Only In America

I know that I have been absent from my blog for quite some time. The summer has a way of keeping me from doing anything that resembles work. As we spend our last week in Cape Cod before returning to the reality of Boston, we have been been blessed by the best weather imaginable and a dearth of houseguests, finally.

Into this bliss comes the intrusion of yet another “Only in America” moment. This latest moment is the accidental killing of a weapons instructor by a nine year old girl firing an Uzi for fun. All this in the presence of her doting parents who were so proud of their daughter that they videotaped the whole thing. That’s the good news. Aside from the killing the bad news is the scarring of a child. I suspect that this child may have already had issues given the outstanding level of parental supervision.

No, I am not about to go on a rant about gun laws and the ridiculousness of giving private citizens the right to own and use military weapons. I have already discussed my views on this matter at length. The reality is that from a legal perspective, everyone from the innocent child, to the instructor, to the owners of Bullets and Burgers acted in a completely legal manner. These individuals acted within their legal rights as defined by legislatures and courts throughout our nation. While some of us may wish to quip about people in Nevada, the reality is that the parents of the child are from the Blue State of New Jersey. Also, according to Trip Advisor, Bullets and Burgers is the number one tourist attraction in Las Vegas. Apparently many people like to play with Uzis and grenade launchers.

Some have blamed the instructor for carelessness. While that may be the case, The instructor didn’t bring the child 2,500 miles to play with weapons of war.

My question is, what exactly led a nine year old to be holding and firing a military weapon with automatic firing capability? As the parent of two daughters of similar ages I have spent much of the past two days trying to imagine the process through which parents brought a nine year old to Las Vegas to play with an Uzi.

Perhaps this girl begged her parents to bring her. “I hear that Las Vegas is beautiful in August. there’s so much for kids to do and even though I’m not tall enough to go on the roller coaster at New York, New York, we can at least play with an Uzi or two. Thats so much better than going to the beach!” Unlikely.

Or perhaps these parents were just a couple of over-worked, under-vacationed parents (typical Americans) who wanted to go on their annual holiday to a place that they could drink, gamble, and work out some of their frustrations at the range with a grenade or two. What to do with the child? What the heck, bring her along. Nothing like some adult fun! Maybe.

Of course this child could have been the off spring of a couple of individuals who find themselves living in a country with a Black President, in a state with many Blacks, Latinos, Asians, etc. This child may have been the child of people who see government as the enemy and a need to “be prepared to defend their liberties”. Perhaps these parents felt a need to teach their child to be ready to protect what’s “her’s”. Hopefully this isn’t what happened but if I was asked to place a bet, it would be on this scenario. Sadly we see that the number of people with these beliefs seem to be on the rise. After all why did legal gun sales spike in the years following the election of Obama?

So we have a person dead for absolutely no reason. We have a nine year old permanently scarred by her killing of another human being. Of course, its possible that she was already damaged goods.

I know that everyone operated legally.

Can anyone tell me where the common sense is?

Can anyone tell me where the parenting is?

How Not to Run a Restaurant

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Having worked many years in the service sector, I have learned at least one thing. Your customers have options and you need to try really hard to make your business THEIR option!

As the wrap up of the HKS mid career year continues deep into its second month, an intimate group of 45 or so descended upon the Living Room in Boston the other night.

I have spent much of this year organizing dinners with my classmates. Its been a great way to get to know as many of them as possible. It’s also been a great way to get to know some of the better restaurants of my newly adopted hometown.

These dinners have run the gamut from four people at the best Japanese restaurant I’ve ever been to, to 35 people having BBQ and booze in large quantities in a basement. It’s been a great experience all around and each dinner was fun and easy to organize. That is until the other night.

With so many of my classmates staying in town post graduation we decided to have one last dinner. As of a week ago we had 50 people wanting to join. I wondered where could I make a booking for 50 on short notice. After a bit of research, I came upon the Living Room.

When I called I was greeted by a friendly and accommodating person. After about a minute I was informed that they indeed could accommodate 50. I should have questioned what kind of place could accommodate so many on such short notice but I was happy to have a place.

Then things got more and more difficult:

The next day I was told that we must use a prix fixe menu. No big deal thats normal for a large group

The following day they told me we needed to preselect our appetizers and our desserts.

The day after that we were told that we all had to have the same dessert.

The day before the dinner I was told that I had to guarantee the maximum amount, that i couldn’t add anyone that I hadn’t already confirmed and I was liable for the maximum number.

It seems that the manager, John wanted to be totally riskless with a group that was going to fill his restaurant on a Tuesday night. I balked and we came to something of a compromise.

The dinner was actually quite a success. The company was as always excellent. Great conversation and laughs. The food was pretty good even if some of us didn’t get exactly what we PRE ordered. The venue was kind of cool. The best part about it is that it has its own ATM.

Why was that the best part? Well, John had a bit of an issue with us paying with multiple credit cards. The story was that the “system” couldn’t handle it. Now we’ve had groups in excess of 30 at least five times and this has never been an issue. It usually involves me managing the process but heck everyone has a skill. After about 20 minutes of trying, John looked at me and said, “If I had known that you were going to try to pay with more than one credit card I would have refused the reservation.” He said this to someone who just spent $3,000 in his restaurant on a night that otherwise would have been virtually dead. We than began the pride of HKS Alumni to the ATM.

I can only wonder what he would have done if a party of 20 had walked in without a reservation!

Its a shame that I felt compelled to write this negative review about what was essentially a good meal at a reasonable price.

Moral of the story is that the Living Room needs a new manager.

PS: Kudos to Amy who was pleasant and helpful regardless of what her boss did or said.

 

School’s Out

About five years ago, I was chatting with a friend of mine who was and is a tenured New York City public schools teacher. I asked her,” Have you ever worked with anyone who just wasn’t a very good teacher?” To my astonishment she replied, “No!”  Expressing my surprise I then told her that, “It must be amazing to work in a profession in which EVERYONE is good at their jobs. Heck, I worked in finance for 20 years and even at Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, every year some people get terminated due to poor performance.” I am still waiting for her response to that comment.

This week California Superior Court judge Rolf M. Treu gave my friend and many of her fellow teachers an answer. Judge Rolf ruled in Vergara v. California that California laws governing teacher tenure were unconstitutional. Furthermore, he stated that the results of these laws were unconscionable and perhaps most importantly he drew a bright red line that connects tenure rules to discrimination against low income and minority students stating that the rules create an environment in which the weakest teachers migrate to the poorest schools. While this case is likely to be appealed, it is more likely to serve as a template to overturn tenure rules across America.

Before I extol this ruling, I feel the need to make two things “Perfectly Clear”. First I am the product of a union household. I strongly believe that labor MUST be organized to offset the power of large employers. This is especially true for wage negotiations. Secondly, I have the utmost respect for teachers. For the most part, they do an excellent job educating our children in a country where the role of education has grown and evolved in the past generation. Teachers are not just expected to teach reading and writing but in many cases they have to teach social skills and manage children who get little or no guidance at home. For a good teacher this is anything but a 9 to 3 job.

While the need for unions remains high, the reasons for tenure are no longer very clear.  During the McCarthy era people across many professions lost their jobs due to their beliefs. Since that time not only have Americans (well most Americans) become more tolerant but there has been significant legislation that prevents discrimination on the grounds of race or gender. These additional protections in many cases overlap with tenure, mitigating the need for the latter.

A couple of years ago I realized that my own views on teachers unions and on tenure in particular were evolving. I was no longer dogmatic in my support of both. Now, keep in mind that in many ways I am a typical union supporter. From New York, a Democrat/Liberal, and Jewish, people like me have been supporters of unions for generations. But something was wrong in this case. As evidenced by my conversation with my friend, there was a complete lack of acceptance of any fallibility on the part of teachers and their union.

So now, the tide is shifting and quickly. Many former supporters of teacher unions are no longer so. Even more challenging is many of these “flippers” are highly educated, wealthy, urban individuals, who won’t hesitate to spend their money and influence to force a change in the rules. The California case was financed by an organization called Students Matter which was in large part funded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welsh. Many of his fellow entrepreneurs as well as Hedge Fund managers, Private Equity managers, and other successful individuals want improvement in education and see teacher quality along with length of instruction time as the most important levers to achieve that. In short there is now a developing but significant counterbalance to teacher unions power and influence.

Now, I don’t believe that the correct answer is to eliminate teacher tenure or teacher unions. What I do believe is that all parties need a common sense, procedural justice based set of rules that govern teacher hiring, promotion, compensation, and ultimately retention. If were are to have the education system that we ALL want, then we must have all participants involved in creating a process in which we hire, evaluate, and retain the best teachers that we can get.

It will be very important to have a balanced evaluation process that considers not only standardized test scores, but also on other measures including following years student performance. content design skills, and classroom evaluations. This should support a well defined set of rules that will let everyone know how to get promoted or terminated.

Almost every teacher I know is passionate about educating children.  I would think that good teachers would want to be surrounded by other individuals who are as committed and passionate as they are.

It is time for teachers to move their unions to act for change. Although the California ruling weakens the negotiating stance of teacher unions, it is likely that the legal environment will become more rather than less difficult. Acting now, teachers can lead the move to a set of standards that work for ALL constituents in our education system. Or, they can let the justice system make them individual contractors who have few rights and little security.

I don’t want that for my children.

My Two Cents on the Donald Sterling Turnover

So aside from my annoyance on the amount of time spent on an old man reverting to form, I have a couple of thoughts on how to resolve the Donald Sterling situation.

For those of you who are not-Americans or are Americans who don’t have cable, internet, or electricity, America has spent the past five days talking about an 80 year old former personal injury lawyer who in private conversations with his 31 year old African-American/Hispanic mistress made racists comments about blacks.

The issues in the above paragraph are too many to mention. Sterling, for example is not divorced from his wife. No one seems fussed by that fact. How did the private conversation become public? Sterling has done this before. Oops.

My point is that while his behavior is clearly reprehensible, perhaps we should not be surprised considering the source.

I would like to focus on two elements of the proposed punishments sanctions. (Note: The NBA has just this minute banned Sterling from the NBA for life).

This ban is fine assuming that there was any element of due process. My guess is that if it is similar to bans in MLB (remember George Steinbrenner), Sterling will be able to retain ownership in the team but not be involved in operations.

I think it would have been much better to do two things:

Force Sterling to attend all remaining Clippers games both home and away. Have him sit at center court and announce him along with the players so everyone in the crowd gets a chance to express their view. Might be a bit uncomfortable.

Ultimately, suspending Sterling without forcing him to sell means little. I am pretty sure that the quick ban is due to the other owners reticence in having a real investigation that leads to a forced sale. Why? Once the precedence is set then this could be used against them. I wonder what Marc Cuban is thinking.

So how does this get forced. IMHO there is only one way. That is a Players Strike. Imagine if the players went on strike during the playoffs. Remember that they have been paid all of their salaries for this season, and that the playoffs are the payoff for the owners. Ticket and TV revenue all come NOW.

Imagine the pressure that a strike by the players, 78% of who are African-American would bring on the owners. It may be the only way to force the 3/4 of them required to vote to force Sterling to sell the Clippers.

There is no other way. A proposed fan strike would just cost fans their hard earned money. Advertisers will be back as soon as people stop talking about this which is about five days from now.

If the players go at playoff time then it all goes out the window. Maybe thats why the new NBA commissioner did what he did. Its a response but not the right one.

 

 

 

 

Guns for All

Traditional attempts to curb gun violence have been unsuccessful. The debate has reached an impasse. Its time to try a new approach.

I have a confession to make.

As a northeastern liberal, I have held certain beliefs for most of my life. First among these beliefs is that no one needs to own a gun. Our nation would be best served with a limit or ban on private ownership of guns.

But it is clear to me that I am wrong. There is, virtually no chance that we will see federal gun control legislation at any time soon and, attempting to regulate guns at the state level is the legislative equivalent of eating soup with a fork

I now know that Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association has it exactly right. The only way to reduce or eliminate the 30,000 deaths and over 100,000 injuries attributed to gun violence each year is to give EVERYONE access to the gun of their choice. This approach upholds our Second Amendment rights while protecting innocent people from gun violence.

I am a child of the Cold War. I know deterrence works. In the 65 years since the Soviet Union went nuclear, no one has used a nuclear weapon. Even North Korea, seems to understand that just because you have a nuke doesn’t mean that you need to use it. If we know everyone is armed, we all will be hesitant to use a gun.

In 1977, over half of Americans reported owning a gun. Today gun ownership has declined to a third of households. But this decline has had little effect on gun violence. Firearm crimes as a percentage of crimes have remained steady during the same period.

We must try a different approach.

The Centers for Disease Control estimated that the cost of deaths from gun violence in 2005 was over 37 billion dollars! This does not include the cost of non-fatal gun incidents. Much of this cost is born by taxpayers. Imagine the savings to government budgets from a significant drop in gun violence.

Rather than relaxing our gun laws, let’s take positive action to make our families safer. I propose that the government undertake to, within five years, provide every American citizen and legal immigrant with a firearm, sufficient ammunition, and basic gun safety training. Assuming that the cost to properly arm a person is $500, this program will pay for itself in one year. Of course, all guns distributed by the government would be fully traceable using the most recent technology, and registered in a national database.

How best to roll out this plan? First, distribute guns to the portion of our population with the highest rate of gun violence and/or the lowest ownership of guns. Interestingly these demographics have a significant overlap. According to Pew Research, almost half of white households have at least one gun in the home. For black households the number is a quarter, and for hispanic households the number is a fifth. It is in black and hispanic communities, particularly in urban centers that the highest incidence of gun violence occurs. Leveling the playing field should have a significant impact here.

Not only will this plan to reduce gun violence make our nation safer, it will also result in employment gains. There will be increased hiring among gun manufacturers. And clearly, we’ll need more gun safety instructors as well.

Finally, arming everyone should make laws such as Florida’s Stand and Protect irrelevant. If everyone is armed, there’s no need to question if someone has a gun. There will be no need to hesitate for even a second when you see something you don’t like. Just shoot! A return to the duel at fifty paces to solve disputes may just be what America needs.

 

Obama’s Last Stand

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After five years of what could best be called mixed results the President’s State of the Union speech tonight likely is his last opportunity to make an impact on America’s path. How will/should he proceed?

During my long and varied career I always held a few things to be essential to my success. First among them was that its better to act decisively and be wrong than to not act.

As President Obama approaches the lame duck portion of his time as President, I feel comfortable in saying that his Presidency will likely be viewed as a below average one when the history is written. It’s not that there haven’t been accomplishments such as the ACA, surviving the financial crisis, and surviving an opposition who’s entire raison d’être was to block ANY legislation that came from the President. Rather it’s that Obama has never seemed to lead. He has picked his priorities poorly and worse than that, he never has seemed to understand that he owns the biggest bully pulpit on the face of the earth.

Tonight the President will own the stage. While many Americans don’t even know what the State of Union address is, never mind actually watch it, this is still the most watched political speech of the year. So what should the President do?

Many pundits believe that the President should again reach across the aisle and find common ground with Republicans. I believe that this would be a tragic mistake as Republicans would be happy to do nothing and run against the President’s record (or lack of one) in the midterm elections this November.

My choice would be for the president to state that he is making a partisan speech (he will be accused of this in any case) by saying that, “I am a partisan, a partisan of the overwhelming majority of Americans for whom this government no longer works”. I would go on to say something like, “We should all be ashamed and embarrassed by our performance in Washington.”

I would then go on to define a few priorities that I know are widely supported by Americans. This list would include increasing the minimum wage, increasing access to preschool, and reducing the deficit through select spending cuts and tax increases on the wealthy (capital gains, duh!). Interestingly, you will see that I have not included immigration reform on this list. This is because action on immigration is not a considered a priority by the majority of Americans. Next, I would clearly state that if these priorities are not accomplished within 30 days, I will take Executive Action to implement these changes to the extent that I am legally able to do so. The President then should be on TV and Social Media every day making his case and forcing the opposition to defend their positions.

Yes the Republicans will scream. But the goal of this is not to take Executive Action, it is to force both sides to find a deal, any deal on these issues. Laying down the gauntlet tells Republicans that they can try to stop the President from taking action but to do so will likely mean a trip through the courts. Imagine going on the campaign trail and explaining that you are suing the president from taking action that is wanted by the great majority of Americans. I just love the game theory here.

Now I’m pretty sure that Obama won’t do anything like this but a man can dream……..