Friday, September 15, 2017

Hero #16 Simone Veil (#78651)

The Economist wrote an excellent obituary on French stateswoman Simone Veil in its July 8th issue. The Holocaust survivor passed away on June 30th, at age 89 -- just a few weeks before my grandfather (and at the same age). French president Emmanuel Macron called her life an exemplary inspiration. According to a statement,
"Her uncompromising humanism, wrought by the horror of the camps, made her the constant ally of the weakest, and the resolute enemy of any political compromise with the extreme right." [Source]
Veil grew up in Nice as one of four children. In 1944, just a few days after taking the baccalaureate exam, she -- along with her mother and a sister -- were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. She never saw her father or brother again, and her mother died of typhus a few weeks before the April 15, 1945 liberation of the camp.

After the war, Veil trained as a lawyer, rose in political stature, and as health minister in 1974 brought women's right to the forefront of debate in the National Assembly.

Challenged to refute any moral equivalency between the Holocaust and abortion, Veil replied:
“I say this with total conviction: Abortion should stay an exception, the last resort for desperate situations. How, you may ask, can we tolerate it without its losing the character of an exception — without it seeming as though society encourages it? I will share a conviction of women, and I apologize for doing it in front of this assembly comprised almost exclusively of men: No woman resorts to abortion lightheartedly.”
Veil will be curried in the Paris Pantheon, alongside Victor Hugo and Voltaire, a distinct honor. Earlier, she was also granted the distinction of membership in the Academie Française, which included the customary ceremonial sword. It bore three engravings:
  • Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (the French Republic's motto)
  • the European Union’s Unie dans la diversité,
  • and 78651, the number tattooed on her left forearm.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Brady's tax reform plan

On my way to work this morning, I listened to an NPR interview with Texas Representative Kevin Brady. As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committtee, he is a leader in the Republican charge to overhaul taxes.

A number of things he said caught my attention, because they seem like deliberate attempts to benefit the top 1 percent of earners. For example:
"We're going all in for growth, you know, on jobs and paychecks. And if we do that right, look, we can improve the lives of every American. And so we're really taking our time to get those bold pro-growth policies right."
First question: What does he mean by "all in for growth"? Does it mean cutting taxes in the hope that it will stimulate the economy and we'll get more tax revenues later (i.e. "supply side economics")? Because that doesn't actually work. [Source] President Bush cut taxes in 2000, but it didn't help the economy to grow any faster than it did in the 1990s, and it didn't result in higher tax revenues.

And then there's the part about paychecks. Only 51% of American taxpayers owed any taxes on their April 15th federal returns. (Mitt Romney caught hell for this criticism about this in 2012.) The rest either don't make enough money (~25%) or are exempted because they're working families with children or are elderly (the other ~24%). [Source]

This is the case with me. Even as a captain in the Army, I don't make enough taxable income to owe federal taxes. Part of this is because of tax strategies and retirement accounts, but that's how the system is.

So the claim to "improve the lives of every American" makes me wonder what he's talking about. You can't lower taxes on the 49% who don't pay them.

Oh! But you CAN lower taxes for the other 51%, and pretend that "every American" benefits. This group, by the way, happens to include the top 1% of earners.
So, obviously, we want to, for families, lower tax rates at every level and simplify the code so much that 9 out of 10 Americans will be able to file using a simple postcard style system
Second question: How do you simplify things so much you can fit a tax return on a postcar? Answer: a more regressive system.

Currently, things are more complicated because higher income folks pay a higher percentage of their income. So your first $18000 may be taxed at 10 percent, but your next $75,000 will be at 15 percent. It goes up from there.

The call for "a simpler tax code" sounds nice, but there are tax softwares specifically designed to mitigate this issue, and they're not really all that expense. What Bradyreally means by "simpler taxes" is lower taxes for those highest earners who pay higher percentages.

And we want to focus - to balance this within the budget over time. And so part of it comes from stronger economic growth. But, also, that alone won't complete it. So you have to jettison a lot of special provisions for some - lobbyist loopholes, exclusions, all that - so we can lower tax rates for everybody. That's part of going to a much simpler tax code.
Third question: When you say "over time," what kind of time frame are we looking at? Because the following sentence sounded an awful lot like that "supply side economics" we discussed earlier.

And what kinds of exclusions do you mean? Because closing loopholes will only affect one of two types of people -- those who don't already pay taxes and those who do. Without more details, "closing loopholes" to me sounds like another way of saying making "raising taxes on people who don't deserve it."

I look forward to more details on the tax reform plan, but not at the expense of regular folks nor to the benefit of the richest 1 percent. We'll have to see what happens...

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Many questions, fewer answers

The other day I was hanging out with P, and he said something to the effect that "In life, there are more questions than answers."

I thought about that for a moment, and then said I could see his point. "For example," I said, "What's 2+3?"

"Five," he answered.

"Right. And what's 7-2?"

"Five."

"Right. So I think it's true what you're saying -- there are more questions, but fewer answers."

"But," he interjected, "That's not what I mean. I meant for the more complicated questions."

"Oh, OK," I said. "You mean like 'What's 22-17?'"

And we just laughed.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Ambidextrous peanut packet

I took the kids to McDonald's for ice cream. C got a vanilla cone, while P got a strawberry sundae. As I was looking at the peanut packet, I noticed that there were two "Tear here" parts. As a joke, I told P that I was confused, and asked him if we should tilt it clockwise or counterclockwise.

An without missing beat, he told me that the other side's for the left-handed people.

Diligent daughter

One of my goals for the family is to do a "family devotional time" once a week. It's something I've been embarrassingly irregular about recently, but my daughter asked me today if we could do one today.

She particularly likes when we do a communion message, so we picked up some grape juice at the store to go with the naan bread I already had on hand (I was going to make pizza). She wanted to get together as soon as we got home, but I told her to wait until after dinner.

After dinner, she started watching a movie on TV and I thought she'd forgotten, but mid-way through she paused it, set up our Korea-style 상 table, and brought it up again.

So I heated up the bread, poured the juice, and we (P too) had communion while we took turns reading Luke 22:13-20.

After that, I did a short lesson about how God talks to us, using 2 Kings 5:10-12 (Naaman's expectations) and 1 Kings 19:11-12 (the whisper).

I'm hardly the spiritual example I should be to my kids, but they make it easier with encouraging attitudes like this.

I'm glad I have good kids.

Review: Garrison PTSD

In this book, author Marshall Roy details 50 reasons why he left the Army. At only $2.99, the Kindle version voices all the ways the Army drives people crazy (at least at the company level), and is fun for sharing in a circle of peers.

Roy was an engineering major in an ROTC program who was branched Transportation by the "needs of the service." He had one deployment to Afghanistan, and seems to have left as a captain soon after his deployment and four-year service obligation were complete.

From the way he describes his experience, I can't say I blame him. The Army's not for everyone, especially those who strive to make things efficient, professional, and rational. Here's a summary of his points, which I've grouped into six types:
  1. The Army's inefficient, wasting people's time and taxpayers' money.
    • (1) In/out processing takes too long.
    • (2) Multiple daily formations that waste time.
    • (4) The PCS-ing-in-2-months guy who won't do anything
    • (5) The 18-year-man who won't do anything
    • (6) Warrant officers who don't do anything
    • (7) Department of Defense civilians who don't do anything
    • (10) Unapologetic, late leaders
    • (11) PowerPoint communication -- the way form trumps function for even trivial decisions
    • (12) Officers as mere office administrators, not leaders
    • (13) Equal opportunity classes as mere CYA for higher-ups
    • (19) Mandatory online training without enough computers to do it
    • (20) Lack of "high density" training. Army time is not like the commercials -- 95% is completely un-fun.
    • (21) The 4 mile run in 36 minutes requirement -- is exercise really about physical fitness, Esprit de corps, or leaders' ego trips?
    • (23) USR and other digital systems. They're meant to gain visibility on subordinate units' deployment capabilities, but seem to be huge wastes of time and aren't used during deployments
    • (25) UCMJ sucks up so much time. Let civilian law enforcement deal with problems.
    • (27) Meetings, meetings, meetings (and the need to be 15 minutes early while the leader is 15 minutes late)
    • (28) Cutthroat officer competition rather than cooperation
    • (31) Safety stand downs that brief well but affect nothing
    • (32) The 24/7 mentality
    • (33) Basic issue items and the need for accountability, despite their general uselessness
    • (37) Lack of time to become professional. "The Army is all about preaching the term professional soldier. But if on average you never do a job for more than two years how professional can you ever be?"
    • (40) Crazy OPSEC is systems. You've got a bunch of different systems to communicate with different nations and players, but it leads to more time needed just to communicate. (Meanwhile, soldiers know more than officers because they're are posting convoy movements on Facebook.) Plus, monthly USR reports are classified, but getting access to a classified system is ridiculous.
    • (41) Encouraged financial irresponsibility (the perennial government budget issues)
    • (42) Camouflage. Despite millions spent for the designs, "I seriously doubt whether many casualties have been inflicted or prevented recently due to lack in camouflage design."
    • (43) Dog and pony shows. When generals plan visits, people have to "work late for weeks beforehand to make a huge fake impression" on the VIP and his whole entourage.
    • (48) 250 mile paperwork. If you want to travel outside the 250 mile radius around your post, you have to do obscene amounts of paperwork. Some commands required this on 4-day weekends even if you didn't leave your home.

  2. The Army has wrong ideas of fairness
    • (14) Unequal pay for single people
    • (15) Appointment malingerers
    • (16) Equal Opportunity - the Army observes gender privacy, but not sexuality privacy
    • (17) Equal Opportunity - the Army should not have different performance standards based on gender
    • (22) APFT inequality. There are different standards for different demographics. And despite all the gazillions spent to develop a new APFT, in the end it was scrapped and we kept the old one
    • (26) Running fall-outs. The Army values cohesiveness, but can't enforce standards

  3. Arbitrary or ineffective management/human resource practices
    • (3) Mass punishment. The idea is to force units to exercise peer discipline, but just pisses everyone off.
    • (30) Dealing with FG officers being out of touch with reality. They lack basic management concepts of responsibility and scope of authority. ("I don't care who's responsible for it! I just want it done!")
    • (35) Evaluation reports are pointless. If you're in a staff job with earlier year group peers, no matter what you do, they will get the better evaluation (being closer to their promotion board)
    • (38) The fortune cookie career. Roy had an engineering degree, experience, and a letter from the Corps of Engineers saying they wanted him. Nevertheless, he was branched Transportation.
    • (45) Awards inconsistency. One gets three awards just for joining these days (GWOT, ASR, & NDSM), and four for deploying to Afghanistan (OSR, ACM, NATO, and ARCOM). Deployment awards are written at the six month mark to accommodate all the revisions that are necessary. Plus, all awards require a perfect write up, but each echelon has a different writing style, and it seems no one ever publishes an SOP about what they want.
    • (49) Complicated quitting. It takes a lot of time and paperwork to quit the Army. Currently, the Army says you should plan things out about two years before you would actually leave, but officers who are selected for separation or resign their commissions have only six months before they're out.

  4. The Army lifestyle
    • (39) Living out of a suitcase. You don't have much of a social life working 60 hours a week, not including field exercises and staff duty.
    • (50) Two deal breakers (Time and Duty station location). Time in the sense that the Army has no compunctions about using up your time, and frequently requires 12 hours or more of your day. Location in the sense that you have just about no choice where you will go.

  5. The Army has wrong priorities
    • (18) SHARP. The battalion commander on his deployment stated his "CCIR" wake up criteria -- if there's indirect fire don't wake me, but wake me if there's a sexual assault allegation
    • (24) Personnel quality vs. quantity. Low quality personnel became "force detractors" from the mission
    • (34) inherited messes -- no one has any incentive to clean things up during their time in a position.
    • (44) Army medical. You can't just take a sick day, even if your hacking cough causes you to vomit. You have to see a doctor, and specifically get a quarters profile. But doctors will more often than not give you a minor medication and tell you to check back in a week. (Motrin is a popular prescription.)
    • (47) War on Terror. You can't fight an insurgency with conventional forces. (Interestingly, the Army's current presence in Afghanistan seems to be taking his advice.)

  6. The Army's hierarchy facilitates abuse and toxicity
    • (8) Napoleon complexes
    • (9) All the various leaders who can make your life miserable
    • (29) Superiors undermining second lieutenants, treating it as a rite of passage rather than valuing them as future leaders.
    • (36) The way seniors get moved up for messing up. Getting moved out of a job promotes career diversity and gets someone an easier job. Generals get "forced to retire."
    • (46) Investigations. He did four. JAG always says, "this is your primary duty," but it never is. His worst experience involved a policy (forbidding warning shots) that was changed, but not communicated. A soldier then unknowingly violated the new policy, and was brought up on charges. Roy recommended against punitive action, which seems like a proper action, but got reprimanded by the battalion XO for not taking a harsher line. The easy criticism (from someone who doesn't leave the base) rankled him.

From a technical perspective, Roy's book can be a little hard to read. The Kindle version isn't divided into chapters -- it's just a laundry list of indictments meant to justify his decision to leave. In addition, his book would have benefited from a copy editor who could trim down the text and correct some of the errors (i.e. "Fort Louis").

Nevertheless, I think it should be required reading for every cadet and junior officer, as it makes a great list of leadership pitfalls to avoid. If, by the end, you can stay committed to the Army despite all of the garbage Roy describes, then you've probably got what it takes to stay in.

Monday, September 04, 2017

I'm on Amazon

I've reviewed a number of books on this blog, and when doing so I've linked pictures of the books to their Amazon.com pages. It's been a standard practice for me, but I never thought I'd be able to do one on my own book.

*****
The Army has a lot of books that talk about leadership -- about how to be -- but since the Global War on Terror began there haven't been any that talked about what to do.

Even more frustrating was the way the Army itself didn't really prepare officers for company command -- neither the Basic Course nor the Captains' Career Course address what the job's really about. There's a week-long course at the installation level, scheduling time is awkward, and it doesn't compare with the six months spent in the captains' course.

I wrote Mechanics of Company Command specifically to address this gap. It doesn't pretend to advise anyone on what their priorities should be; rather, it lists the roles a commander plays within their company (what they do) and how to position oneself for success. If anything, I'd describe it as a technical manual for a company grade officer, divided into four sections.

The first part deals with some management principles. In my time with the Army, I've seen a tendency for leaders to assign jobs based on trust (who's my "go-to" guy) rather than position, which short-circuits the evaluation process. Some people get overloaded, while others malinger, and no one gets an accurate evaluation. From a leadership perspective, it's understandable ("I don't care who does it! I just want it done!") but it's unprofessional.

The second part deals with how you get a command. There's where to look, how to approach the brigade commander, how to interview, and how to do the change-of-command inventory. Up to this point, the book is organized somewhat chronologically.

The third section is organized topically, and talks about the five roles of a company commander -- Administrator, Resource Manager, Conscience/Counselor/Coach, Hammer, and Training Manager.

The Administrator talks about how to handle the digital mountain of paperwork you have to do. The Resource Manager talks about cyclic inventories and money.

The longest section, Conscience/Counselor/Coach, talks about how to take care of people. By contrast, Hammer explains how to apply the range of disciplinary actions. Finally, Training Manager covers how to plan out the company's activities for each quarter.

The last section lists some digital best practices I'd learned from years as a computer technician before joining the Army, as well as tips on how to transition things to the next commander.
*****

My hope for the book was to help the Army become a more professional place. I think there's a lot we all can learn about how to do our jobs well, and we owe it to taxpayers to execute our responsibilities as efficiently as possible. Perhaps this is a step in that direction.

If I get the chance for a second edition, I'd include sections on barracks management and ethics, but as an author I'm proud of the result.

Now if I could only get West Point to make it required reading....