Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Power of Perception

One of my favorite stories is the one about the five blind men and the elephant. None of the blind men had ever been exposed to an elephant and when one came into the village, a few people took the blind men up the the elephant so they could experience it. One blind man went up the the elephant's leg and concluded an elephant was like a tree. Another blind man felt the elephant's ear and determined that an elephant was like a large leaf. The third blind man felt the tail and decided an elephant was like a snake. Later the blind men all argued about the nature of the elphant.

While many people find the story amusing, not everyone understands the point. The fact is we are all blind men. We so often make decisions without having a full understanding of the problem.

Edward de Bono developed some thinking tools designed to broaden a person's perceptual screen. To experience more of the elephant. I recently shared these tools with Renaissance Executive Forums. Take a look at the mind map below and tell me what you think.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Why We Should Abolish Income Taxes

I have argued here before that we should abolish income taxes, but the President's State of the Union Address gave a perfect example of why this is necessary for our country to prosper.

Among other things, President Obama suggested gutting the 529 college savings plan and using the additional taxes to fund a new entitlement providing "free" two year community college educations. Of course, the education will not truly be "free". The costs will be shifted from the students to tax payers.

I funded 529 plans for all my children including my daughter Hannah who is eleven. Hannah should be able to pay for a state college education and graduate without any debt. She may even have a little left over to pay for part of a master's degree if she is frugal. If the President's plan were to apply to her, she would lose approximately one third of her college fund to taxes. She would be lucky to pay for three years of college and would have to go into debt.

But I agree with the President. We should gut the 529 plan and the rest of the income tax code with it.

We have very serious problems in the country that Republicans and Democrats can agree on. We need to deal with our crumbling infrastructure. We need to increase our cyber security. We need to come up with a plan to deal with climate change. And we need to deal with the over criminalization of our laws which has resulted in the United States incarcerating more people than China! A disproportionate number of prisoners are poor people whose lives are destroyed by being incarcerated The country spends billions of dollars of tax payers money to house people, many of which have committed victimless crimes.

These are all problems that our legislature needs to address, but when the President panders to his base with calls to tax one group to pay for benefits for another, he polarizes the electorate. We need out our President to pull us together and work on problems that benefit all Americans instead of pitting us against each other by taxing one group to pay for freebies for another.

President Obama's call for gutting the 529 plan was a bit of "lets soak the rich" demagoguery designed to appeal to his base of support. House Speaker John Boehner pronounced the proposal dead of arrival.

When Obama and Boehner quibble over tax proposals designed to appeal to their base, they remind me of two sparrows fights over bread crumbs in the street, oblivious to their certain destruction by an oncoming car.

By abolishing the income tax and replacing it with a national sales tax, exempting food, medicine and energy we can take an important step toward getting our elected officials to do the people's work instead of just trying to consolidate their political power.

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Bob McDonnell's Pride Effected His Thinking

There are a lot of thinking lessons in the aftermath of the conviction on corruption charges of Bob and Maureen McDonnell. The most important may be to "think for the other guy." According to The Washington Post, McDonnell rejected a plea deal that would have allowed him to plead guilty to not reporting the loans that Jonnie Williams made to his real estate company on a loan application. In exchange for pleading guilty to this one felony, McDonnell would have received immunity for his wife and avoided prosecution for all the corruption charges. This is where McDonnell needed to "think for the other guy."

If McDonnell had asked himself what lead prosecutor David Harbach was thinking, he may have made a much different decision about the plea deal he rejected. Harbach is an experienced prosecutor who had been pouring through the evidence for months. He had a mountain of documents. Harbach knew that he would have to be reasonably certain of getting a conviction before going forward with such a high profile prosecution. The case would make national news and if Harbach didn't get a conviction on at least some of the charges, he would look foolish or worse yet, it might be considered by many to be malicious prosecution. The reason Harbach was willing to risk this was that he was confident of getting a conviction.

In a dispute of any kind, it's always good to think for the other guy. . . to put yourself in his/her shoes and ask what he/she is planning and why they are acting that way. McDonnell never did that. He only myopically saw the facts and circumstances through his own eyes. He could have avoided the trial, saved his wife and in all probability avoided any jail time. But he never thought for the other guy. His pride wouldn't allow him to plead guilty to anything. And now, sadly, he and his wife are facing what could be decades of incarceration.
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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Seven Years in an Egyptian Prison for Doing Your Job

Seven years in an Egyptian prison for doing your job? That's what three Al Jazeera journalists received for “crimes” they committed back in December 2013 for covering the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, the legally elected President of Egypt and the head of the Muslim Brotherhood. To date, journalists Peter Greste, Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy have been imprisoned for over 200 days for creating international outrage. The prosecution accused these men of spreading false reports and colluding with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Seems that its very dangerous to be a journalist and report what is happening if the wrong side wins. The U.S. State Department has worked diligently to free the men to no avail.

Interesting isn't it? We're quick to criticize other nations for abuse of governmental power, yet we're slow to look at our own government.

Today hundreds of thousands of Americans sit rotting in jail for growing, selling or using a plant that is legal in some form in 23 states. Incarcerating these otherwise law-abiding citizens destroys lives, ruins families and costs billions, all in a futile attempt to prevent people from using a plant that our own President admits to having used large quantities of in his youth.

It seems that in the war on drugs, many of the "soldiers" are "deserting" since those 23 states have legalized cannabis in some form. It is “high time” that we surrender totally, admit defeat and free these prisoners of war so these poor souls who have been wasting away in prison can begin rebuilding their lives. President Obama could start this today by pardoning all non-violent offenders who have been convicted of selling, growing or possessing cannabis. 

From a thinking standpoint, this is an excellent example of Frog Theory. As Mark Twain noted, if you put a frog in a pan of hot water, he immediately jumps out. But if you put him in a pan of tepid water and slowly turn the heat up, he stays there until he's boiled. This is why so many people are outraged about the Al Jazeera journalists (who were suddenly incarcerated), but sanguine about the war on drugs, where the government has slowly turned the heat up over the years (many drugs that are now illegal were legal 100 years ago).

On a personal note, I want to be clear that I do not use marijuana. I do not permit my children to use it and I do not endorse its recreational use. I simply feel it is incredibly destructive and wasteful for our government to try to prevent its use. As a nation, the United States incarcerates 25 percent of the prisoners in the world, while we have only about five percent of the world's population. Even China has fewer prisoners than we do. Many of these prisoners are there solely for crimes related to possession, use or distribution of marijuana.
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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Why No Corporations Pay Taxes

I mentioned to an attorney recently that corporations never pay taxes. She looked surprised and said, "Well, of course they do."

I replied in the contrary; they did not pay any taxes.

She looked perplexed and said she was certain that corporations paid taxes.

Again, I assured her that no corporation had ever paid any taxes.

Befuddled, she looked at me and said, "Well, in law school, I was taught that corporations use government resources and that was why they have to pay taxes."

I explained to her that if her law school professors had taught her that, they were mistaken.

She insisted, once again, that I was wrong about this, so I decided to explain.

Every corporation benefits three groups of people. First, they benefit the consumers who use the company's products and services. Next, they benefit the employees who earn their livelihood working for the company. Finally, they benefit the shareholders who invest in the company's stock.

And when the government "taxes" a corporation, they're taking the money from the consumers, employees and investors who are associated with the company. Real estate doesn't pay real estate taxes. Cars don't pay car taxes and corporations don't pay corporate taxes. Only people pay taxes.

Exactly how the cost of taxes is shared between the investors, employees and consumers is a difficult question. But if you buy things, work for a company or have a retirement plan that owns stock, you are paying corporate taxes.

Corporate taxes are not very transparent. Many people are happy to "stick it to corporate America" without realizing they're taxing their own retirement plan.

. . .which is one more reason that replacing all income taxes, corporate and personal, with a national sales tax would make this a better country.
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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

How to Fix Congress

I have an idea that I think would fix Congress. The problems are obvious to everyone. Congress continues to be beholden to special interest. People and organizations with lots of money can buy access and influence, and laws are designed to protect the wealthy and powerful.

It takes lots of money to get elected to Congress. It's a great job with a fat salary, a generous pension and superb fringe benefits, so once they've done all the work to get elected, congressmen and senators normally want to stay there. So their primary job becomes getting reelected, which means they frequently need to vote a certain way to keep the support of their party - and their jobs.

The problem is not with the people who are elected to Congress, who for the most part are good people. The problem is with how the money corrupts them. So let's eliminate it.

My solution? I think we should select Congress by lottery. All college graduates over the age of 25 would be eligible for the lottery. All one would have to do is pass a basic civics test and be willing to serve four years. People could only serve once in a lifetime.

Instead of a bunch of lawyers, Congress would be made of school teachers, salesmen, doctors, businessmen, corporate executives, stay-at-home parents and tradesmen. In other words, it would look like America. Only people who really cared about America would be willing to leave their careers for four years to serve the nation.

It might sound silly, but is this not the exact system that we use to seat juries? And don't we trust juries to decide things as important as taking away people liberties - or even their life?

We would still elect our President, who could veto congressional action subject to the override with a two-thirds majority. I'm confident that a random selection of patriotic people who cared about the nation could do a much better job than the people who are beholden to special interests.

Let me know what you think.

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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Eliminating the Income Tax Would Provide for a Much More Egalitarian Society

Wouldn't it be nice to live in a country were people were treated equally by the government? I wish we did, but as we all know, money and power does sometimes result in the government treating its citizens in an unequal way.

Our political system is hugely influenced by money, which is why corporate America spends so heavily on lobbying to get laws in their favor. Monsanto for example, has a virtual iron grip on the market for corn and soybean seeds. If you're a farmer, you may not be able to save seeds from one year to the next because Monsanto might sue you for patent infringement. (Amazingly, this is true even if the farmer never bought seeds from Monsanto). Clearly, the interests of big business have trumped the needs of the individual farmers.

You would think that our civil justice team would give individual citizens equal footing in a courtroom if they believe they are injured by the negligence of a large company. But so called "tort reform" initiatives have resulted in laws that are bizarre, where individual access to courts or ability to collect damages have been severely restricted because of laws that trump jury awards. If you watch the HBO documentary "Hot Coffee" you'd be amazed at how large companies can escape responsibility for wrongful acts. If you have Netflix, you can read it here.

With our tax system, politicians offer free stuff to get people to vote for them and them let somebody else pay for it. Politicians continue to extend unemployment benefits, subsidize student loans and expand free and subsidized health care without ever being accountable for the bill. Future generations will face higher taxes and slower growth for the foibles of today, but they can't vote so many politicians are more concerned with keeping their job than doing the right thing.

But we can change this all. What if we had a tax system that exempted food, medicine and energy  (for heating our homes) for all Americans. Everyone paid the same tax rate when they spent money on other things. Politicians would not longer be able to play the "vote for me and I will give you free stuff and make someone else pay for it." What is more, some politicians would campaign on making government more efficient and effective and eliminating bloated programs in order to reduce the taxes. 

We should strive to make our society  a more Egalitarian society by having a government that treats all of its citizens equally. We can start by having a tax system that is impervious to political manipulation.

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