Tuesday, April 21, 2009

They Think We're Stupid

When the Obama cabinet meets today, the President plans to ask them to find $100 million in government efficiency savings. That's a lot of money. Everyone in America knows that $100 million is a huge sum. Except it's not when you are dealing with the Federal Government. In the Federal budget scheme of things it is table sweepings, I'm afraid. In a nearly $4 trillion budget, $100 million disappears pretty fast.

If you are a $50,000 a year family and you were to economize in the same proportion that the President is suggesting, you would need to find $1.50 sometime this year that you did not spend. In other words, the amount being saved in this latest Presidential initiative is the equivalent of one large McDonald's soft drink to the average middle class family.

But it gets even worse. The President is not asking his cabinet to cut real spending. He is asking them to find cuts off the baseline, meaning that they cannot spend money that they wanted to spend, but really haven't spent yet. So, this is like the family saying, "At sometime this year we planned to buy a soft drink. We'll fore go that one soft drink in an effort to economize." Do you think your banker would buy that as a good faith exercise?

But you see, the White House thinks we're stupid. If they parade out a cabinet meeting and talk about cutting Federal spending, they think we will not know the difference between the trillions they are spending and the $100 million they are going to "save". When you say $100 million, it actually can sound to most people like more than $4 trillion. That's because the only numbers we can really comprehend are 100 and 4. Millions, billions, and trillions are unfathomable concepts for nearly everyone.

So, the White House is countering the Tea Parties that asked for less spending, less taxes and less debt with a phony public relations gimmick that will do next to nothing but will provide a speech point on the teleprompter for weeks to come. Listen for the speech line that says that the Obama Administration is clamping down on spending and in its first few weeks forced the departments of government to find $100 million in budget cuts. It will be true, sort of, but will be meaningless in the whole reality of President Obama's program of massive Federal intervention into the economy accompanied by massive new debt and deficit.

But the White House is counting on each of us. They're counting on us to be too stupid to notice the difference between $100 million of savings in projected spending and $1.7 trillion in real deficits this year.

Monday, April 13, 2009

An Opportunity Agenda

When our forefathers confronted revolutionary times, they created a system of governance that began with individuals rights and responsibilities. They structured government around individual worth and dignity. They distrusted the easy use of power and designed systems to assure appropriate checks and balances.

In our revolutionary times, the concepts that inspired our forefathers are still valid. What makes conservatives different from liberals is our belief in fundamental, long held principles as opposed to change to meet every new circumstance. But conservative principles have to be applied to modern problems in ways that assure political appeal. And so the first part of a vision for 21st Century conservative thought should be the creation of an opportunity agenda.

Opportunity agendas are not new. The poetry of the Declaration of Independence calls describes opportunity as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is that kind of broad agenda that can guide us today.

Opportunity can be an economic philosophy. Individuals empowered by the information tools of this era can accomplish remarkable things. They have more data at their fingertips than ever before in human history. That knowledge base can lead them to discoveries that create wealth, tangible and intangible. But creativity is stiffled by regulation, taxation and litigation. So fundamental to economic growth is a reliance on individual performance without burdening the individual with structural
impediments that reduce his or her ability to perform.

But economic opportunity also must be encouraged with strategies that prepare the individual to compete. Good education is a prerequisite. The present education system is failing us. It was designed for an economy which no longer exists. It prepared students to work on assembly lines or in large integrated bureaucracies. The idea of individual empowerment is lost in such an environment and the lowest common denominator rather than excellence becomes the norm. Witness what has happened in our urban schools to get an idea of the problem we have. But we could structure education differently with individual achievement and excellence as its goal.

Education in the 21st Century should stress individualized instruction and lifetime learning. Individualized instruction would be aided by the same information tools that will be instrumental in productive work in each person's future. But most important those tools would permit education to become exciting by channeling the educational programs to fit each student's personal interest. The boy who loves baseball or the girl who loves outer space could both be acccomodated with learning programs inside the same classroom. And the teacher, instead of being a communicator of information, would become a manager of information and would use the discoveries of each of the students to benefit the entire class. A very different environment than what we have now.

Add to individualized instruction, lifetime learning. Because no one can be expected to work his or her entire life in the same job during this century, we must establish a basis for constant relearning and development of new skills. The community education infrastructures should be used twenty-four/seven for all ages inside the community. Not only will such an education pattern improve community vitality, but it will make the financing mechanisms for education far more acceptable.

While opportunity is very much economic in its orientation, opportunity also extends to social and cultural issues. Respect for life, respect for individual differences, the exercise of individual responsibility, and the willingness to engage in civic activities meant to improve the broader community are also pieces of an opportunity agenda and strategy.

Opportunity is a way for conservatives to engage the entire electorate. Opportunity is nonpartisan and non-ideological. It does not seek to centralize power, but rather to disperse power. It requires educational reform. It guarantees the ability to succeed, but does not assure an outcome recognizing instead that risk is an ingredient of reward. These are all items of broad national appeal, but also items where we diverge substantially from liberal thinking. And therein lies our opportunity.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Interesting Times

Reserving the right to object, I think we fail to recognize the level of challenge we face in the outset of the 21st Century. We live in interesting times and we must be willing to look at new ways of addressing the challenges before us if we are to continue to lead. There are lessons from the past that can be valued, but the solutions of the past are likely inadequate to the future.

The reason for our dilemma is that revolution is sweeping away old theories and calculations. It has been at least two centuries since we have seen the kind of seismic change now underway. Two centuries ago we completely altered the theories of governance, ushered in a new economic presumption, wrestled with the advent of new technologies and saw significant cultural changes.

So it is today. Revolutions are occuring simultaneously in politics, economics, technology and culture. The politics of individual empowerment is making bureaucratic decision-making obsolete. The twin economic towers of information based value where intangibles compete with tangibles and the globalization of the economy makes competitors anywhere in world relevant mean that we can no longer use industrial age data and performance as our benchmarks. New technologies from computers to nano scaled material hold great promise but also create new problems. And cultural change brought on by mass immigration, religious intolerance and educational dysfunction are both worldwide and individual community questions.

Dealing with the Four Revolutions requires four leadership characteristics. Leaders must start with a vision that recognizes the full scope of the revolutionary climate. They must then design strategies that implement that vision. Only after a strategy has been developed can they successfully design the projects that allow the strategy to succeed. And the tactics required to implement the projects are the final piece of successful leadership.

The problem we see in government now is a focus on projects and tactics rather than grounding those things in a true strategy based on a real vision. The result is drift and dysfunction now matter who the leaders are. And when your whole program is basically tactical, the bitterness of the political battles becomes even more intense because the fights are at the narrowest points.

Therefore, if we think about the 21st Century there would seem to be four concepts around which to organize a vision and begin to address the reality of our challenges. The four vision concepts are opportunity, security, innovation and integrity. Each of the four must be seen in its broadest interpretation and it is that broad definition of each that I will discuss in future columns.