Sequestration Rumination.

March 5, 2013

Politics in D.C. have become the equivalent of watching a dog chase its tail. Mildly entertaining. Devoid of productivity.
Friday, as sequestration became reality, Federal employees collectively groaned. As of April 1st (April Fool's Day. Seriously), when $85 billion in automatic spending cuts take effect, there will be many hardworking, innocent victims bearing the brunt of D.C.'s most recent failure.
Will Congressman, Senators and White House Staffers be among those affected? No. Victims will include countless Federal employees who doggedly perform their jobs, even as our feckless political leadership makes the performance of those jobs as difficult and as thankless as possible.
They are your neighbors, friends and family members. Post Office employees. Air traffic controllers. Research scientists. Border patrol officers. NASA and FDA employees. National park employees. Teachers, firemen and police officers. Homeless, mental health and assistance program administrators.
These are sequestration's immediate victims. Though you too will eventually be victimized.
The victims of a growing leadership vacuum in Washington, D.C. that begins in the White House and emanates throughout Congress, the Senate, and all points in between.
Politics versus Meritocracy
This morning, a client summed it up rather aptly. "I'd never pay employees to show up and achieve so little."
In a meritocracy, you perform your job to keep your job. Not so with Federal politics.
The founders recognized this. Saw the potential outcome of a central government run amok. They installed safeguards against it. Checks and balances. Unfortunately, today's system is more geared towards writing checks and creating imbalances.
The two parties that run this nation with iron fists have little tolerance for each other, and even less for the electorate. Growing deficits, the poor, sick and helpless, not to mention the nation's business and physical infrastructure - poker hands to be played against each other. Pawns to be sacrificed in lieu of other, more valuable pieces.
For all of the caterwauling, infighting, crocodile tears and media angst we've experience, you'd have thought we just eradicated the budget deficit. We haven't. Nothing close. The sequestration cuts represent 5 percent of the current budget deficit. And merely half a percent of the total Federal debt.
Considering the President's recent commentary, I expected to wake up Saturday to find that the engine of the world had been flipped off.
Imagine the leaders you've known. Not by title, but those who have demonstrated real leadership qualities. Vision. Prudence. Fortitude.
Is that what we've seen these last three months from our elected officials? From either party?
Further, imagine a business, big or small, and the means by which it treats customers. Private enterprise will bend over backwards to ensure that customers are not harmed or adversely effected by that which transpires in the day-to-day dynamics of running the business.
Consider Kmart. It declared bankruptcy in January 2002, yet the average shopper had no clue. Because upon entering the store, the shopper remained a customer of a company that survives by openly competing for the affections, tastes and loyalties of customers.
True, Kmart is beholden to its share price, and its shareholders, but the share price only does well when the company performs well. And the company only performs well when customers reward its efforts by purchasing items at its retail outlets. And customers do not buy things from retail outlets at which they've had a poor experience. Too many competitors to choose from. So, the customer is king.
Now, take the stewards of the Federal government. Our elected leadership in D.C.
If Kmart fails you, you have ten or more options to choose from within a five mile radius. If they fail you, you'll never return.
Fewer, however, are your political choices. There are three, in fact. Republican. Democrat. Abstention.
Party Trumps People
Once elected, politicians are beholden to their parties. Not to you. Parties can help people get elected. And help them stay in office. Team players receive the tools to stay in office. Cash-filled war coffers. Radio, television and billboard advertising. Campaign assistance from popular politicians and celebrities. Expert public relations and polling. Once in office, the party can keep you there, if you play ball.
So, politicians act in the interest of their parties. Occasionally, constituent and party interests align. And constituents are thrown a bone. Otherwise, the party apparatus is focused upon the amount of money, votes and seats it controls at any given moment. Why? One simple equation:
Money + Constituencies + Seats Won = Influence
And the game in D.C. is about influence. Which is power. People? Simply a means to an end.
Sound cynical? I'm no cynic. I'm not a watchmaker either, but I know a broken watch when I see one.
Think sequestration was a problem? Sequestration is a symptom. One of many. The system is the problem.
Pretend you hired me to place a soda vending machine in your home. I explain that for a dollar, the machine dispenses Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew and Sprite. Following installation, you insert a dollar into the machine, press the Sprite button, and the machine dispenses some soda water in a cup. You insert another dollar, press Coke, and the machine gives you a small apple juice box. How many times will you dispense money before you simply tell me to get rid of the machine?
Continuing, I replace the machine. Exasperated, you insert a dollar, press Mountain Dew, and a warm stream of tap water dribbles out into a cup. How would you respond then?
Yet, we continue to elect politicians who consistently deliver a far-from-satisfying version of what they promised? Further, when we elect someone new, who performs in a similar subpar fashion, we accept it. Are we that desensitized to failure at the Federal political level?
So, back to the private versus public sector comparison.
Unlike those leading private sector enterprises, elected officials in D.C. take the opposite tact when problems arise. Our politicians do not go out of their way to shield people from problems, but to shower them with problems. How else to make the electorate aware of the value you and your party represent?
Instead of productive negotiations we settle for public meetings with no intention of achieving anything, save for a press conference and a potential victory in the 24-hour news cycle.
"Mr. President, good news, sir..."
"We avoided sequestration?"
"No, Mr. President. Tomorrow's issue of The New York Times will blame the sequestration drama on continuing GOP discord..."
Victory isn't determined by the amount you accomplish, but on the amount of blame you avoid. Like small children pointing fingers at each other.
Wag the Dog
Ever see the movie, Wag the Dog? A political strategist creates a fake war to distract the electorate from the president's sex scandal just days before an election.
I see a bit of tail wagging in today's headlines.
Never before has so much attention been paid to such insignificant issues. Insignificant not by the fact that people are unaffected. People are hugely affected. I use the term insignificant because the fiscal cliff and sequestration are circumstances created in D.C. by politicians avoiding the larger, more important issues. By creating transitory, calendar driven issues, we are distracted from the more substantial issues.
The $85 billion sequestration impasse distracts us from the $17 trillion Federal debt.
Three years ago, nobody in the nation knew the terms "fiscal cliff" or "sequestration." Today, we have "fiscal cliff" and "sequestration" fatigue.
Politicians, deferring on the more important issues, create smaller issues, and then work like ants in an ant farm to solve the problems that didn't exist the year before. And for that, they are re-elected. Usually on promises their parties will not allow them to deliver. Or, that they simply have no intention to keep.
When a system is perverted to reward its stewards for taking from one group and giving to another, then that system is destined for failure. Because, eventually those being taken from grow tired of being robbed. Even while the appetites of the recipients grow more insatiable.
Sequestration and Other Frankenstein Monsters
When Mary Shelly wrote her book, Frankenstein, about a man-made Prometheus run amok, she could have been writing about sequestration. The mad scientists (politicians) use an unorthodox means of achieving some questionable ends and the result is a monstrosity that roams the countryside, terrorizing the citizenry. Eventually, the population rises up to collectively deal with the problem.
We too have been forced to contend with monstrosities of our own political design. The fiscal cliff. Sovereign debt downgrades. Quantitative easing. Sequestration. How will these burdens affect us? Will the outcomes justify the transitory benefits? Will we have to rise up and forcibly put these monstrosities to rest?
These next few weeks, you will notice little in terms of sequestration's impact. Then, beginning this spring, there will be a subtle shift. You will notice the TSA lines growing longer. Customs lines will bloat. Your PhD neighbor will be seeking work. A friend at the post office will have her Saturdays free. Your sister, the teacher, will work half-days.
Elected officials? They feel it -- anecdotally. They'll shift their key messages. Prepare their talking points. And take to the airwaves, placing blame at everyone's feet but their own.
You, however, will be adversely affected by their failures. Their inability to solve the problems they created. Your neighbors will pay a price. Your friends will see a lower quality of life. And your children will face declining standards of living, and bills they cannot afford.

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