Monday, January 27, 2014

What conservatives can to learn from Hollywood: Good stories told well can influence political perspective

Watching movies are one of my favorite pastimes. Our favorite movies say a lot about us… although I’m not exactly sure what. My top five (in no particular order) are Gladiator, Valley Girl, Galaxy Quest, Lost in Translation and probably Tombstone. Movies are a unique form of entertainment because they are touchstones, shared experiences which so many Americans have in common. Lines like “I’m walking here!” or “You had me at hello” or “Make my day, punk” have made it into the American lexicon and are often used in our everyday lives in order to call up certain shared understandings of situations between a speaker and their listeners.

Movies are unique in that most of the people watching them experience the same thing. Not that they always have the same reaction, which is obvious by the divergent reviews a single movie can get, but they are watching the same thing on the screen. The colors are the same, the actor’s faces are the same, the music is the same. Contrast that with reading a book. With a book the experience is yours as your brain takes the author’s words and creates its unique version of the characters, faces, colors, sounds, accents, landscapes, and basically everything in terms of bringing the author’s words to life. Contrast that with the way we experience movies. All of us instantly recognize the voice of James Earl Jones when we hear Darth Vader speak. All of us know exactly what Harry Potter looks like, and he’s the same for every one of us. We all have a vision of Jack and Rose flying at the bow of the Titanic, it’s exactly the same.

Movies have a unique place in American life because of that shared experience and its breadth. Your experience watching a movie is going to be essentially the same if you watch it on Miami Beach, in Brooklyn or Brownsville, Texas. And Hollywood has used that unique place to great advantage. From giant studios that produce hundred million dollar epics that earn billions around the world to art house films that gain critical praise consumer indifference, Hollywood almost has a monopoly on American storytelling. (And that includes its dominance of the small screen… “We were on a break” or “You’re Fired”.)

One of the most interesting aspects of this Hollywood dominance is the fact that it seeks to earn money while producing unabashedly leftist propaganda. Think An Inconvenient Truth, Erin Brockovich, or Gasland. The interesting thing is not that they are making money telling stories, but rather the impact that it has on viewers. Hollywood has learned what the GOP has never learned, that a good story told well can impact and perhaps change viewer’s political perspective. Researchers at Notre Dame found that “Hollywood movies are better able to change attitudes – in a left-wing direction – than advertising or news reports.” Essentially Hollywood has perfected the art of using movies to turn people into liberals. Whether it’s the Matt Damon character in Good Will Hunting or Sally Field’s character in Norma Rae, movies that grip us seem to impact us long after we leave the theaters. The fact that movies, particularly sob stories, impact us is definitely not news, but the fact that we keep the critical thinking switch turned off once we leave the theater is. We should know better, but we don’t… at least according to the research.

If conservatives hope to save the country from the liberal dystopia that the Democrats and the establishment Republicans are leading us into, they need to understand the lesson Hollywood learned so long ago… You have to touch people in order to impact them. You have to make them connect with something in order to understand it, appreciate it, take time out of their lives to focus on it. While it’s unrealistic to expect conservatives to take over Hollywood, they can at least begin to tell stories that reflect the conservative perspective.

The country is full of real life stories that are just as touching as anything Hollywood ever wrote. (see "Waiting for Superman" or "The Lottery")  As much of a boogieman Hollywood has created out of capitalism, big government is far scarier. As many lives as one company might have destroyed due to the duplicity of some employee or board of directors, government has destroyed far more families and communities simply by its catastrophic social policies. Kids stuck in failed schools in crime riddled neighborhoods are just as sympathetic as workers trying to form a union at some trucking company. An entrepreneur struggling to feed his family against the borg of government regulation is just as sympathetic as someone whose drinking water catches fire supposedly due to drilling. The difference is, Hollywood often has to use hyperbole, “artistic license” and sometimes outright lies in order to get its points across. In a world where the omnipresent tentacles of a dysfunctional government destroy jobs, gut education and undermine families, the stories of despair are legion, and very real.

If conservatives ever hope to win the battle of ideas, win over the hearts (and votes) of a majority of the American people, we have to figure out to do what came so naturally to Ronald Reagan… we have to connect with people through well told stories. We have to figure out how to talk about cold, sterile, opaque issues that are sometime counterintuitive, and do it in a way that really engage the viewer or the listener. Hollywood swayed the nation by selling liberalism wrapped in well told stories. If we want to bring it back we’re going to have to do the same. Maybe Dinesh D'Souza’s forthcoming “AMERICA” will be a first step in the right direction… although most of us won’t have two hour blocks in a darkened theaters to make our points... so we’d better get creative.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Small business lessons that Barack Obama never learned...

Last year I was having a conversation with a friend who runs a small business that employs about a half a dozen people and does a little over a million dollars a year in revenue. She came onboard about two years after the recession pummeled the business and they’ve been basically flat since, but they’ve survived, something many of their competitors did not.

She was telling me that she was worried there was not going to be enough money in the bank at the end of the month to cover payroll. At the same time she was having problems with a couple of customers, who, in their niche market, often talk to one another. In that market, once you get a tarnished reputation it’s very difficult to overcome. And, as if bending over backwards for pretentious customers wasn’t enough, she also had to deal with employees who were pestering her for more hours, despite the fact that sales simply couldn’t support them.

Some time later I talked with her and she had weathered the storm. She was able to make payroll, satisfy the irksome customers with a smile and challenge her employees to “help me figure out a way to give you more hours by showing me how you can increase our sales”. Interestingly, the absentee owners talked with her amidst the tumult and heaped praise on an ex manager who was interested in possibly returning.

My friend was a bit disheartened that while she had been able to right the ship and keep it in the black after the downturn, the owners seemed to be looking beyond her. Knowing the owners, I told her she had nothing to worry about. While the owners were talking quite glowingly about the ex manager, there was no way they would ever put him in charge of their store again. Although he was a gregarious fellow and he could schmooze customers with the best of them, and was a great friend to the owners themselves, his sales record was less than spectacular. Customers would walk out of the store having greatly enjoyed themselves, but rarely with purchases. In addition, all of those things that are necessary to make a business successful: book keeping, inventory control, accounts payable, accounts collectable and so much else, he was terrible at. In addition, he had left them in a lurch when he changed jobs on short notice. I told my friend that while they owners might sit in their perches and say nice things about a gregarious ex employee, they knew very well that their business was in incredibly capable hands with her, and that there was no way they were going to give up the solid success that she had built for the flash of someone who could do none of the things she had achieved, regardless of how much he made them smile.

As I am wont to do, I used politics as a backdrop. I told her that she’d probably make a better president than Barack Obama. She looked at me quizzically. I told her that she had actually run a business, had to deal with making a payroll and running that business under the constraints of limited resources, something that he had not only never done, but something his actions demonstrated clearly he had no idea how to do. Unfortunately, unlike the owners of her store, the American people are sometimes not very prudent. They find someone they like for one reason and then they elect them to a job for which they are utterly unqualified. Barack Obama is a perfect example of that. While he might have been an effective community organizer, he had neither experience nor an apparent aptitude for actually running anything. Just because someone is good at one thing doesn’t mean they’d be good at everything. Take John McCain. He was a great war hero who showed great honor and bravery. But that doesn’t mean he would have made a good president… in fact, he probably would not have. And it’s the case at all levels in all kinds of jobs. Just because someone is a good cop doesn’t mean they would make a good Chief of Police. Just because someone is a good programmer doesn’t mean they will make a great CEO.

In my friend’s shop the situation was simply that while the ex manager had been able to make people smile and feel good about themselves, he was terrible at the business of actually running the business. That is exactly Barack Obama with the country. He said the things that made many (although not all) people feel good and smile, but he’s an abysmal failure at actually running the country.

At the end of the day I told my friend that the shop’s owners made the decision to put substance above style when they brought her in. While they may speak wistfully of having someone who made them smile and gave them a laugh, they understand that their continued prosperity is based on having someone in charge who can actually run the business. In 2012 the American people chose just the opposite. Rather than going with someone who was boring, but was a management genius who created billions of dollars of value and hundreds of thousands of jobs, they went with someone who said what they wanted to hear despite his four years of demonstrated managerial incompetence.

It’s no surprise that businessowners, whose livelihoods depend on actual success, choose substance over style when the chips are down while a majority of the American people, whose livelihoods increasingly have little to do with actual success in the real world, choose style over substance. There are more than a few lessons to be learned from that…

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Profound Rush Limbaugh: ”Have you ever noticed how under capitalism the rich become powerful, and under socialism the powerful become rich?

Love him or hate him, there is no debate about the fact that Rush Limbaugh is a genius. Last week he said the following:
”Have you ever noticed how under capitalism the rich become powerful, and under socialism the powerful become rich? It's amazing when you look at it that way. Under capitalism, the rich become powerful. Under socialism, the powerful get rich. They exploit others. They get rich by taking from others, by using their power. In capitalism, the rich become powerful. It's a minor little distinction. It's one of those little pithy bullet points that is just shy of a profundity.”
I have to disagree with Rush slightly… that statement is indeed profound. Although he characterizes it as a minor little distinction for rhetorical purposes, his context demonstrates exactly how significant it really is.

When you think about it, on the most basic level, it makes perfect sense. In socialist, communist and fascist countries, despite the egalitarian rhetoric, invariably it is the people who control the infrastructure of the state who end up with the biggest bank accounts and grandest (relative) lifesyles. They decide who can do what jobs, who can get what permits, who can open up what businesses. Given that the state controls the avenues through which so much of life runs, is it any wonder that corruption is often rampant? Is it any wonder that while Muscovites were looking for food on barren supermarket shelves Brezhnev gorged himself at his Jurmala dacha? Or is it much of a surprise that while Mugabe has turned Zimbabwe into one of the poorest countries in the world he has accumulated billions of dollars in personal wealth? It comes as no shock that to get anything done in Mexico takes the greasing of palms of government officials all along the way. The reality is, when government controls most aspects of life, from the major to minutiae, they get to decide who is successful and who is not, and often they choose themselves their friends and their families.

Of course everyone wants success, but the difference between state control and free markets is who gets to decide what constitutes success and who gets to enjoy its fruits. With state control it’s the bureaucrats who get to decide while in free markets it is the citizens. One can quickly guess which produced "green" cars no one wants, a healthcare system that doesn’t work or a tax code so complex even its authors can't understand it. 

You may hate Wal-Mart, but no one ever forced you to shop there. Wal-Mart became a half a trillion dollar behemoth not by forcing customers to come into their stores, but rather by advertising what they were willing to sell and for how much. People willingly walk into their stores and voluntarily exchange their hard earned dollars for Wal-Mart’s goods. You may have heard that JD Rockefeller was a “son of a bitch” businessman, and you’d be right. But he earned his money by standardizing the industry and lowering prices on kerosene, gasoline, and a wide variety of other petroleum products as well. Although competitors were sometimes mad, consumers and the economy benefited dramatically. The success of Standard Oil was based on selling products to willing consumers, not on government redistribution. The same holds true today for Intel, Apple and Frito Lay, just as it did for others like Sears and Roebuck, Gillette and Howard Johnson a century ago.

In the United States numerous rich businessmen have converted their success into power. The Koch brothers come to mind. So too does George Soros and Michael Bloomberg. But the difference is, what those guys are selling, we don’t have to buy.

While the US may still ostensibly be a capitalist system, how long that will last is open for debate. Today we are rapidly becoming a command and control socialist country with Washington as the vortex. Government tells you what kinds of bulbs you can buy, who you have to rent your house to and how you can use your property among other things. It takes the money you worked for and uses it to give phones, EBT cards and birth control pills to those who didn’t. Basically Washington has the power, and now it has the money too. The Washington DC area now has 6 of the 10 richest counties in the country. Out of 3,100 counties in the US, 6 of the 10 richest in the Washington DC Metro area! To put that in perspective, Occupy Wall Street was worried about the country being run by the richest 1%. Those 1% guys are pikers, in reality the country is run by .0019% richest, and they live in Washington.

And why does money flow to Washington?  Simple.  That’s where the power is. Because that's where the laws and regulations that restrict your freedom come from. Washington’s bureaucrats don’t solicit explicit bribes like they do in third world countries… but then they don’t have to. They earn twice what private sector workers do, have virtual lifetime employment, and have the "respect" that comes from having the power to destroy a business or an industry with a stoke of a pen. As a result, while some companies spend money in Washington seeking to suckle at the public teat, (defense, agribusiness and green energy industries come to mind) most firms today spend their money on lobbyists not to get dollars from government, but rather to influence legislation and regulations so that they can simply survive.

Capitalism is not yet completely dead in America. Thankfully guys like Mark Zuckerberg, Simon Cowell, Sean Combs and lots of other people whose names we’ll never know are able to create businesses that earn them millions or billions of dollars without stealing a single dollar from any one of us or eviscerating one iota of our freedom. But one has to wonder how long that will last. Today there are 92 million adults in the United States who are not working. From unemployment benefits that last for years to welfare programs that create lifelong wards of the state to regulations and taxes that disincentivize work, one has to wonder what the real agenda of Washington is. Is it to see a resurgent private sector where more Americans can support themselves and their families without government help, thereby inducing a reduction in the size of the army of bureaucrats and lobbyists? Or is it to slowly strangle capitalism so that more and more jobs and lives look to Washington for their preservation, which in turn means bigger government, more lobbyists and of course more money for Washington.

With Mark Zuckerberg getting rich off of us and our data, it’s an even exchange in that we have a free choice in deciding how much of that data we’re willing to exchange. If we don’t like it we can simply delete our Facebook accounts. However, when the Washington establishment uses the police power of government to get rich off of us, we have no options, we can’t simply choose to not pay taxes or simply start another business without Washington’s interference. It’s not possible. What we can do however is work fewer hours, shut down our businesses or take the path that more and more Americans are taking every day; to simply give up working altogether and look to Washington for our every need. My guess is that Rush would probably say that is exactly what the left's agenda is. And as usual he would be right.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Jan 1 welcomes 40,000 new laws! Maybe it's time for a different kind of New Year's resolution...

One of the great places to observe the successes of New Year’s resolutions is at the gym. January invariably sees the place packed with new people in their new workout clothes looking at the sea of machines trying to figure out what machine does what and you use them. By March the scene is much different in that a majority of those newbies have fallen off their path to fitness while those remaining have figured out which machines they like and what routines keep them going.

The beauty of New Year’s resolutions is that whatever your hubris at the end of the year – “I’m going to lose 50 pounds by summer” or “I’m going to read one book a month” or “I’m going to watch less TV” you can reconsider it with little consequence and change your behavior accordingly. In another words, New Year’s resolutions can be short-lived or enduring, you get to decide which, based on your goals, objectives and willingness to do the work.

Unfortunately, such is not the case for laws. Unlike New Year’s resolutions, which will leave you with little more than a bruised ego if they don’t work out, laws can leave you with less money and less freedom and you can’t just shrug your shoulders if they don’t work out.

Across America the New Year rings in its annual christening of new laws. From California students getting to decide for themselves which bathrooms they want to use to Rhode Island employers no longer being able to ask prospective employees about a criminal past, there are 40,000 new laws and regulations that will be added to the millions that Americans already have to navigate through. And unlike resolutions that can wither in the face of reality, laws rarely, if ever, are rescinded, and once they are on the books they can be used as tools of intimidation by government regulators to pretty much do whatever they want. And what they want is control, regardless of what it costs you.

Take as an example a recent interaction between the FDA and a company called 23 And Me. 23AndMe marketed a $99 genetic test where customers would send in a swab with their DNA on it and the company would return to them a detailed ancestry report and personalized information on 248 genetic traits and health conditions. Basically the company would analyze your DNA and give you a report of what it says about your health, at a genetic level. Do with it what you like, but that’s what the data says… And that’s the problem. Apparently the FDA doesn’t think you are smart enough to make informed decisions about your own health. As such, they pervert a 1938 law that gives them the right to regulate “medical devices” to basically put the company out of business. Essentially you’re not allowed to find out about a predisposition for cancer or liver disease because the FDA worries that some people might do the wrong thing with their info. So basically, to protect doctors from competition, and to keep citizens from becoming more informed about their own bodies, the FDA has decided to try and put the genie of DNA testing back in the bottle.

Of course it won’t be able to. If 23AndMe doesn’t move to the Bahamas and set up shop, someone else will. Regulation cannot stop technology. Nor can it cannot guarantee fairness. Numerous jurisdictions around the country, and Washington itself, are debating raising the minimum wage in order to provide “a living wage” or “fairness” to fast food and other service workers. Such regulations will of course fail at both counts. Not because they can’t raise the amount employers must pay, but rather they will simply drive employers to use more technology in their businesses. Today standalone computers can take your order while robots can assemble burgers and sandwiches. Regulation can raise wages, but it can’t bring about “fairness” or the government mandated Nirvana that regulators seem to endlessly pursue. How much good does a higher minimum wage do someone if there are fewer jobs to be had as a result?

At the end of the day, the New Year ringing in 40,000 new regulations should not be a cause for celebration. It should be a clarion call for a nationwide resolution to stop looking to regulation as the solution for every problem and to go on a national diet where instead of lbs we shed – or shred – a majority of the laws and regulations that are already on the books already. It might not improve our waistlines or cardio performance, but it will do wonders for individual freedom and the prosperity of the nation.