Saturday, July 27, 2013

Accentuate the Negative

There's not an organization out there, public or private, that doesn't want its employees to do the right thing. To that end, they enshrine those behaviors as a "Code of Conduct" or "Core Values" or "Guiding Principles." Good thoughts all, until you recall this particular set: "Respect. Communication. Integrity. Excellence." Not a bad enumeration of aspirations, until you realize that the company that so wanted to embody those ideals was Enron.

Still, most companies spotlight these behaviors more in the execution than in the breech. But at least one organization isn't so gun shy. And that's an extremely apt metaphor, since the body in question is the Department of Defense. Yes, be a model employee, and you might get tapped for a Distinguished Civilian Service Award, or perhaps a Secretary's Award for Excellence. But be a bad boy or girl, and you might get recognized as well, just in a different forum. More specifically, you might merit a write up in the "Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure."

Published by the Office of the General Counsel, this compendium of all things smarmy is designed to provide real life examples of the consequences when people don't stick to the rules. As it says in the introduction, "Some cases are humorous, some sad, but all are real." It is thoughtfully arranged for the reader by area of transgression, starting with "Abuse of Position" and ending with "Travel Violations." In between, there are stories of misuse of resources, credit card abuse and attendance violations. In short, all the things that make for just another day working for the US Government.

At the low end, you have simple bribery: "An applicant for U.S. citizenship slid $200 in an unmarked envelope across to an Adjudication Officer during his interview, hoping for a favorable outcome. He got a year's probation instead." Or an unreported gift: "As a gesture of thanks, a retailer gave an Army soldier a briefcase after the soldier, using his Government credit card, had purchased office supplies from the retailer. After an investigation, the soldier returned the briefcase and was counseled." Or not really working: "A Government employee was reported by his co-workers for sleeping on the job. When confronted, he admitted that he may have dozed off a time or two, but never actually slept at work." But never let it be said that the DoD doesn't have a heart: his three day suspension was reduced after he revealed that drowsiness was a potential side-effect of his prescribed medication.

Of course, these kinds of faux pas can happen at any company. But this is the DoD, so the ethical lapses can be much more creative. Under the heading "Taking the Blackhawk Out for Lunch," a chopper crew set down their helicopter behind a restaurant and grabbed a meal. Since they had filed the stop in their flight plan, they were technically in the clear. Still, they got "verbal counseling" as their actions gave the appearance of impropriety. Not so light a punishment for a Navy commander in Italy. Under an entry "Sorry, Skipper, But Those Really Aren't Perks," it describes how he appropriated a ferry to take his friends to the island of Ischia for a dinner party. He was relieved of his command and returned stateside.

Not surprisingly though, most of the stuff is simply garden variety bonehead. There's the Public Affairs officer who awarded the contract for a training video to a production company run by himself and his wife. There's the FBI agent who was responsible for recommending which brand of pepper spray to buy, and took $57,500 in kickbacks. And there's the sub commander who had an affair, got tired of it, and decided to end it by sending a fictitious email that he had been killed at sea. When the mistress showed up at his house to pay her respects, he really was underwater.

Years ago a friend, upon seeing a sign at the gate of a factory saying "321 Days Since Our Last Work Time Injury," mused that a better way to drive home the point would be a series of film shorts called "Lost Time Injury Theater." The aforementioned encyclopedia isn't much different. As it says in the introduction, it is intended to "sensitize Federal employees to the reach and impact of Federal ethics statutes and regulations. " If only that sub commander had read it first: he might still be afloat in more ways than one.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is glad his tax dollars are being used for something colorful. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Not the Most Words, Just the Right Ones

If you're a politician and you're looking for the right words, there are plenty of people to quote. You have the "go to" guys like Kennedy ("Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country") and FDR ("The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"). If want something more international, there's Churchill ("The problems of victory are more agreeable than those of defeat, but they are no less difficult"), Gandhi ("You must be the change you wish to see in the world") or Mandela ("It always seems impossible until it's done"). And there's good stuff from losers as well as winners, such as 12 time Presidential candidate Harold Stassen ("I don't care to be involved in the crash-landing unless I can be in on the take-off").

Of course, you're not just limited to fellow pols. You got your religious leaders (John XXIII: "Anybody can be Pope; the proof of this is that I have become one"), your revolutionaries (Che Guevara: "The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall"), your philosophers (Blaise Pascal: "Small minds are concerned with the extraordinary, great minds with the ordinary"). There's also the occasional ordinary citizen who says something memorable, assuming someone writes it down (Anonymous: "Nobody knows the age of the human race, but everybody agrees that it is old enough to know better").

The goal in all cases is to sound smart, be it for validation or inspiration. In that light, one wonders about the choice of Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize-winning diplomat and Egypt's most prominent liberal. In the midst of that country's most recent upheaval, ElBaradei emerged as a possible president. In a recent wide ranging interview, he spoke of security, democracy and urged calm and respect. He recalled the birth of the movement, the so-called Arab Spring. And he argued that the military takeover (not a coup!) was the "least painful option." And then to drive home his point about the chance being given to the Egyptian people, he turned to words of wisdom from one of the world's great philosophers: "As Yogi Berra said, ‘it's déjà vu all over again.'"  

Yes, Yogi Berra. The same guy who said, "You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I'm not hungry enough to eat six." And "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded." Not to mention, "You wouldn't have won if we'd beaten you." It's not that ElBaradei is wrong; they are right back where they started 18 months ago. It's just that, even assuming the typical Egyptian knows who Yogi is, it's hard to take the man who might be president seriously when he falls back on the wisdom of the same guy who said, "Pair up in threes."

While hardly a trend, the idea of quoting popular personalities isn't unheard of. In a debate in the Senate, Marco Rubio quoted Jay Z: "It's funny what seven days can change, it was all good just a week ago." Christine Radogno , the minority leader of the Illinois House, referenced Wu-Tang rapper Raekwon, saying "It's like he says. CREAM: Cash rules everything around me." She then uttered perhaps for the first (and last) time in a Senate debate the chorus: "dolla dolla bill ya'll." And who can forget Herman Cain's suspension of his bid for the presidency by saying "Life can be a challenge. Life can seem impossible. It's never easy when there's so much on the line. But you and I can make a difference. There's a mission just for you and me." Not a bad sentiment, until he revealed his source: "I believe these words came from the Pokémon movie."

Even though Cain was wrong about the quote's origin (it came from Donna Summer's 1999 disco hit and theme from the movie "Power of One"), the point is taken. Sometimes there are more eloquent constructions than your own. And the smart leader finds a way to use them to their advantage. And so don't be surprised if ElBaradei, should he indeed get the nod to run one of the most strategically important countries in the Middle East, stands in front of all Egyptians and decides that the best distillation of their future comes by massaging the words of an old Yankee: "We have arrived at a fork in the road. Let us take it."


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves quotes. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Too Much Room

Lines can be hard to define. If you park outside your in-laws apartment, lock your car door and then try the handle to make sure it's secure, you're being prudent. Come back to check it again, you're being cautious. Do it once more, and you're veering towards obsessive. And if you do it again, and again, and again, you either have full blown OCD or you'd just want to find a way not to visit her family.

And so it is with many things.  Pack an extra tee shirt? Check your alarm clock? Pat your wallet in your pocket? In running order, that would be smart, responsible and careful. But do any of those three or four times, and your starting to cross from slightly paranoid to a medical condition known as "time to make an appointment with a therapist."

However, while each of these particular affectations can be written off as a tic, their manifestation is relatively invisible. You know you do it, maybe your significant other rolls their eyes at you, but the casual observer sees nothing. Not so with the condition known as hoarding. It can be focused, as in old copies of magazine or newspapers, or full blown everything and anything. It's a sliding scale that runs from "pack rat" through "can't throw things out" and on to "they're making a reality cable series about you."

Most of us never really hit that tipping point because it's there in front of our noses. Even if we try and ignore it, eventually the pile or bin starts to overflow and people start tripping over it. Then your boyfriend or wife or mother yells at you, and next thing you know you're in there with a bunch of plastic bags and order is restored. At least until the next time.

There is one area, however, where I would venture that the incidence rate of not throwing things away is much higher than the accepted estimate of 1% or so of the general population. And that concerns not our physically collected stuff, but the electronic versions: the emails, pictures, addresses, jokes, documents and other mementos of life today that we, well, hoard.

It's easy to keep because space today is so cheap and basically invisible. Back in the seventies, you might have had a pile of 8 inch floppy disks, each of which stored 1.2 megabytes of data. Today, that's at best half a dozen documents. Depending on the camera you're using, it might be a single picture. And let's not even talk music: that's barely enough for Pharrell and Daft Punk to "Get Lucky" once, let alone the 64 times it's repeated in the song.

Storage today is measured in amounts many times larger, with gigabytes being the starting point, or a thousand of those early floppy discs. Today, those ubiquitous little sticks people have on their keychains come in 4, 8, 16 gigs or more. Drives in iPads and computers routinely pack 100, 500 or even 1000 times that. And the cost? Dropping like a rock, so much so that the photo sharing site Flickr recently redesigned itself and offered to all who sign up a terabyte of storage, or a thousand gigabytes. The price to store cost about 600,000 typical pictures of whatever you want? Free.  

So in that environment, why throw anything away? Why not keep all those pictures of your vacation in Disneyland, including the 40 that are out of focus. Or those spreadsheets showing your son's little league teammates from 2 years ago whom you will never see again. Or those emails from that AOL account from which you finally graduated. After all, you never can tell when you'll want a picture of you snapped in a bar with a beer on your head.

And even if you should delete it, it's not really going away. When it opens later this year, the NSA's new Utah Data Center is supposed to capable of storing all that and more. While the exact numbers are classified, the word is that it will hold "yottabytes of data." That's a one followed by 24 zeros. So the odds of those pics of you in a flowered shirt and bellbottoms going away anytime soon? Let's just say future generations will be able to cringe like it's 1979 all over again.


Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to delete, delete, delete. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter 

Saturday, July 06, 2013


In Mike Birbiglia's laugh-out-loud routine "Sleepwalk with Me," he talks about a dream he has after falling asleep while watching a news story about war. In it, he finds out that there is a guided missile heading towards his room. He looks up to find military people standing around his bed (it's a dream, so of course there are military people standing around his bed). He jumps up ready for action, and asks "What's the plan?" They say, "It's come to our attention that the missile coordinates are set not just on this room, but specifically on you." As Birbiglia says, "That's very bad. Because that's one thing for which I don't have a plan."

I thought of this bit as I read the report that the IRS wasn't just targeting conservative groups. Turns out they were looking at liberal groups as well, including in their search strings not only phrases like "tea party" and "patriots," but also "progressive" and "occupy." Actually, targeting is probably too strong a word in either case. The agency was using what turned out to be a ham-handed way to cull through the many organizations that claimed their mission was social welfare (and therefore tax-advantaged) but whose focus was actually more political (and therefore not tax-advantaged). So unlike Birbiglia's dream, the coordinates of this "attack" weren't so tightly defined; it was less a guided missile than a cluster bomb. Damage to be sure, but over a much wider area.

All this is in an environment where a large number left, right and center agree that the tax system is screwed up. And not just in complexity, but notably in the area of equality: a system that is supposed to be a level playing field for all isn't. In that light, you would think that most would welcome an attempt to weed out those who seek to take advantage by not paying their fair share. But using this coarsest of data sorting techniques was bound to create issues. And when initial reports seemed to indicate the sorting was skewed to favor, or more accurately, disfavor one political persuasion over another, it created a firestorm. What's funny is that now that we find that the system treated all sides equally unfairly regardless of ideological stripe, we don't really feel that much better.

I think the problem isn't the concept but the target. Just as polls show that while people didn't like the idea of the NSA checking up on them, when told the target was terrorists, a large majority said it was OK.  It may drive civil libertarians up a wall, but it turns out that while we hold freedom from all forms of intrusion dear, seems we hold not getting killed by a suicide bomber even more dear. So a little poking around in the name of safety seems to trump absolute unequivocal individual privacy, Constitution be dammed.

And so if the IRS could identify the boogiemen we all hate a little more accurately, perhaps we wouldn't be so incensed if they give them a little extra scrutiny. What they need to do is refine those search strings a little bit tighter. We know you can't go after left or right, but we already eliminated "conservative," "liberal" and anything that even comes close. Professions probably wouldn't work either; no way that terms like "hedge fund manager" or "lobbyist" wouldn't draw the ire of those groups, and those boys and girls have some serious clout.

So what's left? What group can we target for a sit down with a bespectacled auditor, who will question what they are actually doing versus what they are claim they are doing? We need a search term that defines a group or groups that routinely misrepresents itself, saying it is working for the public good when in reality its constituency is far more narrowly defined, and in many cases includes a monetary interest. A group that mislabels funds and causes, if not to deliberately mislead, than to at least give the appearance of a broader mission, as opposed to its own vested self-interest.

Unfortunately, even if that was the criteria, odds of the IRS making that one work is slim to none. That's because unless I'm wrong, only one term ticks all those boxes and would therefore warrant a little extra audit time. That search string? "Congress."


Marc Wollin of Bedford feels for the IRS, he really does. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.