Feb 28 2009

Corporate Events and the Bailout

Posted by Steve Ross in National Politics

Today over at Huffington Post there’s an article about another bailed out bank spending scads of money on corporate junkets.

I understand the outrage.

As a Democrat, it’s hard to square the idea that a financial institution, who received financial help from taxpayers, would then turn around and use money, whether it came out of that pile or not, for something so seemingly frivolous.

As with most things, there’s another side to the story that’s not getting told.

As some of you may know, I do events like this. Not necessarily for banks or whatnot, but for corporations. Most of the time, these events are to reward top performers in their institutions for their work, or to bring in new business in promoting a specific product or service. This may not have been the case in this particular instance, but you get the idea.

Hundreds of millions of dollars every year are spent producing these events. From flights and hotel rooms for attendees, to catering and event space rental, to the equipment, like lights, sound and video, and staff, like me, to support the actual meeting.

This is an industry that flies under the radar. Few people ever really think what it takes to organize an event that may only support a few hundred people, but cost per person on a weeklong event can come to $1000 a head. The money spent goes to people like me, hotel staff and all the people who support the event throughout the chain.

Because of the planning that it takes to produce an event like this, we haven’t seen a huge downturn yet, but it’s coming. Most events start planning a year or more out. For most companies, the initial out of pocket expenses to produce such an event, makes it unrealistic to cancel. A cancellation may save some money, but with no return on investment. It makes more sense for them to do the event than to cancel because even though it may mean a loss of cash flow, they reckon it’s not as bad as the perception that would follow a cancellation, or the potential loss of investment on a new product or service rollout.

So while I understand the outrage, and the political impact of exploiting said outrage, as a capitalist, I also understand that the majority of these events are legitimate marketing expenses that organizations have used over the years to drive profit or brand loyalty in their customer base, or to increase a knowledge of standards or provide additional training to their employees.

Obviously, there are exceptions. I can’t defend events I haven’t done, because I don’t know enough about them. For that matter, I can’t defend some of the events I HAVE DONE. But the whole scene is more complicated than some would have you believe, and while I certainly have a great deal of self-interest in writing this, I also think it’s important to not “throw the baby out with the bath water” when talking about corporate events.

99% of the events that happen out there are not junkets, populated by balding men chomping on cigars, sitting in steam rooms wrapped in towels or getting Swedish massages. Nearly every event I’ve ever worked served some higher purpose for the company. They wouldn’t spend the money if they didn’t believe they would see some ROI, particularly now.

In closing, I would advise companies that have received any government money and intend to host an event to strive for more transparency. Bailout money may have been specifically for increasing fluidity in the credit markets, but the reality is that $700b cannot replace the $5t that was taken out of the market as the result of a loss in confidence. If your event’s purpose is to increase confidence to bring these people back into credit game, more power to you. You will need to disclose this to avoid public ire.

On the flip side, be responsible. I know this is a foreign concept to many out there, but while events like this may be inherently stimulative to the economy, they should not be used as an opportunity to reward irresponsible behavior. You’re already in the spotlight, don’t make it any worse on yourself.

Finally, while it may be politically expedient to key in on events as wasteful spending, don’t let this distract from the REAL problem; lack of meaningful and effective regulation on the financial markets. It’s hard for any politician to walk away from an easy smack down, but the truth of the matter is there is a lot of legislation that needs to happen to bring a positive resolution to the problem. Confidence cannot be restored until the financial markets have clear and effective rules designed to protect investors from the situations that led to the collapse. This may not be as sexy, or get you face time on cable TV, but ultimately, it’s the ONLY thing that is going to turn the credit market around.

Feb 24 2009

Shall We Play a Game?

Posted by Steve Ross in TNDP

The hits just keep on hittin’ don’t they?

This afternoon we learn of a possible Coup Attempt against one Mr. Gary Odom.

Seriously, this past week has seemed more like mid-September meltdown on the McCain campaign than an off year (remember, the fundamentals of our economy are strong?)

Let’s run down what’s happened so far:

Governor’s pick for TNDP chair loses, trolls appear like a Gremlin thrown in a swimming pool.

A relatively quiet month goes by, even though the trolls persist.

The Executive Committee elects Bill Freeman Treasurer.

Revelations about Freeman’s past giving and voting emerge.

We learn of ”Trust Issues” between Bredesen and Odom.

People talk openly about an Odom coup.

This is hardly a comprehensive list, but it is somewhat illustrative of the points of origin

If you are a Democrat, and I don’t care what side you’re on, you have to be wondering why the hell is this going on?

I can’t answer that question, but it seems that the battle royale between Bredesen and Odom has taken a far more “nuclear” tenor. This whole thing reminds me of a scene from the 1983 movie War Games.

Hey politicians, hey hacks, hey bloggers, and donors and activists, and staffers: We’re the eventual casualties of this pissing match. If you think we can get out of this public pissing match smelling like something other than piss, you’re wrong.

This is not supposed to be about personalities, it’s supposed to be about the party. Apparently, blowing the whole thing up for vanity is more important. There’s more than one finger to point in this thing, and who started it is not important. It just has to stop now.

Feb 24 2009

Purity, Outrage, and Lessons

Posted by Steve Ross in TNDP

I wonder if Bill Freeman ever thought that such a storm would be stirred with his name in the headline? Probably not.

Truth of the matter is, this thing has a lot of moving parts, and as I demonstrated last night, it’s easy to get caught up in all of them, with perhaps, not all the information you might like to have, and not be completely clear about how this situation lands in your particular worldview. So, I’m going to try again, from a different angle, and see where it takes me.

Purity

As LWC points out there are a lot of people who have worked against the Democratic Party, and Democratic ideals that have had an epiphany of sorts. It is this epiphany that helped us win the Presidency, and hefty majorities in the US Congress.

While the progressive blogosphere has been focused on “more and better Democrats”, some have put the bulk of their efforts into “more”, and others have focused on “better”. Both are important to achieve Progressive goals.

The truth of the matter is, in order to gain an immediate “more” you may have to temporarily sacrifice “better”. This doesn’t mean that you don’t call the “more” out when they stumble. I’ve been one of the loudest hollerer’s at these folks. However, I believe it is true that any Democrat, even old Gene Taylor of Mississippi, perhaps the MOST conservative Democrat in the House of Representatives, is better for the progressive cause than ANY Republican. This is largely borne out in Progressive Punch Scores.

The difference is, these are not people who left the flock. These are people who stayed in. So how do we handle these “Reagan Democrat” types that are coming back? Do we institute a litmus test? What truly is the measure of a Democrat?

We need to think about this going forward. Not just because of the Bill Freeman thing, but because we have to make a decision about how open or closed we are going to be as a party. How big are we willing to let our tent get?

Outrage

In the wake of the Freeman selection, the outrage has ranged from mild to snarky to extreme. My first reaction was, “you’ve got to be kidding me”, but aside from that I’ve had a weird sense of detachment. Even while writing my email to Forrester I felt detached.

I haven’t had time to really think about the whole thing. Part of me wonders if this was some misguided attempt at pragmatism, balancing a perceived liberal chair with a treasurer that is certainly to his right. The back-story about Freeman’s past dealings with Bredesen shed some light on his giving pattern, but if someone is so distasteful, would you support the Republican out of spite? I just don’t get it.

Honestly, the whole scene is hard to process. I have a hard time with conservative Democrats, but most of these Republicans are so far outside my values that I just can’t even fathom supporting them. Maybe it’s easier for people to the right or me. The question has to be asked, if a church wouldn’t make an agnostic a deacon, should a party make a recent convert with a checkered past treasurer?

Lessons

Finally, there’s the Bush tickets. I think this is the thing that gets people’s goats more than anything else. The sum total of all my giving to candidates over the past three cycles doesn’t amount to $10k!

$10k for an hour or so with a President that most Democrats revile as the single most destructive “leader” of our time is just too hard for long time Democrats to stomach. $10k is more money than I paid last year on interest, on a house that I bought two and half years ago.

That’s some serious bread to drop on meeting a President. I’ve had the honor of meeting 3 Presidents, and it never cost me a dime. Two of those Presidents I never would have ever voted for, much less given money to, but that doesn’t make it any less an honor. They’re ex-Presidents for Christ’s sake!

So yeah, I don’t know how old Freeman’s kid is, but I get the idea of wanting a child to meet a President. I’m just wondering, what message did purchasing access send? How much public good could that money have done going to a charity? How could that money have been invested in the community to do something other than look like a big-shot?

Yeah, I’m busting your balls, because you’re talking about a sum of money that is more than 15% of my yearly income. That’s a lot of money for an afternoon. You could have gone to Disney World for a week, come back and helped build a house for Habitat for Humanity or something.

Do my feelings change if you replace “Bush” with “Obama”? Sure they do, I’m not gonna lie. But decisions have consequences, and that consequence may mean that you need to spend another cycle or two, reassuring the faithful that you’re one of us.

That said, Mr. Freeman, I applaud you for what you did for the Obama campaign. And the prospect of doing something like that here in the TNDP is really intriguing. Fact of the matter is, that money came from big donors, who are really important to the fiscal security of the party, but we were told that a more balanced approach was in the cards, and that’s another part of the rub.

How do you get small dollar donors, who are more likely to be motivated by far different things than large donors, to give to a party that has in it’s leadership, a guy that just re-found the straight and narrow? Small dollar donors give because they believe, not necessarily because they believe we can win.

You see where I’m going with this. It’s a bigger problem than it looks.

In the final analysis, I’m not ready or willing to make a call on this. I’m also not going to say I’m not irritated about it, because I am. What will be, will be. However, should Freeman choose to stay in the post, he should understand that the bar is going to be a little bit higher for him than someone with unblemished credentials. That’s just reality.

As for the direction and administration of the party, Mr. Forrester, I’m not going to tell you what to do right now. I’m not going to call for anyone’s resignation or anything like that. I am going to be straight with you and say, this very well may be a defining decision.

There are some fences to be mended here. I’m not particularly upset, but other people are, and they have influence over a larger sphere of people and just like giving can go viral, so can “not giving”. I hope in the future the party will give more consideration to the rational and emotional sides of their decision-making. This means being a little bit more savvy and looking outside the Exec Com for input.

No one said this would be easy, or that everyone would come willingly, but if we want to win, we have to do everything we can to keep our people happy and keep the invitation open for as many people as possible. The idea is white, clean, and neat. The execution is sausage making. The trick is to not expand your sphere to spite your base.

Feb 23 2009

Revelations

Posted by Steve Ross in TNDP

I know there are a lot of happy trolls in Tennessee right about now.

Yesterday’s revelation that the newly installed Treasurer of the TNDP had given money in past years to Republican Party organizations, as well as candidates illustrates, in their mind, just one more thing that is wrong with the new leadership at the TNDP. I’m not ready to make that declaration just yet, but I do want some questions answered. Newscoma got that off to a good start this morning.

In the mean time, I used the super internet technology machine to ask for a response from the new chair. Here is his response:

Bill raised and gave over $250,000 to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign (which should speak well enough for itself), served as Mayor Richard Fulton’s treasurer and has contributed over 90% of all he has raised for Democrats in the over 20 years that he has been raising money.

He is a prominent developer in the Southeast and part of doing business is making contributions to both sides of the equation. That is just a fact of business whether we like it or not.

He is fully committed to the Tenn. Democratic Party and will be a huge asset to our efforts. I am confident & pleased that he is our Treasurer.

At this point, some 24 or so hours since I first read about it, I’m a lot less irritated, but still a little disappointed.

Part of my disappointment has to do with the lack of respect the choice showed to supporters of the TNDP and state Democratic candidates. While Freeman’s bona fides may pass the letter of the law, just being bona fide doesn’t necessarily make it right to choose someone who has given money to the GOP in the recent past. At the very least, this should have been disclosed on the front end to get out in front of the “GOTCHA” moment that came Saturday afternoon.

At the same time, I recognize that it’s unfair to penalize someone who, in working to build a business, found it necessary to not alienate himself from one side or the other. This is not something I could do without feeling like I needed to wash myself in tomato juice to get the taint off. However, raising a quarter million dollars for the Obama campaign is a step in the right direction. To be honest, I would like to hear from Freeman himself on his past giving.

Ultimately, this whole scenario is a case of not “taking care of business”. This means that either someone doesn’t have a good understanding of “respecting your constituents”, or they lack the foresight to see the array of consequences, three steps into the future, never mind the obvious conflict of interest.

I think this was a fumble, pure and simple. Happens with new running backs.

The other side of my disappointment is the petty personal junk that is surrounding the whole process of transition at the TNDP. I’ve heard charge after charge about this or that, by people who claim, with no personal attribution, to be so close to Bredeson, or Davis, or Gordon, or Tanner, that they know how they feel about the situation, and have permission to talk about it. No matter how much someone hates the new Chair of the TNDP, it is disrespectful of the people who support the ideals and principles of the party to work so hard to tear it down further over some personal garbage.

This example is willful stupidity, which is far different from the previously mentioned inadvertent stupidity. I don’t think I need to go into much detail about which behavior I think is more destructive.

In the final analysis I think all Tennessee Democrats have learned a lesson. So much of our past system has failed in ways that defy description. The TNDP has spent too long dependent on the national party to maintain the professional staff required in this day and age to keep a strong party organization thriving.

We rely on the whims of the DNC, which has shown a good deal of whimsy since Howard Dean left, to pay for staff members that we should be able to pay for ourselves. This cripples our communication effort throughout the system and makes it harder for people to show the ultimate sign of support, giving.

We have county parties that are either stale, inactive, or a mess. It only takes 5 minutes at an Executive Committee meeting in Shelby Co. to realize how big of a mess they can be(come enjoy the show on the 5th).

We have thousands of people who are interested, untapped reservoirs of energy and activity, who have been turned off by the process of being marginalized by people whose entrenched power in the state and county organizations seeks only one goal, the maintenance of said power at the exclusion of all else.

We have put petty differences over the principles that should bring us together, and built factions to maintain those divisions. The resulting system has accomplished all the things I’ve mentioned above, and yet, seeks to be maintained by those whose ego’s are so fragile that losing a simple election for chair would send them into a panicked diatribe intent on blowing the whole thing up, to perhaps, seem like the savior.

Any reservations I have over the bona fides of the new Treasurer are overshadowed by the self-indulgent divisiveness the party has suffered at the hands of people who have nothing better to do than prop themselves up on the backs of the faithful.

I’m a Democrat. I’m not a Bredesen Democrat, or a Davis Democrat, or even a Cohen Democrat (though I do like him a lot, and am proud he represents me). I AM A DEMOCRAT, PERIOD.

I’m not a Democrat for personalities, I’m a Democrat for ideals.

People are easily swayed by the personalities, but it is the ideals that are the tie that binds us together.

People and candidates come and go, but the principles of the party endures. Parties and the ideals they represent can’t exist without the support of individuals, but no political party is defined by one individual. Parties are defined by the strength of all of their parts; people, principles, ideals, and finally, politicians, in that order and not the other way around.

In order to turn the TNDP around, we have to make this the rule rather than the exception.

I don’t claim to know what specifically is going on at the TNDP. I’m 1600 miles away right now. What I do know is that what we’ve been doing over the past several years is stupid. The longer we neglect the party structure for candidates that don’t respect the party structure, the longer we will marginalize OURSELVES, and by extension, our party. If we have a strong party, we’ll have STRONGER candidates. That’s the moral of the story. And while this current kerfuffle is frustrating, remember November 5th as the day we realized how far we’ve fallen, and say it with me, “Never again”.

Feb 21 2009

Removing the Veil

Posted by Steve Ross in Uncategorized

I’ve been running this little blog for just over 2 years now, first at blogspot, and now here. In those two years I’ve learned a lot, perhaps more about the act of blogging, politics and blogging politics than I ever hoped to know. To be sure, when I started on this little endeavor, I never thought that my voice would be heard over the ever-expanding universe that is the blogoshpere.

Thanks to the help of several more connected bloggers in the world of politics and writers I’ve had the fortune to meet over this time, I feel I’ve cultivated something here that is outgrowing my old ideas of what role this space would serve.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t have a big head about anything. I’m painfully aware of my strengths and weaknesses. I’m reminded nearly every day. Still, the reach of this blog has far exceeded any expectations that I held two years ago.

To that end, I’ve decided to make some minor changes here. First and foremost to me is my decision to use my real name on every post. You’ll notice just below the title that the author no longer says “vibinc”, but my actual name, Steve Ross.

Even though I “outed” myself months ago, new readers may or may not have read that post, or the About page located on the right of the content area. Using my real name will hopefully dispel any of the “Anonymous” charges that have been tossed around over the past several months. In short, how can I expect anyone else to personally own their words when I am cloaked under the veil of a moniker, even if I have already introduced myself.

Secondly, despite my heavy travel schedule (I’ll be crisscrossing the country to 5 cities over the next 4 weeks) I intend to sharpen my focus on Memphis politics. In the next month the SCDP will be selecting new leadership. I think it’s important that people be acquainted with the people who seek those leadership positions. So far I’ve been able to contact two of the five seeking the SCDP chair, and hope to reach the others soon. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get these profiles out before the Ward and Precinct meeting on March 7th.

I’m also working on the look and feel of the site. Making things pretty is not necessarily a strength of mine. Making them work is. While I tend toward more utilitarian design, I know that this space can often look cluttered and difficult to read. Hopefully over the next few weeks I’ll be able to strike a balance between removing the clutter, but staying true to my utilitarian nature in a way that is more pleasing to the eye.

Even though I’ve been resistant to “monetizing” anything in connection to this space, I have been urged to do so by, well, a lot of people. The inclusion of ads on the side is not something I take lightly. In many ways I see the “monetizing” of editorial space, which this blog largely is, a corrupting influence that can call into question the motives and motivation of the writer. Still, I put a lot of time and work into this site, and if I can just get the hosting and other expenses paid every year, even though that doesn’t amount to much, it will make it easier for me to dedicate myself even more to writing, which is something that would make me very happy.

Luckily, I’m not big enough, or so inclined to go out soliciting ads, and there are plenty of services that will do that for you, so if you see something that interests you, go for it. Hopefully it will allow me to do more things with this space than rattle off a couple thousand words a day.

Finally I want to thank the readers of this blog for valuing my perspective and hope that we can build a greater dialogue in the future. This space is not a meant to be a one-way street. I hope that all of you will take advantage of the medium and help foster a dialogue. Ultimately, that’s what this whole blogging thing is all about.

Thanks, and have a great weekend.