Suggested Reading: Is there Honor Beyond Honesty by Al Sikes

Is There Honor Beyond Honesty?

America at its best is not intensely ideological. Today is not the best of times. Too many in the political and communication’s elite shape their messages or stories to fit their political intentions—knowledge is secondary.

Michael Bloomberg’s address to the graduates of Rice University speaks to a code of conduct that is needed well beyond the campuses of Rice:

https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-05-12/michael-bloomberg-at-rice-university-an-honor-code-for-life  

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. 

Lies, Reactions, Consequences by Al Sikes

“If everyone always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but that no one believes anything at all anymore — and rightly so, because lies, by their nature, have to be changed, to be ‘re-lied’, so to speak.”  Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt, born a Jew in Germany in 1906, fled Hitler and the observation above quoted reflected her struggles as her identity was used against her and then denied to her.

I repeat, “……..lies, by their very nature, have to be changed …..” Last Sunday, after watching several interviews about Trump, Comey, Mueller and Giuliani, I recalled this Arendt line. One talking head noted, in reference to the Trump-Giuliani swirl of conflicting statements, “We now see damage control of damage control.”

In the world of damage control, this is not new. To borrow from Ms. Arendt, damage control by its very nature is intended to obfuscate.

But, Trump is President. He is not one more celebrity caught in the wrong bedroom. He is the country’s chief executive who, among other things, is responsible, ultimately, for the nation’s annual operating statement and balance sheet.

And figuratively, we (the voters) are the final signature on the nation’s payment obligations. The nation’s founders, underscoring our importance in spending taxpayer money, placed the exclusive right to begin appropriations in the House of Representatives—each House member must earn our votes every two years.

This is the point in the article when I am supposed to recite our cumulative debt and an array of underfunded “entitlements”. I’ll simply note that we are now on course to add a trillion dollars to that debt each year. America’s youth should become familiar with our unfolding fiscal disaster. My generation will likely skate through to the finish.

Or, are the financial data lies? Statistics are certainly susceptible to being the content of deception. Historically, we have depended on a wide variety of news outlets to keep us informed. Is the truth discoverable? Do reporters have the knowledge and insight to discover the truth?  After all, we are dealing with numbers, not our various programs to reshape the way people act.

Rather than trying your patience, with more detail on our fiscal affairs, let me suggest several questions that should be asked and answered often — truthfully to the extent possible.

Do our growing deficits threaten our international credit rating and foretell rising borrowing costs?

Will our growing national debt have a negative effect on the widespread use of the dollar as the most important international currency? Consequences?

The national debt is over 100 % of the 2017 gross domestic product (GDP). In the 2018 budget cycle the annual cost of that debt is projected to be $310 billion. What are the debt cost projections for future budget cycles?

It is never a good thing for our nation’s President to be caught up in a house of mirrors. But, our nation’s year to year and decade to decade economic strength is of far greater consequence. Economic strength or weakness translates into jobs, home equity, revenue for public initiatives and the like. We need truth — at least as close as we can get to it.

Final thought. Journalists, with economic training and insight, need to populate more than business media. They need to see their stories each day in the top papers and shows and they need to translate what they know into accessible and interesting stories. Truthful stories.

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. 

Up, Up, Up by Al Sikes

Revenue surged at Amazon, up 43%, at Facebook, 50% and at Google’s parent Alphabet, 73%.

Good news? Well certainly for stockholders but what about the rest of America. What about Easton and Chestertown and the rest of the Eastern Shore of Maryland?

While I don’t often quote from my book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow; these headlines took me back to my beginning in business and to a chapter called Free Markets.

“The visuals were just as important as the words. My introduction to business remains vivid and timeless. In those early years, I cleaned up and then clerked in my grandparents’ hardware store. It followed the small-town pattern of carrying way more than hardware and was on Front Street in Sikeston, Missouri; population 12,000.

The store’s most distinctive characteristic was a large glass front. My grandparents, Leah and Alfred Sikes and then later their two sons, John and Kendall (my father), were often on the first floor helping customers. In the jargon of today, their business was transparent to their customers.

There was also an unusual gathering spot in the store. Most of the customers built and fixed things and carried pocketknives. There was a horseshoe counter around the stairs that led to the store’s basement and on the counter were sharpening stones. Men would pause to sharpen their knives and exchange the latest stories and opinions—social media, circa the 1940s and ’50s.

Their customers didn’t need to navigate a bureaucracy or call an 800 number to offer their opinion or criticism about merchandise or service. The owners were available and approachable. Business success turned on their customers’ satisfaction and, as my Dad would often say, “being a part of the community.”

Two generations after clerking in the family business, I arrived in New York City to create a new business, in a new technology, on a big stage. As Dad noted at the time, “Son, you are in tall cotton.” Tall cotton means a rich harvest. But having picked cotton, I knew that walking on your knees through the rows of cotton plants obstructs vision. You could see the next plant, but little else.

In some ways, global business is not much different. As I learned in New York City and other citadels of commerce, customer relationships are represented by a stream of data. Our demographic profile, daily buying patterns, viewing habits and social media engagement comprise our profile. Profit-center executives track these profiles and translate them into supply and demand detail and findings.

While a cotton picker could not see much beyond the next cotton plant, executives choose not to see much beyond their data sheets. I worry less about the loss of privacy—today’s primary focus—than about the loss of humanity. What happens when a culture is abstracted by data by those who feel no cultural responsibility?

The CEO routine in New York is to walk out the door of an apartment building or a home in the suburbs and into a company car with a driver. Often, overnight files of new customer sales data await the CEO as he travels to the office building, gets on an elevator and rides to, let’s say, the 46nd floor.

The 46nd Floor C Suite, which houses a company’s executive leadership, is an important symbol. Its occupants have arrived. Their business acumen rewards them with luxurious offices, spacious boardrooms, and elegant private dining. This is most often on top of seven-figure or eight-figure salaries plus stock or option grants. In 2013, CEO pay for the top 200 companies averaged $20.7 million consisting of $6.8 million in cash and the rest in stocks and options.

Granddad had an office as well. When he left the merchandise floor, he retreated to a small space adjacent to the stock room, where inventory was stored. In community retailing, there were no “Chateau Generals,” as George Marshall called World War II generals who spent their time at headquarters.

Okay, I know sentimentalism is often blind. The world of my grandparents had its robber barons, and retailing is different than making and distributing things. But, and this is the central point, fewer and fewer of the people who command banking or media or manufacturing or service industries have any connection to the actual customer. The customer’s life is largely an abstraction, a data profile, continuously updated by optical scanners and online purchasing. There is nothing wrong with following supply and demand data unless nothing else is followed.

How many retail bankers who initiated zero down-payment home loans knew the newly minted debtors? And of course, none of the investment bankers who securitized the loans knew them. Their obtuseness, along with government guarantees, helped tank the economy and the well-being of millions who saw the value of their most important asset dramatically reduced. Home values in all but the most prosperous zip codes fell precipitously.

The customer’s family is another piece of data summarized by demographers, surveyors, and untold numbers of commercial sociologists. When that data also reveals the social pathologies of a society shaped by consumerism, it is all too inviting to retreat to the 46th floor and read trade journals that highlight the wonders of your industry.”

We should do our part to help preserve our community. Our community includes its merchants. And after family, neighbors are the first to help.

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. 

Lost in America by Al Sikes

This last week is illustrative. Preparation is underway for a summit with Kim Jung Un, Congress appears to be in the final stages of a new banking bill, teachers are on the march from Oklahoma to Kentucky, but everything is about the President. Well not everything, but given the salacious nature of much of the associated content, I would guess that the national conversation is not about budgets or taxes or education or healthcare or much of anything but President Trump.

Generally, I have avoided writing about the President, but the force field is too strong to avoid. The Trump presidency is revealing and not just about his sexual appetites. It reveals a great deal about democracy in America, 2018.

Last week the “breaking news” revolved around James Comey and Michael Cohen, both lawyers with quite different slants. Comey sees himself as the enforcer and Cohen once called himself the “fixer”.

Comey, in an interview, said Trump was bright enough but not moral enough to be President. Moral enough is an interesting phrase. We begin by asking by whose standards?

Certainly, by the standards of Judeo-Christian values, which have been crucial in nurturing America, he is not. Unfortunately, the standards of the marketplace have largely displaced expectations voiced in churches and synagogues. America’s narrative in recent generations has been re-shaped from opportunity to expectation. The overwhelming narrative of mass entertainment and advertising is about acquisition and its purported pleasures. Indeed much of the new media is underwritten by targeted advertising—appealing even more persuasively as data schemes search for and find our weaknesses.

Now, if the dream is to acquire and the economics of acquisition are in some regards highly unequal, what should we expect? Populism. Most in America see themselves as working hard but barely keeping up. The entertainment media is constantly showing the accoutrements of outsized wealth and the relatively small percentage of people who enjoy it.

In the last election, Republicans offered up a wealthy man who gleefully broke the china of conventional politics while pledging to lift up those who perceived that their burdens, at least in part, were caused by unfair trade practices and immigrant laborers. And, if you lost your home equity in the recession or your job had been shipped overseas or your community had been ravaged by a disruptive economy, you didn’t pay a lot of attention to intangible values—the tangibles trumped the intangibles.

The Democrats offered up Hillary Clinton who when out of office regularly gave speeches to Wall Street firms for very large sums of money. Bernie Sanders pointed this out. Additionally, she regularly shared her thoughts while Secretary of State using the same unsecured networks that are regularly hacked. Many who normally voted for the Democrat decided they had had enough.

I imagine a great majority would like to have a reset button for our central government’s elected leadership. It is not available. Democracy is messy and hard work. Informed and discerning citizens are needed more than new ways and times to cast ballots. Also, leadership is not a natural fruit of the political party trees. And it is getting harder and harder for more insightful leaders to use the political parties as a necessary vehicle to ultimate success. Indeed President Trump fought his Party; he had the money to do so.

If the Republican Party is to avoid becoming the party of Trump, somebody will have to seize the initiative to move it in another direction. The ensuing electoral battle will be more about leadership than checking ideological boxes. Trump, after all, had often associated with the Democrat Party and had frequently taken positions on such subjects as gun control and abortion that were at odds with Republican orthodoxy.

The Democrats need a leadership contest and it must go beyond the state-of-affairs that led it to forfeit the White House to Trump. A combination of favoring a bigger and bigger government while embracing the most aggressive agendas of its identity groups is not a winning formula.

Today the Republican Party leaders with only a few exceptions have become compliant. This is not the universe from which the challenge to Trump’s supremacy will come. It is also my guess that the Clinton and Sanders wings of the Democrat party will not produce a transformational leader.

My advice to potential candidates, stand apart while articulating new directions—scripted orthodoxies reveal a locked not agile mind. And most importantly, put away the politics of polarization; it might appeal to your base but will ill-serve you and your country.

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. 

Barbara and Millie by Al and Marty Sikes

Admiration quickly comes to mind. Barbara Bush was a singular personality and much loved by the public. Inside the walls of the White House, I suspect she was given a wide berth. Her mind was quick and razor sharp and always protective of her husband.

My role in President George H. W. Bush’s administration resulted in periodic visits to the White House, but I was well outside of the day-to-day intrigue. But I have one enjoyable memory best told by my wife, Marty.

We were at the White House for a State Reception for the President of Hungary, Arpad Goncz. As we were going through the receiving line, the President pulled me aside to visit with Hungary’s leader as I was leaving the next day on a diplomatic trip that included Hungary.

As I visited with the Presidents, the line stopped as Marty was face-to-face with Barbara. And now my co-writer continues:

When I realized that I was going to be visiting with Mrs. Bush, I was quickly thinking, what we will visit about! Fortunately, a few days prior to this evening, Al and I had been watching the start of the 1990 World Series game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Oakland Athletics. Mrs. Bush was sitting with the owner of the Reds, Marge Schott, who was known for her controversial behavior. We watched Barbara Bush throw out the first pitch.

As we shook hands, I told Mrs. Bush that Al and I had watched her pitch at the opening game of the World Series. She laughed and then said to me: “You know, of course, they first asked George, but he couldn’t do it, so they asked me. It was actually quite interesting because Marge Schott wanted me to take her dog, Schottzie, with me to the pitcher’s mound and I didn’t want to. Mrs. Schott had been drinking and was very insistent and starting to cause a bit of a scene when I finally thought to tell her, I am so sorry Marge, but I just can’t because Millie (the Bush’s dog – famous for the book Mrs. Bush wrote) loves to watch baseball and is watching the game and will be very jealous.”

Mrs. Bush was so easy to visit with; she put me completely at ease, and I smile every time I tell this story. As we are all aware, she was a very special person – very real and down-to-earth and someone everyone could admire.

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. 

What Price Privacy? By Al Sikes

It was the beginning, 1994. I was in Dallas for a meeting of magazine editors and publishers and met with Jim Clark who was raising capital for a company called Netscape.

Clark had recruited the technology group headed by Marc Andreessen at the University of Illinois. Andreessen and colleagues had invented the first web browser, and Clark was eager to have “content companies” publish on what was then referred to as the World Wide Web.

My job as President of New Media for the Hearst Corporation aligned with what Clark was doing. I was working on digital expressions of what Hearst did so well in the traditional media world.

Hearst invested in Netscape, achieved a very high return on that investment and became a leading “traditional media” company offering digital content.

Netscape had a short-lived run before being bought by AOL. Netscape depended on users purchasing the right to use its browser. Microsoft launched its own browser and, feeling threatened by Netscape, gave it away. Free won, Microsoft blew up Netscape’s business model.

1994 foretold the future of the Internet. In one sense, the unfolding realities in 1994 paralleled George Orwell’s novel 1984. But the developments of 1994 pointed to dominance by a business oligarchy, while Orwell pointed toward an all-pervasive controlling government.

In 1994 newspapers and magazines sold ink on paper for dollars. Today, Facebook and Google sell information, entertainment and social connection for personal information that they convert to targeted advertising inventory.

If I were to write a book, looking back, the title might well be The Seduction of Free. Free search, social connectivity, customer reviews, shipping.

The founders of Google, Facebook, and Amazon, saw the future and with copious amounts of capital delivered it. Each did what it did very well. Now the seduction is over and the morning after is not without regrets.

Rather than speculate about or repeat the lessons of others, my source will be me. One slice of life we all share is health concerns. I have researched cataracts, lower back pain, knee replacement and orthotics over the last few years. Google has a more complete profile of my health concerns than my doctors.

In this Faustian bargain, Google and its peer companies deliver. To use a marketing term: we find ourselves in a sticky relationship. Businesses love sticky relationships–repeat customers are the best. How many of you are leaving your Facebook friends?

Pre-1994 I was in the regulation business (so to speak) as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. This experience compels me to be wary about regulating Google, Facebook, and Amazon. On the other hand, we should understand what is being asked of us and how the information is used. And we should not be deceived or beaten down by pages of small font legalese.

Each company has brilliant designers of customer user interfaces. Put them to work on an interface that reveals the offer to us and presents options. The number of words used should not exceed one hundred and must be in at least 14 point type.

Also, each company has brilliant chief financial officers. Put them to work on assessing the market value of their unfettered use of our information. Convert this market value into an offer that allows each prospective user to make a choice. The choice: what price privacy—information or dollars.

And finally, the Congress should in one hundred words or less tell the two antitrust agencies that they would like to see a proposal to update our unfair competition laws. Facebook, Amazon, and Google (now Alphabet) began when venture capital was flowing, raising money in public markets was relatively easy and when the steady erosion of privacy was opaque. Scale and network effects now enjoyed by the big three give them an almost unassailable dominance. Dominance inevitably leads to excess.

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. 

Enough by Al Sikes

An article on the eve of the Never Again march in Washington kept quoting students observing that the “system is rigged.” A rigged system would deny their right to speech and petition. But, on one level they are right.

Constitutional freedoms that allow marches, posters and chants also allow people and companies with enormous capital, the same access. Let’s use gun control illustratively.

First the Constitution, in an 18th Century context, protects the right to own a gun. The framers were thinking of the right of people to rise up against concentrated power, as happened in our Revolutionary War.

Now almost 250 years later and generations of gun technology later, an ideology has been successfully shaped by the National Rifle Association (NRA) that has subordinated, implicitly, the freedom to think straight.

Vaclav Havel, the cerebral force behind the Velvet Revolution, showed with absolute clarity how the Soviet system of mind control worked. The Soviets used the phrase “Workers of the World Unite” to give its domination an emotional center. In fact the Soviets subordinated hundreds of millions to the dominant bureaucracy that ruled the Soviet Union and Warsaw Bloc nations. The last thing the Soviet hierarchy wanted was for the workers of the world to actually unite.

In the United States, the NRA has been no less successful with most Republicans and many Democrats. The NRA warps the Constitution by insisting that the right to bear arms (virtually any arms) is absolute. Then they supply the necessary political weapons; money and single issue voters. Regardless of how contorted some of its claims are, millions have signed on for a variety of reasons having little to do with the underlying rationale of protecting Americans from home grown oppressive power.

Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, in a recent Op-ed, said we need to amend the Constitution’s Second Amendment which reads: “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.”

Constitutional amendments are as difficult as reviving a person from cryogenic sleep. What we need are Supreme Court Justices that will yield to common sense, but first they have to be presented with something that makes sense.

The Second Amendment was not intended to make the use of a 21st Century weapon easier than a smart phone. The latter requires either a digital or biometric password and is indelibly linked to its owner. Nothing is more personal than a smart phone; the same should be true of a gun. Personalizing a gun does not guarantee responsibility, but it links irresponsibility with potentially dire consequences and evidence of culpability.

There was a time when I was an NRA member to support their gun safety program. I am a hunter and know the potential for horrendous accidents when a gun is used carelessly.

I also know that today we provide more protection for waterfowl than we do for humans—a lot more. Legally, waterfowl hunters must plug their gun so that only three shells can be fired without re-loading. And there are game wardens in the field to enforce hunting restrictions.

The emotional dial has been moved by frequent mass shootings and youthful leadership. The NRA notwithstanding, I believe the next three years will bring major changes in gun control. My principal recommendation: personalize gun ownership.

I hope as well that the Hollywood types that were so evident during the marches will bring pressure to stop nihilistic video games (I am not optimistic).

Finally, while I believe the Never Again movement is encouraging, it seems inclined to dismiss efforts at compromise. The NRA successes have been sustained by a bi-partisan coalition. Cycles that favor the right or left will not end; bi-partisan laws have continuity.

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. 

Reverse the Decline! By Al Sikes

2018 is an election year. Best I can tell the differences of opinion turn on Trump, Pelosi, and guns.

And, lest I forget, Americans are once again watching a spending battle with a government shutdown threat adding drama. This will all be resolved with much more spending buying the votes needed.

As an outsider and used-to-be insider, let me suggest an agenda for the 2018 candidates.

First and foremost, is it possible to renew our civil institutions and if so what must be done?

Citizens give thumbs down to most government institutions. Gallup routinely asks, over a broad range of institutions, a straight-on question about confidence.

In 2017 12% of the respondents said they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress; its highest favorability rating was 43% in 1973. The Presidency finds favor with 32%; its highest rating was 72% in 1991 (nice coincidence, I was then in President Bush’s administration). The Military continues to enjoy the highest confidence score at 72%. The news media, newspapers, and television, were off almost half from their previous highs.

Failing institutions do not achieve lasting accomplishments. When, as a customer, was the last time you had a good experience with a declining business?

Government decisions, to act or not, are made and then harshly judged by the dissenters. Most often they point to soft or hard corruption. The so-called soft side is taking contributions from organizations that have a stake in the outcome.

Advocacy today pivots on grievance. Rarely do advocacy groups offer constructive alternatives.

The Republicans spent years trashing Obamacare and then, even with a congressional majority, could not clearly outline an alternative or pass one. Democrats, having frozen Republicans out of healthcare legislation, were complicit.

Republicans returned the favor in passing recent tax legislation with similar dissonance. But the dissonance that should scare all of us is, I repeat, that Congress, the bulwark against authoritarian government, is favored by 12%

Democracy, even when buffered by republicanism, is inherently fractious; that is okay. Our constitution guarantees free speech and the freedom to petition the government. Importantly, the House of Representatives must stand for election every two years.

This latter protection anticipates a safety valve. I would like to give some unsolicited advice to those who want their hands on the valve in 2019. Build a platform around repairing the institutions of government rather than a litany of promises that will add more debt.

Here is my list:

Get rid of dark money. All contributions should be accounted for within 48 hours of receipt, regardless of source.

Prohibit a Member from receiving a contribution from a person or organization effected by the Committees on which they serve.

End gerrymandering! One of the most debilitating attacks on representative government is gerrymandering. Politicians draw congressional districts that secure partisan advantage regardless of public interest. This manipulation, now made even more precise by computers, has resulted in fewer and fewer seats being truly competitive and blows a big hole in the center of the political spectrum.

Public interest criteria for re-drawing districts should be spelled out, and partisan advantage should not be on the list.

Finally, laws that protect the two-party duopoly should be repealed; concentrated power most often serves its own interests at the expense of customers, or in this case, the voters.

President Trump, who promised to drain the swamp, has mainly substituted crocodiles for alligators. True reformists stand up.

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. 

Priests, Politicians, and Samaritans by Al Sikes

The Lenten season is rich with memories both ancient and contemporary—and what vivid recollections. So with some apprehension, let me take you on a brief journey.

The Lenten season at its simplest is: “an annual season of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter,” this year on April 1. Christians are encouraged to prayerfully recall the extraordinary events that led to Jesus being crucified and resurrected.

My most vivid recollections retreat to my childhood and two of Jesus’ parables, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Both stories made an enormous impression on me, and somewhere in the hierarchy of my brain, they will not let go.

Both stories have an overarching theme—concern, care, forgiveness—in what is often an unforgiving world. The Good Samaritan, while walking along a road, was confronted by an injured man who had been pummeled by robbers. Travelers had passed by without offering help, including a priest and a Levite. The Samaritan stopped and helped the injured man.

Regardless of one’s religious background, almost everyone has some familiarity with the story of the prodigal son. The son had abandoned his father, wasted his inheritance and then, only finding degrading work, asked for and received his father’s forgiveness.

I suspect both stories are well known as they are the essence of so many artistic expressions in the visual and performing arts. One of Rembrandt’s most celebrated paintings captures the distraught son being forgiven by his father.

Acts of grace transcend the news; if they were few, they would receive a lot of attention. Yet these acts co-exist today with civil estrangement. And this estrangement is exacerbated by political candidates and activists looking for an edge. The “other” forms much of our identity politics and the exploitative game.

America has unique and admirable qualities, but continued strength requires more than rhetoric. The eagle on the great seal of the United States holds in its beak a ribbon with the motto, E Pluribus Unum. The motto, which is Latin for “out of many, one,” was adopted by the Founding Fathers in 1782.

It can be argued that the motto is too idealistic. It can also be argued that the Samaritan should not have stopped on the road to Jericho. As the story unfolded, the Samaritan bound up the man’s wounds, took him to an Inn and left money for the Innkeeper to care for him—a sacrificial expression of love.

This story does not offer us an easily applied legal template. The parables often tell very personal stories that encourage personal response. Although in this case, Jesus was talking to a lawyer who was asking “who is my neighbor.”

The parables and similar stories from other religious traditions are aspirational or should be. They have, as one writer noted, formed a “thin tissue” of morality—the law above the law.

Civil estrangement in America preceded President Donald Trump—after all, we fought a Civil War. But, as America, informed by both the Bible and the Enlightenment, guaranteed unparalleled freedom for its citizens, its leaders relied on the recognition and influence of a greater good. Certainly Abraham Lincoln did.

In my lifetime there has not been a moment when the greater good narratives have been more at risk. The political edge has become a hard one—unforgiving, intolerant, and often hubristic. The most egregious development has been so-called evangelical leaders who have yielded to today’s Caesar. They, like all of us who struggle with faith’s calling, need to spend the Lenten season striving to understand the Gospel. They also need to understand that a person cannot be both a political and spiritual leader.

America needs spiritual leaders, not politicians wearing vestments.

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. 

Getting Education Right Is Not Optional by Al Sikes

A Valentine Day story in the Wall Street Journal was headlined “Blackstone CEO Gives High School $25 Million in Hope of Inspiring Others.” The gift was to his public school in Abington, Pa. The donor, Stephen Schwarzman.

The school’s superintendent, Amy Sichel, declared “This gift is going to let us dream and reimagine our schools.”

The article also noted public school gifts of millions from Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, and Hip-hop mogul, Andre ‘Dr. Dre’ Young; it also stated that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had contributed $6.5 billion to support elementary and secondary education over the years.

While living in New York City, I became active in several organizations that provided millions of dollars to enable charter schools and sustain Catholic schools. I also learned a lesson about the power of immovable objects. At the risk of over-simplification, institutional education is not easily moved.

I would like to believe Amy Sichel’s observation: “This gift is going to let us dream and reimagine our schools.” Count me a skeptic. Results will require openness to innovation.

Public school education faces a number of irrepressible forces. Popular culture destabilizes. Families are often fractured and unable or unwilling to engage their children to help assure educational success. Plus, there is a ceiling on the revenue side–taxpayer fatigue.

And public leaders in various executive and legislative branches are often too busy tending to re-election issues to collaborate on that most essential public service: the education of our children. Forming truly collaborative initiatives across organization boundaries and making sure they are at least adequately funded is difficult and time-consuming work.

Schwarzman, in giving $25 million, said he hoped to inspire others to give to public schools. While education is a leading cause for many philanthropists, most of the money goes to higher education. The top five college endowments most closely resemble the annual GDPs of small countries. Statistics compiled by US News and World Report reflects the numbers at the end of the fiscal year 2016:

Harvard University (MA) $35,665,743,000
Yale University (CT) $25,413,149,000
Stanford University (CA) $22,398,130,000
Princeton University (NJ) $21,703,500,000
Massachusetts Institute of Technology $13,181,515,000
University of Pennsylvania $10,715,364,000

The only non-Ivy League schools in the top five are Stanford and MIT—together they attract some of America’s best young scientific and innovative minds.

If you are a development officer at one of the above-noted schools, you relish the fact that each graduating class is likely to produce a relatively large number of adults who will become rich. And on the way, most will send their children to their prep and college alma maters.

The cleavages in education will not go away. But, if America is to have a bright future, public education must get better. There is some light.

The Gates Foundation is concentrating on teacher practice networks “as a model for teachers leading teachers in effective, collaborative opportunities to improve instruction.” Best practices mobility is most likely within, not outside, the institution.

There are almost 6,000 charter schools, and while they have varied successes, the best are innovative and have valuable lessons to pass on.

One of the reasons the US leads the world in higher education is because of competition.

And hopefully, Schwarzman and Gates and others will awaken their peers to the absolute necessity of healthy public schools. But to tap private philanthropy, public schools leaders must develop fundraising skills outside of jockeying for a better cut of tax revenue.

As noted, this is an important and complicated subject that does not submit to easy answers. But, since I’m looking for a concluding paragraph, let me risk oversimplification.

My experience is that students come with their home in their backpack. Unless there is a parent who provides encouragement and help most students will not succeed. If I was a principal or superintendent I would add one class and it would be for the parents.

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.