Monday, November 28, 2011

Looking to "experts" - How Herman Cain can revive his campaign for the GOP nomination

Herman Cain is the only person in the GOP field who has significant experience running a private company from the perspective of an operator. Yes, Mitt Romney has significant experience in business, but for the most part his experience is as a consultant or an investor rather than as an operator. When I say operator I’m talking about being in charge of making payroll, worrying about regulators – local, state and national – setting policy and executing, all while inspiring employees to succeed and earning a profit. Those are the kinds of things that Herman Cain has done – more than once. He revived a moribund Philadelphia Burger King unit with 400 floundering stores. He slashed the fat from a money losing Godfather’s Pizza chain and returned it to profitability… and eventually bought the company himself.

As an operator Cain was on the front lines of the single biggest threat to the economic health of the United States today: Government regulation. As such, Cain understands exactly what needs to be done to free up the nation’s entrepreneurial spirit. Of course he’s also led a major national organization, the National Restaurant Association, sat on the board of Fortune 500 companies like Nabisco and Whirlpool and spent seven years serving in various capacities (including Chairman of the Board) of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

Cain’s hands on experience actually running businesses and his oft articulated dedication to a constitutionally limited government make him the best choice amongst the current GOP lineup to lead the country out of its economic malaise. Not to forget 9-9-9 as well. Unfortunately for him however, while paring back government to spur innovation, investment and prosperity is the single most important job of the next president, it’s not the whole job. As such I have two main concerns about Herman Cain today.

Firstly I’m troubled by his lack of big picture thinking on foreign affairs and national defense. From his “listen to the experts” approach to Iraq and Afghanistan to his apparent confusion about Obama’s Libya policy to his lack of clarity the Palestinian “Right of Return”, one is not left with a feeling of great confidence. I might suggest however that the “out of his league” impression he leaves might not necessarily be fatal. Given that the next president’s single biggest priority must be a “laser focus” on reviving the American economy, having someone comfortable in international affairs is not a priority. But having someone competent with a strong team is. A coherent policy on foreign affairs is vitally important in a global economy. At the same time, with an ever changing cast of rouge characters around the world, national security must be an integral part of the foreign policy equation. As such, Mr. Cain could ameliorate the reservations many have about his international relations aptitude and skillset by immediately recruiting John Bolton to lead his foreign policy team and giving him a supporting cast made up of people like Max Boot and Dinesh D'Souza.

I’ve never believed that a presidential candidate needs to know the names of every leader and would-be leader in every country around the world. They must however have (and articulate) a relatively clear general approach to foreign affairs and have a basic familiarity with the major issues of the time. By harnessing such a clear thinking, well respected and no nonsense champion like Bolton to drive his foreign and defense policies, Cain would in one decisive moment demonstrate his intent to field a serious foreign policy team that would implement a robust and American centric (as opposed to an international or global centric) foreign policy that would both comfort allies and put enemies on notice. A John Bolton led team would immediately give voters confidence that while Cain may be weak on the specifics, he understands the importance of foreign affairs and defense policy to the job he is seeking and signal his administration’s intent to give them the level of attention and resources they deserve.

The second concern with Cain has to do with the harassment accusations. As I wrote at the time, I doubt the veracity of the charges. My concern however is that given more than a week’s notice the campaign seemed to be so unprepared once the issue became public. A week’s notice and they seemed befuddled. That falls on Mark Block, Cain’s campaign manager. As does his setting up of the disastrous interview with The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel a couple of weeks later. Together these two self inflicted wounds may have sunk the Cain campaign. As such, if the campaign is going to find its footing again Mr. Cain should replace Mr. Block, or at a minimum partner him with someone like Dana Perino who’s better attuned to the what a presidential candidate should and shouldn’t be doing and saying out on the campaign trail. Loyalty is laudable, but when that loyalty endangers the raison d'ĂȘtre of the endeavor in the first place, it becomes a liability. The greatest thanks Mr. Cain could pay Mr. Block’s efforts would be to become President Cain rather than candidate Icarus who fell from the sky without ever achieving his objective.

Mr. Cain frequently talks about looking to “experts” on a wide variety of issues. Certainly a multitude of said experts are necessary to lead a nation of 300 million people, administer multi trillion dollar budgets and operate in an international arena of constantly shifting alliances and relationships. Candidate Cain asks the American people to have confidence in his ability to draw on the expertise and skills of others to supplement his knowledge and experience. He could earn that confidence reaching out and harnessing the skills of such experts today to help him become President Cain. If he can’t engage experts now, to help him revive his campaign and help him win the presidency in the first place, we’re probably better off not seeing how the policy would have been implemented once he entered the Oval Office.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Commerce Clause frivolity: Obamacare, NASA and your unwed pregnant daughter...

Two weeks ago the Supreme Court agreed to decide the constitutionality of President Obama’s signature piece of legislation, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

In a surprising act of courage, the Court agreed to decide the divisive case in the midst of what will certainly be one of the most viscerally contentious elections in a century. To their credit, when they could have easily kicked the can down the road and waited until after the election to take the case, they did not. Not only did they accept the case, but they allotted an unprecedented 5 ½ hours of oral argument for it. They fully recognize that their decision will have significant political implications. Not in the sense that it will sway voters one way or another (which it will certainly do) but in that it gives voters the opportunity to take into account the consequences of their 2008 votes when they walk into the booth in November.

However the Court decides, the consequences of that election will be laid bare. It’s not often that voters get such a clear, definitive beginning, middle and potentially end of such a consequential piece of legislation – at least from a legal perspective – within one election cycle.

The central question in the case is a relatively straightforward one: Does the federal government, under the Commerce Clause, have the power to force Americans to purchase health insurance?
Article I, Section 8, Clause 3

(Congress shall have Power) To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes;

The foundation for the administration’s argument that it does indeed have that power lay in a case handed down by the Supreme Court in 1942, Wickard v. Filburn. That case gave the stamp of approval to the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, which allowed the federal government to regulate economic activity:

In 1940 an Ohio farmer, Roscoe Filburn grew more wheat than the government allotment allowed. They fined him. He sued, stating that his wheat was for his own use on his farm and therefore was beyond Congressional reach. In a legal gerrymander that would put any politician to shame, the Court decided that as Filburn’s exceeding his quotas would result in him buying less wheat in the local markets, which in turn led to less wheat traded in those markets, he was impacting interstate commerce; therefore Congress did indeed have the power to limit his production.

Twisting Fillburn’s already tortured logic, the Obama administration has decided that now it can force all Americans to purchase healthcare. The why is that society has to pick up the tab when uninsured people go to the emergency room. The how is where Filburn comes in. By virtue of the fact that the money people spend on healthcare for the uninsured (through higher taxes and higher insurance premiums) cannot be spent to purchase goods and services they might otherwise purchase, healthcare therefore impacts interstate commerce. As such, Congress has the power to regulate healthcare and can compel people to purchase health insurance.

That is the logic the Democrats used as they force fed Obamacare down the throats of the American people.

If this logic is acceptable, the question becomes, is there literally anything the government cannot do? For example, perhaps a future Congress might want to ban premarital sex? What? No way! Really? How? Here’s how: The United States spends hundreds of billions of dollars every year capturing, trying and keeping criminals locked up. Seventy percent of prisoners come from households without fathers. Given that the single biggest contributor of kids growing up without a father is out of wedlock births, the most straightforward way to ameliorate that problem is simply banning premarital sex. As the progeny of premarital sex drive expenses in the criminal justice system, which in turn reduces the amount that can be spent on airline tickets or pencils or hotel rooms, or bingo games, Congress can legislate it.

Sure, that sounds like a stretch, but then the history of the Washington borg is legion. The EPA was set up to clean the air and water and now it fines farmers for spilling milk and wants to regulate the stuff we exhale. The Department of Energy was established as a result of OPEC bringing the country to its knees with oil in 1973 and today it’s pretending to be a venture capital firm as it pours tens of billions of taxpayers’ dollars down politically connected green energy rat holes like Solyndra and Beacon Power. How about NASA? The National Aeronautical and Space Administration used to be about putting men in space and on the moon but today we pay Russia to send our astronauts into space and the agency’s number one job is to: “to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering”. Obviously the notion of banning premarital sex to save money on prisons is ludicrous, but based on Washington’s track record that doesn’t even matter.

The outcome of the administration’s logic suggests that there is nothing in our $14 trillion economy that could not be said to impact interstate commerce. Nothing. Growing tomatoes in your back yard rather than buying them in the supermarket; staying at home instead of going out to the movies; sewing the hole in a child’s pants rather than buying a new pair; sending your kid to a private or religious school rather than the dysfunctional public school down the street. If this expansion of the absurd logic of Filburn is allowed to stand, there will be literally nothing the government cannot make you do or keep you from doing. At that point there will be no freedom left in America. First to go will be what’s left of economic freedom, followed shortly thereafter by political and then religious freedoms. Once those are gone, how much is really left of America at all?

Monday, November 14, 2011

A trillion dollar hit job - who really wins from the Herman Cain scandal?

Having spent three quarters of my adult life working in restaurants, I can tell you that I find the accusations against Herman Cain difficult to believe. Not that sexual harassment doesn’t occur in the restaurant industry, because it does. Rather, because the industry has no shortage of itinerant and attractive young women who would be more than happy to indulge Mr. Cain in whatever peccadilloes he might have. If Mr. Cain were prone to using his position to coerce women into sexual favors, which is exactly what Ms. Bialek is accusing him of, I cannot imagine that there would not be women coming out of the woodwork with stories of his antics. Frankly, he wouldn’t have even needed to use coercion. For a man of power and influence seeking to find willing partners, the restaurant industry would be the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.

Instead of credible, demonstrably true charges, what we have is a handful of women coming out with specifically non specific accusations of “sexual harassment”. And the problem is, there seems to be no way for Mr. Cain to escape the attacks. It’s like being asked “Mr. Smith, are you still beating your wife?” and you respond that you’ve never laid a hand on her but the headline the next day shouts “Mr. Smith says he’s no longer beating his wife.” The accusation alone is enough. Enabled by a pliant media, these women have been able to detour, if not derail, a promising political campaign.

Who might benefit from this? Primarily two groups: The left (read Democrats) and Washington insiders of both parties.

The left does not like Herman Cain for two reasons. The first is because he’s an unabashed believer in American exceptionalism. At the end of the day he believes that a man in America has the opportunity to succeed through his own efforts, regardless of their background or demographic characteristics. The second reason they don’t like him is that he has the temerity to believe those things while being black.

That latter bit is what really makes the Democrats nervous. The fact that Herman Cain is a black conservative who is a vociferous opponent of the entitlement state creates a potential fatal crack in one of their core constituencies, blacks. Blacks make up about 13% of the population and they vote Democrat in excess of 90% of the time – 96% of blacks voted for Barack Obama. To put that in perspective, if a candidate needs 50% of the total vote to claim victory and they automatically get 90% of the black vote, they already have 11% of their 50% right there. That means that of the remaining 87% of the population, said candidate need only attract 39% of the vote. That’s a pretty good deal for Democrats.

Herman Cain puts that math in jeopardy. By demonstrating that a black man can succeed in the United States without depending on affirmative action, without being a ward of the state, without being an agitator for redistribution of wealth, he shatters the myth propagated by the left that blacks are victims and cannot succeed without government help. Once they recognize that, that 90% Democratic foundation begins to crumble.

The veracity of this fact can be seen in the way that the left treats Cain. “He’s a black man who knows his place” or he needs to “Get off the symbolic crack pipe”. They are trying to demonstrate that he is not an authentic black, his story is an aberration and that his success is not the kind of success that other blacks can aspire to or expect from themselves or their families.

Therefore, his candidacy must be destroyed. It must not be allowed to succeed because if he were to convince even 20% of blacks to vote for him, President Obama and much of the Democratic machine would be toast. A Democrat party without its most reliable constituency would crumble.

At the same time, political insiders on both sides of the isle dislike Cain for a completely different reason. He seeks to upset their Washington metro apple cart. You know, the one that has the highest income level in the United States. The one that has the power to set the rules for the rest of the country.

The Herman Cain candidacy is potentially Armageddon for those people. As a conservative, Cain believes that the government should be limited to doing only those things it is constitutionally empowered to do, rather than all the things politicians and bureaucrats want to do. As such, he would likely clean house. He would likely slash, if not eliminate, major elements of the government bureaucracy, particularly in the areas of education and energy as well as environmental and corporate regulation.

To understand why this scares insiders so much, imagine the impact of his 999 plan. By streamlining and simplifying the tax code, by eliminating most exemptions, he would immediately gut the number of accountants America needs, as well as making tens of thousands of IRS employees redundant. That proposal alone would immediately save Americans’ hundreds of billions of dollars in accounting costs. Thousands of accountants and IRS types would have to find productive jobs elsewhere. Now imagine that same level of efficiency brought to the Departments of Education, Energy, HUD and HHS.

Simply put, Herman Cain is an outsider to the Washington insider cabal. That cabal, which includes bureaucrats, lobbyists and politicians of both parties, is shaking in its boots. The prospect of a businessman not accustomed to the built in inefficiencies, the go along to get along mentality that permeates Washington, scares those people to death. Unfortunately for them, Cain worries about the effects of government employees and regulation on the American people and the American economy, not the other way around.

His goal is to remove the yoke of government from the backs of the American entrepreneur so that prosperity can return. If you are a lobbying firm who collects hundreds of millions of dollars a year to influence government, you don’t want to see someone elected who might sink your ship. Same thing if you’re a bureaucrat living in Mclean Virginia and making $150,000 a year with rock solid job security. Same if you are a politician who sits on a committee that gives you power over 10% of the American economy. If you are part of that yoke on the neck of the American people, you don’t want to see Cain get elected and would do whatever is necessary to make it not so.

Herman Cain’s unorthodox candidacy and his outsider perspective presents a sufficient threat to both Democrats and Washington insiders that they will do whatever they must in order to get him out of the race. For the Democrats it’s their party, for the insiders it’s their power and privilege and for both it’s their basic survival. At the root, there are literally trillions of dollars are at stake. Every day we read about the most heinous of crimes being committed for far lower stakes, so why then does it seem so farfetched that this just might be an orchestrated hit job to sink the Cain campaign? Maybe it’s not so farfetched after all.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Occupy Wall Streeters should put down their copies of Das Kapital and pick up this year's Forbes 400

Back in 2000 or 2001 I read a piece in Newsweek or TIME that discussed flyers whining that they didn’t have enough storage space in the overhead compartment bins on airplanes. I remember writing a letter to the editor saying that the only reason that people had the luxury of being able to whine about such things was that flying had become so safe that flyers could shift their focus to the more mundane. Then of course September 11th came along and people started focusing on the basic reason planes exist… to get them from point A to point B in one piece.

The Occupy Wall Streeters are just like the people whining about the overhead compartments. These are the people who enjoy the fruits of the capitalist system in which they live – iPhones, Starbucks, Facebook, Twitter, Twinkies, Nikes, ATMs, MSNBC, not to mention adequate food, shelter, and transportation, yet want to destroy that very system. They vote for economic dolts in the Democrat party like Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama and then blame capitalism when they screw it up.

Not only do they have no clarity about what they want, but they are wrong about most of those claims they are making. Bankers may be SOBs, but they didn’t cause the financial meltdown, Congress did. Their college loans are so heavy because government drove up college costs faster even than the rise in health care costs, not because of the 1%. The fact that with degrees in hand they can’t find jobs is because of government regulation and tax policy, not because of big corporations.

These people could benefit from putting down their copy of Das Kapital and ask their local banker for his copy of the Forbes 400.

The annual Forbes 400 issue lists the 400 richest people in the United States, the uber 1-percenters if you will. Just to make it on the list this year you had to have a net worth of slightly over $1 billion. Strangely, this list of the most hated of the really hated 1%, includes stars in the Democratic constellation like George Soros sitting at number 7 with a net worth of $22 billion and Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Larry Page sitting at positions 14-16. Oh, and of course there’s also Mr. Solyndra, George Kaiser, at # 31 with $10 billion and President Clinton’s buddy, Ron Burkle, at 107 with his $3.2 billion.

When you hear the Occupiers talk about the 1%, it brings to mind a banker or industrialist sitting in his office gleefully writing pink slips just before Christmas so that he can improve the bottom line and buy another Gulfstream with his bonus money. Of course at the same time he’ll find some loopholes through which he can avoid paying any taxes on the bonus he earned for firing all of those workers. As he walks to the limousine that takes him to his Connecticut estate each night, he doesn’t even deign to make eye contact with the passing workers upon whose backs his fortune was made, at least the part that wasn’t left to him by his father and grandfather.

It’s of course possible that that caricature could be found amongst the people who make up the Forbes 400. That, however, is not the story of the list. What is the single most important thing about the list? The fact that 278 of them are self made. Think about that. While you’ll still find a Rockefeller and a Ford on the list, 70% of the richest of the rich in the United States are self made. That doesn’t mean that all of them were born into poverty like Oprah Winfrey or started selling shoes out of the trunk of their cars like Phil Knight, but 278 of the 400 started out in families that would never have made it anywhere near this list.

And the question is, how did those people make their money? Did they steal it from hard working Americans in some dark alley somewhere? No. Did they set up a high tech printing press and start forging bearer bonds? No. Did they use the police power of the state to jail competitors and take their money? No. Most of those people made their money the old fashioned American way, they earned it. They figured out how to provide a good or service to Americans and people around the world at a price they were willing to exchange their money for.

Obviously, if you listen to the Occupiers, all of those services must have been in banking, where the little guy has no alternative but to put their money in Wall Street banks. Not quite true. While 95 of the 400 made their fortunes in finance of one sort or another, there is a wide spectrum of other areas from which the fortunes came…

  • 17 made their money in manufacturing… like Jim David of New Balance Shoes, a company that manufactures 25% of their shoes in the United States.

  • 27 made their money in real estate… Like Bradley Hughes who built Public Storage into a $19 billion behemoth from a single self storage facility.

  • 30 made their money in food and beverage… like Truett Cathy, who started Chic-Fil-A with one restaurant after getting out of the Army in 1946.

  • 24 made their money in retail… like Bernie Marcus & Arthur Blank who started Home Depot (a company that employs 190,000 people) after getting fired for disagreeing with their boss at Handy Dan.

  • 40 made their money in energy… like Harold Hamm of Continental Resources who started off pumping gas and working on cars.

  • Then of course there are the 49 who made their money in technology… like Zuckerberg, Moskovitz and Saverin of Facebook or Scott Cook who created Quicken after his wife complained about balancing the checkbook.

The members of the Forbes 400 made their fortunes by giving consumers, businesses and governments goods or services they were willing, if not happy, to pay for. They delivered food to stores and pizza to homes, they made shoes, software and toys, they built roads, bridges and buildings, and they entertained with movies, music and video games. And the funny thing about those 400 people is that they are only a fraction of the entrepreneurs and businesspeople in the United States who are providing those services. There are 22 million small businesses in the United States headed by people who are trying to become successful enough to make that exclusive club, and virtually every one of them understands that the way to get there is to provide customers with sufficient value to convince them to willingly exchange their hard earned dollars for their particular good or service.

The existence of guys like Bernie Madoff, Dennis Kozlowski or Kenneth Lay in no way diminishes the benefits that Americans (and people around the world) have enjoyed as a result of the efforts of the people in the Forbes 400 or the hated 1%. They may have been thieves and con artists, but none of them did a fraction of the damage done by Franklin Raines, Jamie Gorelick or Chris Dodd.

The question of the day is, would you rather have unaccountable bureaucrats and politicians using the police power of the government to decide the fate of the economy or would you rather let companies and entrepreneurs compete for your interest and money in a free market? While the Occupiers and their union and Democrat comrades would prefer the former, I'd take the latter 10 times out of 10. Things might not work perfectly, but they’d certainly work far better than if they were run by government apparatchiks.