Monthly Archives: January 2014

Obama’s Last Stand


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……..


An Interesting Day


So I had an interesting day on Saturday. Nothing exciting but a bit thought provoking. This weekend we witnessed a relative heat wave here in Boston. We were actually able to leave the house via the front door for the first time in weeks!! As such, I ventured out with my daughters to the movies. Aside from the fact that all of you MUST see a movie at a SuperLux theater, the movie was a very pleasant surprise.

Saving Mr. Banks is nominally the story of the making of the 1964 classic film, Mary Poppins. The heart of the story is the relationship between the legendary Walt Disney and the very staid, proper, and even stuffy English author of Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Disney spent over 20 years attempting to get Travers to sell the book rights to him. She continually refused until in 1961 when she came to California to collaborate the a screenplay. Even then the movie seemed unlikely to ever get made. Travers blocked the Disney team at every turn refusing to let her Mary become Disneyfied.

Disney, who was used to getting what he wanted was at a loss……until he realized that Mary Poppins was actually autobiographical. This was the story of Travers (nee Goff) childhood story, and it was a difficult one. Her father was an alcoholic who eventually died when Travers was a child. This was the story of promises broken. Of course, Disney had a similarly difficult relationship with his father that drove him to his success.

Anyway, I guess the point of this is that most of us are formed by our relationships with our parents. Yes it obvious, but its actually layered and complex. We spend most of our teens and early adulthood running from family only to come back (or wish we could) when we have children of our own. How many of you have been driven both for good and ill by something your parents said or did? I know that I have been. Some of you know those stories, for those of you who don’t, I’m happy to share over a few drinks. BTW, how many of you have similar strengths and weaknesses to your parents?

I was left thinking about this. We all make promises that we do our best to keep. It is the promises both said and unsaid that we make to our children that in the long run matter the most. We all know someone that has suffered from a parents broken promise.

Now the flip side of all of this occurred last night. We went to a friends 40th birthday party. Plans got a bit messed up and our party got split into a group of smaller tables. Kim and I sat with a much older couple. At first, I wondered what we would discuss. A very silly concern. Carole and Ted (no Bob or Alice around) were amazing. Well traveled and foodies with so many interesting stories of life well lived. Although they are probably 30 years my senior, they showed no sign of slowing down. Out late enjoying life and thinking not about what they’ve done but what they are doing next.

They are my new role models.

Anyway a very simple but very interesting day…….

Babbo NYC. Call it Booooooobo

One of the most disappointing meals ever. Mario Batali needs to get back into this kitchen or shut this place down. 

I just want to be clear up front. This review isn’t one of those the meal wasn’t worth the money reviews. This meal wasn’t worth any money. 

We had very high expectations for the evening.  As we were shown to our table, it appeared as if everyone was in a rush. This continued through out the evening until the last course. Once we ordered, we were brought bread. It was cold and not fresh. We needed to ask for olive oil not once but twice. 

We were then brought a free chick pea bruschetta which although we didn’t realize it at the time was by far the highlight of the evening. Very fresh and nicely seasoned. 

About five minutes later our appetizers arrived. Way too fast. My wife’s grilled octopus was rubbery and tasteless. It seemed as if it was microwaved. My mussels “alla Tarantina” were swimming in broth and just didn’t taste right.

As we had steak last night and a big brunch we both opted for pasta for our mains. Similar to the appetizers, our entrees arrived almost immediately after the plates from the first course were cleared. Wild Boar Pappardelle Bolognese was an indiscernible pile of mush. I couldn’t tell the pasta from the mushrooms from the wild boar. It was truly awful. My entree, Black Spaghetti with Rock Shrimp, Spicy Salami Calabrese and Green Chilies was this odd combination of greasy and grainy. The shrimp were tasteless. I will grant the chef a gold star for nicely done al dente pasta. 

So after the sprint of dinner we had a nice long break prior to dessert and coffee. 45 minutes to be exact elapsed between the clearing of our dinner plates and the arrival of our coffee. Odd considering the pacing of the rest of our meal. Maybe they were hoping that I would forget before getting the bill!

Maybe I should have had more to drink but with wine markups of 4-5x, I wasn’t all that excited.

This is the worst review that I have ever written. Hopefully, it will save someone from a similar experience.

Who Needs Washington?????

14, January 2014

On Sunday, the New York Times ran an interesting series of graphics. While the focus of the article was on how fast campaign finance money was changing the face of state and local elections, the article made me think of two themes that have been on my mind for awhile that stem from my view that paralysis at the Federal Government level is here to stay and that this paralysis will lead to a slow but steady delegitimization of this government.

The article discusses how state governments in 36 states are wholly in the control of one party of the other. In the majority of the cases it is the Republican party which did a much better job of using out of state money to offset Democratic demographic advantages.

What is IMHO much more interesting is the fact that in these “one party” states, governments have been much more able to take action on a host of issues than at the federal level. Thirteen states (Ironic) including Republican strong holds of Arizona, Florida, and Montana have passed legislation setting the minimum wage above the federally mandated $7.25 floor. With eleven more states looking to do the same in 2014, the federal minimum wage may soon be irrelevant.

We are seeing similar activity on a host of issues, some of which have been highly divisive. These issues include abortion and same sex marriage which are the two social issues that engender the most passion on the right. Even immigration which has always fallen within the purview of Federal law is now the subject of state laws in places such as California and Arizona. As you could imagine, states with Democratic rule are liberalizing laws that govern these issues while Republican dominated states have passed laws increasing restrictions. Not surprisingly, states with divided government have seen much less legislation passed on hot button issues.

Rather than do a detailed list of issues in which state governments have moved to the forefront of action, I’d rather discuss the whys and what it means. These are some of my not fully formed thoughts and I’d love to now what others think.

So It has become clear that ANY action of significance is unlikely to occur as long as one party sees itself as the opposition and the rules round making law allow this MINORITY to just say no without proposing any alternatives. This process has been building for some time. What we see happening in the states is a natural reaction to the inaction. I believe that there are good and bad elements to this.

It is clearly a good thing that people/states are moved to action. While I may not personally support some of the decisions made in various states, at least there is some resolution on important issues, and heck you could always move to the state that best reflects your views. Also, I would expect that over time the Federal government would move toward some of the ideas, especially those that gain a large consensus across the states. I also hope that contrary to the NY Times article that both sides will become better at targeting their campaign money to the races they can win. Assuming that then maybe we could just have a good old voter registration drive to get participation up. I still don’t understand why ANYONE who loves this country has a desire to make voting more difficult for any citizen.

There is a downside. The continued delegitimization of the government will lead other actors to fill the void. While these could be state and local governments, non profits, or even multilateral organizations, the most likely actor to step into the void are large corporates. As it is now, I believe that the only two governments that can act to counterbalance the power of corporations such as GE or EXXON are China and the United States. This is largely due to the size of their markets. If the relative power of the US Government declines, it is unlikely that smaller entities will be able to act as a counterbalance to corporate power. A return to the pre-Progressive Era where corporates operated unfettered would not be a good thing for most Americans.

My other thought is this. For most of my life I thought that the US style of democracy (representative) was superior to the type of democracy practiced in places like Canada and Europe (parliamentary). I no longer believe this to be the case. Our kind of democracy, in which we strongly seek to protect minority rights depends on a certain element of civility in legislation and debate. Unfortunately, with each successive term of congress, we move further away from the ideal. Additionally, our legislators have found ways to arbitrage the process to ensure that no agenda gets enacted, ensuring that the status quo will prevail. The fact that legislation does get enacted in state legislatures where the majority is not constrained by supra or extra majority rules I believe bears this out.

I know that these arguments are not particularly fleshed out. I welcome any comments, debates, etc to help think about this.


What I’ve learned

9, January 2014


So as I await the start of another ten hour session of persuasion, on a lovely 15 degree morning, it dawns on me that tomorrow will represent the exact half way point of my Kennedy School experience. It is going soooo fast! As I look back on my expectations, I realize that as expected I had some of it right and a lot of it wrong.

So some of the simple stuff. I had forgotten that when you are in school, your work is never done. You can always do more. Of course, once you overcome your guilty conscience (assuming u have one) and realize that you will never be asked about your grades you get over this. I will admit this, in the summer when I thought that going back to school would be easy compared to a job, I was WRONG!!! I really don’t understand how some of my classmates balance school, family, and work.

So some of the more interesting takeaways. The reason to attend the Kennedy School is not really for what you will learn from the professors. It is for what you will learn from your classmates incredible and diverse experiences. Whether it’s about being on the ground in Afghanistan or Somalia with an NGO or the military, negotiating arms control deals so well that you get Knighted by the Queen, or being in Tehrir Square as part of the Arab Spring, the experiences that get shared enlighten and broaden us all.

One interesting dynamic is that we have a large group of shall I say younger people here. They make some fascinating observations. My favorite so far is, “There’s no racism in America anymore”. This came from a 23 year old Masters candidate. I wish that all of you had been there to see the reaction. While some of the younger people have a bit less perspective than us old folk, there is no denying their intelligence and passion. They bring a different perspective and new ideas. I realize that I need to listen to them too.

I used to complain that all of the smart people work in finance and that this is a huge misallocation of resources. At HKS I have found out nothing can be further from the truth. There is a surplus of brilliant, experienced people in this program. They come from all walks of life, different nations, different experiences. I have come to learn and understand that MY role was the simple and less complex one. Those of us in finance always believe that we are smart and that we negotiate complex environments. The reality is that motives, incentive, and players are almost always transparent in finance. Not to mention that there is never any risk other than you will lose someone else’s money. Tell that to anyone who has served in the military or worked in an inner city non-profit!!!

As someone who has travelled to over fifty countries, I always felt that I had a good understanding of cultural differences and that I was sensitive to them. Nonsense!!! Being in a program where 2/3 of your classmates are not American (or English for that matter) is eye opening. Take this for example. Those of us who are White American Males are programmed in a couple of ways. First, we feel that we should share ALL of our thoughts in a classroom setting no matter how ill formed (ok at least I do). Secondly, at any time when there is a vacuum of leadership, even for a minute, a White American Male is likely to rush to fill the void. Given that White American Males are about 20% of the class this results in a huge over representation of American views. Now imagine that you are from Asia where cultural norms are different (listen more than speak), or you are an African Woman and speaking your mind could actually place you in physical peril!!!! This means that we all have to listen closely to our non-American counterparts and encourage them to speak their minds as much if not more than we do. To not do so would be a huge missed opportunity for us all.

I tend to be quite passionate about my views on just about everything. So much so that I frequently commit the error of not understanding how ANYONE could disagree with me. In so many conversations here I see that everyone is passionate about what they believe (Brian H.). Even people whose ideas are diametrically opposed to mine believe in them fervently for completely rational reasons. I need to listen to everyone, at least a little bit. Then theres the personal stuff Ive learned about myself. I am finally convinced that process does matter. Yes I’ve been told this for at least the past 45 years and I’ve largely ignored it. I like winging it. But one of my vows is that I will no longer wing it. I will prepare for conversations, presentations, etc. I will also listen. Both Kim and Andrew will be pleased!!!

My favorite class so far has been Religion and Politics in America which was taught by a Jesuit. I have some very strong, long held beliefs about organized religion. All of them are negative! What Father Hehir made me think about is the role of religion as a counterbalance to other forces in our civil life. The way in which he moved my thought process is fodder for another day. Oh and one more thing, it’s not that I have a mistrust of organized religion. Its that I have a fundamental mistrust of large institutions in general. The imbalance of power between institutions and individuals represents a fundamental threat to our way of life. We need to find a way to restore the balance.

So what does this all mean? Im not sure. I still haven’t decided whats next although I’ve eliminated a few things. What I do know is that the world is full of issues to work on and amazing people to work with. The bottom line….listen, prepare and for god sakes, DO SOMETHING!