What Next?

Posted March 25, 2017 by Phil Odence
Categories: Uncategorized

imagesBy mid-week it was becoming clear that the repeal/replace bill was going down. Mark Meadows and his Freedom Caucus were digging in their heels, and it had been on their square that Ryan and Trump had placed all their political chips. So, I began to contemplate what would happen in Washington in the wake of the debacle called AHCA, the plan not called Trumpcare. Last night we heard some pretty clear signals.

It could have gone one of three ways, each closely tied to the selection of the next priority for the administration.

  1. Healthcare- The President and the Speaker could decide to retrench and take another run at this thing with a new strategy to win more votes.
  2. Infrastructure- Trump could have brought to the top of the list his only campaign promise that Democrats might get behind.
  3. Tax Reform- He could bank on one of the most appealing long term rallying cries of the Republican party.

If the choice had been healthcare, it is unlikely they would look to the Democrats for votes, so the move would have had to have been to supplicate to the Freedom Caucus. That would have signaled a shift to the right in the Republican power center and, in the longer term, a complete turnover in the congressional leadership of the party.

The infrastructure plan would have led down the opposite political path. Trump would have retreated to the populist high ground from which he campaigned, angling to piss off both parties equally, and might have been able to come up with a plan that some Dems could get behind because it struck a comfortable chord: Federal spending to create jobs. Moderate republicans might have held their nose on the first half of that in order to get the second…jobs jobs jobs. The Freedom Caucus would have gone crazy and maybe flamed out. And the country would have ended up with some better maintained bridges and tunnels. (Although, a trillion dollars, while it sounds like a lot, would have been spread pretty thin.)

But, in a short speech, the tone of which uncharacteristically measured, the President made the path forward clear. (And, as of 9am EDT, not a single tweet from readDonaldTrump, let alone any to indicate an about face.) What did he tell us?:

  • It was the Democrats fault.
  • Paul Ryan is a great guy.
  • “We’re going to go for tax reform, which I’ve always liked.”

There were some mixed signals. He espoused bipartisanship, but in the end, I can’t imagine how taxes can be any less divisive than healthcare. It looks like the President is going all in with his party and banking on Ryan to this time pull off pulling the gang together. In “what the hell do I know?” category, I thought he’d throw Paul Ryan under the bus, distance himself from the Republican rightright, and focus on some getting some bipartisan wins including a major infrastructure bill.

But no, he picked the one issue that might be more complex than healthcare. Future quote prediction: “Who knew how complex tax reform could be?” You heard it here first folks.

My crystal ball runs low trying to predict how this will play out. One prediction: Zero Democratic votes, whatever the details of the bill. A strategy to unify Republicans has to be based on the classic notion of cutting taxes and depending on trickle down to increase the wealth of lower income Americans. No Democrat will buy that. And, with even the most optimistic assumptions about the economic lift, how do you get anywhere near a balanced budget? With even deeper spending cuts than those floated recently? That would further drive a wedge between the parties and would be likely to alienate the lower income Republican faithful who depend on many of the services likely to be cut. This future bill could equal the healthcare bill’s 17% popularity.

The other approach might be to focus on simplicity—there’s a lot of appeal to a flat business tax—and by removing deductions offset loss of income for the budget. But this will create multiple factions of winners and losers and will likely more splinter than rally the party. And then there’s border taxes, also more likely to divide than unite.

I’ve got to study this one a little more, gang, but, boy, I don’t see how tax reform can go any smoother than healthcare. The high wire act continues.

Hang together or most assuredly…

Posted February 25, 2017 by Phil Odence
Categories: Politics

14028757974_98159df9bb_b.jpgThe institution of a free press is at risk and democracy depends on it. (That’s why it’s protected in the First Amendment.)

Many Republicans believed and many non-supporters hoped that the campaign rhetoric would fade, and President Trump would put behind him and dampen the provocative positions taken by Candidate Trump for the purpose of garnering votes. The President’s latest statements at CPAC, escalating his war on what he calls “The Enemy of the People,” i.e. the Press, foreshadows a continued assault on the press. If effective, this would substantially weaken media’s ability to provide the important check/balance on the administration that Madison and company felt important enough to put at the top of the Bill of Rights.

I understand President Trump was (as he does) playing to the crowd. But combine that with the same day’s events–Sean Spicer’s blocking selected news organizations for a White House briefing, and Steve Bannon’s continued references to the press as “the opposition party, “–and it all looks like a well-orchestrated attack rather than the president just wandering off script to stir up the conservative crowd.

As others have pointed out, a strained relationship with the media is not unique to this administration. Its inherent in a system of checks and balances that there will be tensions between the checkers and those getting checked. President Obama made similar attempts to exclude Fox News in the face of its ongoing attacks. But, Obama smokes cigarettes too, which most rational people agrees unhealthy. Doesn’t make it a good idea.

The press has the power to bring pressure to bear on the administration through its influence on the citizenry, but ultimately the consequences don’t play out for three years and nine months. In the shorter term, reporters can choose not to report on those things that the administration wants reporting on, but with so many media outlets, the absence of coverage by one or a few publications will only hurt them.

So, maintaining the stature of the press requires unity. The press have to see the big picture importance of preserving their common interests, a difficult thing for competitors. The administration strategy seems to be to drive a wedge between media outlets with differing political dispositions in order to exploit the difficulty. Divide and conquer, in the words of Philip of Macedonia (no relation).

Fox’s Shepard Smith gets it. He defended his network’s arch rival and ideological opposite with “CNN is not fake news.” Sean Hannity doesn’t. After the recent Melbourne rally, his headline read, “Trump takes on the press and delivers devastating knockout.” I watch him occasionally for exposure to the full spectrum of views and I note he describes every attack on the media adding the word “liberal” in front of media. There is a bigger picture he’s missing.

Going into this blog, I had the Franklin quote about hanging together or hanging separately in mind. (Have been thinking about the founders a lot lately as I am in the middle of Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition.) The National Review’s David French got there first with that quote in his opinion piece on the press blockage. Good for him and his publication (as conservative as its founder Bill Buckley) for seeing the big picture. I hope he is correct in his assertions:

…the White House should know that it’s move is completely unsustainable. Every news organization with any integrity will rightly boycott briefings if the White House excludes disfavored outlets. This is yet another one of the informal but effective checks on White House power. While a portion of Trump’s base may hate the media so much that they’re fine if Sean Spicer ends up only briefing Gateway Pundit, most of the rest of America finds press exclusion ridiculous. 

In fact, my hope is that there rest of America finds the press exclusion dangerous.

Gates and the Wisdom of Experience

Posted February 4, 2017 by Phil Odence
Categories: Politics, Uncategorized

images.jpegJust over a week ago, Robert Gates spoke at a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce event. Of course, the first days of the Trump presidency were high on the list of questions he received, and he responded with unique perspective.

You have to think Mr. Gates view is balanced. A lifetime republican, he served both Bush adminstrations as head of the CIA and Defense Secretary respectively. But after the next transition, he was retained by Obama to run the Defense Department. Last, September he loudly criticized candidate Trump in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, but more recently advised the transition team, and, evidently, put forth Rex Tillerson and General Mattis for their cabinet positions.

Much of the discussion in Boston was about advice Gates would give the new president during that first week in office. About the White House and the media, he stressed the importance of a free press (and Congress, by the way) as the guarantors of liberty and that it is a mistake to make the press an enemy. Candidly he disclosed that most presidents privately share some of the feelings with which Trump has been so very public. But, rather than getting hostile, he advised that Trump should consider whether the media may be right. In fairness, he also thinks the media needs to take it down a notch and get their heads out of the Twitterverse.

Asked for his advice on implementing change, Gates was very clear that President Trump needs to listen to the career pros who have been at this for a while. Gates has concerns about foreign policy going forward. Isolationism is popular because foreign policy is so outside most people’s day to day; it’s up the president to bring a global perspective to the people. He pointed to Tillerson, Mike Pompeo, John Kelly, and General Mattis as tough minded individuals who will tell him what he needs to hear.

So how’s it going? Not great viewed through the lens of Secretary Gates’ advice. The day after this talk, Steve Bannon suggested the “opposition party,” aka the media, should “keep its mouth shut.” Relations have continued to spiral down with the latest hub bub over the Bowling Green “massacre” and subsequent travel ban, both fictional which drove the press bonkers. And @realDonaldTrump still tweeting about “FAKE NEWS” in the wake of his awkward phone call with Malcom Turnbull.. Almost unbelievably, one of today’s early morning tweets from realDonald was:

After being forced to apologize for its bad and inaccurate coverage of me after winning the election, the FAKE NEWS @nytimes is still lost!

Is the press blowing some of this out of proportion? Yes, I think so, but such is the nature of an adversarial relationship.

On the foreign policy front, Oy vey! According to the AP (a credible source in my mind if not Bannon’s) with regard to the seven country travel ban:

At least three top national security officials — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Rex Tillerson, who is awaiting confirmation to lead the State Department — have told associates they were not aware of details of the directive until around the time Trump signed it. Leading intelligence officials were also left largely in the dark, according to U.S. officials.

The reorganization of the National Security Council suggests the likelihood that the President will, now officially as well as unofficially, discount input from the experienced folks that the former Defense Secretary says he should be relying on. In the wake of that move, Gates himself went public calling the demotions of the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs “a big mistake.” Senator McCain (Republican chair of the Armed Services Committee) is “worried about the NSC” for the same reasons.

So, who is the President listening to? In Judy Woodruff’s Wednesday NPR interview with Vice President Pence, she inquired about the extent of Bannon’s influence. He responded that the President “asks for input from everyone in the senior circle, and a lot of people outside the circle.” Pence is a master of staying on message, but honest, in my estimate. Still, the “a lot of other people” seemed like a bit of an afterthought, and it’s unclear to whom he was referring. I’m sure the Presdident is calling the shots. My concern is that he is only listening to his like-minded, tight inner circle most of whom have little experience in the business of running a country (and playing nice with others). Trump took some good advice from Gates on some key appointments; it would be great it he were to listen to him and them.

Seriously?

Posted January 29, 2017 by Phil Odence
Categories: Politics

Unknown.pngIn her September 23 piece in The Atlantic recounting her interview with then Candidate Trump, Selena Zito came up with the best two-liner of the year: “When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” She actually presented him with the idea during her interview, and he thought it was “Interesting.”

How interesting? Wasn’t it soon after that that he really started stepping up his criticism of the press? Maybe Zito’s comment was just reinforcement of what was already bugging the soon to be presumptive nominee, but maybe that comment really iced it for him. What could infuriate a narcissist more than not being taken seriously? And how much worse, for it to be by the noisy press. I’ll bet he thought, “I’m going to get those bastards.” And he’s proven to be pretty good at it.

Yesterday, Brooks and Shields on NPR were discussing two possible explanations for the President’s behavior during his first week in office. Essentially: 1. He’s calculating and Orwellian (did you see how popular 1984 has again become?) or 2. He’s a 5 year old who needs to do this to feed his ego. (For the record, I was twice as charitable calling him a 10 year old.) David Brooks (staunch Reagan republican, mind you) thinks he’s a 5 year old. Take me seriously or I am going to hit you, Press!

Now that we are all taking him seriously (like a heart attack), my theory is that the string of executive orders this week were his attempt to be taken literally too. Give the President credit, he has not forgotten his campaign promises. This was a week of: See, I was serious and literal. I’m going to build a wall, I’m going to keep Muslims out, I’m going to end Choice, etc.

So here’s what’s interesting. If Selena Zito was right with the second part of her pithy quote, are those serious-but-not-literal supporters having second thoughts after the literal first week of the new presidency? Were some of these voters thinking?: “I think we should tighten up the borders a little, but of course we won’t build a wall, that would be ridiculous. And of course we won’t ban Muslims, that would be un-American.” And now…holy moly!

And, more interesting, how about the Republican Congressional Leadership? Were some of them only comfortable getting in line with Trump Republicanism because of the false comfort of assuming he was not being literal? Any second thoughts? Yes, the Republicans own the Congress, but the big question is does the President own the Republicans? More to the point, does he own all the Republicans. It only takes three in the Senate to break ranks on an issue and the vote flips the other way. Literally. Seriously!

Is the Foreign Payments Lawsuit Spurious?

Posted January 24, 2017 by Phil Odence
Categories: Politics

I’m not thinking the lawsuit filed Monday holds a lot of water. I’m neither a lawyer nor Unknown.jpegconstitutional scholar (and I’d love my attorney friends to weigh in with some case law) but I really don’t believe the framers intended the Constitution to ban routine business transactions.

Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8 reads, “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

We’re clearly not talking about present, office or title, so the concern must be with an “Emolument.” I have to confess I missed that one in the SAT study guide. According to the Oxford Dictionary, it is “a salary, fee, or profit from employment or office.” I have a hard time seeing how a foreign government involved in a fair quid pro quo for a product or service from one of the Trump businesses would meet that definition. Is there really something wrong with our neighbors to the north putting up Justin Trudeau at the Trump Hotel in Vancouver? There are likely scenarios that would sound shadier, but in any case the claims seem too broad.

The suit was filed by smarter guys than I, including actual constitutional scholars and former White House ethicists (both Democrat and Republican). So where were they coming from? Well, there must be enough of a case that it will not be deemed frivolous. And, all are on the record as saying the the President has not gone far enough to separate himself from his businesses. So, they must calculate this will give them a bit of a stick to help whack him into taking steps towards a blind trust. Perhaps they are also thinking this might be a lever to force a peek at the secret tax returns.

If I works, then good. He does, IMO, remain tied far to close to The Trump Organization. And he should, like all other President’s, release those tax returns. The public does care, not just the press.

Barefoot Phil’s Political Rant

Posted January 22, 2017 by Phil Odence
Categories: Politics

I don’t think the President is ill-intended, stupid, or evil. He sincerely believes that he can make America great. But, I am extremely skeptical, and his actions since the election have done nothing to bolster my hopes. In fact, his speech, his Day 1 executive order allowing 170121123548-women-earthcam-exlarge-169.jpgagencies to stonewall the ACA and yesterday’s ludicrous speech at the CIA have more or less torpedoed any hopes I have that he might, in some ways, do a good job.

I get the appeal, I really do. The political correctness pendulum has probably swung too far; a little plain talking can be refreshing. It would be fantastic if everyone could magically have terrific healthcare at affordable prices. I’d love to see the obliteration of ISIS, more jobs in America, sparkling new infrastructure, a better education system, an even more vibrant economy…a Big Rock Candy Mountain! That would be unbelievable! It is unbelievable. Literally.

It’s baffling that thoughtful people buy into this rhetoric. The only rational explanation is “You can’t take him literally.” He says, “We’re gonna build a wall, and Mexico is going to pay for it, folks” means we are going to tighten up on border security a bit. Maybe. And then there’s “He’s just saying what he has to get elected. After that he will become presidential.” Evidently not, unless we write off the weekend and he pulls a 180 on tomorrow, or sometime soon.

Come on, “folks,” he’s irrational. He’s out of touch with reality. He says X one day and not X the next and may end up back at X. And doesn’t even know he’s doing it. How can we expect the executive branch to move forward in any direction when the compass is constantly spinning? And, facts don’t matter; he makes shit up. All the time! It’s a deeply engrained habit, it’s reflexive. Who can trust him? Congress? Foreign powers? Us?

The scary thing is how effectively he has been able to marginalize the press whose job it is to call him out. The founding fathers understood the critical role of a free press in maintaining a free society. In essence, we depend on the press to fact check, to hold elected officials accountable for being truthful. When have we ever needed that more? And, yet, somehow, Trump’s relentless attacks press’ veracity and ethics seem to have raised more than a question mark in the collective mind of the people. An uninformed electorate allows corruption to grow unfettered.  Said Jefferson, “If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed.” Chris Matthews went too far with the adjective “Hitleresque.” Trump is not Hitler. However, Hitler understood the power of controlling the message; witness the work of Goebels. Putin gets it too. Dictators and kleptocrats blindfold the public by neutering the press.

And he’s a prickly 10 year old bully. Now that he is in command of weapons far more dangerous that his Twitter account, is it really so far fetched that he might fire back more than a tweet at a foreign state that personally offends him? Do I really think he’s launch a nuclear F You? Probably not, but combine the revived isolationist, protectionist “America First” posture with his big-stick disposition and the types of calamity we all feared during the Cold War become more plausible.

Finally, the guy is over his head and seems to have no clue. A shrink might identify underlying insecurity as the root of his bravado, but the practical manifestation is that the hand at the helm disregarding (along with the facts) the educated inputs of the experienced professionals that surround him. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that The President is new to elected office. The political kid needs adult supervision.

Trump is not stupid and some of his instincts may be good, but if he can’t get out of the way of his ego, this country will be flying by the seat of his pants. In As You Like It, Shakespeare said, “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.”  And some call me a fool for running barefoot. Oy.

Measuring the Way to Good Health

Posted April 10, 2016 by Phil Odence
Categories: Diet, Exercise, Health

Tags: , , , ,

Management guru Peter Drucker is well-known for the maxim, “If don’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” There’s a corollary I stumbled upon in my Total Quality Management studies that suggests if you do measure it, it will tend to improve. The idea is that just drawing attention to an issue is often enough to cause people to address it.

This can also be applied to one’s personal health and thus I’ve started measuring stuff. It probably doesn’t work for everyone, but if you are the kind of person who strives for 10 out of 10 in Facebook quizzes, holds your breath for 60 seconds or checks your pulse during business meetings, or engages in other frivolous games with yourself, it might.

FullSizeRender.jpgWeight is so central—both an indicator and a driver of health—that it’s well-worth shining a light on. Face the reality of the scale every day. Doing so creates the little voice in the back of your head that quietly reminds you when faced with the dessert menu that tomorrow morning you will also have to face the numbers. It’s good to have some goal in mind. An excellent internist advised me years ago to pick a number that triggers red flashing lights and sirens. In my case, a nice, round 200 works very well. If I find myself approaching that threshold (which, by the way, I had blown past by my late thirties): Whoop, whoop…flash, flash, it’s a sobering condition red.

I no longer count every calorie, but as discussed in another posting, that’s a great practice, both to steer daily behavior and to educate you on the goods and bads of what you are putting into your system. Doing it for a few months is enough to give you a practical sense for what foods fit your dietary needs and which ones are better to avoid.

IMG_0296.PNGI never jumped on the FitBit, but as soon as my iPhone started counting steps, I began mildly obsessing over getting in 10,000 steps every day. This has clearly modified my behavior. I have cranked up the mileage on my runs, walk to someone’s desk at work rather than texting, and just yesterday, took the dog for another walk in the late afternoon, because I was sitting about 7,500 steps. As with anything, one can go overboard. And the reality is, I fall short, sometimes way short, a day or two a week, but being mildly obsessed with one’s health is a positive.

IMG_0297.PNGMost experts agree that for a male two drinks a day on average and never going above four are good guidelines. Knowing that I occasionally deviate, I started measuring using a simple iPhone app. It requires me to log in every drink which is a little bit of hassle, but manageable for the mildly obsessed. I’m positive that the act of measuring has caused me to drink less over the last couple of months. Having misbehaved a bit last weekend and to create some buffer for this weekend, I turned teetotaler for Sunday – Wednesday to get my 14-day average down.

I hope for and expect technology to enable more and easier health measurement. I would love to have the phone in my pocket vibrate whenever my blood sugar spikes a little. Last fall I experienced the joys of a kidney stone. Now I must avoid oxalates (spinach, almonds, and other otherwise healthy foods), up my calcium intake slightly, and drink a lot of lemon water to achieve a balance of chemicals in my blood that avoids the formation of stones. It drives me crazy that I can’t see how I’m doing; I’m shooting in the dark. The next measurement will not be for six months, a back-looking urinalysis, CAT scan and ultrasound. Boy would I love to have a real time graph on my phone, but I’d settle for a home urine test.