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How to Run a Public Meeting: Advice to Congressional Democrats

Boy oh boy, we’ve come a long way since the inauguration. Angry crowds protesting in public venues. Allegations that congressional town hall audiences are peanut galleries filled with a cast of characters that looks like it was conjured up by conniving State Attorney General Hedly Lamarr to terrorize the citizens of Rock Ridge in Blazing Saddles. White House requests to inventory “fishy” e-mails from the public. Alerts from the office of former ballet dancer and wannabe pugilist, Rahm Emanual, that proponents “punch back twice as hard.” Demands by the POTUS that citizens stop talking and “get out of the way.”

Round up the usual suspects

Round up the usual suspects

Clearly, this is not the citizen engagement that was promised. Instead, it’s fairly noxious stuff and seems designed to cause irreparable harm to civil discourse, squelch public participation, and even foment violence. I’m looking for a precedent in recent U.S. presidential history, but can’t find it.

How did we get to this point? Before anyone makes the unsubstantiated assertion that the audiences coming out to these events are “rent-a-mobs” organized by special interest groups who are interested in squelching serious debate about health care, let’s make one thing clear. If you don’t have basic ground rules in place and create an environment where everyone feels comfortable, it doesn’t matter. The meeting will get unruly without any outside efforts or ill intentions.

How do I know? As a two-term councilman, I’ve seen the dynamic in action and even stirred the pot a little myself. Eventually, the mayor and council needed to revise the ground rules, and I needed a little attitude adjustment. It made an extraordinary difference to the tenor of the meetings.

So how do you combat meetings turning ugly? Here are a few suggestions:

(1) Don’t come to a public meeting with your mind already made up. There’s nothing that makes citizens angrier than going through the motions of public meetings when it is clear that the official will not entertain any other possibilities. The race to pass health care bill before adequate public input was received solidified in many citizens’ minds that the town halls were mere exhibitions.
(2) As a public official, choose your words carefully. Definitely no name-calling. Don’t make allegations about peoples motivations (anyway it’s is a logical fallacy). Don’t make messianic claims about your own unique talents and ability to solve all the problems. Also, make it clear that you value citizen input. Demonstrate good listening skills.
(3) Have an organization with no stated opinion on the issue organize the meeting. Often it will be a local civic organization. Don’t allow partisans to organize and control the meeting.
(4) Make sure that the venue is large enough to accommodate the expected audience size. Err on the size of caution. Better for the facility to be too large than too small.
(5) Distribute a copy of the ground rules, including expectations of citizen and public official behavior. You might use Robert’s Rules of Order. You might supplement Robert’s Rules with something else more specific.
(6) Have a sign in sheet where citizens can register their intention to speak, and have a neutral party chair the meeting and select the citizens from that list.
(7) Assign a time limit of, say, 3-5 minutes for each citizen on the list to speak. If they have more to say, ask them to provide their remarks in writing and make it part of the public record.
(8) Summarize the remarks of citizens at the end to make clear that you understood them, and demonstrate that you will give them serious research and thought.

Hope you realize the mess you've made

Hope you realize the mess you've made

If these suggestions don’t work, it’s time to go into a new line of business.

Posted in politics, Uncategorized. Tagged with , .

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Would you like flies with that? The restaurant industry’s race to the bottom.

What began as a trickle, has now become a flood. First, Burger King releases a tasteless commercial aimed at children that features the square posteriors of some hoochie coochie dancers gyrating to the beat of Sir Mix A Lot’s salacious “Baby’s Got Back.”

Next, Slate magazine reports on Burger King’s unappetizing entree, the “Super 7 incher,” and an advertising campaign that must have been inspired by the feats of Linda Lovelace.

A different kind of manwich.

And, now the rest of the industry is trying to get in on the act. If you haven’t heard it yet, T.G.I. Fridays is airing a radio advertisement in many media markets that takes sex in advertising to an entirely new low. The ad features callers who leave what at first appears to be a series of sexually explicit messages on the T.G.I. Friday’s cook’s answering machine, complimenting him on his prowess. The cook proceeds to play back each message but halts right before it is revealed that they are actually alluding to his food and not foreplay. And, in an alltime media low, there is even a veiled reference to getting grandma in on the hot and heavy.

Where's the beef?  Don't ask.

Where's the beef? You don't want to know.

You would think that the restaurant industry, of all businesses, would steer clear of the derriere for at two reasons. First, a sizeable portion of the public is going to be turned off by the use of sexually provocative themes in advertisements. I don’t just mean the prudes at Dr. Dobson’s Focus on the Family, but garden-variety people who seek a safe and family friendly atmosphere for dining with their children, parents, and friends. Second, nobody needs to be subtly reminded of the constant stream of news reports about rogue chain restaurant workers adding bodily fluids to the ingredients of the recipes as this scene from the movie Road Trip demonstrates.

Bon Appetit!

Posted in Entertainment, politics. Tagged with , , , , .

News story: Waiting for the tide to turn.

Virginia Business reports on statewide and regional economic trends in a July 29th story that will appear in their upcoming August issue. Here’s an advanced preview with a few quotes from an interview four weeks back before Newsweek officially declared the recession “over.”

Newsweak: Unfashionably late with the news, again.

Unfashionably late and overhyped, again.

Bottom line. Not only is there light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re emerging from the tunnel. However, it’s going to take some time to adapt to the sunlight after nineteen months in the cave.

And, for accuracy’s sake, we should remember that it’s a panel of experts at the National Bureau of Economic Research that calls the troughs and peaks of business cycles, not Newsweek or anybody else. They use a dashboard of economic indicators and gut judgment. So, a few consecutive quarters of robust Gross Domestic Product growth followed by anemic growth and continued job losses do not mean that the recession is over. Consequently, it may be years before any “official” declaration is made, if a declaration is warranted.

Posted in Economics, Virginia. Tagged with , , .

Races and places in the Gates incident

There’s an old saying in Mineral County, West Virginia, that gets passed down from generation to generation of graduating high school seniors. It goes something like this: “If you don’t go to college, you’ll go to Pot.” Potomac State College or Pot. State (as it’s called by locals), that is to say. Located in Keyser, West Virginia, Potomac State in a non-selective junior college feeder for West Virginia University. Like many junior and community colleges, it is not celebrated for its academic rigor but still serves the function of “stopping out” many students who lack the work ethic, academic preparation, or ability to complete even watered down, introductory coursework.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. or “Skip” Gates as he is known in these parts started at Pot. State (a fact noticeably whitewashed from his Wikipedia page), which was located a few miles away from his hometown of Piedmont. However, he had the “right stuff” and was able to defy the usual local gravity that forces earthward the academic trajectory. Not only did he grow at Pot., he actually went on from there to become the region’s most illustrious intellectual export. After spending a year at Pot., he transferred to Yale University and earned a bachelor degree Summa Cum Laude. He completed a doctorate at Cambridge University. He was hired by Harvard University and became, along with Cornell West, one of the premiere black intellectuals in America, helping to shape the field of Black Studies into what it is today. Over his academic career he has produced reams of books and articles and loads of cellulose, software, and web media. All of it top-notch, ground-breaking stuff.

For a region that produces below its quota of national talent (a few ballplayers, musicians, and a handful of movie actors) and no national caliber intellectual, Professor Gates is a much under-recognized and underappreciated role model. Low expectations, inadequate funding, and extracurricular activity that revolves largely around physical competition: marching, cheerleading, and sportsplay means that schoolchildren grow up and graduate without even hearing the name of Professor Gates. That’s a shame. Gates not only rose to national prominence but wrote an elegiac memoir about races and places, Colored People, that celebrated (and sometimes gently admonished) the region of his birth. He did so with style and sensitivity and without demonization and canonization.

This background makes the current brouhaha a little hard to decipher. The facts are relatively clear. Gates returns from an overseas trip. Fatigued and jetlagged, he finds that the front door of a home that he recently moved into is lodged shut. Understandably frustrated, he attempts without success to pry open the door. A neighbor reports the disturbance. An officer arrives and asks him for identification. Dr. Gates understandably irritated, provides proof and remonstrates. The officer after a period of verbal abuse understandably places Gates under arrest to restore order. A picture of the brouhaha conveys the depth of Gates’s indignation, which after the handcuffs are clasped has now become pure fury. That photo in one fell swoop undermines Dr. Gates’ argument that his exchange was low key.

Gates attacks!

Gates attacks!

There are a few issues that complicate matters here. A vast amount of commentator ink and presidential pabulum has been spent on the role, if any, of racial profiling in the case. Completely overlooked, however, is a more enduring principle at risk here. The proverbial expression “A man’s home is his castle” conveys the importance of government sensitivity to place and appreciation of the individual’s need for sanctuary and privacy in his home, a hallmark of the American legal system. Although order was restored in this situation and plenty of feelings were hurt in the process, do those who acquiesce to beating the drums for “law and order” or racial reductionism risk losing sight of the fact that special places require a gentle touch?

There's no place like home.

There's no place like home.

Posted in politics, Uncategorized. Tagged with , , .

Remembering Gordon Solie: Word Wizard of World Wide Wrestling

They called him the “Dean of Professional Wrestling” and the “Master of the Ring.” But to many of his fans he was much more than that. Professional Wrestling announcer Gordon Solie (real name Francis Jonard Labiak) was a pioneer in the field of “edutainment.” He routinely dropped phrases like “superlative dexterity” and “sartorial splendor” as part of his color commentary, sending thousands of pre-pubescent audience members reaching for their dictionaries. Each weekly program of Georgia Championship Wrestling, National Wrestling Alliance, and World Championship Wrestling featured a fusion of sports entertainment and “Word Power in 30 days.”

Gordon Solie passed away nine years ago, on July 27th, 2000. But, his legacy lives on in the appreciative wordsmiths he coached.

Posted in Entertainment. Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Wal-Mart LULU Fight Waged at Wilderness Battlefield

Virginia Governor Kaine and Speaker Howell weighed in on the Orange County Wal-Mart siting controversy yesterday, urging the Board of Supervisors not to issue a Special Use Permit and to instead help the firm locate another site further away from the Battlefield. Here’s a news story about the development with a few sound bites from me extracted from a ten minute interview with Charlottesville based NBC29.

Posted in Economics, Environment, Virginia. Tagged with , , .

Don’t Max with Taxes

The July 9th edition of The Economist features a leader and special report about the economic and fiscal calamity that is California and the relative Bonanza that is Texas. The California unemployment rate is well into double digits, but Texas remains at only 7.1 percent.

The two states have followed two different public policy paths: California based on a higher tax, higher public service, higher land use regulation, and high tech model and Texas on a low-tax, low public service, no land use regulation, and natural resource (energy and agriculture) model. Both states, however, have experienced high rates of immigration, mainly from Latin America. The article predicts that the current California situation, which has cyclical, structural, and demographic roots will spread to Texas and the rest of the nation.

How bad are things in California? Well, so bad that even free-market guru Arthur Laffer has decamped from cosmopolitan Malibu to backwoods Tennessee. He attributed his move not to the usual Tiebout sorting but to some universal truisms revealed from spurious correlations of tax rates and economic welfare evidently computed on the back of a napkin.

All in all, the article reminds me of a recent Pat Buchanan jeremiad, the difference being that The Economist predictably applauds the transformation of America into a facsimile of their wonderworld of a newly amalgamated Houston and LA.

Pat says "Don't Mex with Texas"

Pat says 'Don't Mex with Texas'

Well they should. The country may become a vast wasteland of people, sprawling asphalt, and hot summer nights. But, from The Economist’s vantage point change and calamity represent opportunity. Yep, thar’s gold in them thar hills.

Posted in Economics. Tagged with , , , .

Money illusion on the left

In his weekly radio address yesterday President Obama issued the following piece of shameless self-promotion about the results of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009:

“The Recovery Act wasn’t designed to restore the economy to full health on its own, but to provide the boost necessary to stop the free fall. It was designed to spur demand and get people spending again and cushion those who had borne the brunt of the crisis. And it was designed to save jobs and create new ones. In a little over one hundred days, this Recovery Act has worked as intended.”

But, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Edward Lazear, offered a different and, in my opinion, more accurate take on the economic stimulus in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal earlier in the week.

“By June 26, about $56 billion was spent on the stimulus . . . A large proportion of that actually reflects mere transfers from the federal government to state governments, so the amount that has gotten into the economy is significantly lower. . . But even if we call all of the $56 billion spending, it’s still not enough to make a meaningful impact. By this point of the year in 2008, the Bush administration’s tax-rebates got out about $80 billion. The Bush administration’s tax rebates had a positive but hardly dramatic effect on the economy.”

So, to paraphrase Rep. Pete King, “let’s knock out the econobabble.” What honestly has the Obama/Congressional fiscal package achieved? Here’s my take:

(1) It has validated the Principles of Macroeconomics lesson that fiscal policy is notoriously difficult to use as a countercyclical tool because of the large lags in legislative decision-making, execution, and spending of funds.
(2) It has shown that the relief package had serious design flaws from the beginning. The bulk of the impact was never designed to occur when it was most needed. Instead, it would ramp up the economy after most macroeconomic forecasting models forecasted that recovery would already be underway without an economic stimulus. Its long term residual effect will be to crowd out private investment, much as the Congressional Budget Office predicted.
(3) It has demonstrated that personal income or payroll tax cuts are a poor mechanism for stimulating the economy during severe downturns. All of the tax cuts were predictably saved by consumers.
(4) It has illustrated the counterproductive effects of certain incentives and long delays in implementing some aspects of the package. For instance, many renewable energy investment projects that would have occurred in the absence of fiscal stimulus projects are being placed on hold until the economic incentives kick in.
(5) It has confirmed that this administration is not very efficient in executing economic policy. In amount and timeliness of stimulus delivered and actual impact, even the Bush tax cuts worked better. The Obama administration has not delivered the funds appropriated on schedule and according to legislative intent.

Show me the money

Show me the money

There are some other aspects of the fiscal stimulus that deserve scrutiny. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, regional distribution of fiscal stimulus is uneven, with many economically hard-hit states receiving proportionally less than better off states. And, the well worn paths that federal dollars follow mean that the stimulus funds are disbursed according to a partisan geography.

Moreover, some of the programs funded by the stimulus program are clearly economically wasteful and even directly contradict administration policy in other areas. For instance, Senator Byrd’s environmentally destructive carbon creating economic boondoggle, Corridor H, was initially awarded $21 million from the stimulus package.

So, if Mr. Obama’s claim of credit is not credible and the trickle of fiscal stimulus has done little to boost the economy, who or what should receive accolades for the obvious stabilization of financial markets and the economy? To some extent, the mere changing of administrations and more policy activism has served to boost consumer confidence, even if that has not yet resulted in much additional consumer spending. To some small extent, the fiscal stimulus is having a beneficial impact. For instance, some parts of the funds released so far have softened the blow for states of next fiscal year revenue shortfalls. Moreover, aid to low-income workers and the unemployment has had salutary effects.

But, the real force behind the slow turnaround has been the expenditure of TARP funds and actions of the Federal Reserve to shore up the financial system and inject liquidity in unprecedented ways.

Surely, Mr. Obama must realize that real leadership requires giving credit where credit is due.

Posted in Economics. Tagged with , , .

Money illusion on the right

The soon to be former Governor of Alaska made some strident comments about macroeconomic policy in a recent Sean Hannity Fox News interview. She claimed that fiscal policy was not taught as part of any course in the college curriculum. Here’s a quote from the interview:

“When you consider that the federal government is about $11 trillion in debt, and we’re borrowing more to spend more … it defies any sensible economic policy any of us ever learned through college…It defies economy practices and principles that tell ya ‘you gotta quit digging that hole when you are in that financial hole.'”

Of course, any beer sodden undergraduate could tell you that Keynesian economics, the science behind the ‘fiscal stimulus’, is indeed taught on most public and private college campuses these days. It’s bundled into a course called ‘principles of macroeconomics.’ You’ll usually find it as a core requirement or elective in a business major or a stand-alone economics program. Some dissident schools teach Keynesianism as heterodox thinking (e.g., Hillsdale College, Grove City College), but nobody imagines that the highly influential school of economic thought doesn’t exist.

Math is hard.

Math is hard.

So, could the explanation for Governor Palin’s comments be that the colleges she attended never offered this course? According to the newsmedia, she attended three community colleges and a four year university over a five year period: Hawaii Pacific College, North Idaho College, Matanuska-Susitna College, and University of Idaho. A quick check of the first step in her academic odyssey, Hawaii Pacific College, shows that they are teaching 12 sections of the course in Fall 2009. So, it is probably reasonable to assume that they were offering the course way back in the late ‘80s too.

Did Palin ever sit through a macro principles course? Hard to say without those college transcripts, but it seems doubtful. Too much math.

Posted in Economics. Tagged with , , .