Author Archives: Jerry Levine

Sequester Semester

TSA workers on break, smoking in front of a “No Smoking” sign

Lloyd and I meet for breakfast most Saturday mornings, and while we are eating we solve many of the world’s problems. Last Saturday, the topic was the sequester. How does the government cut a couple percent from spending without the collapse of Western Civilization? When viewed from the Pancake House in Oak Forest, IL, it should be very easy.

The situation reminds me of my former employer, Amoco Oil, just after being acquired by BP. I had retired a few months earlier, and like many retired old men became an energy industry consultant. I kept in touch with the people at Amoco who I had relied upon when I was still lobbying in Washington and several state capitals. In every large bureaucracy (government or corporate) there is an 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of the work is done by 20% of the people. The rest are pretty much superfluous. A year or so after BP acquired Amoco, the company had laid off about 80% of the former Amoco people. Interestingly, all the people that I had formerly relied upon were still there. BP figured out who had made up the superfluous 80% and terminated them, then everything went along fairly well.

The same 80/20 rule should apply to the government. The President has played the usual political hoax and warned that the government will soon start laying off firemen and TSA inspectors. He said that waiting time at the airports will increase by two hours. Interestingly, every time I fly I have a habit of counting all the TSA agents. About 20-25% are always standing around doing nothing but visiting with each other. The sequestration will reduce TSA agents by about 2-5%. In an ideal world, this should only reduce their visiting time.

My fear is that in the real world, the two hour delay will become a reality if the union institutes a “slowdown” strike. Has the President signaled the union to target a two hour slowdown? Thirty years ago we had an air traffic controller slowdown and strike, but we had a different President who successfully managed that situation.

But let’s get back to where rational cuts in government expenditures could be made. In March 2011, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (U.S. GAO) published a report entitled “Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue.” They identified 81 areas for consideration. The programs highlighted by the report cost taxpayers between $100 and $200 billion annually. A 10% improvement in efficiency for those programs could cover nearly half of this year’s sequester, and not lay off one fireman.

Obama says food inspections are a potential problem area to cut. The GAO pointed out both the FDA and USDA are responsible for food inspections, with a lot of overlap and duplication. The FDA inspects all seafood, with the exception of catfish, which is the bailiwick of the USDA. Similarly, the FDA is responsible for eggs while in the shell, but once the shell is cracked, the USDA is in charge. Each organization has its own cadre of regulation writers, inspectors, enforcement lawyers, etc.

There are 82 programs spread throughout several government agencies all designed to improve teacher quality. Each agency has a separate department to administer these programs, and I suspect many of the programs are inconsistent with one another. 

The report also points out that addressing duplicative federal efforts to increase fuel ethanol production could reduce revenue loss by $5.7 billion annually. The report goes on and on and on. And still without laying off any firemen! 

To save money the GAO report did not even recommend that the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) should stop more multimillion dollar retreats to Las Vegas—with or without strippers. Excuse me, the strippers were with the Secret Service.

Finally, I read that the Defense budget is being cut back to the level it was in 2007, when we were actively fighting two wars with a couple of hundred thousand troops in the field. Now we are essentially out of Iraq and are winding down in Afghanistan, but spending more. It would seem there is some room to save.

In the short term, the sequester will not hurt the U.S. economy. It is a rather dumb blunt instrument to try to instill some fiscal discipline. I am truly saddened by how dysfunctional our government has become.

A far wiser strategy would be to foster economic growth. The country could accelerate energy development, which has not been a government priority but has been happening wholly outside the governmental sphere. In the meantime, it would be great if the political leaders could come together to begin addressing the sequester, the budget and tax reform, and right the economy before the sequester does get scary.

Question: Should American military spending be cut dramatically?

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A Review of R. A. Dickey’s Wherever I Wind Up

R. A. Dickey’s story is an inspiration that great books and movies are made of — a person from humble beginnings in the pursuit of perfection.

For those living under a rock since Opening Day of the baseball season, R. A. Dickey is a 37-year-old pitcher who labored 15 years in professional baseball, mostly in the minors, with occasional brief, unsuccessful stints in the majors. He seemed out of baseball, but re-invented himself as a knuckle-ball pitcher. His performance for the New York Mets in the first half of this season has drawn comparisons to some of the most dominant pitching streaks of the past 50 years. His 13-1 won-lost record is currently the best in baseball this season. He has pitched two consecutive one-hitters, along with 44 consecutive innings without an earned run.

But his personal story is far more compelling. Dickey describes himself as a wayward kid with a street-fighter’s sensibility. He is the child of divorce with an unfeeling father and an alcoholic mother. He’s the victim of childhood sexual abuse, first by a female babysitter, then later by an older boy. Forever in fights as a kid, he describes himself as a scrapper, rather than a fighter. A scrapper keeps coming back, no matter how badly he gets beat up. Eventually, he persevered and succeeded.

After several years in the minors, in 2006 Dickey earned a spot in the starting rotation of the Texas Rangers and an opportunity to start the fifth game of the season. But his early childhood would come back to haunt him and he lost confidence in himself. He writes, “I am 31 years old, and darn tired of being mediocre, one part retread, one part restoration project.” Even though he warmed up with an excellent, fluttering knuckle-ball, once the game started he lost confidence. His knuckle-ball turned into a beach ball. He got out of rhythm and got bombed. He set a modern record of ignominy, giving up 6 home runs in only 3 innings. He says, “I pitched with fear. I let doubt rob me of any shot I had of succeeding.” He then was demoted to the minors.

Dickey reevaluated himself and pitching. He concluded that the best pitchers are not necessarily the ones who throw the hardest. The best pitchers are the ones who have a plan, and know how to execute it—who know how to compete and never stop doing it. (As a White Sox fan, I am reminded of a recent almost identical comment from Jake Peavy, a pitcher whose many injuries and reconstructive surgeries would have sidelined a lesser competitor long ago. Peavy is also having a career comeback year). Talent is often overrated, and willpower undervalued.

In a fit of depression-induced bravado, Dickey attempted to swim the Missouri River and nearly drowned. His survival was semi-miraculous, and Dickey concluded that God still had something more in store for him. Dickey credits his wife Anne’s support over the years in bringing him to where he is today. He is also seeing a psychotherapist for his demons, especially the sexual abuse.  His faith, family and therapist changed his life. When he found inner peace and his pitching improved.

Dickey worked tirelessly in the minors to perfect his knuckler and was named Pacific Coast League Player of the Year.

Finally, in 2010 Dickey signed a contract with the Mets, and the rest is history. He was called up in May, and pitched well. 2011 was even better, and this year he’s phenomenal—a 37-year-old phenom!

Dealing with some of the demons of his past, Dickey climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last winter, risking $4.25 million of his 2012 salary to raise awareness of the issue of human trafficking of children.

One final surprise for me was to find that despite his gruff workingman persona, Dickey was an English Literature major in college with a 3.35 GPA. The book is interspersed with beautifully written short excerpts from his 2011 diary. He reflects on universal topics applicable to life as well as baseball. He has reached the highest levels of sport and of maturity as a human being. His story is worth reading.

Question: How do you feel about players crossing themselves before they come to bat?

 

 

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Compassion of a Navy Seal

President Obama isn’t the only one who got a numbers bump from the recent killing of Osama bin Laden. Books about Navy Seals have been flying off the shelves. One very good one is The Heart and the Fist by Eric Greitens, a Duke and Oxford educated Rhodes Scholar turned Navy Seal turned humanitarian volunteer.

The Heart and the Fist is quintessentially American. Greitens combines the warrior ethos of toughness and courage with the compassion of a humanitarian.

He starts with conversations with his grandfather, a decorated hero of WWII, and his reflections on the Holocaust, and the mantra of “never again.” But the reality is, it does happen again and again and again. During college Greitens volunteered in Rwanda, Bosnia and with Mother Teresa. He saw that the UN had no real power. They could only bring aid when the guys with the guns allow it. The UN can’t protect anyone—just ask those victims of Srebrenica. He saw that it takes strength and courage to move from good words to great action, and to protect those in need of protection.

After graduating from Oxford, Greitens joined the Navy Seals. The book provides a rare first hand account of the intensive Seal training, culminating with “Hell Week.” My nephew Aaron, who retired from the Seals a couple of years ago confirms Greitens’ account. Seals train men to lead others on the most difficult missions and they succeed.

Greitens served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. After returning, he used his own combat pay and the disability pay of two friends to start “The Mission Continues,” an organization whose mission is to build an America where every wounded and disabled veteran can serve again as a “citizen leader.” The organization provides fellowships for post 9/11 wounded veterans to work in community-based non-profit organizations. Mentors are provided to assist the vet in developing his or her professional and educational goals.

Greitens maintains that courage and compassion are two sides of the same coin. To live a worthy life requires that we be both good and strong.

Question: Do you feel safer after Bin Laden’s Death?

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