Jun 182014

Democracy in Action

I went to our local high school gym last night to vote for a smallish ($12mm) school bond issue as well as another proposition I didn’t quite understand about paying for fire alarms in the schools. As is always the case in New York, I was somewhere between amused and appalled that the voting machines are pre-war vintage (possibly Civil, definitely WWI).

But this election was a new experience for me. When I finished voting, I ran into a friend of ours who is on the school board, and he suggested I stick around because the polls were closing, and I’d get to hear the results.

This picture is how the results were tabulated. A woman with a whiteboard yelled across the gym to each of three other volunteers, who yelled back the numbers from each of the three machines. Hand tabulation in 2014. I’m glad the vote wasn’t close!

Voting

Why exactly are we not all voting on the internet by now?

Jul 042013

Best CEO/Entrepreneur Quote Ever, By a Mile

Best CEO/Entrepreneur Quote Ever, By a Mile

I’ve seen and heard a lot of these.  But perhaps it’s fitting that on Independence Day, I realized that this gem of a quote, not specifically about entrepreneurs or CEOs but very applicable to them, comes from President Theodore Roosevelt in his “Citizenship in a Republic” speech at the Sorbonne in Paris, April 23, 1910:

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

Amen, Brother Teddy.  This quote is so good that it appears twice independently (once from me, once in a contributor’s sidebar) in my almost-ready-to-pre-order book, Startup CEO.  In fact, let me quietly take this opportunity to start a bit of a hashtag movement around the topic at #startupceo.  More to come on this next week!

Jan 052012

Book Short: Fixing America

Book Short:  Fixing America

I usually only blog about business books, but since I occasionally comment on politics, I thought I would also post on That Used to be Us:  How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, by Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum (book, Kindle), which I just finished.

There is much that is good about America.  And yet, there is much that is broken and in need of serious repair.  I wrote about some thought on fixing our political system last year in The Beginnings of a Roadmap to Fix America’s Badly Broken Political System?, but fixing our political system can only do so much.  Tom Friedman, with whom I usually agree a lot, but only in part, nailed it in his latest book.  Instead of blaming one party or the other (he points the finger at both!), he blames our overall system, and our will as a people, for the country’s current problems.

The authors talk about the four challenges facing America today – globalization, the IT revolution, deficits and debt, and rising energy demand and climate change, and about how the interplay of those four challenges are more long term and less obvious than challenges we’ve faced as a country in the past, like World Wars or The Great Depression, or even The Great Recession.  The reason, according to the authors, that we have lost our way a bit in the last 20-40 years, is that we have strayed from the five-point formula that has made us successful for the bulk of our history:

  • Providing excellent public education for more and more Americans
  • Building and continually modernizing our infrastructure
  • Keeping America’s doors to immigration open
  • Government support for basic research and development
  • Implementation of necessary regulations on private economic activity

It’s hard not to be in violent agreement with the book as a normal person with common sense.  Even the last point of the five-point formula, which can rankle those on the right, makes sense when you read the specifics.  And the authors rail against excessive regulation enough in the book to give them credibility on this point.

The authors’ description of the labor market of the future and how we as a country can be competitive in it is quite well thought through.  And they have some other great arguments to make – for example, about how the prior decade of wars was, for the first time in American history, not accompanied by tax increases and non-essential program cuts; or about how we can’t let ourselves be held hostage to AARP and have “funding old age” trump “funding youth” at every turn.

The one thing I disagree with a bit is the authors’ assertion that “we cannot simply cut our way to fiscal sanity.”  I saw a table in the Wall Street Journal the same day I was reading this book that noted the federal budget has grown from $2.6T in 2007 to $3.6T today – 40% in four years!  Sure sounds to me like mostly a spending program, though I do support closing loopholes, eliminating subsidies, and potentially some kind of energy tax for other reasons.

I’ll save their solution for those who read the book.  It’s not as good as the meat of the book itself, but it’s solid, and it actually mirrors something my dad has been talking about for a while now.  If you care about where we are as a country and how we can do better, read this book!

Sep 092011

9/11’s 10th

9/11’s 10th

I wasn’t yet writing this blog on 9/11 (no one was writing blogs yet), and if I had had one, I’m not sure what I would have written.  The neighborhood immediately surrounding the World Trade Center had been my home for more than seven years before the twin towers fell, and it continued to be my home for more than seven years after they fell.  That same neighborhood was Return Path‘s home for its first 18 months or so, across two different offices.  Like all Americans, the attack felt personal.  Like all New Yorkers, it was in our face.  But it hit home in a different way for those of us who lived and worked in Lower Manhattan.

For the seven years after the attacks, I stopped by Ground Zero on the morning of 9/11 to reflect and memorialize the event.  I won’t be doing that this year — between living outside the city, the kids, and the likely overwhelming crowds, it doesn’t make sense.  So this post will have to suffice as this year’s reflection on the 10th anniversary of that awful day.

My memories from that day and the weeks that followed are a little jumbled now, as memories often are.  The things I remember most vividly, both personal and professional, are:

  • The smell and the smoke.  Up until the New Year, over 3 months after the attacks, a plume of smoke was rising from Ground Zero, and the air had a putrid smell of burning everything — building materials, fuel, fragments of life
  • I had left the city that morning to drive to a meeting in Danbury, Connecticut at Pittney-Bowes with our then head of sales, Dave Paulus.  We both received calls on our cell phones at the same instant from Mariquita and Pam telling us to turn on the news, that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.  For a while, everyone assumed it was an accident.  We continued with our meeting, although it kept getting interrupted with more bad news coming in via our senior contact’s assistant, until she wheeled a TV into the conference room so we could watch for ourselves
  • I couldn’t get back into the city that night, so Dave and I crashed at my Grandma Hazel’s house in Westchester.  When I finally did get home, Mariquita and I met up and stayed with our friends Christine and Andrew on the upper west side and listened all night to the fighter planes cruising up and down the Hudson River, sentries on patrol
  • When we finally could go back to our apartment, we had to go on foot from Canal Street south, and we had to show proof of residence (in our case, a copy of our lease) to get past the military guards.  With no traffic allowed and no subways running in Lower Manhattan for a week or two, the streets had an eerie emptiness about them.  The prevalence of national guardsmen and NYPD patrols toting machine guns made it feel like a war zone
  • At work, where the Internet 1.0 meltdown was still in process, we were in the middle of negotiating a life-saving financing and acquisition of Veripost with Eric Kirby and George.  We hit the pause button on everything, but we picked back up and dusted ourselves off within a day and got those deals done within a few weeks and saved the company
  • We had one junior employee in our New York office who got into his car on the afternoon of 9/11, drove to New Hampshire, and never contacted us again.  Just completely blew a fuse and dropped out.  It wasn’t until we tracked down his parents a few days later that we even knew he was safe and sound
  • I was fortunate not to lose anyone close in the attacks, but my friend Morten lost over a dozen close friends who were all traders from his town in New Jersey.  He attended every single funeral.  How he got through that (and how others got through their many losses) remains beyond my comprehension, even today

The only thing I have really blogged about over the years related to 9/11 was my post Morning in Tribeca in 2004 when the skeleton of WTC7, the first rebuilt building, was going up.  Now that the Freedom Tower is rising, it finally feels like the Ground Zero site has great forward momentum and will in fact be fully renewed in a few years once the bulk of this construction is done and the tenants have moved in.  That will be a great day for New York, and for America.

Filed under: Current Affairs, Politics, Return Path

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Mar 102011

The Beginnings of a Roadmap to Fix America’s Badly Broken Political System?

The Beginnings of a Roadmap to Fix America’s Badly Broken Political System?

UPDATE:  This week’s Economist (March 17) has a great special report on the future of the state that you can download here, entitled”Taming Leviathan:  The state almost everywhere is big, inefficient and broke. It needn’t be,” which has many rich examples, from California to China, and espouses a bunch of these ideas.

I usually try to keep politics away from this blog, but sometimes I can’t help myself.  I’m so disgusted with the dysfunction in Washington (and Albany…and Sacramento…and…) these days, that I’ve spent more spare cycles than usual thinking about the symptoms, their root causes, and potential solutions.  A typical entrepreneur’s approach, I guess.  So here’s my initial cut at a few solutions.

I’m sure it’s incomplete, and it’s possibly overly simplistic.  While I think it’s a pretty pragmatic and non-partisan approach, I’m guessing people will have visceral political opinions about it.  Here are five things I’d like to see that I think will start us on the road to repair:

  • Nonpartisan redistricting: All districts at all levels of government should be drawn by nonpartisan commissions.  There is no reason to create “safe” seats and uncompetitive elections that drive candidates to extreme positions in order to win primaries.  All of that is undemocratic.  I hope California’s proposition that creates this kind of solution works and is copied.
  • Public finance of campaigns: This will have to come with a constitutional amendment limiting free speech when it comes to political campaigns, but we should be prepared as a society to limit freedom in that one narrow way in order to remove money from politics.  This topic just keeps coming up, from both the left and the right (think about the examples of Wall Street donations impacting financial reform on one side and public sector union political contributions impacting negotiations with states and cities on the other).
  • Presidential line-item veto: Its constitutionality may be in question, but this would give the President a more granular form of one check-and-balance he already has and could greatly help reduce wasteful spending as well as simplify legislation (more on that in a minute).
  • Auto-expiration of tax/spend bills: I found the debate over the expiration or extension of the “Bush tax cuts” to be enlightening.  Maybe some class of tax/spend bills — those over a certain dollar figure, those that create entitlements, though that involve government subsidies to industry — should be forced to be renewed every 5 or 10 years instead of being “evergreen” so that the debate can reoccur in light of changes in circumstance.  How many other things are “on the books” in ways that don’t make sense in today’s world?
  • Simplicity of legislation: The health care reform bill was 1,990 pages long according to the pdf I just downloaded, and few if any in Congress actually read the whole thing.  They even admitted it AT THE TIME.  Is this a smart way to govern?  Whether voluntarily or via constitutional amendment, Congress should consider only passing single-issue bills and maybe even limiting the size of any given piece of legislation to something that at least THEY THEMSELVES ARE ABLE TO READ.

These things should do a lot to ease legislative gridlock, relieve bitter partisan rancor, and remove some of the silly parliamentary manoeuvrings that plague our government today.  Whether or not they can systematically deal with elected officials’ unwillingness to tackle hard problems and penchant for personal deal-making and runaway deficit spending is another question.

My personal belief is that country could stand some form of a new Constitutional Convention to critically review our society and its governance after almost 250 years.  I love our Constitution and think it was wisely laid out as the foundation for what has become one of the world’s greatest and most enduring nations…but that doesn’t mean that the Founders, who lived in a very, very different time, had perfect vision for all eternity.

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