A Million Small Ideas

First of all, let me get the full disclosure out of the way. I am not an independent voter. Nor, do I claim to be an independent voter. But like 99% of qualified American voters, I have become a bit disgruntled about the state of the election. In January, we’re probably going to look back and define the 2012 race as one of the following (or at least three of the four): the Interruption Debate, Binders full of Women, the Benghazi scandal, Big Bird losing his job, 47 percent of the electorate, redistribution of wealth, Romnesia (the man of changing opinion), the science of polling, and the October surprise that is Frankenstorm. Make your choice based on your political stance.

I will say that I watched the first presidential debate and vice presidential debate in its entirety. After about five minutes, I felt that the President failed to prepare for the first debate. We have all been there before. I remember taking a statistics exam in college. When I looked at the first five questions, I had to wonder if I was in the right class. The instructor was the same, my friends were in the class; however, I felt like I was in some parallel universe, or maybe the test was. I obviously didn’t prepare properly for this one. I actually felt I had a solid grasp on statistics. Apparently, not well enough. After trying to define Mitt Romney for about a year now, I felt that the president had began to believe in his talking points. He was taking on someone so vile that he would be in the right no matter what. No need to study. Look where that got him. Love or hate Mitt Romney, he is a smart man. His resume alone should have been enough to be cautious.

For the vice-presidential debate, I couldn’t follow what either were saying half the time through the interruptions. It was an odd debate and difficult to follow. Joe Biden came out looking the victor but narrowly. Unlike his boss, he did do his homework. I did feel that Saturday Night Live didn’t even need to write the sketch they did a few weeks back. The debate on its own had enough material between smiling Joe and Paul Ryan drinking about five gallons of water throughout the debate.

For the second Presidential debate, I dressed my kid in his Lightning McQueen pajamas, paused CBS, and went to put him to bed. After reading Rocket Learns to Read (Great kids book), I came back to the debate. After about ten minutes into the debate, I flipped the channel over to MSNBC to see what was flowing at the bottom of the screen. Then, I kicked myself. I had lost the 40 minutes I had paused on CBS. One of the few drawbacks of having a DVR. Jumping into the debate midstream, I couldn’t figure out where either candidate stood through the interruptions. The next day, CNN had editorials on “Binders full of women” while FoxNews was going after Cindy Crowley for rescuing the president. I went back and watched the exchange and believe that FoxNews came out on the right between the choice of topics. Cindy Crawling gave him a fastball and he knew it was coming.

For the third presidential debate, I elected to watch the St. Louis Cardinals battle it out for a World Series trip. That didn’t end the way it should have. Sigh. What I will say that the President showed up for the latter two debates. He did his homework and it showed.

At a high level, both presidential candidates seem to push for an updated energy policy, a balanced budget, and cutting taxes for small business. If you only listen to the sound of a political ad and cut out the candidate’s name, it would be difficult to tell the difference between the two. Millions of dollars to get down to specific messaging that resonates. The talking points are the same but the details under the rug are very different. It’s the details that count. That’s why it is so important for voters to at least spend ten seconds looking behind the curtain.

The problem with the details behind these candidates; is that they are both somewhat lacking. The Romney campaign hasn’t detailed out its tax plan. Maybe, he doesn’t have to in order to win but removing the deductions while lowering the tax rate won’t pay for a broader cut. Historically, lowering the rates will bring in more revenue. It did with Kennedy and Reagan, but the overall tax rates were much higher at the time. It’s similar to lowering the price of a new product to drive volume. With the rates what they are now, it’s difficult to make similar assumptions. Uncharted waters can be choppy. But making the assumption that the incoming revenue stays current is a false argument. The theory holds that the pie should get bigger and most likely that will be true. It’s just a question of how much bigger.

On the other side, the Obama campaign hasn’t even tried to balance a budget (or even pass one) since taking office or really discuss a go forward strategy. By increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans, it doesn’t even come close to bridging the budget gap. Looking back at previous policy, this strategy did not work out well for Herbert Hoover (a Republican). And there are interesting theories of how much government spending is too much. Yes, government spending does drive our economy and cutting too much could have significant impact.

Apparently, there is no need for either candidate to take a risk at this stage in the campaign. Stay on message and see what happens.

But what you can do is look behind the covers of legislation and find public policy. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is a prime example. You either loved it or hated it. I’m a bit surprised it hasn’t been discussed much on the campaign trail. Some economists claim it stopped the downward spiral while others feel it cost approximately 278K per job (I’ve seen statistics much higher). I went out to the White House website and looked for some of the highlights. Whitehouse.gov details out the top 100 stimulus projects. It’s a bit of a dated document. I looked at all 100 projects at a high level and did some analysis on the first 20, which in total was just shy of a couple billion dollars in spend. Putting each project into categories, about 40% of the funding went toward infrastructure projects (roads and bridges), 50% went into multiple green energy projects (solar power, wind energy or batteries), and the remainder went to a project for cancer research. Most of the projects did go to Michigan, Ohio, Florida, and Colorado, which are all swing states. However, other states also received big funding including New York, Illinois and California. I’m guessing the document highlights these states at the beginning for political reasons. Looking at the raw spend of the package (Note, only a little over 500B has spent to date), Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Michigan and Pennsylvania were all in the top ten of money received. It’s difficult to take much from this as Medicaid spending is a big portion of the package. Medicaid dominates most state budgets.

After the election, I might write another article detailing out the package in more detail. It would take more time than I have. What is noticeable is that the top 20 projects make up a small portion of the 767B the package is worth. Medicaid aside, that’s a large percentage unaccounted for projects. Using an iPad, I downloaded the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The application is rated four stars, but I found it somewhat useless. You basically type in your zip code and it tells you exactly where stimulus funds were spent in your area. The closest to me was a $15,767 project down the street. Little detail was given except that it was for earth moving equipment. Most likely, the city will use it to improve roads in the area. Hard to say if my little township really needed it or not. Over time, it could be the best investment in the area. If you zoom out, you can find hundreds of projects nearby. The largest was a housing improvement project valued at over 2.2M, but most of the projects were less than 20K. We have millions of small ideas. And that maybe the problem. Too little focus.

Historically, the closest comparison to the stimulus package is the New Deal. During the depression, Herbert Hoover came into office and he immediately raised taxes from 28% to over 60% on the highest earners and then put in a number of volunteer programs to get the economy moving. With little economic movement, he lost the next election to FDR. His New Deal put millions of people to work and created a number of programs, some still in place today. It built the Hoover Dam, erected the Golden Gate Bridge, and created the Tennessee Valley Authority. The latter was created because Tennessee was hard hit in the depression. What’s interesting is that many of these were Hoover’s projects, he always believed that government should have a bench of big projects. Hoover, overall ranks as a middle of the road president, but most of his policies related to government projects were very forward thinking.

There have been hundreds of papers written on the New Deal, including multiple disagreements of what it did to help the economy. Most believe that WWII moved our country out of recession instead of these large government programs. But however you look at it, most of the programs FDR put in place were big ideas. Some are part of our economic woes today. Still, they were big. The Hoover Dam was a big idea. And the drive on the Pacific Coast Highway is unparalleled. Many of the structures built during this era were big ideas.

Unless a news agency highlights it as a failure, most people can’t name a single project in the current stimulus package. That’s a problem. The 154M given to cancer research is a big idea, but it’s difficult to name another on the list. It’s difficult to point to a program and say that might be the next Hoover Dam. Maybe, the construction equipment down the street will one day be a big idea. It might impact an entire community for decades.

But it feels that the Stimulus package could have been more than it was. We need a nation of big ideas and not one where Big Bird or college transcripts becomes of national importance.

In a recent David Letterman sketch, he said that anyone that is still undecided is a moron, or something along those lines. That was weeks ago but I disagree with that. Voting is a privilege. But it’s also an important responsibility. I did learn something from that statistics class years ago, and it was around sample size. The problem in today’s election polling is that rarely is the true raw data considered as the pollsters try to determine who will actually show up on Tuesday. Unlike taking a true sample of defects in a product (widgets that roll off the factory floor), it’s far more difficult to predict an event that has yet to occur.

That’s why it is so important to show up. Cast your vote. Move beyond the talking points. Look under the covers. Take the time to really consider what policy each candidate is promoting. Then, cast your vote. We need big ideas. And great people to execute them. Enjoy election day America (we’ve earned it). It’s been a long road.


  1. Nice read. Although at risk of starting a political debate with a friend. I guess I get what Letterman was saying. If you look at the candidates, what is in their core, their last 20 yrs, etc. They couldn’t be more different. These aren’t talking point, but just what is in the candidates DNA. Obama has a long history of being very far left, and his economic focus has been on Socialized Healthcare, and Green energy. “Under my plan, fuel prices would necessarily skyrocket” (Mission accomplished there). or “You can build a coal plant, but you will go bankrupt”. or how about Obama’s extreme liberal Energy Secretary, who said he wanted gasoline prices to get to the European level, which is $9 or $10 a gallon. Then what about when he said “I believe in redistribution”. And of course has proven that in many other things he has said. These extreme left (Socialist) policies are why the economy is not recovering. There is no focus on real policies that actually work. In fact, now the leader of the Communist Party is endorsing Obama. (The first sitting President of the US to get an endorsement from the Communist party.. Hugo Chavez supports him as well.). Then we have what is in Romney’s DNA. Which is all about smart business leadership, capitalist policies that this country was built on. If nothing else, you have a President who has never had a Leadership position in his life. Or a challenger who has been wildly successful in his leadership positions. You can argue that studies show his math doesn’t add up on his tax policy. But Obama promised to cut the debt in half (the opposite happened), and to get unemployment to 5.2% if the Stimulus was passed. That’s math that hasn’t added up. Lastly Obama promised “Hope and Change”, but has been extremely divisive. (Most recently telling his supporters to vote for “revenge”. Things are ridiculous on both sides of the aisle in Washington, but Obama has done nothing to reach across the aisle to try to accomplish something in a bi-partisan way. Romney got elected in a Democratic state and accomplished many things in a bi-partisan way. I guess my point is, people can support Obama, and people can support Romney depending on what they believe in. It’s just with them being so completely different in their core (Look at Obama’s speeches, lectures the last 20 yrs) I am not sure how anyone is undecided? So surprisingly, I get what Letterman was saying.

  2. Thanks for post. I appreciate you taking the time to give it a look. I actually thought about deleting those two sentences last night and expanding more on the polling front. I believe the point is the devil is in the details, move beyond the talking points, make an informed choice and show up tomorrow. The records speak for themselves. It will be interesting to see how it turns out tomorrow.

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