09 July 2012

Politicians: Here, There and Everywhere

I have met many politicians in my life both in the U.S. and in Australia. In the U.S., I regularly dealt with local and state officials and met often with U.S. Representatives and Senators as part of an industry leadership group. In Australia, I have met many of the leaders of both parties through private meetings, lunches, and industry sponsored functions. Let me share a few observations.

Politicians everywhere seem to be generally gregarious, friendly, smiling, and often with a quip or funny story. They seem earnest and caring. They’re the kind of people everyone would like as next door neighbors.

However, politicians often do not seem to have much substantive knowledge. Ask as U.S. Representative a question, and he or she will give you a response. Ask a follow up question, and chances are you will receive the same response. Ask a third question, and, you guessed it, you get the same answer. It seems to me, U.S. politicians too often memorize one answer to each topical question without any substantive knowledge or understanding.

I was at a meeting one time with a prominent U.S. Senator, who is a leader of his party. He was asked a question and gave the first answer. He struggled to answer a follow up question and for the next 10 minutes referred every question on the topic to his 25 year old aide. This was depressing for any believers in free world democracy.

Australian politicians seem a bit less clever than their American cousins. They often don’t appear concerned about learning an answer to various question topics. Instead, they rant about the other party. I once asked the deputy leader in the Parliament a question about a widely reported proposed change in the tax rate for investment trusts. Her reply, “that’s the Labor party’s fault.” I guess it is easier to complain about the other party than have to learn stuff. Or maybe Australian elected officials just specialize more in one area of government because of ministerial responsibilities and are less concerned about broader issue topics.

One night I had dinner with a leader of one of the Federal parties and someone frequently discussed as a future PM candidate. I asked about the key role Australia was positioned to play in managing the transition in world power from U.S. dominance to the emergence of China. Australia is uniquely positioned to help facilitate a peaceful change, I suggested. His response, “So what do you think of our Superannuation system?” World transformation was not part of his portfolio.

I think there are ways to improve the quality level of our political leaders. In Australia (and in the U.S,), most professions require proof of competency before practitioners can obtain a license to work. Lawyers and accountants are certified. Tradesmen such as plumbers go through apprenticeship or training programs before they can fix your clogged sink. Even service workers like hairdressers must be trained before they can show up and cut your hair. So why are there no qualifications and certifications for a politician? Why is it more important to make sure a hairdresser or plumber is competent than our political leadership who are responsible for spending billions of taxpayer dollars?

Clearly we need a program to certify politicians as competent before they should be allowed to practice. Maybe they should take a test like students applying for University slots. Reach a certain score, you win a permit to run for office in NSW. If you’re not accepted in NSW and you want to be a politician, apply to Tassie. Have a bad test day, be a politician in The Northern Territory (which has 1 Parliament member for every 9,000 residents).

The other issue with politicians that seems universal, unfortunately, is the polarization of the parties. Whether it is Labor vs. Coalition in Australia or the Republicans vs. the Democrats in the U.S., politicians seem more focused on scoring media points than solving problems. Perhaps we need mandatory counseling or mediation when elected officials do not get along. At minimum, politicians should not be seated by party but should be mixed so they sit with the opposition and possibly make friends. If that does not work, we could try drugs like Ritalin to control and moderate errant political behavior.

Australia has lots of politicians for a country of only 22 million people. They have the same layers of government as the U.S.: Federal, State, and Local; but each layer serves relatively few people. California, for example, has 38 million residents compared to about 7 million in New South Wales. CA has 120 elected members in their legislature compared to 135 in the NSW parliament.

My favorite Government is the State of Texas in the U.S. Texas was admitted to the U.S. union in 1845, long after many other states had joined and now has about 26 million people. – more than all of Australia The founding fathers in Texas evidently learned from the states that preceded them and made some interesting provisions in the Texas State Constitution.

First, the Texas legislature is only permitted to meet for about 4 months every other year. The founders evidently felt when politicians meet, usually bad things happen. The best way to make sure the State functioned well was to make it illegal for politicians to meet. They did not seem to think which Party was in power mattered. All politicians were perceived to be the problem. This is a novel idea.

As a consequence, it is difficult to pass more laws or spend more money in Texas. It makes political lobbying more challenging; and politicians generally have to have gainful jobs outside of being professional politicians because they cannot survive on 4 months wages every other year.

If there is truly an emergency, the elected Governor can convene a special session of the Legislature to deal with the crisis. This is typically not a popular thing to do, however.

How is Texas faring under their restrictive politician laws? Texas enjoys the lowest taxes of any major U.S. State, the highest level of employment and job creation, and probably the most heterogeneous population mix. It offers superb universities, one of the biggest medical centers in the world, amongst the best cultural and art facilities, and one of the largest concentrations of technology companies outside the Silicon Valley.

All of this happened in spite of having virtually no natural amenities (mountains or oceans) and typically awful weather with high levels of heat and humidity in much of the State. Mossies are so common, one community (Clute) even erected a giant statute of a mosquito welcoming visitors.

In Australia, we spend considerable time debating which Party would be better in power. Maybe this is not the right question. Perhaps the issue is that the politicians are guaranteed to win regardless of party affiliation, and when politicians come together, we are all at risk. If the Texas experience is applicable, just think of how productive and prosperous Australia would be if there were fewer politicians from all parties.

17 June 2012

A Bridge for the Ages

Recently I resumed playing bridge after 30+ years of not playing. It has been a humbling experience.

I learned to play bridge about 100 years ago; about the time they invented playing cards. My widowed mother needed a bridge partner and I was drafted after my older sisters and brother left home. She gave me a book, “Point Count Bidding” by Charles Goren and told me to study it. Most people likely do not realize that Point Count Bidding was first published slightly after the Guttenberg Bible.

The Goren system was largely intuitive. If you had lots of hearts and sufficient points, you bid hearts. Even more points, and you bid even more hearts. A bid of 2 hearts showed a stronger hand than a bid of 1 heart. It was all very logical and understandable.

In resuming bridge playing after a long break, I was surprised to learn that bridge is no longer logical or intuitive. I think it is a bit like learning to speak Polish. I don’t know how to speak Polish but I bought a pronunciation guide when I visited Poland a few years ago. The guide listed the word in Polish, the English translation, and the English phonetic spelling. I could not get my mouth to say the phonetic spelling much less attempt the Polish pronunciation. They don’t appear to use many vowels in Polish.

Bridge is similarly a different language. Bid 1 club and it means maybe you have clubs and maybe you do not. Bid 2 hearts and it means you have fewer points than if you bid 1 heart. Respond 2 clubs to a bid of 1 No Trump, and it means you do not like clubs. Bid 2 hearts to an opening of 1 No trump and it means you prefer Spades. This is why I think learning Bridge is like learning Polish. It does not make sense intuitively.

Everybody seems to have a different bidding system so I find it impossible to know what the opponents mean when they bid. I asked one guy what a bid meant at a recent game. He replied that he and his partner played “precision” and the bid meant something very different than what would have been normally expected. I guess my partner and I play imprecision.

Bridge players today are very serious. When I learned to play, the adults all drank liquor when playing – not the relatively low alcohol wine that is popular today but real whisky, scotch, or gin. It made the game less serious and more social.

At University, I played in the residence dorm bridge tournament. We started playing after dinner and who ever had the most points when dawn came, won. At today’s duplicate games, it is so competitive that taking one extra trick can earn a high or a low board for the competitors and the results are shown instantly on the big screen for all to witness.
At University we had a referee or director, as they call them now. But at Uni, the primary function of the Director was to provide the beer. At duplicate today, the Director is called to discipline players who may inadvertently do something wrong. I prefer Directors who provide the beer.

At Uni, my usual bridge partner was blind, so we played with Braille cards. This gave us a significant advantage when Brian was dealing. When an opponent occasionally remarked that Brian had an uncanny ability to know when to finesse, I usually commented that Blind people developed extra sensory abilities to compensate for not being able to see. No one ever challenged my explanation.

The serious players today rarely smile and never tell jokes. They probably work as screeners at airport security when not playing bridge. I am waiting for the bridge club to post notices that jokes are illegal and will get you in trouble.

There is certain etiquette in bridge. Whenever the non-playing partner puts down their hand, the playing partner always says “thank you, partner” even if the cards are awful and the game to be played will almost certainly be a disaster. I would prefer a bit more honesty like “Oh my God, we are totally screwed.”

While always affecting a level of politeness, bridge players often show barely concealed facial expressions. Some opponents regularly practice the “glare” or the penetrating “stare” which means, “Partner, you stuffed up. You are a jerk.” My partner is much nicer. She occasionally expresses the “surprise” as in “Oh that is not what I was expecting.” The “surprise” is much nicer than the “glare” but it conveys something similar.

Most people playing bridge are old. The only young person at our bridge club is the guy who serves wine and snacks. Bridge stimulates the mind but does not require much from the body. It is perfect for us aging baby boomers.

The problem with being old, is that the memory occasionally fades. Now and then I suffer from a brain malfunction. I forget how many trumps were played or lose count of something. At least the bids are written down. Maybe we need to write down the cards that are played. One time I even forgot what Trump was and thought I was playing No Trump. We did not do very well that hand, but my partner was very understanding and supportive although she looked surprised at times.

Actually, my partner is very nice. The other night we were doing very well. We were on pace to win about 1 millionth of a master point when we entered the last round. Our opponents were a couple including a guy who could not hear and always seems to be fighting with his wife/partner. He bid very aggressively and gave us 3 consecutive low boards eliminating our changes for a meager victory. I wanted to kill the guy; my partner felt sorry for him and hoped his win would make him feel better.

Bridge club facilities seem to be somewhat dilapidated. I don’t think clubs are very profitable. At our bridge club, they recently installed air conditioning since the old system probably dated back to the Mesozoic Era. The other night it was warm and the new units were not functioning, however. I noticed they were not hooked up. Maybe the club is waiting to accumulate more money before hiring an electrician.

So I now realize that playing bridge today is learning a non-intuitive foreign language in which nothing makes logical sense, competing against serious unsmiling people, in a building that could fall down at any minute. No wonder I love it.

18 May 2012

More Work vs. More Holidays: It Depends on Where You Live

On an airplane flight a few years ago, I sat next to a retired fire-fighter from Ireland who was visiting his son in Arizona. I asked him what the differences were between life in Ireland and the US. He replied,

“In Ireland, people work to live. In America, people live to work.”

In Australia, I am convinced people work to go on holidays.

Arriving at a cocktail party full of strangers in the US, conversations usually start with “What do you do?” In Australia, it is as common to inquire “Have you gone anywhere interesting lately?”

Traditional Christian doctrine defines afterlife in terms of Heaven or Hell. Aussies seem less concerned about the prospects. Perhaps, they tend to be less religious, but I am beginning to think that they’re just waiting to learn what the holiday policies are for both places. Going to Hell would not be so bad if there were ample holidays to Heaven.

Aussies like to travel on their holidays, especially if the destinations are outside Australia. Everyone I have met in Sydney has been to New York City, Los Angeles, and much of Europe. Most have not been to Perth, Broom and/or Darwin. In the US, it is the opposite. Most have been to NY, LA, Chicago, and Florida amongst other domestic destinations. But if asked if they have been to Sydney or Melbourne, they may very well ask how long of a drive it is.

In the US, a long airplane flight is 3 hours. In Australia, a 3 hour flight puts you on a life raft in the South Pacific. Okay, New Zealand is within reach if you ignore typical airport delays.

In the US, employees typically receive 2 to 3 weeks of vacation per year, depending on seniority. Many never use their entire allotment; they’re too busy at work. However, there are some exceptions. Once I asked the wife of a colleague how she convinced her husband to take more time off. She replied, "I promise great sex if he goes and not much if he doesn't go." Guys are so gullible.

In Australia, employees receive 4 weeks holiday time by law plus extra weeks for long service leave , which begins accumulating after 5 years with the same company. At ten years, an employee has accumulated an extra 8 weeks of holidays and continues to accumulate an additional week per year thereafter. This is all in addition to the base 4 weeks of entitlement. If not taken, the holiday time accumulates by law from year to year. The only reasons someone would not take their full entitlement, however, are if they die or if they seek to accumulate time for a really long holiday like 4 months.

Holidays are taken without regard to what is happening at work. Skip an important Board meeting to go on holidays to India or go to Fiji during final negotiations on a big corporate acquisition, you are not likely to have a job when you return in the US. In Australia, you’re expected to send postcards. When away, Americans check their Blackberries and IPhones regularly; be out of touch too long and your assistant back home may start calling local hosiptials to see if you survived the car crash. In Australia, being on holiday means not checking in with work. Look at your Blackberry too much and you're sleeping on the sofa that night (which largely defeats the purpose of going on holidays for many guys).

The two cultures approach time away from work very differently. I never took more than a 2 week vacation in 30+ years working in the US and often took only 1 week at a time to minimize work disruption. Perhaps because Australia is a million miles away from anywhere except New Zealand and Antarctica, longer holidays are customary. I also suspect Aussie women are better at convincing guys to go away.

Recently I went to Tasmania with a friend. I wanted to go for 4 or 5 days; she argued for 2 weeks. We compromised on 1 week. While there, we met an American couple who were in Tassie on holidays for 3 days; I was impressed but she was aghast.

Sometimes 4 week holidays just seem too short, especially for young people in Australia. In such cases, they often quit work and go traveling.

“Why are you quitting? Is there something we should be doing differently?” I asked a young promising worker with obvious career potential.

“No, the Company is great; I just want to go to London and thought I would take a year or so to get there.”

When you see a gap in someone’s resume in America, you are usually suspicious. However, if the individual is Australian, you assume he or she has been traveling and are less concerned.

A goal in the American work culture is to become indispensible. You cannot be terminated; you receive more money; you have better career advancement options. In Australia, being indispensible could interfere with holidays and may not be so desirable.

Whilst Aussies like to travel, they do not like to relocate within Australia for work. Asking a Sydneysider to move to Melbourne for a better job is akin to asking him or her to give up their first born child. It’s even worse if you ask a “Melbourne girl” to move to Sydney. Relocating to New York City or London may be okay but not elsewhere in Australia.

By contrast, in the US I have lived in the following states attending school and working: Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Washington DC, Pennsylvania, Maryland, California, New York, and Texas. If I had been born and raised in Sydney, it is almost certain I would have lived exclusively in New South Wales.

A doctor in Sydney told me once he moved his family from South Africa after considering the US and Australia for his future home. He decided on Australia. He explained:

“In the US, kids grow up and move away. In Australia kids grow up, go away, and then return home. He decided he wanted his grown up children to be close by.

The attitude toward work and non-work affects attitudes toward child bearing as well. In the US, maternity leave is usually 6-8 weeks; beyond that the Company will normally replace the employee. In Australia, maternity leave is usually one year and can be extended to two years with the employee retaining the legal right to return to her job. Paternity leave is also more common in Australia and is protected by law.

Work is a bridge. In the US, it is a bridge to career advancement, money, and more work. In Australia, I sometimes think it is a bridge between holidays.

So which culture is better? Is the higher productivity of the American worker best or is the more balanced lifestyle of the Australian worker better? I am unsure, but I will consider the question carefully on my long holiday, which starts next week.

I wonder if her promises were just a ploy to get me to take a longer holiday? No, can't be....