Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Viewpoint - On Hiatus - August through September

The writers of the View Point are taking a short hiatus for the months of August and September.  Look for us with a new issue in October.  I hope you all have a great August and September.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Welcome to the ViewPoint - July 2013

With apologies to Martha and the Vandellas, "We are having a Heat Wave".  Sheesh, 127 degrees in Death Valley, 117 in Las Vegas.  Here in my home of Dallas a couple of days ago, 108.  You'd think it was summer or something.  Well,  get inside, turn up the AC and grab something cold to drink, because it sure beats being outside and cooking.  For those of you who have to work outside this time of year, you have my deepest sympathies.  Stay hydrated and safe. 

Anyway, welcome to the ViewPoint for July of 2013. We have a holiday coming up this week and I hope everyone has a good time watching the fireworks, having a picnic, taking in a ball game, or just hanging out with friends and family.

This 4th of July holiday is a reminder of what happened so long ago in the halls of a building in Philadelphia, on the farmlands around Yorktown, Bunker Hill and cities such as Boston and New York.  The birth of a nation under conflict could have gone many different ways.  We could have moved into another form of monarchy or worse, a theocracy.  But we didn't.  The people who risked their lives and became traitors to the British Crown had a different idea about what a country should be.  Born in Greece, refined by philosophers such as John Locke, the idea of a constitutional democracy with its power derived by the people it serves was an experiment that took hold and to the good fortune of all of us who live in this country today, still serves us pretty well.

We have two articles today that speak about our country and its system of government.  As most know, recent revelations about the National Security Agency's surveillance tactics have come to light and they are troubling.  What do we really want our government to do in the name of "keeping us safe"?  That question is an important one and we should continue to discuss our points of view in this complicated and very disconcerting issue.  Written by our regular contributor, Bill Holmes,  "Who's Winning?" delivers some perspective that is thought provoking.

Our second post for this month is another example of our system of government at work.  On June 26th, 2013, the US Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and by virtue of that decision, removed the Federal Government's discrimination against same-sex couples who are married in states that recognize marriage equality. 

I think these two articles highlight the brilliance of the founders who delivered the architecture of our system of government.   The checks and balances instilled by Madison, Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, and many others have served us well to this day and I hope as we celebrate this 4th of July and those to come, we can continue with the idea born in Philadelphia so many years ago.

Enjoy this month's issue and as always, join the conversation.

Dennis Sherrard

A Good Decision

  "The arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." 
Those words of Dr. Martin Luther King from so many years ago have relevance now.  On Thursday, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton over seventeen years ago.   Out of the gates, the law was intentionally discriminatory in terms of the Federal Government's lack of recognition of marriage equality.   Finally, after many court battles, much nonsense from politicians and religious leaders, the Supreme Court did the right thing and bent themselves towards justice.   In a 5-4 decision, with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing the majority opinion, the law was struck down as unconstitutional and a violation of the 5th Amendment.  Justice Kennedy wrote: "The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. "By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment."
As one might expect, without even reading about the opinion, the decision came down on ideological lines.  The majority saw Justices Kennedy, Sotomayor, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan voting to overturn DOMA while Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Roberts were in the minority.
It's a somewhat sad statement to make but I expected DOMA to be overturned, principally because of Federalism and not because of the fact it discriminated against same-sex marriages.   Cynical of me, I know, but I was convinced the opinion would overturned with a larger majority with Roberts writing the majority opinion discussing how this was federal government over-reach on something best left to the states.  So, as with most good pessimists, I was pleasantly surprised to read Justice Kennedy's majority opinion that derided this law as "humiliating" and discriminatory.  The plaintiff in this case, Edie Windsor, an 84 year old widow whose wife had passed away from Multiple Sclerosis several years ago and under DOMA's rules, since Edie was not considered the lawful spouse of Thea Spyer, who died in 2009, left an estate tax bill to Ms. Windsor of over $300 thousand dollars.  Ms. Windsor sued, and on Thursday her long goal was finally achieved; that of legal recognition of what she already knew: that she and Ms. Spyer were indeed married.
What a painful road it was for Ms. Windsor, and others who because they love and care for someone of the same gender and wanted to get married could not because of this odious law.  Now, the work is not done, because the court didn't go so far to say that same-sex marriage must be recognized in all states, but only in those were same-sex marriage is legal.  So there are still "Edie Windsors" living in Texas, Florida, Alabama and other places who continue to suffer discrimination at the hands of state law.  Some states, such as North Carolina, have placed constitutional amendments on their books defining marriage as between"one man and one woman".  So be it.  To me, these states who continue down this path will lose quite a lot.  As with any discrimination, those who decry what the consider as "morally wrong" are blind to the fact that people simply want to be treated the same.    There is a simple answer for those who do not like the idea of marriage equality:  Don't get married to someone of the same sex.  Simple.  All the other nonsense is just that.  Nonsense.
I applaud the Supreme Court's decision to strike down DOMA.  The more we can throw discrimination of any type into the dustbin of history the better we become as a country.
Kudos to the 5, and to Ms. Edie Windsor, you can be proud of your battle, I'm sure your wife would be proud of you as well.

Who's Winning?

by Bill Holmes


It seems like every time I tune in the TV or read an article lately it's about some new infringement on our liberties. Although this trend didn't start with 9/11/2001, it has certainly accelerated since then.

The biggest change came with the passage of the Patriot Act which was written, passed and signed into law by October 26, 2001. That includes coming up with the convoluted acronym USA PATRIOT. You didn't know it was an acronym? It stands for Uniting (and) Strengthening America (by) Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism. Catchy isn't it? It just rolls off the tongue. I bet Congress spent more time on the acronym or backronym than on the actual legislation. When is the last time Congress accomplished anything in only six weeks? The Patriot Act was extended in 2011 with very few changes.

I won't go into the details of the act but in general it changed the rules of the game. Whereas individual rights and freedoms were once the principal concerns, we now could infringe on those rights in the name of national security. It changed the way government agencies were organized and how they share information. It changed the rules about gathering that information and the restrictions on that gathering. The rules of subpoena were changed and relaxed. The lines between domestic and foreign surveillance were blurred.

As is to be expected, the government agencies involved took the ball and ran. They fully exploited their new freedoms even at the expense of our individual freedoms. It is the nature of man and his institutions to seek power and control. Once a little bit is achieved there is a burning desire for more power and control. The problem is the Patriot Act made it easier for these agencies to increase their power. We need laws and rules that make it more difficult for government to infringe on our rights and freedoms.

So, now we have the revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) is monitoring phone records, emails and social media sites. They regularly receive information from the major Internet providers, phone companies and social sites. The president and others have assured us that the government is not listening to our phone conversations or reading our emails. If you believe that then you probably think everything on the Internet is true.

Now I don't think that the NSA is listening to my phone calls or scrutinizing my Google searches but I do think they could if they wanted to. I also don't think they would need, or even ask for, any judicial OK to do it. Maybe if I write about government surveillance, Google Al-Qaeda or “friend” a suspicious person on Facebook I might show up on their radar.

The concern is that once government has the keys to the information, the odds are that they will use those keys. Even if they don't, someone else will use the keys. That has been proven by the Edward Snowdon affair. Do we even know what information he took or who he has given it to? There is no way that millions of people can have “top secret” clearance and the information remain “top secret”.

I remember right after the 9/11 tragedy that our leaders implored us to return to normal life as soon as possible. Go shopping, go to the movies, go to the park, go out to eat.  If we didn't do these things then the terrorists had won. Too bad our government didn't take their own advice. They went into a bunker and passed sweeping legislation in a very few weeks.

Besides the Patriot Act, the president and Congress got us into a protracted war in Afghanistan and soon thereafter in Iraq.  We opened a prison in Guantanamo, foreign soil, for terrorist prisoners so we wouldn't have to abide by all those pesky US laws. US citizens who were Muslims were discriminated against and profiled often involving physical violence.

The current administration and Congress have followed along the same path. The fact that Obama has continued so much of what was put in place by Bush (43) makes me wonder about the phenomenon that seems to happen with every new administration or new congress. That phenomenon is that things barely change from one to another. Every presidential candidate talks about change but few actually do it. I wonder why this is. Is it because things are just more complicated than expected, the optimistic view. Or is it that so much government stuff is kept secret that the new president says “Oh shit, now I understand”, the pessimistic view. This Bush to Obama hand off is not the first time I've been confused. How many administrations kept the Vietnam War going?

The one time when change happens is when a crisis, real or perceived, occurs. Then we go overboard. Our alleged leaders pass sweeping legislation that doesn't accomplish what it was supposed to. Either the legislation is flawed to begin with or it gives too much leeway to the implementation and enforcing agencies of the executive branch. If you allow an executive department to make the rules they will build an empire. They will spend every cent Congress allocates and then ask for more. They will push every restriction to the limit and then probably blow through it. That's our nature. Grab as much power and budget as you can. Bureaucrats don't care about our rights. For that matter, members of Congress don't really care about our rights either. They care about reelection and the perks of office.

Although not related to terrorism, the recent IRS problems are another example of big government agencies running amuck. It's also an example of the government scrutinizing our political and/or religious beliefs.

How many billions of dollars have we spent on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and on the NSA and related agencies? How many individual rights have been trampled on? How many dollars will we continue to spend? It's estimated that the NSA has 40,000 employees and a $10 billion annual budget. Of course the real numbers are “top secret” so I guess only the four million people with top secret clearance know for sure. Remember, the NSA is only one of many agencies spying on us so the budget numbers are way bigger than $10 billion per year. Don't get me started on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) with their ever changing rules and general incompetence.

Wouldn't it be nice to have a few of those billions of dollars available to fix our decaying infrastructure, lower our staggering national debt, rebuild West, Texas and the New Jersey coastline or even lower taxes?

There is a TV program on CBS called Person of Interest about the guy who programmed the machine that analyzes all the data the government collects. He programmed a back door to the computer that he uses to save peoples' lives. I originally thought it was a fictional drama but I'm beginning to think it is actually a documentary. Is there a back door entrance to the NSA computers? If so, who has the key, the good guys or the bad guys?

Our government urged us to get back to our normal lives after 9/11. They then decided that normal was to go to war with two countries, reduce our rights and build huge government agencies. All this comes down to my original question. Who's winning? Is it us who have drained our treasury and reduced our freedom or is it the terrorists? I don't have the answer but this doesn't feel like winning to me. At best I'd call it a draw. Maybe that's a good as we can expect. We need national security but we also need to maintain our basic principles. Let's remember what we're protecting.


What do you think?



Saturday, June 1, 2013

Welcome to the View Point - June 2013

Ah, the languid days of summer are almost upon us.  It is finally starting to feel like normal here in Texas.  Temperatures are creeping up to the 90's.  Baseball is being played at sand lots and at the Temple in Arlington, where the Rangers look like they are going to make another serious run for the playoffs.   The June issue brings along a great article on school safety from our regular contributor Bill Holmes.  I've also offered some observations on air-travel and would like to hear from you all about your experiences taking trips whether for business or leisure.   As we move into summer our thoughts are still with those who have been recently impacted by the terrible storms in Oklahoma and Kansas.  Tornadoes and Heavy Thunderstorms are no laughing matter and some times, like in the case of the tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma become tragic.   Please, if you haven't already done so, reach out and help those who lost their homes, their property or loved ones.  The Red Cross is still accepting donations for a relief fund for those affected.  If you can help,please do so. You can reach the Red Cross by clicking HERE.

I hope you enjoy this month's issue and please, as always, become part of the conversation.

Dennis Sherrard, Editor

Schools or Fortresses?

By Bill Holmes

With the tragedies that have happened in the last few years at some of our schools, security our teachers and children seems to be a topic of discussion in many of our newscasts and newspapers. Let's get this straight right up front. Protection of our children is our most important duty both as parents and as a society. But at the risk of being politically incorrect let me ask the question: at what cost? At what cost to our school budgets, teachers, parents and most importantly our children?

No one can deny that incidents like the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 or the more recent Sandy Hook Elementary shootings at the end of last year are tragic. They rip our guts out. There is no way to rationalize the deaths of so many children in such a senseless manner. The fact that these tragedies are reported, talked about and analyzed on every news outlet makes them hard to get away from. We are constantly reminded of them and forced to think about them even when we need a respite.

We can accept when a child dies from disease or an accident. Those things are the luck of the draw. That doesn't make it easy but it's part of the way things have been for all time. Some children don't make it to adulthood. We do a much better job of getting our young through childhood than we ever have before in our history. Medicine, sanitation and improved nutrition means the vast majority of kids are now expected to survive childhood. That makes it even harder to accept when a child dies. We expect all our children to make it safely to adulthood.

Now we have what we think is a new problem. That would be school violence. I don't mean a pushing match in the cafeteria between students. I mean when an armed maniac enters a school campus and kills people. Sandy Hook and Columbine are the worst cases but there are others. Jilted lovers go to schools to confront their ex who is a teacher or employee and it gets violent, maybe with collateral victims. A gang turf war erupts on campus and escalates.

There has always been some violence in schools. Anytime you get a few hundred kids together in the same place there are bound to be disagreements. When I went to school those disagreements were settle by the students with fists or a wrestling match and the discipline was enforced by the teachers. Things have escalated some since those days.

Although I live in a relatively safe suburb, there is a cop assigned to every high school and junior high. You have to show an ID and be either a parent, guardian or designated alternate to gain entrance to a school. Every door except the main front one is locked. There are surveillance cameras everywhere. Many schools have metal detectors at the entrances. Dogs are used to sniff for drugs in lockers. Teachers, employees and students wear ID badges. Some of those badges have radio frequency identification (RFID) tags that allow tracing of each student's location. We have stupid zero tolerance policies that leave no room for common sense. In many places the whole campus is fenced. Our schools are being turned into fortresses.

I wonder what effect all this security has on the children. Do they feel safe or do they feel confined? Are we scaring them and making them overly cautious and suspicious? I mourn the loss of freedom. If there is a camera in the bathroom and one by the back door how can a kid sneak a smoke or cut class? If all the doors have alarms and the campus is fenced how can a student go to Taco Bell for lunch? How do a couple of guys settle a disagreement when they get arrested by the school cop for having a fight?

I know smoking and cutting class and fighting aren't ideal behavior but they shouldn't be criminal offenses either. I worry about the impact on school district budgets all this security has. The Dallas Independent School District (DISD) recently approved $4.65 million in school security upgrades. DISD also has their own police force and a security budget over $17 million. The Fort Worth ISD budgeted $9.4 million or $112 per student for security in 2012/13. Even my suburban school district spends about $800,000 per year on security. That is a ton of money. Is it all really needed? Did DISD approve an additional $4.65 million upgrade in February because of the Sandy Hook incident a couple of months before? Are the upgrades necessary or a knee jerk reaction? 

I'm glad our educators and school board trustees are concerned about school safety and security. I'm not happy about the amount being spent. Every dollar spent on security is one less dollar spent on actual education. I also wonder if school boards spend money on things like security and new football stadiums because they haven't been able to fix the real problems in our schools. Chest thumping about a new security system distracts people from the facts that many students aren't prepared for life or college when they graduate from high school, if they graduate.

The fact of the matter is that many more students will be killed or injured in school bus, automobile or athletic accidents than will ever be harmed by an intruder into the school. So our reaction is to install metal detectors in schools but not require seat belts on school buses. We put up a fence around the campus but we let the Jr. varsity kids use old worn out football helmets. We have metal doors with industrial strength locks but we don't build sidewalks or make safe intersections around schools. The schools in Moore, Oklahoma don't have storm cellars or safe rooms but they have security cameras. As usual we concentrate on the issue that's in the headlines, not necessarily the issue that needs attention.

It's good that strangers can't just wander into a school or that young students can't wander off campus. It's good that there are cameras to deter vandalism. The problem is that a camera or a metal detector or ID badge are not going to deter a crazed individual with an arsenal from storming a school or a dorm or a movie theater. I support increased background checks for gun buyers but that won't stop the one in a million lunatic from killing people at a crowded theater.

Don't say “we must protect our children at all costs” because that is simply not true. If it were true we would have safe sidewalks, safe intersections, school storm cellars, safer school buses. We make choices everyday where and how to spend our money. We make compromises.

We can and should be careful but we can never be completely safe. Bad stuff is going to happen and sometimes it will happen to innocent children and good people. I loathe the nanny state and overprotective, helicopter parents. Kids need some freedom. They need to be able to make a mistake or do foolish things and then suffer the consequences.

Remember, there is a finite amount of money for our schools. Should we buy another surveillance camera or another computer for the classroom? Do we need another security officer or another teacher? Do we need more metal detectors or more trombones for the band?

I'm thankful that none of my schools had surveillance cameras, RFID sensors, police officers or locked doors. If they had I would have been in trouble all the time.

I don't have the answers. I hope that our school security budgets are based on real need and not knee jerk, politically prudent and feel good reactions. I just want every possible dollar spent on real education.


Leaving on a Jet Plane...

Like many of my friends, I spend a lot of my work life on airplanes.  My clients are scattered across the United States and Internationally so it is become commonplace for my backside to be in seat 6A or 10B of some airliner headed to yet another city and hotel room.  So, it has become something I don't think a lot about.  However, this week I got a notice that a trip my wife had planned for a vacation we haven't taken in about 10 years jolted me back into thinking about air travel.  

I've been riding airplanes now for almost 40 years.  Travel back in the mid 1970s was much different than it is today. My first flight was to a baseball tournament in West Texas on Southwest Airlines, remarkably, one of the few airlines operating in the United States that is still in business.  Think back to those days of less stringent security, more luxury on the trip, and the fact that it was an event.  Travel by air was still very expensive in those days and when one got to go somewhere on an airplane it was special.  If you remember this time, air travel was considered sexy, cool, and things that celebrities, athletes, big business executives and politicians did.  The average person would usually drive their cars, take a bus, or if it was available still ride a train to get to where they wanted to go.  The "elite" that could afford air travel got treated like royalty in my eyes.   I remember flying these now defunct airlines and wonder how many of you recall the experiences when on Pan Am or Brannif.  See a sample set below of airlines that catered to both leisure and business travel, and for one reason or another do not exist anymore.

Remember Pan AM?  Pan Am was cool.  Pan Am was short for "Pan American, and it was the airline of James Bond and the Beatles (though they did fly BOAC, which is now British Airways quite a bit). When I was a kid, I thought the scenes of Sean Connery coming off a Pan Am jet in Dr. No was just about the coolest thing I ever saw.  I got to fly on a Pan Am flight before they went under in 1991.   I've always wanted to see them return for more nostalgia reasons. I thought the logo was cool, the uniforms the flight attendants and pilots wore was classy as well.  It was a shame to see it disappear.

Braniff International Airways was based at DFW Airport with a massive headquarters location called "Braniff Place".  Those of you alive in the 1970's probably remember seeing one of their garishly painted airplanes, which were bright orange, turquoise, neon green or yellow.  Their headquarters was decorated the same way. After Braniff went under, GTE leased the facility and it became GTE Place, then Verizon Place.  I worked there for GTE Directories in the late 1980's, and it was something to see when it was being prepared for GTE.  The doors of many of the offices were painted like the airplanes, the CEO had an indoor swimming pool just off his office.  The back part of the property had a golf course! No wonder they went under.   Braniff was in business for 54 years starting as a small mail carrier in Tulsa Oklahoma.  But mismanagement and staggering debt  caused the airline to cease operations in 1982.  For months, at terminal DFW, there were many planes lined up together like so many Popsicles.   One of the interesting things about Braniff was that it had a cooperative relationship with Air France and British Airways to provide Concorde service in the United States.  Braniff pilots flew the plan in the US between their hub in Washington DC and Dallas.

Eastern Airlines is another airline I remember from the  1970's and 1980's that disappeared from the scene in 1991.   Once headed by an actual Apollo Astronaut, Frank Borman, Eastern fell victim to recession, debt and high fuel prices like many other carriers did.  I flew the Eastern shuttle a couple of times from DC to New York and it was a reliable and pleasant airline.  

Probably known for being run by one of the most controversial and eccentric people of all time.  Trans World Airlines was another airline from my memory that I wish was still around. Howard Hughes invested heavily in TWA in the late 1930's and gained control of the airline from the mid-50's until 1961 when he was forced by the board to sell his shares and Charles Tillinghaust took over control.  TWA was another airline, very much in the same manner of Pan Am. It was an airline that went to cool destinations like Japan, Latin America, Europe and when we were kids the site of a big TWA DC-10 or 747 heading out of DFW airport evoked images of exotic destinations.  TWA merged with American in 2001 and alas is no more.   The last TWA flight I took was to St. Louis, its former headquarters and all of the employees were very sad about the merger with American.  Many of them had worked for TWA for over 20 years and it was like losing a family member. 

We've all seen brands come and go, but with airlines there is something emotive about seeing one disappear.  It is like losing a friend.  I fly American Airlines now exclusively because I live in DFW and have an elevated status that gets me checked bags for free, pre-boarding, access to the airline club and upgrades on many flights to first class. It's nice I suppose, but the whole thing has become workmanlike.  The chore of standing in the security lines, baggage claim lines, rental car lines, etc. has lost all of its luster from my youth.  Now, I get excited about air travel when I'm heading out with my wife for a trip to some of those exotic locations I used to dream about when I was watching the James Bond movies of my youth.

This September, Judy and I will be gong to London, my favorite city in the world, then Paris, then on to St. Petersburg Russia for 10 days.  It will be my first trip of any length to Paris and first trip at all into Russia, so am excited about seeing the new places.  I could stay in London forever, there is so much to do.  I approach this trip with a little of the enthusiasm and excitement of my youth, when I was getting on that first airplane ride to West Texas to go play baseball. 

Since that first ride, I've probably flown about 3 million miles since I've been traveling on business for over 30 years.   It's a good feeling to be able to look at this coming trip as an adventure and not a chore. 

I'd like to hear from you regarding your experiences with air-travel.  What were or are your favorite airlines?  What is your favorite destination?   Who do you think is the best airline today?

Tell me what you think.