Thursday, February 23, 2012

180. A moment can change your life

For me, one of the interesting things about the Super Bowl, beside the commercials, is the legacy left on the players and coaches. In a "win-at-all-cost" sports society, the label of "Super Bowl Champion" or "Super Bowl goat" lasts seemingly eternal. Unfortunately, often the margin between victory and defeat is ever so slight, because one play, sometimes even a few inches, can change the outcome of a game or a career.

There is a difference in a moment that changes the course of the game and one that changes the outcome of a game. The former often happens early in the game, and may affect strategy or momentum, but ultimately does not by itself decide the game. The latter has a direct result in the outcome of the game. In other words, had that one moment, that one play, or those few inches, gone the other way, the outcome would have been different.

Not surprisingly, this Super Bowl had its share of moments. There were many plays that changed or could have changed the course of the game. The Giants fumbled several times, and the one time the Patriots recovered it, they were penalized and the turnover was negated. There were also plays that changed the outcome of the game--the most obvious being the pass that Wes Welker dropped in the fourth quarter. Had he made that catch, it is likely that the Patriots would have won.

The fate of a team often lies on these moments, and some of sports' greatest achievements relied on some good fortunate. These "game changers" are often the result of a bad bounce, bad call, or bad play (like missing a kick or dropping a pass)--something the benefitting team did nothing or very little to cause. In another word, "luck."

Looking at this playoff season in particular, both the Patriots and Giants had some breaks along the way. It's easy to look back, such as if Tony Romo of the Cowboys connects with a wide open Miles Austin in their regular season game against the Giants, the Giants likely don't even make the playoffs--and none of this ever happens. Other moments include the two 49er fumbled punts against the Giants and the field goal miss by the Ravens in the AFC Championship game against the Patriots. Today Eli Manning is a hero and maybe even a Hall of Famer, but he could have easily been sitting at home watching the entire playoffs on his couch.

It's these moments that change the outcomes of games that can frustrate sports fans, and Cleveland fans are no stranger to "The Shot," "The Fumble" and "The Drive"--all of which changed the history of Cleveland sports.

Conversely, through Browns-colored glasses, it seems that the Steelers have had their favorable moments over the years--some of which changed the course of the game; others that changed the outcome of a game, or even a season. The dropped pass by Jackie Smith of the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII, the Immaculate Reception, the bad call against the Oilers the 1979 AFC Championship Game, more bad calls in the Super Bowl against Seattle and even Arizona, and of course, the pass Dennis Northcutt dropped that cost the Browns a playoff victory against the Steelers in 2002.

Teams will often say that the game should not come down to one play, but it often does. What often also happens is the overreaction of winner and loser. Some will humbly admit that the ball bounced their way, but few apologize for the spoils of victory. I always thought that if the game is close at the end, we risked a bad break determining the outcome.

And, every year, despite the fact that the losing team made it to the Super Bowl, and may have been champion except for a couple of key plays, we see the post-game overreaction. I suppose it is a result of the stage they are playing on that we often experience the exaggeration of the loss.

Sports are often a microcosm for life. We all have moments that change the course of our lives-the chance meeting of our spouse, the car accident that would not have happened if we did not have to go back in the house for our keys, or the winning lottery ticket we purchased with our last dollar. These are things we likely could not have controlled--but yet affected the course of our lives. Fortunately, in most cases, we have time to affect the outcome of our lives--and have that Super Bowl moment.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

179. Self-promotion fuels campaigns

Generally speaking, I think every elective office should be contested at the end of each term. It is true that it is a burden for politicians to stop and campaign every two to four years-while they and their staff, and even their programs, live in uncertainty-but political office is a representative position. It is supposed to be about what the people you represent want. Elections are the exchange of competing ideas, electing the person who has the ability to present, and ultimately deliver, the community perspective that most represents his or her constituents.

In this respect, I am glad to see that there will be competition for the county commissioner positions next fall. I think I have met all of the candidates and both the incumbents, and think they are all good, quality candidates who genuinely want to see the best for the community. I am looking forward to a practical and specific exchange of ideas and am not writing here to endorse any of them.

And, as with any election, let us hope that it is this exchange of ideas to an informed public that decides the election-and not the typical clich├ęs, philosophical generalities, marketing gimmicks or grandstanding.

The truth is that campaigners are salesman; they are selling both a vision and themselves. We need to remember that fundamental concept when they campaign for our vote.

John Maxwell, a well-known speaker and writer on leadership agrees, "All leaders are salespersons. Though they may not be peddling a product, leaders are selling a picture of what the future could be and should be. They seek to persuade others to buy-in to a particular vision."

The question is which vision we will support.

It seems that every candidate is running on "fiscal responsibility," so much so that it is a non-issue. After all, nobody ever runs on fiscal irresponsibility. Asking if a candidate, in the current economic climate, will work to conserve resources, is like asking a car salesman if the car comes with tires. It falls into the "duh," category.

Unfortunately, many campaigns today are managed with an aim in manipulating voters rather than presenting real ideas to voters on the community's most difficult issues. Campaigning often falls back on banalities, like "fiscal responsibility" which means nothing until we understand how that is going to be accomplished. Where everyone wants small government (myself included), nobody wants the consequences of small government when it affects their individual interest. For some this interest is social services, others safety or infrastructure. The truth is that it takes very little skill to balance a budget if there is no consideration for the consequences. Any child with an elementary grasp of mathematics can cut programs and budgets to make revenue equal expenses. Promoting fiscal responsibly simply by cutting expenses is taking the easy way out.

What we need today are skilled leaders who can deliver us out of the current economic climate of stagnate revenue growth. We need practicality, experience and specifics more than we need the marketing of ideology.

Ultimately though, part of the sales job for all candidates is marketing. This combination of self-promotion and media-seeking gimmicks probably has the most influence in determining who wins an election-but says the least about the ideas, integrity and character of a candidate. Self-defining adjectives (always three-apparently two does not say enough and four must be arrogant) is utterly worthless in assessing a candidate. So are fancy websites, crisply-printed campaign flyers, television advertisements, cute slogans and conversation props. I want someone who is real, not someone who is trying to sell me a car. I appreciate candidates who are good listeners, but I also want to hear their ideas-real ideas. Voters need to do their research and not be limited to party affiliation, family name or good looks.

Real leadership is the ability to make difficult things happen. We need people who will go out into the community and pick it up by the boot straps. We need leaders who will fight to bring businesses to the area; who will go out and get public and private grants when they are available. We need people who will get sales tax increases passed when they are necessary. We need people who will do the right thing, even if it might be unpopular at first.

Leaders have conviction and believe in what they are doing; they believe in their ideas, ethics and morals. They feel this conviction is best for the community and they seek the community's endorsement. There is always room for compromise, but I am cautious of those candidates who play both sides. It feels like I am being sold snake oil.

A leader, to me, is someone like Dan Martin, who fought to bring a recreation center to Amherst. He could have walked away when voters decided they were unwilling to pay for it. He could even have been condescending or spiteful. But Martin was neither. Not only did Martin not accept the answer that voters delivered; he used other community resources and compromise to find another way. He got it done when many would have just given up. He delivered his vision and conviction-and the community will benefit from it.

In this way, I want to know how candidates are going to make it happen. I want to know the skills and experience they have in reaching out into the community and improving it. Experience matters and ideas alone do not make a candidate qualified. Finally, what I want is elected officials who are committed to the area. I do not want candidates looking to make a career of politics, and using Lorain County as a stepping stone.

Let us choose the most promising leaders, based on experience, skill, education, vision and conviction, for all of our elected positions, and not just the best campaigner.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

178. Taxes must be the same for everyone

Starting with the Tea Party and then with Occupy Wall Street, there has been a movement to consider both the economic distribution of wealth and the amount of taxes that are paid. The Tea Party wants to lessen the amount of taxes that Americans pay, which would subsequently result in a smaller government, while Occupy Wall Street is looking for a more equitable distribution of wealth and protests the excessive economic control and earnings of corporations and their stockholders.

The two issues have collided on Mitt Romney, as his wealth, and taxes he pays on that wealth, has come into question by Republicans and Democrats alike. The consensus, if there is a non-partisan one, is that it is fundamentally unfair for the country's wealthiest individuals to pay a smaller percentage of taxes than most middle class Americans.

In some ways, many of us have Romney to thank for this debate, as we have been complaining about it for years.

The argument has always been that we are anti-capitalists or envious or that we are attacking success-calling it "class warfare." It has never been about any of those things. The issue has always been about fairness. In addition, it is bad for our economic and democratic system to have so much wealth in the hands of so few people. For some reason, people excuse great wealth and inequality, but it drives them absolutely crazy to see someone on welfare.

Romney has finally brought the discussion main street, and across party lines. Unfortunately, we really cannot expect wealthy legislators to create laws that increase their tax burden without significant pressure from the populist. Those in Congress, particularly the Republicans, spend a considerable amount of energy on keeping taxes on the wealthy as low as possible-but this time it is Republican presidential candidates making an issue of Romney's low tax rate.

It seems to be ignored that the very wealthy often earn their money exponentially-and with significant tax advantages. They often earn more in a day than many middle class Americans make in a year. They do not work harder than middle class Americans-they just have more opportunity and advantages in the creation of their wealth.

Edward Kleinbard, a law professor at the University of Southern California, agrees, "The most affluent Americans in recent years have pulled away from the rest of us, and the reason is at least in part that they are able to compound their wealth at very, very low tax rates."

Warren Buffett, who has challenged Congress on the low tax rate for the wealthy, commented on the way Romney makes his money, "He makes his money the same way I make my money. He makes money by moving around big bucks, not by straining his back and going to work cleaning the toilets or whatever it may be. He makes it shoving around money. I make it shoving around money."

And, there is the misconception. While the very rich have obtained their wealth in different ways--some have worked hard for their success, while others simply inherited it--they usually earn a disproportional amount through investment.

Buffet makes a similar point, "If you look at the 400 highest incomes in the United States, they average $220 million. Something like 90 of them are effectively unemployed. They have no earned income, and that number has gone up over the years."

Buffett does not blame Romney but rather the system, "It's the wrong policy to have. Nothing wrong about [Romney] doing that. He will not pay more than the law requires. I don't fault him for that in the least, but I do fault the law that allows him and me, earning enormous sums to pay over all federal taxes at a rate that is about half what the average person in my office pays."

Kleinbard also commented on how the wealthy, like Romney, can use the current system to avoid other taxes. "The returns also demonstrate how, using sophisticated estate planning, Romney has been able to give millions of dollars to his children free of estate and gift taxes, because of a legal structure known as a ‘grantor trust.'"

The numbers are staggering and I have presented them often in this column. It is time to move to a more equitable system of wealth distribution. That is not socialism-I am not advocating the creation of a single class. What I am advocating is that the disparity between the very wealthy, the one percent, and the middle class and poor be reduced a bit. People who do not work hard do not deserve the same success or financial rewards as those that work hard and made the sacrifices of their success.

However, at the same time, the people who are very successful should never pay a smaller percentage of taxes than those who are modestly or less successful. That is just ridiculous.

I have never favored a flat tax, but considering the tax advantages of the wealthy, maybe it is time to tax everyone the same-and that includes all forms of income. This would include employment income, investments, gifts, estates, inheritance-everything. No more loopholes. If someone even finds a dollar in the street, it should be reported as income and taxed.

I'm kidding, sort of.