Greek Fury at the EU Suggestion for a Financial Control Board

The drama of this century to date plays on with amazing speed and volatility. The Greek government and people, despite more than enough reasons for some of them to either be in jail or in purgatory, are now into dignity, independence and hysterical, historical self-justification. Don’t get me wrong — I like Greece and everything about it including its history.

But I don’t like it when a small country in its little corner of the world gets so far out of line that it puts the world financial economy at serious risk. I’m bothered when it rattles its tin cup for help to avoid the jam that its behavior created, and then cries foul when the suppliers of the help make the sensible and reasonable suggestion that they should be able to supervise the post-rescue period until the basic problems have been worked through.

It is well known that parents are the worst people to teach their children how to ride a bike. It should be equally well known that taxpayer voters, as well as non-taxpayer voters, are probably the worst people to take responsibility for simultaneous supervision of more collection of taxes and imposition of an austerity program.

The only real arguments the Greeks have for objecting to their generous friends’ wanting to supervise the “workout” of their affairs are sovereignty, dignity and history. But, sadly for them, those arguments are like Swiss cheese — delicious, but full of holes.

  1. Sovereigntyis a word and concept undergoing vast change as the world shrinks with the speed of light. Greece was one of the leading nations of the world 2,000 years ago. Today, despite all its beauty and instructive history, it has become a tiny piece in a large puzzle and its borders have come to mean less and less as financial transactions, for example, whiz at the speed of light over those borders without regard to any dignity or sovereignty.
  2. Historically, everywhere in the world bankruptcy has justified and required supervision and control post bankruptcy. This alone is enough reason to require some post-bailout system to ensure the terms of the bailout are maintained.
  3. For example, in the United States we had a notable example of this type of action in the mid-70’s when New York City was bailed out by New York State — as Greece is proposing today to the EU. There was lots of moaning and groaning about the creation of a Financial Control Board. But it worked, and within reason New York City is thriving and pretty independent again today.

The Greek problem will be solved because failure really is not an option: failure would be more expensive for almost everyone than the cost of any “workout.”

Therefore, it would be a good idea, if we could skip most of the moaning and groaning and go straight to GO and execute the scheme that has been crying out to be used from the start of all these problems.

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Real Consequences of Income Inequality

As we go about our lives in this presidential election year we know, hear and read about rapidly growing income disparity, particularly in the United States and Europe. While we know that this is a problem that can lead to civil unrest and worse, and while we see various examples of evidence in street people and in other sad human scenes on television, we rarely experience it first hand with any personal consequences. When that does happen, it comes as a rude shock and as a personal assault, which leaves lingering concerns for what that may foreshadow.

A couple of days ago, in the Zurich airport railroad station, which has not been known as a risky place with beggars and thieves, I encountered, I rudely discovered, a team of rough, tough and clever pickpockets. (I will explain below how they operated, in the hopes of alerting interested readers how to be careful.)

The consequence of my encounter was not only the loss of my wallet from my left hand trouser pocket with the usual credit/debit cards and some cash but also, very importantly, my identity. Quickly I realized that my pocket had been picked and, thanks to modern technology, was able immediately to inform the airline, the train officials and all the relevant credit card companies and banks. Consequently, I believe and hope that the damage may have been contained.

I also learned from the train conductor that the railroad police know all about these gangs, have a lot of their pictures but have not be been able to catch any of them red-handed, and without fresh physical evidence cannot put them away to protect their passengers. For weeks recently there have been two and three such events a day. And the Swiss officials have not yet informed the public because they fear publicity adverse to their tourist businesses.

They also seem to have extraordinary humanitarian concerns for plight of the perpetrators. Evidently Swiss police and officials take a rather benign view of these events because there is rarely any physical harm and usually only relatively small financial damage, if one ignores the downstream costs of credit card confusion, etc.

As my initial shock abated, I began to think about the larger context in which it had occurred. Whoever those gangsters are, they probably/may have had jobs until recent economic events engulfed them along with many other citizens. One has to assume they have families to feed and rent to pay, so by their lights they had to take matters into their own hands. They figured out how to obtain what they needed while inflicting as little pain and damage as they could on their targets, and at the same time exposing themselves to minimum risk of exposure, capture and loss of freedom. “Smart” some might say; “opportunistic” others might say; “practical” under the circumstances? Of course, nothing justifies stealing from other people. But when “extraordinary” circumstances arise, some types of people appear to make bad choices. In all events there is nothing noble in what they do. Please understand that all I am trying to do is draw something useful from my experience. Perhaps my view is a stretch, but if there is germ of validity to my perspective, it warrants some thought.

Another current debate is how to fix our broken economies. One view is to cut public expenditures. Another view is to raise taxes, particularly among the richer elements in our societies. And the third way is to balance and do both. Even before my recent experience I favored the balanced way. I would far and away prefer to pay more taxes (even a lot more than I lost to the pickpockets) in order to reduce the need of out of work people to take the law into their own hands.

If more of “the relatively wealthy” members of our societies experienced at first hand the horror of the consequences of growing income inequality, perhaps more people might wake up to what really needs to be done. Simply putting “bad guys” in jail will not change much. Finding the right policy mix to create more jobs is the real challenge.

For those who are interested, here is how it happened. The train came into the Zurich Airport station. My wife and I, with our rolling bags, entered the nearest door to open; she was ahead of me. As I was moving from the entryway into the car itself, I suddenly was caught between a man in front of me who turned around, apparently in confusion as to where he was, and a man behind me who was “roughing me up,” apparently in an effort to rush ahead into the car. My reaction was “what in hell is going on? Cut it out, mister!” And then suddenly, those two and a couple of others were gone. As my wife and I started to settle in, I reached into my trouser pocket and realized my wallet was also gone. The job performed took, maybe, ten seconds. There were two diversions: the guy in front, whom I saw, did nothing except distract me; the guy behind me, whom I never saw, muscled me to divert me from feeling his hand entering my pocket,. Pretty clever and smooth! And rotten too.

So a little encounter opened my complacent and privileged mind to a not so brave new world out there that we have to deal with and try to correct. But, do not worry — I am too clumsy to become a counter-pickpocket!

A Note of Interest Concerning Family Philanthropy

The term “family foundation” is fairly common today, but it is rarely thought about in terms of what it means in contrast to other types of foundations – personal, corporate or institutional. No doubt there are many types of family foundations. This family has struggled to find and give meaning to the concept of family and recently engaged in a generational transfer which was complicated but interesting. We think that process may be helpful to others.

Family in this context means a group of relatives seeking to collaborate. Personal means what it says; it represents the interests primarily of one person. And, Institutional means professional managers acting for an independent board.

The Norman Foundation began as an act of testamentary generosity by Aaron E. Norman at the end of his seventy-six-year life of success and concern for people who lacked economic and/or political control over their lives.

Norman’s two children began with what amounted to two personal foundations, combined as one, through which they supported for about twenty years their quite different interests both with their own funds and the funds of the original foundation funded with Norman’s bequest.

By the 1950s Norman’s five grandchildren succeeded early in their lives – at twenty to thirty years old – to their parents’ responsibilities growing out of Norman’s bequest. That is the time when the Norman Foundation really began to be a “family” foundation. Each of those grandchildren, of whom this writer is one, had both personal interests and shared common interests particularly in the area of civil rights and liberties. To help distinguish and separate personal from general philanthropy that generation created in the 1960s, with starting contributions from the Norman Foundation, five new smaller foundations to enable and allow each member of that generation to pursue their personal interests independently and at the same time to preserve and build the core of the Norman Foundation on a collective family-wide basis.

Over the forty-plus years following the grandchildren’s (third generation) assumption of leadership their total of sixteen children (fourth generation) were brought onto the Norman Foundation Board as they became adults. That fourth generation now ranges in age from mid-thirties to early fifties.

Naturally, over time the collective, family-wide decision making process became much more cumbersome and complicated. There were naturally a lot of new agenda based on geography, education and dispersal of personal interests. And, there was, of course, a normal urge by the coming generation to become more actively involved. The third generation by chance, as it were, came “to power” very young. The fourth generation was destined to wait longer and be much older than the third generation by the time the older generation was gone. And, there were a lot more of them which made the process of acting together much more complicated.

As the new century was about to arrive the family had a major meeting to consider various ideas of how to manage the devolution of the family’s philanthropic assets in such a way as to:

  • Enable the fourth generation to become more involved before the third generation died off;
  • Preserve a substantial central core of fourth generation-wide involvement in the decision making process;
  • Give the remaining third generation members an opportunity to deploy some of Norman’s assets according to their differing interests and wishes, as they began to focus more on their testamentary objectives, since by 2001 the four remaining members of the third generation were seventy years or older;
  • Insure that the individuals (sixteen in all) of the fourth generation could have some flexibility to pursue their own personal interests in addition to being part of Norman’s collective goals.

That was a tall order to achieve in a fair and balanced way. It wasn’t easy but it was largely accomplished. And, it is now already showing signs of becoming effective.

What was done was as follows:

  • On December 31, 1999 all of the third generation members stepped down from the Norman Foundation Board and all involvement in grant making activities;
  • One third of Norman’s assets were transferred in equal shares to the five smaller foundations that had been created in the 1960s and have been and are the sub-family foundations of the five family groups in the third generation;
  • The balance of Norman’s assets continue to be dedicated to an agenda being determined entirely by the fourth generation according to their rules and wishes. It appears they will retain a lot of the earlier Norman interests and surely will develop some new ones;
  • To provide a sense of independence and democratic flexibility each member of the fourth generation has and will have an opportunity to pursue their own interests according to rules they are developing as they proceed.

Thus, this family foundation is seeking to extend and enhance the relevance of the true meaning of the word family in the context of how a foundation can work. In many ways a family foundation exists primarily to give expression to that family’s philanthropic interests. But, as those interests inevitably will be many and diverse, a process to make that expression work in a politically manageable and acceptable way had to be found. We hope and believe that what we have wrought will work for us. And, we hope that by explaining how and why we went about this process might be a little bit instructive and helpful to others as they may encounter similar challenges in the years and generations that lie ahead for the growing number of family foundations in the United States that we believe fill an important need in meeting our pluralistic society’s needs.

Politics in America after Iowa in 2012

The caucuses in Iowa are really amazing. They combine the best and worst of comedy, tragedy, drama, surprise, boredom, suspense and, most important of all, a tiny peek at the genius of the American political system at a microscopic level.

When we compare the political scenery from Iran, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, and too many other places to enumerate, with Iowa, it boggles the mind to behold the basic differences. I can recall no political killings in Iowa. In fact, people with very strong disagreements get together and caucus and try to persuade each other. There rarely is shouting. It is plainly civilized politics at work. But what does it tell us?

The comedy is stressed candidates trying not to look stupid but “real smart and qualified.” The OOPS moment for Perry got the blue ribbon this year and did him in.

The tragedy is that the opportunity for a serious look at what real people have to offer is not really working. This year’s blue ribbon in this category is Huntsman. There he is — a basically good, experienced, attractive looking, balanced, honest guy. But he never got noticed. Perhaps two Mormons overloaded the circuits?

The drama was “who’s next?” on and off the roller coaster. The cause and effect of silly moments, both positive and negative, sure kept the world glued to CNN’s coverage for weeks.

The big surprise was Gingrich’s ascent and collapse. He obviously has a lot of relevant experience to offer. And the simple word that did him in was valise — sorry, I meant baggage.

Wow, I guess he could have lived without that, but he sure should have seen it coming.

The boredom was listening to endless recitations of the same over-simplistic, ideological cant from people trying deliberately to stumble on some phrase that might catch on and launch a thousand votes. I would declare a tie among Paul, Santorum, Cain and Bachmann for the blue ribbon for boredom, despite Santorum’s photo finish.

And, the final suspense blue ribbon has to go to Santorum for going from near-last to eight votes short of an outright win in the last week.

All the ingredients of great political theatrics were on display and despite all the shortcomings I still think the process is important and essential to America’s political system, broken though it may be. Another day it may be useful to contemplate how the caucus system could be improved. For the moment there are two basic observations to take away from the whole performance.

The first is that it seems a shame that there is no prequalification to becoming a candidate other than money, gall, ambition and a desire to smell “ink.” On one level that seems right and ok, but wouldn’t it be a good idea for the old fashioned “boys/girls from the smoke-filled room” to “encourage” at least a couple of politically tried and true pros to join in the game and offer that alternative too? I never to this moment would have thought I’d ever say that, but perhaps we are coming full circle to what once was deemed the only way, has now been totally debunked and now may be useful again in not having the country waste a lot of money and time on vetting a bunch of pure amateur thrill-seeking semi nut cases.

The second observation is that the biggest loser in Iowa was Obama. The “field” of six “other than Romney” candidates did an amazing job of painting Romney for the whole country to see as a moderate, balanced centrist, independent pragmatist with executive experience. In their collective effort to oust him from carrying the Republican flag this year, they have massively strengthened him as a general election candidate. Perhaps that was his strategy from the beginning. If it was, he is abler and more cunning than I would have imagined. In either event the threat to the sitting President is greater than ever. Obama surely will try to dent the picture America now has obtained (in a backhanded way) by whatever he can dig up. But, the ‘real truth’ as endlessly repeated by Romney’s competitors in Iowa may have more Teflon than anyone imagined.

Working with Roosevelt

In an effort to learn more about the magic of presidential power and style, I came across a book last summer which deserves real attention again, more than 50 years after it was published in 1952 by Harpers & Co. Written by Samuel I. Rosenman, who had been the chief speech writer and advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) from the mid-1920s,Working with Roosevelt is the most intimate and granular retelling of FDR’s skills, methods and inside life I have ever read.

Why do I share this reference with you now? The answer is that while obviously FDR and Barack Obama are two very different people, they encountered very similar problems on becoming president and they went about selling their programs to their Congresses and the American people quite differently. I think understanding those differences can help all Americans, including Obama, better understand what is going on today and what might be done about it.

Empathy: While FDR was clearly a patrician full of “noblesse oblige,” he was also, as president, a man who knew and felt pain every day as a result of his polio. Consequently, he was transmitting in every way an appreciation of the population’s pain at the time. Obama came from a completely different background, which surely equips him to understand and feel pain of other similarly situated people, but he also appears to be a cool clinician as he dispassionately dissects people’s pain with the result that he gets far too little credit for understanding and truly sympathizing. Clinton bit his lower lip. Others have found various ways to transmit sympathy. Obama should be seeking advice from all kinds of people for help with this problem.

Dysfunctional Politics: For various reasons Republicans declared early on, after Obama became president, that their ONLY goal was to limit Obama to one term; they seem to have lost sight of the good of the country in the process. Obama has struggled with the Tea Party’s leverage over most Republicans. Because time and receding memories have blurred recognition of what FDR faced, many people recall that FDR had an easily compliant Congress. But, they forget about the role of the isolationist Southern Democrats, who were forever plaguing FDR with their very different views, particularly about international engagements. FDR kept trying one thing after another and he prevailed ultimately on virtually all his important goals. Obama appears to try to reason his way forward, but even good reasoning has failed him, except in a few notable cases like health care.

Exposure: FDR was, as all presidents are, the prime focus of his days’ news. But he came before the days of TV and radio was not as ubiquitous or present as TV is today. Consequently, FDR was well exposed, but not overexposed, and therefore when he spoke, people listened. Today with TV, radio and the internet it is hard for a President not to be overexposed; consequently, despite Obama’s excellent speaking style, he seems to have begun to lose his audience. He needs to review how FDR did his fireside chats. They were relatively infrequent; they each had a very clear and focused purpose; and FDR sought and took advice from many quarters, including playwrights, about how to connect to the people, who eagerly assembled all over the country in their kitchens to hear what he had to say.

Style: FDR had a good sense of humor and used it frequently to his immense advantage. In his first fireside chat he recalled the fisherman from Maine who had sought advice on his hearing and was told to cut back on his drinking; when later asked why he had kept on drinking his answer was, “I liked what I was drinking so much better than what I was hearing (from FDR) that I just kept on drinking.” People still remember that line today! FDR also used metaphor to great advantage. For example, when he was struggling to convince the isolationists in 1939 to back Lend Lease, one of Sam Rosenman’s colleagues suggested using the story of the man whose house was on fire seeking to borrow his neighbor’s garden hose if he promised to return it after the fire was out. It worked and the Congress passed his innovative way to help England before it was too late. Obama delivers clear, simple, lawyer-like arguments, which are largely right, but which have all the impact of an air kiss. Perhaps he could reach out to non economists, non lawyers and folks who make their living simply getting peoples’ attention.

Keeping Things Simple: FDR never hesitated to explain complex subjects, in perhaps oversimplified ways, to ensure that his “common men” understood him so they would be comfortable backing him. Obama seems to shy away from anything resembling oversimplification, perhaps for fear of dumbing things down. The result is that he is flying way over the heads of a lot of his audiences. That needs serious work.

Now, if you think you do not need or want to read Rosenman’s book, you are wrong. You will learn a lot more than I have attempted to present here AND you will have a grand read by a master speechwriter/presidential advisor. The book is available through Amazon. Go for it — my best read of the year!