Populists

I Don’t Do Politics

Some thirty five years ago I was encouraged by one who knew the game to consider a career in politics. Putting aside any temptation to indulge in such a heady notion, and all of the other reasons to reject this counsel, I focused on, and replied to my friend in terms of, one issue: constitutionally, I don’t have the ability to take and state positions aligned near the poles of either party, on most any issue.

I shade left on some calls, right on a few more, but hardly ever am moved to hold positions, or push arguments beyond a moderate view that encompasses an appreciation for the other side.

Even in those somewhat less polarized days, and without any nuanced understanding of primary and general election realities, my earlier self believed this to be a fatal flaw for one aspiring to elected office.

Perhaps I was proud of my moderate and reasonable tendencies. Or perhaps I was simply afraid to get into the fray, and put at risk the possibility of losing a referendum on me.

In the commercial realm, where I have accepted, and in fact sought, leadership responsibilities subject to assessments expressed in public and private, my instincts also run toward finding centers — areas of agreement, common ground, opportunities for mutual understanding leading to mutual success — rather than sharp differences and one-sided wins.

In the large, this tendency has worked out for me. While I’ve had some noted failures in my day, I’ve been a part of more progress, across a pretty wide front, than of setbacks. And that guy in the morning reflection feels OK while shaving.

I’m certain that I’ve left opportunities unaddressed, in all realms. With harder edges and a simplified focus on attainment of goals, some other version of me could have done more, gone further, and meant more. But then, they wouldn’t be my accomplishments — they’d be his.

Effectiveness in business depends on the gut appreciation that it’s conducted by, my phrasing, “those warm squishy things called humans,” and that they don’t all think and feel as you. In fact, none do. It goes on, at least in the theme of my thoughts here, to benefit greatly from reflection on the words of George Bernard Shaw, “All progress is made by unreasonable men.”

The ability to win the trust and respect of those that don’t see through your eyes, have had your experiences, or share your judgements, especially those at greatest odds with your center (in my case perhaps the principle-first standard-bearers), and to add their sharp voices, their perhaps messy but certainly necessary contributions to the mix, is what a leader must rise to accomplish if he wants to push forward toward any worthwhile accomplishment.

I have never crossed any finish line without their contributions. I value greatly those voices that could not be mine. In business, I smile on those occasions where they sing in a chorus I’ve helped assemble, and am deeply disappointed when I fall short toward this effort.

It is through this lens that I view our current politics. Polarized. Dysfunctional. Embarrassing, and at times seemingly incomprehensible. An avowed socialist? PT Barnum raised from the dead?

Well, I believe that those voices are of, and indeed required in, our time. They are needed to direct great buckets of cold water toward the faces of the sober, reasonable crowd who have allowed rot to take to our roots.

That sober, reasonable crowd has at least one recognizable face in it.

Near Taqah Castle

Reflections on Oman, and Leadership

At Sea
1 Day out of Salālah
En Route to Aqaba, Jordan*

With no waking witness, the first milky light of day notched into the cabin around the time our ship slipped into port. A short time later, when the door chime announced breakfast’s arrival, the living room was fully lit in a diffuse glow.

Salalah Oman lay just outside, and a half day’s exploring it just ahead.

As Ellie poured strong coffee, I pulled the curtains fully aside, uncovering a view of docks, and container vessels, and cranes in methodical operation, and limestone quarries crossed by trails of dust, and busses all in a row, and workers busy sweeping in a choreographed procession to clear the after effects of a day-earlier sandstorm we found to be the reason the day’s light had its particular character upon our arrival.

Cleaning up after the sand storm

Cleaning up after the sand storm

Throughout the day, the cloudless sky never turned blue, and the air carried a dust so fine as to escape any direct observation. All we saw was its veil-like effect on the light, and its remains on flat surfaces. It added nicely to the sense of the exotic, in this, our first visit to the Sultanate of Oman. Continue reading

A city of contrasts

Postcard from Mumbai

Arabian Sea
Arriving Salālah, Oman Tomorrow, 06:00 Local

Traffic, people in their many millions, abject poverty hard by opulence, layers of history sitting still stratified in their rich variety, strong and fervently practiced religious traditions living side by side (but perhaps not with quite the claimed level of total harmony), commerce trumping politics in a vibrant globalizing city… but with a visible military and police presence preventing geo-politics and the echoes of the terror events of not so long ago from exiting what is a very busy stage*.

Oh, and did I mention traffic?

That’s Mumbai.

My experience of this teeming city of 18 million souls was still more limited than in our prior two ports of call, as it was captured entirely from a motor coach that followed a route of, what… maybe 10 miles, over about four hours of travel time, without (intentional) stops.

Did I mention traffic?

I’ll let pictures do the rest of the work here (at least for now)… I’ll circle back with some further thoughts at a later date.

[You can view a full gallery of images from my entire journey here.]

* Our route passed immediately by all three targets of the 2008 attacks

Mumbai traffic... is everywhere

Mumbai traffic… is everywhere

Modern High rise buildings, washerman village, street hawker

High rises, washerman village, street hawkers

Street Hawker Protest March (~20,000 men)

Street Hawker Protest March (~20,000 men)

Miles of these hovels line even the main streets of Mumbai

Miles of these hovels line even the main streets of Mumbai

...and then there was traffic

…and then there was traffic

Our journey

Postcard from Mangalore

Arabian Sea
2nd day at Sea, En Route to Salilah, Oman

Our second of three stops as we traveled north on the Malabar Coast was at Mangalore, a medium sized trade and commercial hub, in the state of Karnataka… and a place of no particular distinction. (When I asked our guide to describe what made this place special, he hesitated at great length, and then answered something involving hotel chains founded here and ‘warm people.’)

Therein lies its value to the traveler. It provides, it seemed to me, a lens into ‘average India,’ if there is such a thing. Continue reading

Map of Cochin

Postcard from Kochi

After only the briefest of stays, in three port regions scattered across the western shores of this vast land, it’s impossible of course to give a fair accounting of a sprawling country of 1.3 billion, with a rich history that spans millennia — from before recorded time to today’s headlines.

What is possible however, and what I’ll attempt in this and two following “postcards”, is to share a tiny sample of impressions and refractions from images captured and notes taken during my time in Cochin, Mangalore, and Mumbai India.

India’s is a history comprising both the actions of a highly varied indigenous set of peoples, and the numerous layered footprints of cultures from afar, with the passing centuries bringing influence from Arabs and Persians, then Europeans… and now from the inexorable forces of globalization.

What Ellie, our fellow travelers, and I experienced during our several landings was thus an assembly across time, blending cultures as they were across various ‘thens,’ crafted by many hands.

These visits, our first to the sub-continent, accomplished for me what one hopes for through such an undertaking: the immediate visceral experience of wonder, leading to passing phases of disorientation and confusion, on the way to humility, respect, just a bit of understanding, and an opening up of personal perspectives.

Perhaps what I share here will offer some pleasing echoes of that journey toward appreciation, and the encouragement you need to set out on your own comparable adventure. Come along, and let me tell you a few stories…

Continue reading

Shwedagon Pagoda

Reflections on Yangon Part I

13.793595 N, 92.890955 E
Bay of Bengal
Sailing just north of the Adaman and Nicobar Islands
En route to Kochi, India, one and a half days out of Yangon…

Looking down from my vantage point ten decks above, at the waters flowing by our ship at the deep sea port of Thilawa, on the Yangon branch of the Irrawaddy River delta, I noticed that they run in swirling striations of blue and brown, in proportions depending on the motions of the large tides that characterize the region… mostly blue when flowing in from the Adaman Sea, muddy brown when ebbing in the other direction.

Irrawaddy River Delta

Irrawaddy River Delta

I found that similar flows and mixings define the cultural, political, and social situation in the country of Myanmar, sitting as it does at a crossroads of diverse cultures, at a time of shifting balances between tradition and modernism, differing views of governance, and things essentially local or global.

The visit we just concluded would not have been possible only a few short years ago… Let me tell you just a little bit about what I saw, heard, and experienced…

Originally a monarchy, then a British colony, Myanmar gained independence in 1948, with a government marked by strongman, socialist, and rather eccentric military rule, in which its back was turned to the world. It opened up to that world in 2010. Elections, generally characterized as fair, were held two years later, and yielded a sweeping victory for the dominant opposition party.

Foreign investments, and the global tourist trade, began to arrive in its wake… but not so rapidly, or so powerfully, as to push earlier times and their ways to the margins, at least not yet.

And so it is a fascinating place, and time, to visit. Like most places of intersection, it is rich with life, and the change and growth that defines life.

Our first evening’s tour guide, on the bumpy 15 mile bus ride over privately built, privately tolled, roads from port to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and back, shared his perspectives on his homeland and peoples, openly, often with a healthy dose of passion, sometimes intense, sometime leavened with a far-off look…

Our Guide

Our Guide

We learned from him about:

  • The many, some rather extraordinary, excesses of the former military ruling regime — from vast deforestation, to radical manipulation of taxes on automobiles, to the choice of mystically inspired currency denominations (based on combinations around the leader’s personal lucky number, nine), to overnight decisions to change the side of the road on which one drives (and how that requires most larger vehicles, the majority of which are imported from Japan with right side drive, to have a second person help the driver navigate the resulting mis-match of road and vehicle).
  • How the locally lagging economy, and traditional Chinese rote-based education system, was creating a brain drain. His brother is making 20x as an engineer in Singapore, compared to what he could make here ($50K vs. $2.5K per year). He expressed whistful hope that this flow could be reversed (“brain drain becomes brain gain”) through more enlightened education and economic reforms.
  • How long-time dissident Aung San Suu Kyi was, in his view, more effective under house arrest, before reforms and the resulting elections allowed her a place in government… and about the bizarre constitution that bars widows with foreign offspring to hold the position of president… a provision blatantly written with her in mind.
  • About the uncertainties of how coming elections (fall, 2015) will play out, given fears of the re-assertion of military power. (Tides reverse regularly after all.)
  • How there are 135 distinct ethnic groups in the country, with generally peaceful co-existance among them, as well as between the followers of many of the world’s major religions (but for an exception near the border with Bangldesh, and its overwhelmingly Muslim population). 80% of the country is Buddhist.
  • How (in great detail) one grows poppy for opium production, how profitable it can be compared to other crops — and how efforts to create counter-incentives designed to curb production have not yet worked. (Without much apparent reservation, he explained that he and his father proposed to join his neighbor, in the “Golden Triangle” region to the north, in such production. His mother forbade it.)
  • How the coming of social media and internet connectivity has been a mixed influence, amplifying ethnic tensions,  previously muted or locally contained. (Smart phones are everywhere.)
  • How the people of Myanmar feel tiny, squeezed in between its giant powerful neighbors of India and China. Commenting on border tensions with the latter, he said a common joke is that “If war with China would ever come, all they would have to do is to get their people to all piss in our direction, and we’d be washed out to sea!”
  • How China is looking to create influence and leverage, not make war, through development assistance. The main bridge from port over the Yangon river was donated by the Chinese.

Continue reading

Watchman’s Rattle?

Watchman'srattleCosta I read an interesting, if a bit quirky, little book a short time back called "The Watchman's Rattle," whose premise is that over the history of our species, societies tend to grow in scale and sophistication… to the point of inevitable collapse, as a result of our mind's inability to cope with the resulting non-linear expansion of complexity. At the time I filed it under "imaginative pseudo-science."

The events of the past few years give pause however: Financial meltdown, precipitated by a greed-begat swan of black color and petards self-hoisted by corporate dandys of all pin-stripes. Political polarization to the point of absurdity ("I am not a witch") and dysfunction (state legislators scurrying away to avoid a quorum). Religious tectonics along the north 10th parallel fueling non-stop spasms of violence in one part of the globe, and the inevitable geologic tectonics of another creating apocolyptic convergences of failure — all amplified in emotive power while drained of reason by our media priests. 

Where are the reasoned men, leading, teaching and serving as examples of the "practical wisdom" Aristotle pointed us toward?

Perhaps the complexities of our times simply overwhelm? If so, I believe it's because the noise, accelerating novelty and confusion sets up a fog, within which lesser men and ideas can maneuver and emerge into positions of power and influence.

We must learn to see through that fog.

Not with goggles that mask the realities and truths of our times, collapsing them down to kindergarten nuggets on blackboards using smarmy bombast posing as "truth."

Not with smarter-than-thou rhetoric that ignores basic values and fails to deal with the world as it is.

Rather, with a penetrating gaze that sees things as they are, and with the wisdom to choose leaders who apply calm and steadfast courage in mounting a reasoned response.

I don't hear a rattle. I hear a clarion call…

Snow! Snow.

"How perfect," I thought. Freshly back to the east coast, Christmas around the corner, and snow in the offing.

Better yet, it was perfectly timed, scheduled to arrive late on a Saturday. How much better does it get than a early Saturday dinner at an old favorite restaurant (now managed by the son of the owner in whose company we spent so many nights in the past), followed by a snowed-in Sunday, fireplace ablaze, football on, family gathered?

When snow first appeared, but then sputtered and stopped yesterday afternoon, it seemed that my idyllic weekend might not come to pass.

But, somewhere between antipasto and the double espresso, the snow returned in earnest. Some hours later, I awoke to this scene, viewed from our bedroom window.

Smithtown Blizzard 12 09 1

A foot or more of the stuff had fallen overnight, with a few flakes here and there still dancing earthward as the storm's parting gesture.

I think, "Great! Coffee, good book, rest of household awakes, watch the Sunday talking head shows, snow removal service clears driveway for son's arrival, football double header, dinner,conversation…

One problem though.

We learned, by their non-appearance, that the landscaping / snow removal service Ellie's parents had contracted had gone belly up sometime over the summer.

So, the hours between 10:00 and 2:45 were spent creating the minimalist work of art below:

Smithtown Blizzard 12 09 2

A couple of Alleves and a few hours later, I'm now ready to enjoy the Sunday I had originally envisioned. Good night and god bless.

Smithtown Blizzard 12 09

Berkshire to Acquire Burlington Northern – WSJ.com

Warren Buffett made the biggest bet of his career, agreeing to buy Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. in a $26.3 billion deal that reflects his long-term optimism about the U.S. economy.

via online.wsj.com

This is good news, a vote of confidence in a bedrock strata of the U.S. economy, by a very smart player. Combined with overnight voter signals to pol's not to swing too far into the progressive tax-and-spend fiscal wilderness, it signals positive prospects for our future.

Invest in well run companies, with solid long term business models, at attractive valuations… keep your focus on fundamental results over the long term and what drives them… and you will be rewarded. Adopt government policies that sustain a healthy economy, and individual successes aggregate into national ones.