Che Guevara and Steve Bannon by Al Sikes

Che Guevara’s father said of his son, “In my son’s blood flowed the blood of Irish rebels.” Perhaps Steve Bannon, the son of an Irish Catholic family, has a similar emotional core. Anyone want a Steve Bannon t-shirt?

Che Guevara, the Argentine-born revolutionary who is said to have been the intellectual energy behind Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba, has had his experiment–fifty years’ worth. Guevara’s thoughts, animated by Castro’s leadership, impoverished the island.

Bannon with his initial proxy, Donald Trump, will have a similar effect on the Republican Party.

Today the ideological battle plays out on the East side of the congressional grounds as the United States Senate plays its role as a legislative bottleneck. This drama pits Bannon against the Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. McConnell is short on assets.

Bannon is colorful; McConnell is dull. Bannon is strategic; McConnell is tactical. And so history once again plays out through personalities.

Bannon has created an interesting new engine—it makes rip tides, cross-currents that tear apart. McConnell, being from a non-tidal state, Kentucky, fails to understand the power of tides. He bobs around in an unnatural state—a relentless ebb tide. And so goes the Republican Party. Its putative leader, President

Trump, being a transactional politician, only wants wins—bills presented to him for signature. Alternatively, executive orders.
Today’s dynamic will ebb and flow. Bannon’s brigade will attack almost everybody who is an elected Republican, although many of the Bannon proxies are losers. McConnell, who is in a leadership position, has been given an even higher profile by a President who periodically trashes him and key members of the Republican majority in the Senate. Why build, the President must think when demolition feels so good? Having demolished the establishment in the Party, it would seem to be a good time to build but Trump, who can build hotels, has no philosophical core which might serve as a foundation.

In the meantime, Republicans, who continue to think, have actively begun floating the possibility of a third party. Hooray, because the Democrat party of Bill Clinton ceased to exist a long time ago and for most right of center voters is not an option. Centrism is a half continent away from the leftist takeover and coastal dominance.

Bill Kristol, who has impeccable Republican and Never-Trump credentials (yes that is possible) recently floated four pairings of candidates for President and Vice-President in 2020. The two that received the most votes in a Twitter poll paired Republican John Kasich and Democrat John Hickenlooper, Governors of Ohio and Colorado. Coming in second in the poll were Mark Cuban, the owner of lots of assets and a reality TV show role along with Niki Haley, the United Nation Ambassador, as his running mate. The names and standings are less interesting than the fact there is active discussion about other than fringe candidates.

Poll after poll for decades have shown the decline of the Democrat and Republican parties. And as the leaders of each Party have increasingly been scripted by their left and right movements, the decline, if anything, has steepened. Polls regularly show that most people are most comfortable around the center. Yet, it seems that the passion that stirred Guevara’s blood and now seems to stir Bannon finds its source in the latest revolution against the latest establishment with compromise being especially detestable.

The United States was born of revolution. The founders then designed a profound framework to avoid the pathology of most revolutions—tyranny. I would suggest the next revolutionary needs to come from the Center where the limits of humankind are understood.

While I am in the unsolicited advice business, let me also suggest to whoever might want to try and revive the Republican Party, a governing core. Only Party leadership that embraces Lincoln’s passion for equality and union and that can, in the 21st Century, translate Theodore Roosevelt’s insistent battle against concentrated power, and give voice to Reagan’s optimism about freedom, have a chance. The rhetorical and public policy blend that captures their contribution to the Party, articulated with understanding and passion, will be enormously persuasive. The pinched and often harsh public policy and rhetoric that thrives on division is both anti-Republican and American.

America’s greatness does not come from a large central government with its inevitable appetite for human engineering. Greatness will also not be sustained by the power of a wealthy oligarchy using its wealth to manipulate the levers of authority. We need a better way as a movement, not a slogan.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.

 

To Kneel or Stand by Al Sikes

We have been, for several weeks, greeted each morning by news of which athletes at what game refused to stand during the National Anthem. Most recently the Vice President, Mike Pence, decided to make the body’s posture an even more fractious political stance. It was as if he said, “If you disagree with President Trump and me, you should knell.”

Generally, the anthem divide is racial and began with Black Lives Matter protesting police killings of black men. As the initial reason for the protest has morphed, it is hard to know whether the current expressions are driven by heartfelt belief or politics.

In church each Sunday, the spiritual leader leads his or her congregation in both personal and global prayer. This past Sunday the theme of the global prayer was for the families of the Las Vegas shooting victims. The theme of the sermon at Christ Church in Easton, Maryland, was the divine guidance to honor God, not our chosen gods.

The Las Vegas shooting featured a white shooter who had concluded that he was a god and for reasons obscure would kill as many as his weaponry would allow. A man humbled by an understanding of the evil within us and connected with forgiveness and redemption would not have sprayed bullets on concert-goers or anybody else.

The theme of evil within us and opportunity for redemption is the sacred text of the two most important spiritual hymns we sing. And you certainly do not have to attend church to have listened or sung either song. They, at least tonally, are a part of our culture. I suspect after the Star Spangled Banner and America they are the two most familiar songs. The songs: The Battle Hymn of the Republic and Amazing Grace.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic was written by Julia Ward Howe at the outset of the Civil War. She reflected: “I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, ‘I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.’ So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed and found in the dimness an old stump of a pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.”

Howe’s song is woven into our culture. The lyrics of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” appeared in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermons and speeches, most notably in his speech “How Long, Not Long” from the steps of the Alabama State Capitol building on March 25, 1965, after the 3rd Selma March, and in his final sermon “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, delivered in Memphis, Tennessee on the evening of April 3, 1968, the night before his assassination. In fact, the latter sermon, King’s last public words, ends with the initial lyrics of The Battle Hymn of the Republic: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Amazing Grace was written by John Newton. He had been a soldier and then a slave trader and redemptively, a pastor. The first two verses reflect his humility and his understanding of the gift of grace.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Music for many of us, no for most of us, is often our translation key—an emotional expression of what we have come to believe. I stand for our National Anthem, and I do that recognizing that our collective use of weaponry has not always been warranted whether in police shootings or global wars. But, I also understand that for the overwhelming majority of people our anthem is an iconic expression of national unity—“out of many one.”

The President and Vice President look for opportunities to express their faith in Jesus Christ. They should, in His spirit as captured by John Newton, strive for a more graceful presence. It would indeed be a “sweet sound.” A contrary sound suggests exploitation whether by athletes or elected officials.

Historical material sourced from Wikipedia

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Contrarian Thoughts on Conservatism by Al Sikes

Authentic Conservatism is Careful

“Regular order” is a new technical phrase to most people. It is also a pivotal dimension in making law the right way. It simply means that the Congress will handle bills that are proposed with hearings, mark-up (amendment process), and debate in a public forum.In the Obama Administration the Democrats evoked Republican anger by not following “regular order” in passing what has become known as Obamacare. The Republicans, less cohesive, have tried to do the same thing but failed. A key Senator, John McCain, refused to go along and was pilloried by a wide range of so-called conservative pundits. I will miss Senator McCain.Do conservatives prefer disorder or backroom deals guided by lobbyists? A failure to follow regular order is anti-conservative.

Equipping a Small Army

The Wall Street Journal reported that Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, was not on any law enforcement radar. It is shocking that a person can assemble enough weaponry to start a small war, without a trace, at a time when Amazon, Google and Facebook know the details of our private lives. Conservatives should, by nature, be cautious. Blocking attempts to track gun sales is not conservative. When Paddock’s purchases hit a high-risk tipping point, he should have been on the radar.The second amendment to the US constitution says: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  Paddock was not buying a musket so that he could become a part of a “well regulated militia.”

Tax Cuts and Deficits

The prospective tax cut plans have been dribbling out for the last several months. It is no surprise that the debate is quickly becoming polarized, even though details are in short supply.I happen to believe we are in need of tax reform and applaud reform initiatives. But, reform will not be conservative if it adds to the national debt. And, as noted above, if it is not shaped by a rigorous public process, the American public will be right to believe that the K Street crowd (tax lobbyist hangout) will have subordinated the public by having more influence than its representatives.

Current River

Last week my wife and I returned to my home state to canoe the spring- fed streams that flow through the federal and state forests of south central Missouri. The weather was stunning and the spring flows were undeterred by the drought. The quiet, only interrupted by otters, waterfalls and a variety of ducks and herons was restorative. My advice: don’t fly over Missouri to float the streams of the West. Stop there and then go west. By the way, there are no fires in the Missouri forests.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

 

Mississippi River Blues by Al Sikes

I grew up just miles off the Mississippi River, blissfully unaware of the vast economic consequences of living or farming in or close to a flood plain. I do, however, remember my father telling me that we lived in an area which once had been a swamp. The drainage ditches that crisscrossed the farm land just outside of Sikeston, Missouri had been part of “land reclamation” (euphemism for fighting nature), and I enjoyed both hunting and fishing in them.

Awakenings happen; mine was early and occurred in Missouri’s state capitol which was on the banks of the Missouri River. It was circa 1973 when the newly minted gubernatorial administration of Kit Bond found itself face-to-face with widespread flooding shortly after the new governor took office.

My awakening happened because the Department of Community Affairs, my responsibility, had among other programs statewide land use planning.  After the flood waters receded, we began to plan for lessening damage potential by restricting building or rebuilding in the Missouri river floodplain.

Landowners were outraged as were the construction, agriculture, and real estate industries. It seemed at the time that every state legislator, regardless of which river valley they were in, was incensed. Cautionary planning was not a hit in 1973.

This was not my only brush with political extinction. Later on, my responsibilities included statewide implementation of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. If a river, and there are well over a dozen spring fed ones in the Ozark region of Missouri, was designated under the program then a land buffer was required along its shores, and the State had to enforce it. Many landowners fought each river’s inclusion.

In short, Americans, or should I say most who either live on or exploit environmental features, do not want to be restricted. They do, however, want the government involved in their affairs. They want financial protection to lessen their risk. All other Americans pay the bill through a broad spectrum of reclamation, insurance, dam building, flood relief and water quality, programs.

Now I know this sounds unsympathetic to those who have just suffered damage. But, all those who are concerned about America’s balance sheet, and that should be all of us, need laws that don’t fight nature. America’s private and public relief organizations are often heroic—better that we don’t need quite so many heroes while actively reducing avoidable and unfunded risks.

We cannot afford, through a range of subsidies, to shore up lands that often redefine where shores stop and start. Attention needs to be paid to natural sponges such as marshes, swamps, and bogs which have often been paved over to make way for the latest development. And, the problem is not limited to flooding; in the West this summer wild fires have been especially destructive to homes built on the edge of the woods.

President Trump is a real estate developer whose properties populate environmentally sensitive areas including the island of Manhattan. I would not expect him to take leadership on this issue. But, I for one find a Trump hotel in Washington much less threatening than the ownership of much of the political class by those who have an economic stake in fighting nature.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

 

Thoughts on Recent Events by Al Sikes

Is bi-partisanship possible? I have been a critic of President Trump dating back to when he was candidate Trump noting that attacking members of his adopted Party, especially John McCain, would haunt him. But, Trump being Trump managed in his first weeks to alienate virtually every person of consequence in both Parties. His insults were often hurled in the middle of the night in the form of tweets, and these were not the tweets of the Nightingale.

The President has now turned on his own Party’s Congressional poohbahs and none too soon. He has apparently decided that his four years are not going to be spent fuming over this fractious grouping called Republicans. This is not a compliant aggregation, so their congressional majorities count for less and less.

I hope the President’s pivot last week serves notice that he has learned how to count both votes and egos and use his own creatively. His deal with the minority leaders, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, does not, however, portend a new coalition. It does, however, challenge Republicans to be a governing Party and tells its leaders, and especially those in the so-called Freedom Caucus, that there is a penalty box.

One frequent critic of Trump said that his administration’s responses to the hurricanes formed his best week. I would add that the deal with the Democrats hinted at a coherent presidency.

Irony of the week.

It now appears that many of the fake social media posts attacking Hillary Clinton were manufactured by Russian digital saboteurs. Many of these posts were passed on by a mix of social media warriors and, I assume, some were conservatives gleefully piling on Clinton. Imagine–conservatives in unwitting collusion with the Russians. Beyond the lack of caution in repeating what others post, I would think conservatives would by nature be incredulous. But partisanship on all sides is often blinding.

Bannon: Wrong Again

Steve Bannon’s interview with Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes has been getting a lot of attention. I watched it recently and was struck by Bannon’s assertion that the Republican Establishment (hard to define) was attempting to nullify the election.

While trying to deal with the fractious Republican majority is not easy I would attribute any loss of leadership stature to the President himself. His amateurish and preening conduct has been a form of self-nullification.

Some commentators are even talking about Trump as the leader of an independent party. If Trump is to succeed in leading any party, he is going to have to articulate and follow governing principles. Mostly he has been a populist performance artist, and they don’t create sustainable political coalitions. Personality cults might look like political movements, but they are not.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

 

Where Does a Nation Divided Turn? By Al Sikes

The headline: Making History. The place: China. The magazine: The Economist. The gist of the article is captured in these lines: “The blistering pace of change in recent decades has kindled an anxiety that China is suffering from moral decay and a concomitant yearning for a revival of ancient values. The government is harnessing those feelings, using ancient rites and customs to spread favoured values.”

Interesting, Communists worried that Confucianism would undermine the Party, but now worry that its absence is undermining society.

Americans certainly share the disorientation provoked by “the blistering pace of change.” But, when offered a political leader, many voted for a person whose values hardly resembled our nation’s rites and customs.

America’s foundation has been shaped by Judeo-Christian values. Our Declaration of Independence most memorably noted:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

For much of our history the various levels of government were undergirded by a citizenry that went to church and synagogue. Most took a weekly pause, a moment of reflection and gained a larger sense of self and life.

Hillel, the Hebrew elder, observed: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go study it.” Much the same can be said of the Christian testament. Those who hear variations on this divine theme weekly are, at the very least, challenged to be better citizens.

The British writer and poet Samuel Johnson, assessing government power observed: “How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws and kings can cause or cure.”

We live in times that hold every judgment fallible. We live in times where more energy is spent criticizing our history than revering it. Criticism is warranted, but so is reverence. So let me try a few lines of an inaugural address on you and without first going to the next paragraph for an answer, attribute it to an American president.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

These were the words of Abraham Lincoln on the occasion of his second inaugural address; our nation was still engaged in a civil war. Hundreds of thousands had died for their cause. His plaintive plea was for a nation violently divided to turn to God and seek the clarity and firmness necessary to heal and unite.

Where do we turn today? As the Chinese are urged to turn back to Confucius, where should American’s turn? Martin Luther King spoke directly to his peers in the pulpit when he urged them, from the Birmingham jail, to take a position on the front line in ending segregation. Sadly, many of his religious peers seemed to not understand the Gospels.

If those who lead churches and synagogues today choose political power over the demands of love, then the Judeo-Christian architecture of our nation will recede further and our nation will end up looking for “rites and customs” that can be substituted. There is no substitute.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

The Eclipse of Rational Politics by Al Sikes

The total solar eclipse timed out at 160 seconds. It might have passed quickly, but it was a sensation in a nation that needs a distraction.

It is hard to say when the eclipse of our relatively stable and orderly political order began. It will be neither short nor salutary.

Scholars will take apart the political events of recent years. Dozens of questions will be asked and answered, and the few who pay attention to political science will enjoy the inevitable debates about the various perspectives; but, what about the rest of us?

Voters and candidates alike are not unlike little plastic figures that are moved around on chess boards. And, for the most part, they are pawns being manipulated by cynical political operatives. Those operatives who were once subordinated by political leadership are now the dominant forces. The leaders have abdicated, and those (us) who are supposed to choose between the pretenders and contenders are buffeted by the manipulators.

The results are frightening—democracy debased. The tools are well known, but their collective power is underestimated.

The playing field reflects a large and intrusive central government being used to shape and re-shape our social and economic lives—the stakes are high. The so-called political leaders, feigning an interest in what voters want, commission polls and the questions are largely made up of words and phrases that have the potential to make us mad.

The poll results are then turned over to the marketers who helped shape the survey. The marketers using advanced computer models categorize us by demographic traits and the emotions that we reveal through both our online and offline activities. They then go to work raising money and swaying opinion. Their messages largely engage our emotions not our brains.

We become subjects on a game board of identity politics. As we wittingly or unwittingly self-identify, we become targets of highly emotional appeals. Every medium is used to make and reinforce the appeal. And since the news media is often an extension of identity politics, the targeted audiences are easy to find.

Social media, a relatively new vehicle in this war of images and words, is an especially powerful tool in the minds and hands of the manipulators. It is used to both identify and animate and often we are provoked to pass the outrage along.

Washington marches provide an interesting context for today’s political engagement. These marches are organized by emotion. We leave the federal budget to the lobbyists, while we march on the pros and cons of abortion or the right to bear arms. We might be sinking in a bog of debt, but our representatives know where we stand on the “hot button” issues.

We now have a president who specializes in pushing emotional buttons. He is the ultimate identity politician.

It is hard to know whether Donald Trump is the last stage in our weakness. It is hard to know whether identity politics that closes minds and campuses represents the most elevated fever or not.

It is, however, clear that Americans need new leadership—voters need thoughtful, not scripted choices. But, if we the voters allow ourselves to be herded into the cattle chutes of identity politics, the debasement of democracy will continue.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Road Trips in America by Al Sikes

“I’m 32, Mr. Dunn, and I’m here celebrating the fact that I spent another year scraping dishes and waitressing which is what I have been doing since 13……..other truth is, my brother’s in prison, my sister cheats on welfare by pretending one of her babies is still alive, my daddy’s dead, and my momma weighs 312 lbs. If I was thinking straight, I’d go back home, find a used trailer, buy a deep fryer and some Oreos. Problem is, this is the only thing I ever felt good doing. If I’m too old for this, then I got nothing. That enough truth to suit you?” Maggie Fitzgerald, Million Dollar Baby

Few movie scenes remain vivid in my mind. But when Maggie Fitzgerald, in a stunning portrayal by Hillary Swank, faced off with Frankie Dunn the boxing manager, played by Clint Eastwood, the imprint endured. So when I read that the founder of Facebook and multiple billionaire Mark Zuckerberg had taken a road trip to better understand America, the scene flashed back.

As Maggie’s plaintive dialogue reveals, she is a waitress who had grown up in a hard-scrabble family. She was also a pretty good boxer who had come to Frankie Dunn’s gymnasium to ask him to manage her career.

Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn was an edgy traditionalist who didn’t see the boxing ring as a fit place for a woman.

Frankie Dunn didn’t understand Maggie Fitzgerald and Mark Zuckerberg will need more than a road trip to understand America.

Zuckerberg finished high school at Phillips Exeter Academy and college at Harvard. He is said to be the fifth richest man in the world. He is, of course, the founder of Facebook and a road trip will not provide a real connection to a world he has never occupied.

My road trip began in 1986 when I came to Washington and continued in 1993 when my wife and I moved to Manhattan. Decreasingly, I found, did I work or play with people who shared my background. In some ways when I left my home state, Missouri, I left a public world and entered a private one.

Most of my new peers and associates attended private elementary and secondary schools and colleges. I was a public school guy in a private school world.

Age invites reflection. Having spent the backend of my career in the digital industry, my reflections are in part informed by that fact. And the fact is that the digital age rewards, and often in outsized ways, those who were shaped from an early age to complete algorithmically.

David Brooks wrote a column recently in which he talked about the pediacrats: “It’s the pediacracy, stupid. Over the past few decades, upper-middle-class Americans have embraced behavior codes that put cultivating successful children at the center of life. As soon as they get money, they turn it into investments in their kids.”

Commenting on a book in the same column, “The Sum of Small Things,” by Elizabeth Currid- Halkett, Brooks notes, “To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food, truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.”

My East Coast field trip, or to be more honest, residency, brought me fully into this world. I am from time to time still disoriented, but never more so than when I puzzle about what might be done to bring America together again.

I believe it is safe to say that most coastal, upper-middle-class residents were shocked by the election of Donald Trump. I was surprised, but not shocked, having had the good fortune of experiencing much of America’s diversity.

When we chose to end national service, we unwittingly chose to end meaningful assimilation. Most, unfortunately, we turned characterization over to character actors directed by often condescending film directors. Empathy was not possible.

Zuckerberg is a poster boy for disruption and the enormous economic leverage enjoyed by the tech elite. He was private school all the way. He enjoys an elite intellect and voracious ambition. Most Americans are not on the road to high technology riches or even the rewards that come to those in the upper echelons of value-added work.

The Hillary Swank character was willing to do what was necessary regardless of where her work landed her on the social ladder. Likewise, many who voted for President Trump were willing to do what they thought necessary to shake up the political world.

Movie-goers know how Million Dollar Baby ended.

It is impossible to know how this wrenching chapter in America’s political life will end. But, let me hazard a guess.

Trump will ultimately fail. He does not know either America or political leadership. It is not enough to exploit anger; successful Presidents must also understand America’s generous nature and how to tap its energy. And, I am not talking about larger budgets, but the respect we want and extend to others.

I also do not believe the next President will come from the corporate world. Those who know America best have served in its armed forces, the only popular institution. I believe Americans will once again turn for leadership to those who know America best.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Government in a Google Box by Al Sikes

Google succeeded because it masked complexity in a simple search box and quickly presented results. Brief history: Google was not the first to provide Web search, but its competitors frequently offered up confusing interfaces.

Several weeks ago I was drawn into complexity — dealing with a government agency. My wife and I received our first Global Entry pass after an interview at the Philadelphia airport in 2012.

The passes must be renewed this year.

My wife’s request for renewal was approved, but mine was conditioned on coming in for another interview and fingerprinting. I decided to ask why.

First I went to the Global Entry website and used their “contact us” feature and seven days later got a non-answer. So I then called the phone number, listened and responded to a number of prompts and then after 20 minutes of music got a person. His best answer: “You have a 50/50 chance of an unconditional renewal.” As my wife’s application was being approved, mine, by default, was being conditioned.

In all, and not counting the time spent by Marty (my wife) in filling out the initial paperwork, I probably had two hours invested along with no small amount of frustration. But then I told myself, this is nothing compared to the stories you read about people who can’t get answers to
much more important questions.

I decided to test the government response against a Google search. I typed in Global Entry renewal. Within a fraction of a second, the top two responses appeared. The first in order directed me to the government agency site and to a FAQ function. When clicked on, the FAQ access link said the database was down.

I then went to the second in order, One Mile at a Time, and was greeted by a fellow named Ben Schlappig, who states he is “obsessed with aviation, travel, and more specifically, using airline miles and credit card points to elevate the travel experience.” I quickly found out from Schlappig, whose nickname is Lucky, what I had spent two hours to find out from the government.

I have no idea how many government employees and contractors are involved in building and maintaining websites. Undoubtedly the answer is a lot. Then there are those who have to answer phone calls with barely more than a script. I suggest the various levels of government be put into a Google box.

While I am not that big on supplying more revenue to Google (or perhaps Bing), to me, we who pay and then get frustrated should demand that our enormous and complex government agencies become, in the jargon of the day, transparent, and easily so. This is especially true for agencies that field consumer inquiries.

Each day there are, I suspect, millions who need to ask questions about healthcare, taxes, military service benefits, and the like. They should be served up something other than unmasked complexity or telephone queues.

Of course, today the news is filled with high policy. How should healthcare risk be funded?

How should tax relief for one category of taxpayers be offset by increased rates or reduced deductions by some other group of taxpayers? Undoubtedly these are important questions, although seemingly our leaders are not able to answer them.

Maybe our leaders need to spend more time making law work, not just debating how to change it. They also need to understand and reflect on one simple point: I can’t think of anybody that frustrates me who I trust to serve more time making law work, not just debating how to change it. They also need to understand and reflect on one simple point: I can’t think of anybody that frustrates me who I trust to serve me.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

The New Oligopoly by Al Sikes

It is hard for those who have been in the forefront to imagine becoming increasingly irrelevant. But, a statistical glance across a variety of media measurements show that is exactly what is happening. Market share, audience statistics, gross revenues, net profit, time spent with devices of one sort or another all tell a story of disruptive loss. The new media has been rapidly miniaturizing traditional ones.

I arrived in Washington in 1986 — a generation ago. My first job was heading the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). At the time, NTIA was preoccupied with the consequences of the 1984 breakup of AT&T.

AT&T had largely monopolized telecommunications, and by 1986 it had, under Consent Decree provisions, divested the local phone companies. Its book value declined by 70%. While the aftermath of the breakup was often disruptive to consumers, it nonetheless led to extraordinary new opportunities for telecommunications entrepreneurs to provide new hardware and services. And provide they did.

Today the most consequential commercial power is in the data business. Data oligopolists enjoy enormous advantages of customer knowledge, scale, and access. This advantage grows daily.

While Washington has been obsessed with “Net Neutrality,” the power of Amazon, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and Facebook, in particular, the beneficiaries of the so-called neutrality policy, has grown exponentially. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should devote some time to understanding what this means, and I would suggest reviewing recent rulings from the European Commission regarding the power of data to not just offer new services, but to displace media and squeeze out competition.

If I were a young entrepreneur, my concern would be the data oligopolists and the leverage they enjoy. If I could parachute into the FCC today, I would initiate a competition policy process aimed at a more open data structure. I would not be interested in halting innovation within Amazon, Alphabet, and Facebook, but would want their gains to come from creativity, not raw data and access power.

The data oligopolists know our names, computer identification numbers, search interest, buying habits and much more. They know more about us than most of our immediate family members. They enjoy an enormous advantage in shaping, marketing and selling their services. And their advantage cannot be easily regulated or broken up by antitrust agencies.

Disruption arrives with many faces. But, and this one fact is indisputable, the creative media community—publishers, producers, recording artists, journalists and the like, are quickly becoming miniaturized by the digital revolution and in time, consumers will find the oligopolists less and less benign.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.