Archive for February, 2010

These days I self-identify as a Republican, but some of my best friends are Democrats.  Actually, as a function of the town where I live, virtually all of my best friends are Democrats.

So on behalf of my friends and on behalf of simple civility, I hereby call on all Republicans everywhere to abandon the contemptuous use of “Democrat” as an adjective.  If you need a handy analogy to understand why references such as “Democrat leaders” or “the Democrat Party” are offensive, consider the difference between the phrases, “he’s a Jewish boy” and “he’s a Jew boy.”  Or, if the problem is not that you are obnoxious, but rather merely that you are ignorant, a quick glance at the party’s official homepage will confirm that the correct usage is “Democratic Party.”

I associate the misuse of the term with Bob Dole, who famously made an ill-received reference to “Democrat wars” in his vice presidential debate with Walter Mondale in 1976.  [Interestingly, Wikipedia's lengthy entry tracing the ignoble history of "Democrat Party (phrase)" doesn't mention Dole.  But I digress.]

All of this came to mind as I prepared to approvingly post a passage by Andrew McCarthy in The Corner, describing why he believes the Democrats will use unusual parliamentary tactics to force through a health care bill opposed by a majority of Americans.  My annoyance at the first few words below caused me to spin off on this lexicographic tangent:

In the Democrat leadership, we are not dealing with conventional politicians for whom the goal of being reelected is paramount and will rein in their radicalism. They want socialized medicine and all it entails about government control even more than they want to win elections. After all, if the party of government transforms the relationship between the citizen and the state, its power over our lives will be vast even in those cycles when it is not in the majority. This is about power, and there is more to power than winning elections, especially if you’ve calculated that your opposition does not have the gumption to dismantle your ballooning welfare state.

I admire McCarthy, and I note that earlier in the very same paragraph (before the bit I quoted), he properly uses the term “Democratic leadership.”  So I’m choosing to interpret this as a typo.

I also hope his analysis is incorrect, and that the desire for re-election will sway enough Democrats [note correct usage of noun form] to sink Obamacare.  But I fear he may be right.

OK, Now I’m Less Bored With Health Care Summit


I couldn’t be bothered to watch the seven-plus-hour health care summit yesterday (given my new full-time job and all), but I still care about the subject.  Count on the blogosphere and the punditocracy to plow through all the raw material and offer up the best bits.

Hat tip to Peter Wehner at Commentary for flagging a strong performance by GOP Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. The six-minute clip above is worth watching — Ryan offers a fact-based, forceful-yet-respectful explanation of the impossible economics of Obamacare.

Don’t have six minutes?  Here’s a transcript of Ryan’s remarks, via the Washington Post‘s very helpful, comprehensive library of transcripts from every speaker.  And if you don’t want to bother with the transcript, here’s a sample (emphasis mine):

Look, we agree on the problem here. And the problem is health inflation is driving us off of a fiscal cliff.

Mr. President, you said health care reform is budget reform. You’re right. We agree with that. Medicare, right now, has a $38 trillion unfunded liability. That’s $38 trillion in empty promises to my parents’ generation, our generation, our kids’ generation. Medicaid’s growing at 21 percent each year. It’s suffocating states’ budgets. It’s adding trillions in obligations that we have no means to pay for it. …

And if you take a look at the CBO analysis, analysis from your chief actuary, I think it’s very revealing. This bill does not control costs. This bill does not reduce deficits. Instead, this bill adds a new health care entitlement at a time when we have no idea how to pay for the entitlements we already have.

The one-minute clip below is also nice — via Did I Miss Something.  The unlikely pair of Arianna Huffington and George Will reach an agreement, of sorts, on the best tactical approach for Democrats now.

Health Care Summit? I’m Bored.

Doesn’t the debate on Obamacare seem so last week already? This morning I tried to force myself to pay attention to today’s steel-cage Kabuki match at the White House.  I got as far as the headlines on the Washington Post homepage (highlighting mine).

Just as a matter of politics, I fail to understand why the administration is so intent on enacting, during an election year, legislation that is so overwhelmingly unpopular.  David Brooks, who generally admires Obama, gives the gruesome numbers:

If you average the last 10 polls, 38 percent of voters support the reform plans and 53 percent oppose. Obama’s reform is more unpopular than Bill Clinton’s was as it died.

Alvin Valentine describes his criminal past, as Evan Misshula and Jim McGreevey look on. Photo by Nina Nicholson.

Now that the Web Goddess is the head of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, I’ve been writing occasional articles for diocesan publications.  Recently I had the opportunity at a diocesan event to cover former NJ Gov. Jim McGreevey and two ex-cons as they discussed Exodus Transitional Community, which helps formerly incarcerated people make  a transition back into society.  An excerpt:

McGreevey is a member of the Newark Diocese’s Prison Ministry, and became involved with Exodus as part of his field education at General Theological Seminary, where he is seeking a Master of Divinity degree.

More statistics: 730,000 people walk out of prison every year.  One third of them will be back in jail in a year; two-thirds of them will be back in three years.  The prison system “engenders complete dependency as a means of satiating or controlling prisoners,” McGreevey said, and then spills them out into the job market with atrophied social skills and “the scarlet letter of a previous felony conviction.”  The current re-entry program, “such as it is, is a complete and utter failure.”

Read the whole thing.

I wasn’t blogging when McGreevey resigned in 2004, but if I had been, I would have had harsh words for his conduct.  Now I applaud him for this work.  Surely it’s in society’s best interest to improve the job prospects of people emerging from prison.

A Trifecta of Persuasive Punditry

I call myself a blogger, but I’m more like an essayist who uses blogging software.

Many of my posts start out as a simple idea and end up as 600-800 words.  (Except when they end up as 2,000 words.)  I think it’s a self-esteem issue — I’m concerned that someone will mock me, and have the facts on their side.  So I research and try to substantiate every nuance, and the word count grows. (I’m up to 77 so far!)  Then I run out of time or energy, resulting in no posts at all for a week at a time.

So let’s try a classic quickie blog post — little or no analysis from me, just recent quotes from three of my favorite pundits.  Krauthammer:

Leave it to Mickey Kaus, a principled liberal who supports health-care reform, to debunk these structural excuses: “Lots of intellectual effort now seems to be going into explaining Obama’s (possible/likely/impending) health care failure as the inevitable product of larger historic and constitutional forces. . . . But in this case there’s a simpler explanation: Barack Obama’s job was to sell a health care reform plan to American voters. He failed.”

He failed because the utter implausibility of its central promise — expanded coverage at lower cost — led voters to conclude that it would lead ultimately to more government, more taxes, and more debt. More broadly, the Democrats failed because, thinking the economic emergency would give them a political mandate and a legislative window, they tried to impose a left-wing agenda on a center-right country. The people said no, expressing themselves first in spontaneous demonstrations, then in public-opinion polls, then in elections — Virginia, New Jersey, and, most emphatically, Massachusetts.

That’s not a structural defect. That’s a textbook demonstration of popular will expressing itself — despite the special interests — through the existing structures. In other words, the system worked.

Victor Davis Hanson:

Those who accuse former Bush administration officials of criminality for having supported enhanced interrogation techniques are nearly silent about the ongoing and vastly increased targeted assassinations ordered by the Obama administration, and I for one am confused by this standard of attack.

If a suspected jihadist on the Afghan Pakistan border were to be asked his choice, he might very well prefer to be apprehended, transported to Guantanamo, and harshly interrogated rather than blown to bits along with any family and friends who happen to be in his vicinity.

To make things simpler, water-boarding the confessed architect of the murder of 3,000 innocents, on a moral scale, seems less atrocious than executing suspected terrorists, as we are now doing. Since the easy denunciations of criminality are moral rather than legal — no one has actually convicted a John Yoo or a Dick Cheney of anything — surely we should hear something about these capital sentences handed down from the sky on those who, quite unlike KSM, are suspected, rather than confessed, killers.

And Andrew McCarthy (profiled in the New York Times):

“A war is a war,” Mr. McCarthy declared. “A war is not a crime, and you don’t bring your enemies to a courthouse.”

In the debate over how and where to prosecute Mr. Mohammed and other Sept. 11 cases, few critics of the Obama administration have been more fervent in their opposition than Mr. McCarthy, a 50-year-old lawyer from the Bronx who had built a reputation as one of the country’s formidable terrorism prosecutors.

Now he has a different reputation: harsh critic of the system in which he had his greatest legal triumph.

Mr. McCarthy has relentlessly attacked the administration for supporting civilian justice for terrorism suspects. He has criticized the military commissions system and called for creation of a national security court. After the arrest of the suspect in the Christmas bomb plot, he wrote, “Will Americans finally grasp how insane it is to regard counterterrorism as a law-enforcement project rather than a matter of national security?”

Argghh… 659 words.  But I only had to write about 150 of them!

Vice President Joe Biden has come under fire for telling Larry King last week that:

… progress in Iraq “could be one of the great achievements of this administration.”

“You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer,” he said. “You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government.”

By the time I became aware of this, the pile-on had already started.  I held off on commenting because it seemed like all the interesting rhetorical gambits had already been played.

Max Boot looked on the bright side:

Some might dismiss this as chutzpah from someone who, like Barack Obama, opposed the surge needed to stabilize the situation in Iraq. But, brazen or not, it’s great to see the Obama administration taking ownership of Iraq and realizing that simply pulling out all our troops can’t be the sole goal of our policy there.

Yes, except I don’t think an unscripted comment from Biden,  a walking gaffe machine, is necessarily a reflection of the administration’s thinking.

Over at The Corner, Peter Kirsanow had the cleverest humorous take:

[T]he administration’s achievement is no more astounding than Bull Connor’s passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Kruschev’s reunification of Germany, or Jefferson Davis’s preservation of the Union.

But after thinking about it for several days, I started to realize that Biden was right.

Bear with me here, and think about the fact that after more than a year in office, the Obama administration has not screwed up what the Bush administration achieved in Iraq.  Of course, when you put it that way, it sounds kind of dismissive toward Obama.  But I assert that “not screwing up Iraq” is a non-trivial achievement — and certainly a much better outcome than many of us feared before the election.

Now compare that with the other achievements of Obama’s first year in office:

  • Health care? No.
  • Cap and trade? No.
  • Unemployment? No.

Well, he did successfully nationalize two of the Big Three automakers.   [Update: Not to mention porkulus!] Hm… what’s the opposite of an achievement?

All kidding aside, there is one arena where Obama has an opportunity for a genuinely great achievement: Afghanistan, where the administration is attempting to replicate the strategy that was so successful in Iraq.  From the New York Times:

For much of the past eight years, American and NATO forces have mounted other large military operations to clear towns and cities of Taliban insurgents. And then, almost invariably, they have cleared out, never leaving behind enough soldiers or police officers to hold the place on their own.

And so, almost always, the Taliban returned — and, after a time, so did the American and NATO troops, to clear the place all over again.

“Mowing the grass,” the soldiers and Marines derisively call it.

This time, in Marja, the largest Taliban stronghold, American and Afghan commanders say they will do something they have never done before: bring in an Afghan government and police force behind them. American and British troops will stay on to support them. “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in,” said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American commander here.

There are no guarantees, of course — the Afghan “surge” may fail.  But if it does succeed — and as in Iraq, I define “success” in Afghanistan as a reasonably stable, reasonably self-sufficient, democratic government allied with the United States — then I’ll be happy to give Obama credit for that achievement.

Honest Labor: From Mach 2 to Muenster to Madison

(Welcome, Maplewood Patch readers, and thanks to Mary Mann for the kind words.)

A summer evening in 1995: My boss’s boss, a Merrill Lynch executive who has never called me at home, calls me at home.  His opening line still ranks in my mind as one of the most interesting possible ways to start a business conversation:  “Kirk, do you have a passport?”

It turns out I do.  “OK, pack a bag, you’re getting on the Concorde to London in the morning.  We’re buying a British firm, and you’re going to write the script for the press conference.”

A September morning in 2009: The manager of the local supermarket flips through my application, which discloses work experience and a salary history he’s not used to seeing.  Plus there’s the whole Princeton thing.

He says, “all I have to offer is a job in the deli. Are you sure about this?”

It’s an excellent question, and the answer isn’t obvious, even to me.  But I manage to convince both of us.

The Concorde was surprisingly cramped inside. The main thing that distinguished the experience from a puddle-jumping commuter plane was the digital display at the front of the cabin, which indicated we topped out at Mach 2 (over 1,300 mph) and 60,000 feet.

I had been told to pack for three days, but I ended up staying for 10.  Those were flush times on Wall Street, and Merrill’s executives and support Gumbys alike were all housed at The Dorchester, widely considered one of the world’s finest hotels.  (I suppose it is — they certainly kept up with my laundry needs.)

The target company was called Smith New Court.  Late one night, at a crucial juncture of the negotiations, it became necessary to briefly evict the Smith New Court personnel from the giant Dorchester suite where the talks were being held, so the Merrill team could confer by speaker phone with other executives in New York.  The Smithies needed a place to cool their heels, and the hotel’s business center was closed.

I was in my single room down the hall, casually dressed and thinking about bed, when there came a knock at my door.  Suddenly a wave of bespoke-suited Brits came flooding into the room, including the top two executives of Smith New Court, herded by a junior member of the Merrill team.

Padding around in my bare feet, I served sodas and spring water from the minibar and tried to make everyone at home.  Nervous laughter and small talk ensued for half an hour or so.  Then the negotiations resumed, and a billion-dollar deal was struck.

There were more trips to London that summer, and over the next dozen years, various employers and clients sent me to Tokyo, Cologne, Shanghai and Cleveland.  (I was able to squeeze in an Indians game — Jacobs Field is as nice as they say it is.)

I was the speechwriter for a CEO, I edited internal websites for two huge companies, I prepped executives for Congressional testimony, I helped clients spin bankruptcies, regulatory issues and involuntary CEO transitions.  I developed a taste for custom shirts, car service and single-malt whiskey.

For a job that pays $10 an hour, the deli counter gig wasn’t bad.  Probably the worst part was having to stand on my aging feet throughout a six-hour shift, except for a 15-minute break.  That, and cleaning the goo off the cheese slicer at closing time.

I generally enjoyed waiting on customers, most of whom responded well to a cheerful smile.  I learned that even though customers usually want their roast beef “sliced thin,” you have to set the slicer thicker than for turkey.  I discovered that low-sodium ham isn’t bad, but low-fat cheese tastes like glue.  Management wanted us to up-sell, so I said “would you like some salad with that?” and flattered myself that I was honing my marketing skills.  At one time or another, at least three fellow employees asked some variation of “how old are you, anyway?”

I had started my own consulting business in 2007, and I did pretty well for a while.  Then I did OK for a while.  Then the economy imploded, and after having virtually no income for a year, it had become clear that my entrepreneurial experiment was, at the very least, ill-timed.

I applied for dozens of full-time communications jobs while I was trying to drum up clients, and it was hard to decide which was more depressing — forcing myself to network with people who weren’t going to do business with me, or crafting thoughtful cover letters to hiring managers who weren’t going to interview me.  The guilty knowledge that I “should be doing more” repeatedly collided with the paralyzing reality that nothing in particular had to be done today.

At 51 (which is not old, dammit!), I’ve learned some hard things about the job market.  It turns out that if the job description calls for “8-10 years of experience” in a role, that’s not really a minimum — it’s more like a maximum.

It turns out that “overqualified” is code for “too old.”  (I’ve promised myself that the next time a potential employer tells me I’m overqualified, I’m going to offer to work below my full capacity.)

I kind of dared myself into applying for the supermarket job.  While commiserating with another idle consultant about the work we did back in the day, I heard myself saying, “at this point, I can’t imagine turning down any job at any salary.”

The instant I said it, I started wondering whether I really meant it.  When I saw the words “Now hiring!” on my supermarket receipt, it was time to put up or shut up.

The supermarket manager, naturally, said I was overqualified.  If the line had come to me in time, I would have said “I’ve never worked retail before — maybe I’m underqualified.”  The manager looked to be about my age, maybe he felt some kinship.  For whatever reason, he gave me a shot.

As it turned out, I was only there three months.  My new gig is a step up in both status and pay.  On January 4 I became the parish administrator of Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, NJ.  I’m now responsible for producing four weekly service bulletins and running the busy office at one of the largest Episcopal churches in North Jersey.

I got the position the old-fashioned way — through family connections.  Up until a few months ago, it had been the Web Goddess’s job for five years.

My beloved left Grace Church after she parlayed her years of self-taught website work and her knowledge of all things Episcopal into a newly created job, as Director of Communications and Technology for the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, which includes 108 parishes in northern New Jersey.  She has quickly started raising the profile of the diocese by redesigning a weekly newsletter and leveraging social media, while supporting the bishop’s communications activities.  It’s her first professional venture into the arena where I’ve played for 30 years, and she’s a natural talent.

So, let’s review: My wife landed a job in my field when I couldn’t.  Now I have the admin job she held before her promotion.  How’s the ol’ ego holding up, Kirk?

Well, negotiations with my ego are continuing.  Ironically, each recent improvement in my income has brought fresh challenges for my self esteem.

For most of 2009 I was entirely supported by my wife’s income and savings.  By any objective measure, a part-time supermarket job was a step up from unemployment, and I made a conscious choice to take pride in my work.  But it took a while to get used to being spotted by friends in my white coat and funny hat.  The Web Goddess aptly called it a “survival job,” and I used that term as protective cover.

The full-time church job feels more like a career transition.  It also feels like an abandonment of the conceit that I’m a primary bread-winner who belongs in a globe-trotting world.  I’m not sure I would have been open to taking the job if I had not just spent three months slicing cheese and cleaning up.

It helps — a lot — that I like the people I’m working with, and I care about the organization.  For more than a decade the Web Goddess and I have found fulfillment and a powerful sense of community at our home parish of St. George’s Episcopal, and Grace is a similar environment in many ways.  I see and feel the spiritual nourishment that Grace provides to its parishioners, and I feel privileged to have an opportunity to help.

I don’t expect I’ll be there until retirement, but the priest who is now my boss asked, quite reasonably, for a one-year commitment, so I’m not looking for jobs in 2010.  (Part-time projects in my off hours are another matter… let me know if I can help your business or organization meet your communications needs.)

Long ago I learned that job satisfaction does not primarily depend on how much money you make, or the type of work you do, or the prestige of the organization you serve.  In 12 years at Merrill Lynch I played several different roles while my income steadily grew, and I went through cycles of being both energized and miserable.

No, the most important factor in job satisfaction is whether you get along with your immediate boss.  It’s still early days at Grace, but I’m liking my chances, working for a woman of the cloth.  (In the words of the prominent Episcopal theologian Robin Williams, “Male and female God created them; male and female we ordain them.”)

In addition to a paycheck, my new job provides support for my spiritual infrastructure.  It helps me focus on living one day at a time, and on being grateful for all the blessings in my life.

And I am richly blessed.  I’m safe, and healthy, and in love with my wife.  I’m a United States citizen, having won that lottery the day I was born. I have a fixed-rate mortgage, and positive equity in a comfortable house in a nice town.  Around the world, billions of people would trade places with me in a heartbeat.

The job gives me a reason to get out the door in the morning, and I look forward to arriving at the office.  I’m doing real work that needs to be done, and I stretch myself to meet deadlines. People are counting on me, and I get recognized when I do good work.

If things get hectic, across the hall from the office is a … sanctuary … where I can seek through prayer and meditation to improve my conscious contact with God.  Staff meetings end with the words “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

I may never again make the kind of money I made a few short years ago, but I won’t have that kind of pressure, either.  Not that it’s a slow-paced job — there are more than 1,000 parishioners, four Sunday bulletins in two different liturgies, a Eucharist or prayer service every day of the year, multiple tenants in a large physical plant, an office that buzzes with activity.  The Web Goddess set a high standard of efficiency and excellence, and all the details seem overwhelming sometimes.

But it’s not the corporate world.  After letting a detail slip one day, I told the Rector I was used to an environment where I’d be crucified for a minor transgression like that.  She replied, “we think one crucifixion was enough — we focus more on redemption.”

Amen.

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