July 17th, 2009

Government Growth Upsets Work-Life Balance

Work-Life Balance

About four years ago, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency committed a classic Washington gaffe: He let the truth slip in a moment of inadvertent honesty. As the Associated Press reported,

In a rare public appearance Wednesday, CIA Director Porter Goss said he is overwhelmed by the many duties of his job, including devoting five hours out of every day to prepare for and deliver intelligence briefings to President Bush.

“The jobs I’m being asked to do, the five hats that I wear, are too much for this mortal,” Goss said. “I’m a little amazed at the workload.”

Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported on the similarly overwhelming responsibilities of Attorney General, Eric Holder:

[F]ormer colleagues around the District … say they are watching him age before their eyes.

Always lean, Holder has dropped weight from his lanky frame, as he eats less and climbs five steep flights of stairs to his office in a routine that leaves younger aides breathless. His dark hair is graying, and his forehead displays new lines. He travels constantly, sometimes boarding an airplane three times a week even as he fends off a persistent sinus infection and a bad back. He struggles with working long hours away from his three children and his wife, prominent D.C. physician Sharon Malone.

“Under normal circumstances, the attorney general is one of the hardest jobs in government,” said Reid Weingarten, a prominent D.C. lawyer and longtime friend who sat directly behind Holder at his marathon confirmation hearings in January. “There is a constant stream of impossibly difficult policy, case-related, bureaucratic and personnel decisions crossing your desk every minute.

The result of such work-life imbalance is predictable. To continue the quotations, recall a scene from the West Wing, wherein Leo McGarry, the White House chief of staff, explains to his wife why he forgot their anniversary:

LEO: This [my job] is the most important thing I’ll ever do, Jenny. I have to do it well.

JENNY: It’s not more important than your marriage.

LEO: It is more important than my marriage right now. These few years, while I’m doing this, yes, it’s more important than my marriage.

Sure, you can argue that Goss is a lightweight, that Holder should delegate more, that Leo is a workaholic. Each statement is true. Yet the fact remains that as government grows, so do the responsibilities of its top officials.

One solution is to hire yet more bureaucrats, entrenching and perpetuating the status quo. Alternatively, we can rethink the scope and size of the state, and pare back both so that those who run our country can at least get a good night’s sleep.


July 15th, 2009

To Watch Me Swim Is to Understand Who I Am

Summit Area YMCA Seals Swim Team Pool

Two months ago, Hank Buntin, the longtime head coach of the Summit Area YMCA Seals Swim Team, retired. Upon hearing the news, I e-mailed Hank the following letter, which I thought I’d share here.

Hank,

My mother told that your retirement party was richly deserved, well-attended, and fun. I wish I could have been there, so that I could have shared my respect for your steady, storied leadership of the Seals.

Swimming was the rock that, from age eight until 18, brought together therapy, exercise and camaraderie for a couple hours each night. Indeed, had you not chosen me to be part of the Seals after I showed up for try-outs in a baggy, decidedly un-Speedo-like swimsuit almost 20 years ago, my life might have taken a far different direction.

Swimming taught me myriad life lessons–the importance and fruits of hard work, of ethical behavior, of esprit de corps. And you, Hank, taught me that fun and purpose are not mutually exclusive but complementary.

I still wear my Seals t-shirts to the gym, still think of myself as a swimmer, and still experience great pride and fond memories whenever I enter the Summit Y.

Thanks for taking a chance on me, for staying with me, and for inspiring me.

Very respectfully,
Jon


July 13th, 2009

There’s Something About Dick Cheney

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, center right, is flanked by his wife Lynne, right, and Israel's President Moshe Katsav, center left, when leaders from 30 countries gather to remember the victims of the Holocaust on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazis' Auschwitz death camp by Soviet troops in Oswiecim, southern Poland on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2005. At left is Jolana Kwasniewski, the wife of Poland's President. (AP Photo/Herbert Knosowski)

A version of this blog post appeared on the Next Right on July 13, 2009.

In his Pulitzer-winning biography, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, Barton Gellman recounts a conversation between former vice president Dan Quayle and newly sworn-in VP Dick Cheney:

“Dick, you know, you’re going to be doing a lot of this international traveling, you’re going to be doing all this political fundraising,” Quayle [said]. “I mean, this is what vice presidents do. We’ve all done it. You go back and look at what I did, or what Gore did.”

Cheney did that thing he does with one raised eyebrow, a smile on just the left side of his face.

“I have a different understanding with the president,” he said.

What exactly what was this “different understanding”? Gellman captures it perfectly in another reported nugget:

Days after [Hurricane Katrina] had passed, when he finally returned to Washington from Crawford, [President] Bush assembled his senior staff in the Oval Office. He was going to form a cabinet-level task force, he said.

“I asked Dick if he’d be interested in spearheading this,” Bush announced. “Let’s just say I didn’t get the most positive response.” Bush nodded ironically toward the vice president, putting on a show for the others: Card, Rove, Bartlett, Condi Rice. His expression, the tone of voice, had a hint of edge. Can you believe this guy?. . . .

“Will you at least go do a fact-finding trip for us?” Bush asked.

“That’ll probably be the extent of it, Mr. President, unless you order otherwise,” Cheney replied.

Leave aside for the moment whether you like or agree with Cheney. Can’t we all appreciate the sui generis power he wielded? The consequence-free autonomy? The chutzpah? Consider:

• He maneuvered the search committee he was leading to select a vice presidential candidate for then-Governor Bush such that he himself became the running mate—while maintaining a treasure trove of personal information about his would-be competitors.

• He argued, all the way to the Supreme Court, his right to keep private the names of those with whom he had devised a national energy strategy.

• He, rather than the president, issued the order to shoot down the unknown jetliner racing toward Washington on 9/11.

• He unilaterally exempted his office from the presidential order that requires executive branch personnel either to submit periodic reports on the classified information held in their offices, or to allow National Archives staff to conduct in-office inspections.

• He accidentally shot a friend in the face while quail hunting, and kept the incident under wraps for a full day.

• He, rather than the president, ordered the CIA to withhold information about a secret counterrrorism program from Congress.

Others have written at length about Cheney’s predilection for secrecy and executive power. But what fascinates me is Cheney’s psychology. He doesn’t care what you think. He’s a millionaire in his 60s who’s survived four heart attacks. He does what he wants, when he wants, and lets the chips fall where they may (for instance, a 13% approval rating upon leaving office).

There’s something wondrous, if not necessarily wonderful, about that.


July 11th, 2009

Why Have So Many Republicans Launched Their Own PR Shops Recently?

In the past two months, at least six Republican PR agencies have come into being:

1. The Surge Strategies

2. Jackson Street Partners

3. Compelem Strategies

4. The Potomac Strategy Group

5. The Capital Communications Group

6. Amplifico

Clearly there’s a pattern here. Less clear is why, given the double whammy of a recession and the GOP’s status as minority party in the executive, legislative and, soon, judicial branches of the federal government.

Addendum (7/11/2009): Not only does this influx further saturate a shrinking market (GOP PR); these firms also are competing with at least nine center-right consultancies that specialize in the fastest growing niche in the field, new media:

1. The Adfero Group

2. The Bivings Group

3. The David All Group

4. DC Signal

5. Dialog New Media

6. Engage

7. Fresh Vision Media

8. iWeb Strategies

9. Kithbridge


July 6th, 2009

Of Migraines and Moderation

Balance Is the Key to Life

In college, I began experiencing severe headaches. The symptoms were classic migraine: Lightness is blinding, one side of my head (the right) is throbbing, and relief arrives only after at least an hour lying in bed in a dark room.

A physician at the health center clarified the causes. I had been pulling a series of all-nighters, during which I didn’t eat and stole but an hour or two of sleep, after which I rushed to class without breakfast. To wit, sleep deprivation + lack of food = migraine. (To paraphrase George Orwell, Sometimes it takes a MD “to see what is in front of one’s nose.”)

Several months later, a consultation with a neurologist made me aware of Excedrin Migraine. If taken preemptively rather than reactively, this over-the-counter medicine proved to be a panacea for what turned out to be an occassional flare-up.

Of course, pills don’t address root causes, and for the past week and a half, I’ve found myself back in migraine misery. A chart I kept of the time of the episodes, what I ate in the preceding 12 hours, and how many hours I slept the night before, revealed my good old friend: Sleep deprivation + lack of food = migraine.

Now, common sense says the solution is to sleep better and eat better.  Yet there’s a broader point about living better.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve pooh-poohed my health. While I’ve never smoked or drank coffee, or even much alcohol outside of social settings, I’ve lived off fast food and Coke. I stopped going to the gym after graduating, I nap regularly because of an erratic sleep schedule, and I seek out stressful situations. While these bad habits don’t cause headaches, they bring about an environment that facilitates them.

Accordingly, if there’s an upside to my recent bout of migraines, it’s that I’m convinced any road to recovery must be holistic. I can’t just start swimming again (as I’ve done); I need to establish a daily exercise routine. I can’t just stop napping after work; I need to become an early riser, on both weekdays and weekends. I can’t just stop eating at Wendy’s; I need to change my diet.

The road to a migraine-free life goes through a moderate lifestyle.


June 28th, 2009

Does Obama Recognize Criticism of His Health Care Proposal?

A version of this blog post appeared on TechRepublican.

Given his aversion to the bubble of the presidency, willingness to admit when he screws up, and experience as a professor of constitutional law, it seems fair to conclude that while Obama may disagree with you on a particular issue, he’s at least conversant with the counterarguments. Indeed, it’s said that a good lawyer—and Obama graduated from Harvard Law magna cum laude—can argue both sides of a case.

As such, I think the President would be open to the following question, which I submitted this morning for his upcoming online town hall meeting on health care:

What do you think—without caricature—is the strongest, most serious objection to your health care proposal, and how would you reply?

YouTube says the winning questions will be among the most popular ones, so if you’re interested in which conservative criticism is most cogent, why not watch and share the above 16-second video? Let’s see if we can replicate what Patrick Ruffini did in 2007 with YouTube’s “10 Questions” contest.


June 21st, 2009

Where Have All the Links Gone?

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I recently stopped posting my near-daily compilation of links. I did so in an effort to blog more—see, for instance, the posts, “How to Become a Better E-mailer” and “How I Bought My New TV.” If you still are interested in these links, they’re now being auto-posted to my Twitter account, and they’re always available via my Delicious feed.


June 18th, 2009

Do You Regularly Back Up Your Hard Drive?

Hard Drive

If not, this snippet from the Times’s David Pogue may cause you to reconsider:

“Your digital life spins at 7,200 rotations a minute on your computer’s hard drive. A delicate reading arm, hovering a fraction of an inch above the surface of the drive’s spinning platters, dances across them at 60 miles an hour; one bump, and your files are toast. Your hard drive’s likelihood of mechanical failure is 100 percent; it’s just a matter of when.

“And this is how society has chosen to preserve its future?


June 14th, 2009

Negligence and Compensation

A week ago, I sent a letter to the editor of the New York Times. Since it hasn’t been published yet, I’m free to publish it myself.

Ethicist Randy Cohen argues that Natalie, who broke her friend’s hard drive when she tripped over its cable, need not compensate her friend (Magazine, June 2). “To leave the house is to accept some risks,” Cohen concludes.

Yet we never learn whether Natalie was negligent in tripping or whether the friend was negligent in setting up the cable. The answer is crucial, since negligence—as Cohen himself acknowledges in the same column—ought to determine compensation (or lack thereof).

Just as accidents happen, so we need not exonerate carelessness.


June 13th, 2009

How I Bought My New TV

Sony Bravia KDL-46V5100

Because I haven’t blogged in a while.

Checking off an item that’s been at the top of my to do list for a couple years now, yesterday I became the proud owner of a flat screen TV. There was nothing wrong per se with my 15-year-old 34” Sony; rather, I wanted something better, specifically, lighter and horizontal.

My first question—plasma or LCD—was answered by way of the paucity of the former and abundance of the latter. My second question—size—was answered by the viewing distance used by a friend who recently bought a 42 incher. Even though the distance in her living room equaled the distance in my bedroom, my poor eyesight suggested that I’d be better off with the next size up, 46”. My third and fourth questions—resolution and refresh rate—were answered by an article from a few months ago in the Los Angeles Times, which convinced me that I wanted 1080p and 120Hz, respectively.

Using these criteria, I began my research. I started with two sites I rely on routinely: BestBuy and Amazon. I used these sites—in addition to a little Googling, which generated this recent article from CNET, “Best HDTVs (43-49 inches)”—to familiarize myself with the range of 46” LCDs. At this point, I decided on a budget of $1,500.

Next, I headed over to ConsumerReports.org, which for my money offers the most reliable recommendations for shopping. In the 46-47” category, CR recommends five sets: the Sony Bravia KDL-46XBR8 (quality score: 77), Samsung UN46B7000 (76), Samsung UN46B6000 (74), Toshiba REGZA 46XV540U (71), and Sony Bravia KDL-46V5100 (71).

I excluded the cheapest and most expensive units—the Toshiba ($1,200) and the Sony Bravia KDL-46XBR8 ($4,000)—and so was left with three choices: the Samsung UN46B7000 ($2,700), Samsung UN46B6000 ($2,520), and Sony Bravia KDL-46V5100 ($1,800). Given my budget, the choice from here was easy: the Sony Bravia KDL-46V5100.

Similarly easy was where to make the purchase. Technically, the wholesaler, Butterfly Photo, offered the best deal ($1,394 total). Yet a little Googling revealed that Dell.com had recently reduced its price to $1,399. And while Dell charges tax and for shipping and handling, I was able to use a coupon for a final price that noticeably bested Butterfly’s.

Many people still prefer to walk into a store, chat with a salesperson, make a purchase and be home within the hour. I prefer research and comparison-shopping online, which, while more of a headache and time-consuming, yields a better price and more confidence in one’s purchase.

Addendum (6/21/2009): Check out this buyer’s guide that appeared a few days ago in the New York Times.


March 22nd, 2009

Overtaxed

Here’s a nice quote from Bill Frist, though I’ve changed the word “they” to “we”:

“We pay property taxes on the houses where we sleep, registration fees when we buy cars, gas taxes when we drive them, income and payroll taxes on nearly every dollar of wages, sales taxes on most purchases and capital gains taxes when we sell assets.”


January 25th, 2009

You Campaign With Clenched Fists. You Govern With Open Palms

The United States Senate in the Senate Chamber, 108th Congress, 2003

Mario Cuomo once said, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” To this maxim, we might add, “You campaign with fists. You govern with palms.” Lawrence O’Donnell, a former staff director of the Senate Commerce Committee and West Wing producer, explains:

“The politics of campaigning are so simple: I’m going to beat you and leave you dead in a snowbank in New Hampshire and never look back. But in the Senate you can be trying to prevail over another senator on Tuesday afternoon whose vote you know you’re going to need on Wednesday afternoon for something else. The ordinary work of the Senate never involves fighting.

“Virtually all the people who run for Senate seats lie and say they’re going to fight, but what they’re actually going to do—which they may not know when they go to Washington for the first time—is beg. And beg people like me, whom they’ve never heard of, the staff director of this or that committee, before they ever get to meet the chairman.

“So the personal qualities necessary for Senate work are politeness and charm and graciousness and generosity, which New York tabloids have no comprehension of. Why should they? The press is never allowed in the rooms where governance actually takes place.


November 11th, 2008

How Would You Respond to This E-mail?

Hand on MouseIn the first week of my first job, my boss sent me the following e-mail:

“Jonathan: Please find out who voted for BCRA.”

My first instinct was to reply, “Hi Bill: So sorry about this, but I don’t know what BCRA is.” Fortunately, before clicking Send, I rethought my response and instead Googled “BCRA.” Ten seconds later, I found the answer: BCRA stood for the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, otherwise known as McCain-Feingold.

These differing responses represent the two types of employees. The first response, which foists the burden back onto the questioner, comes from the slothful employee, who wants to go about his job without exertion and who does not seek success. The second response, which embraces the burden, comes from the achiever. He may not know the answer—and even be utterly ignorant of the subject—but he takes it upon himself to learn. He is averse to answering a question with a question, and considers it a failure if he cannot do what is asked, even with limited information. (A third response, research without success, is fine, as long as the research is undertaken in good faith.)

In short, the slothful employee presents his boss with problems, whereas the achiever presents him with solutions. One is a problem; the other is a problem-solver.

Think about which person you are the next time you receive a request—and not just from a superior—which asks for something about which you’re ignorant. Instead of reaching for the Reply button, scroll a little farther for the search bar. You may surprise yourself.


October 16th, 2008

Double-Talk vs. Straight Talk

John and Cindy McCain

If he can fool his pro-choice wife into thinking that he supports Roe v. Wade, should we really be surprised that John McCain can fool his countrymen, too? As Sarah Blustain observed this past summer in the New Republic,

McCain has spent years manipulating the public’s perception of his stance on abortion and reproductive health. He’s been against overturning Roe v. Wade and he’s been for it; he’s embraced the idea of a pro-choice running mate and, more recently, recoiled from it. It’s no wonder the public is confused.

Kudos, then, to Bob Schieffer, who in last night’s debate pressed McCain for clarity. Double kudos to Schieffer for following-up not just once, but twice, resulting in the following exchange:

SCHIEFFER: But even if it was someone—even someone who had a history of being for abortion rights, you would consider them?

MCCAIN: I would consider anyone in their qualifications. I do not believe that someone who has supported Roe v. Wade that would be part of those qualifications. But I certainly would not impose any litmus test.

Translation: Roe is disqualifying, even though I don’t believe in such qualifications in the first place.

Those who have followed McCain’s career recognize this massive contradiction as one of his classic tricks: A little pandering, a little double-talking, and hope that no one notices.


October 13th, 2008

Experience Does Not Predict Success

Barack Obama and Sarah Palin

Many people enjoy pointing out how “inexperienced” Barack Obama and Sarah Palin are. I, myself, hung out in this crowd, and recently argued this point to my friend Jon Henke. Jon responded:

I don’t see how you can say one of those two is experienced and the other inexperienced. You’ve got to think they’re both sufficiently experienced, or neither are, to be intellectually honest about the thing.

Well, at the risk of being intellectually dishonest, consider the following. As a senator, Obama has legislative experience at the national level, of which Palin has none. As a mayor and governor, Palin has executive experience, of which Obama has none. (I’m unconvinced that running a senate office or a presidential campaign qualifies as executive experience.)

The more important question, however, is whether any of this really matters?

We like to think that a president should have both experiences. We scoff at the suggestion that the leader of the free world will need to “learn on the job.” Yet in order to address this all-too-common refrain, we need to step back and question its premise. As Jon puts it, “When has experience been a good predictor of presidential performance?”

In fact, it hasn’t. During the last presidential election, journalist Lawrence Kaplan pointed out the overlooked obvious:

[I]s it really necessary to point out that Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt never saw combat before going on to become America’s greatest wartime strategists? Or that the very men who dispatched Kerry to Vietnam were themselves decorated veterans? To be sure, politicians who have served in war have an essential understanding of the horrors of war. But what does it tell us about their strategic wisdom or their fitness to be commander-in-chief? In truth, very little.

Similarly, what about those who become politicians without any background in politics? Names like Michael Bloomberg, Jon Corzine and Arnold Schwarzenegger come to mind. And what about those without any executive experience? The only political qualification held by the current chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, before arriving in the Senate, was a two-year stint on his county council. His name is Joe Biden. Indeed, the last three presidents to be re-elected—Reagan, Clinton and Bush—all previously were governors without a national, legislative portfolio.

In a nutshell, experience is overrated.

Addendum (11/5/2009): Talk-radio host, Michael Medved, adds a moral (as opposed to practical) dimension to my argument: Judge the person, not the resume. In Medved’s words,

One of the most fundamental American values [is] the notion that each individual deserves to be judged on ability, not background, and evaluated on performance rather than credentials …  [We are] a nation that proudly offers fresh starts and open doors.