heat, and return more quickly to the beckoning warmth of home and a steaming cup of coffee.

Respect For The Tribunal

I must candidly admit that I fell asleep during President Obama’s SOTU speech last night, so I didn’t witness, in real time, the President calling out the Supreme Court on its recent campaign finance ruling.  However, I’ve seen tapes of the President’s remarks (and Justice Alito’s reaction ) and I think the President acted improperly.

Perhaps the Supreme Court shouldn’t even attend the SOTU speech.  The Court is a non-political entity; when the Justices attend they sit there in their robes, listening respectfully but not applauding, a kind of living and stolid embodiment of the third branch of government.  I can’t remember a State of the Union speech where the President has ever directly challenged a Supreme Court decision.  Calling out the Court as the President did — knowing that the Court will make no response — is like a bully tormenting a kid in a wheelchair.  It is not particularly brave to taunt someone who can’t possibly respond.  For that reason, the President’s comments in that regard seemed like cheap political theatrics, and a bit presumptuous.

The Supreme Court is a limited, careful institution.  It decides actual controversies and often elects not to accept cases that have overt political elements.  The Court would never presume to reach out and issue an advisory opinion about, say, whether a statute that exempted Nebraska from ever paying for increased in Medicaid costs passes constitutional muster.  The Supreme Court has tried, and for the most part succeeded, in staying within its constitutional role.  The President should respect that role.  Last night, President Obama unfortunately failed to do so.  I wouldn’t blame our Supreme Court Justices if they skipped the SOTU from now on.

A Heartfelt SOTU Wish

I really dislike the State of the Union speech.  Has there ever been a truly memorable State of the Union speech?  In my adult lifetime, at least, they have uniformly been dull, much too long, and a grab-bag of turgid policy proposals tossed in to please various special interest groups and then quickly forgotten.  Who can sit for an hour or more and listen to a President rattle on about investment tax credits, or off-shore drilling, or whatever program suggestion has been submitted by the Secretary of Education or the Secretary of Health and Human Services?

If I had only one wish, however, it would be that President Obama start the speech by asking Members of Congress to refrain from any applause until the speech is over.  Nothing is more annoying than the forced and phony “standing ovations” and “speech interrupted by applause” incidents during the speech.  We would all be better off if the assembled dignitaries just sat on their hands, listened respectfully, and then filed quietly out of the House chamber, so that we can all get back to our lives (and our regularly scheduled programming) as quickly as possible.

Bertha Webner

January 20 was the birthday of Bertha Webner, my paternal grandmother.  She lived well into her 90s and, when she finally went to join her sisters in the Great Beyond, left some indelible memories for me and her other friends and relatives.

Bertha Webner, in her later years

Gramma Webner was one of those people who exemplified the complexities, and contradictions, of the human spirit.  She was a fun, supportive person with a great sense of humor who was always patient with and encouraging to her grandchildren.  She could laugh at herself, and the photo attached to this posting aptly captures the twinkle in her eyes and ready smile on her lips.  At the same time, however, she was a judgmental person who could slice you into ribbons for a badly played bridge hand or a refusal to go to church on a pretty Sunday morning.  At times, her sharp comments about cooking or housekeeping would reduce her daughters-in-law to tears.

Her life story is an interesting one.  Born to a large family in Uhrichsville, Ohio, she was close to her four sisters, who knew her as “Buss.”  Her life changed forever in her childhood, when she suffered an accident on a playground.  She was up in the air on a teeter-totter when the child at the bottom stepped off; she came crashing to the ground and her hip was shattered.  The doctors in her small town set the bone in a way that left one leg permanently shorter than the other.  For the rest of her life, Gramma wore special shoes, one of which had a five or six-inch raised heel, walked with a pronounced hitch in her step, and was in constant discomfort.

She didn’t let her physical condition bother her, however.  She had obvious musical talent, learned how to play piano “by ear,” and went to Bethany College to study music.  Sixty years later, she could still entertain everyone at family gatherings with her piano playing.  She played the piano for hours at Mom and Dad’s Ohio State football game parties and in the get-together the night before Kish and I were married.  I’ve met many people with amazing talents and abilities, but Gramma’s ability to play the piano “by ear” ranks pretty high on the list.  You could simply hum a song and she could convert it into a beautifully rendered piece that people just wanted to sing along to — whether they could sing or not.

She married my grandfather, had three sons, reared them during the Great Depression, and saw all three sons get advanced degrees.  She was a wonderful cook who made great, old-fashioned comfort food like baked chicken, mashed potatoes, and tapioca pudding.  The kitchen in her home on Emma Avenue in Akron, Ohio was a wonderful place for a kid, filled with mouth-watering smells and all sorts of pots, pans, spoons, and utensils to play with.  For years, it was a family tradition for every birthday to be celebrated with an angel food cake that Gramma baked — a cake that was always partially collapsed on one side, to be (unsuccessfully) filled in by an extra lathering of sugary icing.

My grandfather got lung cancer when he was in his sixties, and she nursed him in their house as the disease took its inevitable, horrible toll.  After Grampa died, she picked up and moved back to Uhrichsville to be with her sisters; they spent their days playing cards, gossiping with friends, going to church, and having Sunday brunch at the old Buckeye Hotel.  Still later, after her sisters died, she moved to Reston, Virginia, where my uncle and aunt and their family lived.  At that time, Kish and I were living in Washington, D.C., and on Saturdays we would go to her retirement complex and take her out to lunch.  During those lunches she loved to share a laugh and a good story about family members — the more salacious, the better.

While she lived in Reston she had to be hospitalized, and everyone expected the worst.  Her indomitable spirit carried her through, however, and during our visits she delighted Kish and me with her funny stories about the weird happenings and odd smells at the nursing home where she regained her health.  There is no doubt in my mind that her sense of humor was one of the reasons she recovered quickly from a debilitating condition, even though she was in her 80s.  She ultimately left the nursing home and moved back into her apartment at the retirement community, where she was later named Woman of the Year.  When, well into her 90s, her heart and her health finally began to fail her, she was comforted by her strong religious faith and happy that she would soon be seeing her sisters who, she was sure, were waiting for her in a better place.

It’s hard to capture a person in a short blog posting, but I am not sure that I could capture Gramma in a tome the length of War and Peace.  I just know that when I see her picture every morning I smile.

Global Warming And Congressional Spending

CBS News has posted an interesting report on how much American taxpayers spent to send certain members of Congress, their family members, and assorted staffers to the recent “Copenhagen Climate Summit” that produced lots of hot air but no meaningful agreement.  According to the congressional spending reports cited in the CBS piece, at last 106 people from the House and Senate attended.  Each of the 21 Representatives who attended spent $2,200 a day in food and lodging; taxpayers also footed the bill for meeting rooms and $1,000 a night hospitality suites.  When a CBS producer tried to ask House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about the bill, she refused to talk about it.  In addition to the massive delegation from Congress, the Obama Administration itself sent 60 more people to Copenhagen, adding to the overall taxpayer cost.

Members of Congress may talk in heartfelt terms about the recession, but their conduct shows they either don’t really understand or just don’t care.  I’m not clear why any members of Congress needed to attend the “Summit,” much less dozens of them, plus spouses, kids, and hangers-on.  Why should taxpayers pay for Speaker Pelosi’s husband to take a quick jaunt to Denmark to rub elbows with the likes of Hugo Chavez and other “climate change leaders”?  At a time when so many Americans have lost their jobs and their homes and are eating Ramen noodles for dinner, how can Congressmen justify spending $2,200 a day for food and lodging — more than many Americans make in a month — and then support a Speaker who refuses to even answer questions about such wasteful spending?

Premature Polling

On Sunday, the Columbus Dispatch and other Ohio newspapers reported on the Ohio Newspaper Poll results for the likely 2010 Ohio governor’s race, between incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland and Republican challenger John Kasich.  The poll indicates that Kasich leads Strickland, 51 to 45 percent.  The Akron Beacon Journal story on the poll is here.

I don’t think such early polls mean much.  Ohio’s election is 10 months from now, which is an eternity in the fast-paced world of modern politics.  Most people haven’t focused on the election or the candidates.  I doubt if many people outside of central Ohio really know much about John Kasich, who used to represent one of the two congressional districts in the Columbus area, and I doubt if many people anywhere could tell you what he proposes to do if he is elected governor.  For Governor Strickland, who is more of a known commodity statewide, the primary question is what the economy, and the state budget, will look like when November rolls around.  If Ohio’s economy continues to stumble, that obviously will hurt Strickland’s chances.

I suppose the only real point of these early polls — aside from providing a story for the participating newspapers on a rainy Sunday in January — is to allow the candidates to raise money.  Kasich can tell potential supporters that he has a great opportunity to be elected if he just gets their support, and cite this poll as support.  Strickland, on the other hand, can go to his contributors and argue that he needs their help to hold the Ohio governorship for the Democrats.  The voters, meanwhile, largely go about their lives, blissfully ignorant of polls and the impending onslaught of campaign ads.