Thursday, December 14, 2017

Redux: What Christmas Reindeer Antlers Say About America

I rarely do this... OK, I never do this, but there's a first time for everything.  I'm going to recycle a post.  This one is from 2010, and the reason I'm reposting it is because of something painful I read last week saying: Study: American Kids Lack Entrepreneurial Spirit.  That's like a dagger to the heart to someone who knows a bit of history and understands that the American free market has driven more prosperity and pulled more people out of poverty than any system ever in human history.  The loss of American entrepreneurial spirit for the world would be like the sun running out of hydrogen.  It won't implode immediately, but for freedom and prosperity, the end is nigh.  Well, here's my pinprick of an attempt to maybe ignite a bit of entrepreneurial spirit in someone, somewhere... Some of the references may be dated (Like Groupon, which was a big deal back in 2010) but the point remains the valid.

One last note, for the budding entrepreneur out there or for the mature one, there may be no better present in the world than Harold Evan's "They Made America; From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine".  It's nothing short of brilliant.

What Christmas Reindeer Antlers Say About America

My wife is from France. In the four years we were on opposite sides of the ocean before we got married I had the good fortune to be able to visit the country a number of times. Much of that time I was working at Outback Steakhouse and always envisioned opening a unit in Paris. (I know, for most people that’s epicurean heresy, but consider the source… my favorite food is McDonalds and M&Ms…) Nonetheless, at Outback the fundamental idea was that we would prepare your food any way you wanted. You could have your salad dressing on the side, your Bloomin’ Onion cooked with flour, or you could have your steak extra well done. Whatever it was, we wanted you to be happy with your meal. When I mentioned the idea to my wife she said it would never fly because the idea of the customer being in charge of anything in France is largely unheard of, particularly as it relates to restaurants. Basically the rule is: Chef’s are trained to know what works with food so you basically get what they give you and you like it.

Not long after that I had another idea that equally befuddled her. Licensed apparel is a multi billion dollar business in the United States and around the world – think NY Yankee hats or Manchester United shirts. One of the biggest sectors of that industry here in the US is NCAA (college) licensed apparel. One day I suggested we think about going into the licensed apparel business and sell shirts, hats etc. for French colleges. She was puzzled. “Why would anyone want to buy a shirt with their college’s name on it?” I tried to explain the whole college rivalry, pride in your school deal to her and it just wasn’t clicking. She told me that such a business would likely not find a market in France because there is largely no such thing as school sports & spirit and French people would never understand the point. (The University of Paris tee shirts that are sold throughout the city are for tourists.) For the French, going to college is expected to be four years of focus and study with very little extracurricular activity of any sort, organized or otherwise. Simply put, it’s all work and very little fun and who wants to wear a shirt reminding them of that?

I thought about these two episodes recently when I saw a car with some reindeer antlers sticking up out of the door of a passing car. In a moment the subject of this column came to me: The beauty of America is the fact that anything and everything is possible here. When you peel back everything else, America is a place of possibilities. Americans by their very nature are a rebellious sort. From breaking with King George to Manifest Destiny to heading to the moon, America has always been a place where big things can and do happen. More importantly however, it’s also a place where everyday, seemingly inconsequential things can happen. What I mean by that is that it is not only the politician, the successful businessman or the wealthy heiress who can set out to pursue some grand design… it’s also the guy next door, the guy at the coffee shop or the guy you knew in 3rd grade who can do something that changes the world, or maybe just his little corner of it.

America is a place where people feel that if they can imagine it, they can make it come true. Although that doesn’t always lead to success, the aggregate impact of all that creativity on the country is tremendous. Think about how many things that you know of that are so fundamentally unimportant from the perspective of surviving in this world but impacted the lives of the people who invented them or used them. Silly Bandz. The Snuggie. College apparel. A dozen flavors of Coke. Personalized M&Ms. Car wrap advertising. Pet manicures. Cheesehead hats. QVC. Having it your way at Burger King. McMansions. The antlers are the perfect example. They’re utterly frivolous, but they let people express the fun side of Christmas and maybe make others smile as well. Not earth changing but certainly a net positive, particularly for whoever created and sells them.

The list goes on and on. And this is not an exercise in navel gazing. Just the opposite actually. It’s recognizing and appreciating the fact that America is a truly unique place and Americans are a unique people. Not because they any better or worse than anyone else, but because they have largely bought into the notion that in America anybody can have an idea and do something with it – although regrettably the system is increasingly suffocating the pervasiveness of that notion. Nonetheless, America has prospered – and much of the rest of the world has benefited – by Americans bounding forth from the darkness to invent things for which there was no demand, to do things that few might have thought possible or necessary and alas, to even stumble more often than not.

Many things that Americans come up with are indeed frivolous, but that’s really the beauty of the country. Just as failure is the foundation upon which success is built, a culture that tolerates and even extols the frivolous fertilizes the garden from which the consequential emerges. For example, while media giants have spent (and continue to spend) billions of dollars trying to figure out how to connect with Americans, something that started out as a way to meet and rate girls has actually accomplished it: Facebook. Yellow Page publishers have lost billions of dollars over the last five years because they can’t seem to figure out how to impact consumer behavior while a company built on the ashes of a website that helped people protest has managed to rapidly impact how and when millions of consumers spend their money: Groupon.

Whether it’s having your steak cooked exactly the way you want, sporting your schools’ mascot on the seat of your pants, or volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, America is more than anything a place where people feel like they are more than just cogs in a machine. They feel like they have the power to make their lives better and impact the world around them. Fundamentally, they are empowered to do things… frivolous or otherwise. That’s real freedom… the ability to decide what you want to make of your life and the opportunity to go out and do it, or even die trying. It’s not the destination that makes life worth living, it’s the journey. The journey in America may be cluttered with kitsch and failed ideas, but it is the dynamic energy fostered by freedom that has created so much of substance and so much abundance. As the year ends and politics takes a back seat to friends and family, we should remember and be thankful for that freedom which we so often take for granted.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

How Did Cheap Airline Travel to Europe Set the US and the World on the Road to Ruin?

How Did Cheap Airline Travel to Europe Set the US and the World on the Road to Ruin?

It’s not a trick question. The reality is, many progressives want to turn the United States into Finland or Germany or Sweden or France or some other western European “paradise”. A few more years of Democrats in the White House and the rest of the government octopus they might succeed. Europe will have conquered the US without having fired a shot. The crazy thing Europe won’t have exported socialism to America… They didn’t have to. Why? Because Americans visited Europe and tried to create it when they got back home. Of course not everyone is interested in going quietly into that good socialist, statist night. Which is why the country is so divided today and on the edge of a calamity. And it’s the fault of cheap airfares!

Let me explain why airline travel is the cause of the United States slipping down a path that may someday lead to revolution. Prior to the 1970s travel to Europe was largely limited to the wealthy and members of the military and their families. It was possible to go, but it was a relatively expensive proposition and therefore relatively few people actually did it. It was when flying to Europe became financially feasible for those other than the richest Americans that the beginning of the end set in.

Let me explain. When prices dropped such that middle and middle upper class Americans were easily able to afford to visit Europe (western, mostly) they jumped at the chance. They visited Paris, London, Berlin, Amsterdam and hundreds of other towns and cities across the continent. And what they experienced there was amazing. The food: French bread, Italian pasta, Greek seafood. The history: They saw castles everywhere, many of which seemed to come straight out of a fairy tale. The lifestyles: From spending an evening unmolested sipping coffee in a French café to a languid evening in a Venetian gondola to walking through one of London’s countless parks, it was, in a word, wonderful. It seemed nothing short of spectacular. And indeed it was.

The problem is, what American tourists were experiencing in Europe was not the life most Europeans themselves were experiencing. To hear Americans talk about Europe, it’s nirvana. One month of vacation every year. Months of parental leave for both parents, lots of paid holidays, and of course “free” healthcare. Those things all sound wonderful but they leave a lot out. And those are the things these progressive American wannabe Europeans usually fail to notice or mention… Most Europeans live in tiny apartments or homes, usually without air conditioning, regardless of where they live. And as a result, most of the stuff in the home is small, like refrigerators, washers, and even beds. Many Europeans pay 50% or more of their incomes in taxes. Gasoline in Europe is usually around $8 a gallon and most Europeans drive around in cars that look like they could fit into a shoebox. Unemployment in many, if not most places in Europe is twice or more of what it is in the United States.

And there’s more… Starting a business is not necessarily impossible in Europe, but in many places it’s darn near close. Youth unemployment in particular is staggeringly high as governments set ever higher standards for firing employees who don’t work out… and therefore employers don’t take the chance and hire in the first place. National, regional and industry strikes frequently snarl traffic and interrupt life, often with little warning. And what's more, European birthrates barely hover around half what is necessary to sustain their population!

And then there’s the sainted “Universal healthcare” that Americans constantly hear about. It is anything but heavenly. One need only spend a few minutes on the Internet to find out how bad Britain’s NHS service really is. French doctors are overworked and many hospitals are simply dysfunctional.

Of course, as in most societies, the rich Europeans don’t really have to deal with these problems. A few million Euros will buy anyone a nice big apartment in Paris and a car to match, plus a first class flight to New York to visit the Mayo Clinic if any real serious health issues arise.

Over the last four decades as air travel became financially feasible for the not quite rich to travel internationally, they did. The people we know today as the opinion makers, those in the media, academia, essentially the bi-coastal intelligencia and all of their college friends earning their liberal arts degrees, traveled to Europe and had a wonderful time. They experienced the life of the European elite and mistook it for the life of the everyday European. As such, they decided that they wanted to replicate that experience here in the United States. It’s like they spent a week getting wined and dined in Vegas and came home and decided that their town should have strippers and slot machines and free drinks on every corner. These intellectuals didn’t bother to realize that the Europe they visited had very little to do with the Europe that most Europeans actually experience.

As a frequent traveler to Europe and France in particular, I love Europe. If I had the resources I’d spend months each year in Paris or Cassis on the French coast or Rome or Naples or a dozen other places in Europe. But what I wouldn’t do is confuse that experience as a visitor with the life of everyday Europeans. Increasingly, those everyday Europeans are suffering ever more at the hands of the leviathan of government regulation and taxation. From high unemployment, low economic growth, poor services of all sorts and increasing limits of freedom of all kinds, the quality of the lives of everyday Europeans are slowly eroding, and statism and socialism are fundamentally the cause… and more and more the source is the EU itself.

Freedom and prosperity are not givens. They are not the natural state of man. They are gifts from our Founding Fathers and tenacious entrepreneurs and innovators and inventors… not to mention hard working men and women across the country. The more America comes to resemble Europe, the less freedom we will have, the less prosperity we will enjoy and eventually the United States will cease to be the shining city on a hill that has inspired and helped much of the world for the last century. Compare the world before the United States became the dominant economic and military power on the planet and the last half of the 20th century. The world is far from perfect today, but since WWII the United States has led the world in creating more prosperity – and lifted more people out of poverty – than over any similar period of time in human history. (One can only wonder how different the world would look if the Soviet Union or Red China had taken the lead...) It wasn’t socialism that fueled the world's prosperity, it was freedom and free markets, both of which the American progressives seek to undermine when they seek to turn the United States into Europe.  A great cup of coffee and a perfect loaf of bread are wonderful things to have, but they aren't worth destroying the American fount of freedom and the greatest economic engine in human history over.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Speech Donald Trump should have given last week...

The events of this past Saturday in Charlottesville were indeed tragic. A young lady lost her life peacefully exercising her 1st Amendment rights.  She was protesting a rally of white supremacists / Nazis and the KKK when one of those white supremacists drove his car into a group of protesters and killed AAA and injured numerous others.

Let me perfectly clear, while those groups do indeed have the right to rally and express their views, I abhor everything they stand for.  America is not a nation about hate, rather it is a nation about freedom and it is a nation built on liberty and opportunity for all.  While such groups do exist, thankfully their numbers are tiny.  Whether the number of white supremacists in America is 100,000 or 1 million, in a nation of 330 million people they are by any stretch, a fringe element, a tiny fraction.  America has mostly turned away from such hate so that such views, while protected, are, thankfully, largely absent from the public square.

That being said, I must also point out that those white supremacist groups were not the only bad actors at that rally.  While many good people were in Charlottesville to peacefully protest the white supremacist groups, there were many others who were there to instigate trouble and cause violence.  As we have seen over the course of the last few years groups such as Antifa, or others have become well known for creating violence around the country.  That was true on Saturday in Charlottesville as well.

At the end of the day, wherever the violence comes from, whether from white racists or anti capitalist anarchists, it is wrong and Americans of all stripes should condemn it.  This is particularly true because the fact of the matter is that Americans, whoever they are, have far more in common with their fellow Americans than they do with others outside of the country, regardless of what group they identify with.  White Americans likely have far more in common with black Americans than they do with most white people from Europe. By the same token, blacks in America generally have far more in common with their fellow white Americans than they do with practically anyone living on the continent of Africa.  The same holds true for Hispanics in America vs. Hispanics in Latin America or gays in America vs. gays in the middle east or many other places in the world.

For all of our differences, the United States of America is a nation built on freedom, liberty and opportunity.  Most certainly our history is not pristine, but then as with all nations of men, none is.  From European colonization to African tribes selling members of other tribes into slavery to the tyrannies of Communism or socialism, no nation or heritage is pristine.  But here in the United States our Founding Fathers gave us the tools to advance our society, to make it better as we pursue life, liberty and happiness.  They gave us a Constitution that gave us the 13th and 14th Amendments which in turn gave us the civil rights bills of the 1960s.  And the 19th Amendment.

They also left us with something unlike anything found anywhere in history… Our bill of rights, which promises a freedom of speech unprecedented in human history. The 1st Amendment isn’t necessary to protect popular speech, as no government would try and suppress a speech about puppies or teddy bears.  No, the 1st Amendment exists specifically to protect speech many fine abhorrent, such as we heard in Charlottesville last Saturday.  That is the point.  It is only by protecting such fringe speech do we protect all speech.  Freedom of speech is not freedom to commit violence however, and that is exactly what happened on Saturday, from both the permitted groups and some of the counter protesters.  While the freedom of speech should be respected, violence should not be accepted. The 1st Amendment, along with the rest of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution were written specifically to protect the republic from being taken over by mob rule… which is exactly what the those who seek to incite riot desire.  We will not allow that. 

America is most certainly not perfect, and the events in Charlottesville clearly demonstrate that, but thankfully, events such as those are an anomaly, far from the norm.  Most Americans are not racists, are not fascists, not part of violent mobs and do not seek to shut up those they disagree with.  On the contrary, most Americans busy living their lives, they are interested in having a good job, providing a good life for their families, getting their children a good education and of course enjoying their freedoms.  They are not out to cause trouble, to spout racist chants or throw Molotov cocktails through a Starbucks widow.  And for that we should all be grateful. 

And in closing, I would like to say, if we as Americans spend more time focusing on the things that bind us, focusing on the broader things that make America great, like industry, innovation and strengthening our communities, events like those that took place in Charlottesville will be but a tiny blemish on the spectacular vista of our lives.  America is not perfect, but it possibly as close as humans have seen and it is truly a gift from God.  As we go through our daily lives, if we remind ourselves to focus on her opportunities, on her many advances and on the fact that most Americans are good people, tensions might subdue and we can all get back to the business of pursuing happiness for everyone.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Friday, March 10, 2017

50 Days in Donald Trump is Sounding a Lot Like Mozart...

There’s a scene in the Oscar winning 1984 movie Amadeus where Mozart is pleading with Austrian Emperor Joseph II to allow him to produce a work many in the court find distasteful: “Forgive me, Majesty. I am a vulgar man! But I assure you, my music is not.” As anyone who’s seen the movie knows, that statement is indeed true – at least in that big screen version of Mozart. The point of the line is simply that it is his work, i.e. not his words, that are important.

It’s a line that I think could equally apply to Donald Trump. The man is indeed vulgar at times. He frequently spouts off without necessarily knowing all the facts, without being clear, sometimes he’s simply wrong, and he frequently shows his thin skin when it comes to anyone who disagrees with him or who he believes has slighted him.

By any measure, if America was looking for a standard bearer of eloquence, someone to be the next Abraham Lincoln, JFK or Ronald Reagan with words that inspire a nation to greatness, that’s likely not Donald Trump. If America seeks to have another John Adams or Thomas Jefferson who leaves behind a virtual library of deep, thoughtful, consequential correspondence, that’s not likely Donald Trump either. But if the nation is looking for someone to do the basic nuts and bolts things that help put the government back where it belongs, helps point the nation towards prosperity, reminds Americans that it’s not government that made America great but rather her industrious people, then Donald Trump may be that man.

In the 50 days since Donald Trump was inaugurated the Trump White House has been a cavalcade of activity seeking to rein in the leviathan of government bequeathed to him by Barack Obama… and truth be told, by most of the dozen or so presidents before Obama as well.

The first and most important step Trump has taken has been the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. In a universe where modern courts seem to create law out of thin air or less, a conservative who recognizes that government power derives from the Constitution and what’s actually in it is exactly what the country needs.

But that’s only one. There are many more. Putting Betsy DeVos at the Department of Education is a genius move. Unlike most of the Education bureaucracy, DeVos understands that education is about the students, not the teachers’ unions. Schools are there to teach students to survive and thrive in the world, not a jobs program for teachers and administrators. DeVos will work to put parents and local communities back in control of their children’s education rather than Washington and teachers’ unions.

Then there is Scott Pruitt over at EPA. In Pruitt Trump has empowered someone who understands firsthand how the EPA has strayed far from Congress’s original intent. Pruitt will seek to reverse the decades long mission creep that jumped the shark back in 2011 when the EPA decided that it could regulate milk spills on farms the same way it regulates oil spills. (Eventually the agency had to explicitly state that it would not regulate milk…) Added bonus, Pruitt understands that energy is what powers the United States and he will seek to reverse the EPA’s war on traditional sources.

And speaking of environmental regulations gone awry, the Trump administration has announced that it will roll back the Obama administration’s last minute jump in CAFÉ standards regulations which would have required automakers to increase fuel economy for new cars to the equivalent of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Aside from being an indirect subsidy to Elon Musk and the rest of the electric car market, this would have turned the United States into Europe, where practically everyone drives around in Matchbox cars few actually want.

And finally there is regulation itself… On the campaign Trump promised to cut regulation by 75%. While he may or may not ever hit that mark, he has taken two strong steps in stemming the tide of overregulation… which costs the United States almost $2 trillion per year. During the first month of the Trump administration not only stated that there would be $0 budgeted for new regulations, they also stated that for every regulation that might be rolled out, an agency must repeal two existing ones. Add to that a hiring freeze – and a ban on hiring contractors – and Trump has set himself up to at least move down that road.

Donald Trump may not be the kind of guy you want to invite to your dinner table or the guy you want dating your daughter… But so what? He wasn’t elected to be a polite dilettante who makes everyone feel warm and fuzzy. He was elected to be the chief executive of the federal government. His single most important duty in that role beyond national defense is to seek to ensure that the government does only those things that it is Constitutionally empowered to do, and if possible do them efficiently and effectively. By reining in stifling government overreach and overregulation, Donald Trump will hopefully put the United States back in a place where innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs can revive real opportunity and prosperity.

For eight years we had an “articulate” and caring president who did indeed make many people feel warm and fuzzy, and over whom Hollywood, the media and academia fawned… with the result being an avalanche of regulation, a dysfunctional and intrusive government and a GDP growth rate that averaged 1.8% - the worst in eighty years – all while piling another $10 trillion of debt onto the shoulders of American citizens!

There may indeed be sour notes ahead, like the disaster of the Obamacare repeal that is shaping up in the House, or potentially a waffling on taxes or the Paris accords, but today 50 days in, the music coming from the Trump administration has been surprisingly sublime. Like the Mozart of Amadeus, Donald Trump can indeed be vile and sometimes repugnant man, but if he continues on this path and succeeds in returning real prosperity to the United States where a robust rising tide lifts all boats, his legacy will be music to the ears of most Americans…

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Having Survived Barack Obama, Back to Where the Tire Hits the Road...

I started writing this blog in 2009 after having written various random pieces over the years following 9/11. I started some months after Barack Obama was sworn in as President. I thought he was a clearly a socialist, perhaps a Communist, but most certainly un-American. One of the first signs there was a problem came prior to the election when an interview he had done years prior surfaced when he bemoaned that the Constitution was a “Charter of negative liberties. It says what the states can't do to you. Says what the federal government can't do to you but doesn't say what the federal government or state government must do on your behalf." Building on that he promised to “fundamentally transform the United States”. Finally, the promise of a black president didn’t quite play itself out the way some had expected. Some Americans felt that if we finally elected a black man to the presidency it would fundamentally demonstrate the United States was not the racist country so many had accused it of being. Not so much.

On the contrary. Many people started looking at that document Barack Obama saw as defective and started suggesting the entire country was built on a racist foundation. They began using 21st century mores to disparage the Founding Fathers and the Constitution they gave us over two centuries before. For them, an America that is not perfect is therefore evil and racist. Hence the name of this blog “Imperfect America”… drawing on the quote from Voltaire: “Perfect is the enemy of the good”. My first post was titled: “Racism: America’s Original Sin” essentially pointing out that the 3/5 Compromise did not at all mean what activists suggested it meant, and that in fact, had it not been for that compromise the Constitution might never have been ratified, blacks in the South might have been stuck in a country where slavery was fully accepted and a war the war that ended slavery might never have occurred. No, slaves would have been stuck in a nation that was not balanced by vociferous anti-slave voices as there were in the eventual United States. That was the start of this blog, but the areas of concern were many…

Over this past eight years I’ve pilloried Barack Obama, teacher’s unions, the BLM snake oil salesmen, Social Security Disability, Democrats, the media, big government, regulation, spineless Republicans and even Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. The list of enemies of freedom are legion, and most of them – but not all – live in the DC metro area and control the country like an unchecked borg "assimilating" everything in its path. Government rarely passes on an opportunity to get involved and make matters worse, regardless of the area or the Constitutionality of its actions. The lust for power from bureaucrats and politicians seems to know no bounds… and that won’t necessarily change with Donald Trump in office.

But what I think will change is the danger that the country is in. For eight years I’ve lamented the fact that Barack Obama and the progressive left were seeking to turn the nation into a third world socialist paradise such as Venezuela or Greece or Cuba. In some respects they’ve succeed, but thankfully in some they have been stymied. They will no doubt continue to mobilize their comrades in the media and academia to advocate for their march for progressive fascism, but given that there are fewer elected Democrats today than there have been in almost a century, they may have a somewhat difficult road ahead. Indeed Barack Obama’s legacy just may end up being the decimation of the Democrat party… which would be a fitting "fundamental transformation".

Donald Trump may be many things, but one thing he is not is Barack Obama. He may be something of a big government liberal, but he’s not anti-American. He may be too tied to big business to appreciate the challenges of small businesses, but he’s not an absolute enemy of free markets. Put another way, after eight years of worrying that the United States is about to careen off the path of freedom and die on the march to a socialist / fascist progressive nirvana, today I look forward to a future where freedom, liberty and limited government have an opportunity to retake their place in the pantheon of ideas on which the country thrives. That doesn’t mean that there are no threats left or that Donald Trump will be the savior we need. Trump will, no doubt do many things that cause conservatives such as myself to bang our heads against a wall, but at the end of the day, for the first time in eight years we at least know that our president’s starting point is not that America is always wrong, that America is racist, that government is good and the private sector is evil. America may not be perfect, but with someone other than a progressive Democrat in the White House we at least have an opportunity to address real issues of consequence and perhaps set the stage for a revival of prosperity.

As such, while I will continue to write pieces for this blog from time to time, it is now time for me to focus on a few other things a bit closer to home where I might be able to have a more direct impact.

Thank you for reading…