Miserable Realities and Consequences by Al Sikes


At the beginning, I am biased. I live on the Chesapeake Bay. The extent of my bias does not stop there; I am on the board of the Midshore Riverkeepers Conservancy.

Our nation’s finances remind me of where I live. The Bay, like our nation’s finances, has been used and abused. Hundreds of thousands of acres of forest land were converted to cities, suburbs, and a wide range of commercial, agricultural and residential uses. Generations of persons fortunate enough to live along a watershed that extends from Cooperstown, NY to Norfolk, VA paid too little attention to what washed into the Bay. We are now making progress on the recovery of its water quality and dependent flora and fauna.

Not content with earlier budget priorities, the Trump Administration recommends that the cleanup fund for the Bay be reduced from $73 million a year in 2016, to zero. President Trump, at the same time, put off reform in what are called entitlement programs. It is these entitlement programs, up and down the various layers of local, state and federal budgets that pillory our nation’s economic strength just as aggressive development attacked the Bay’s watershed.

Benefits to be paid in the future have with few exceptions been underestimated and underfunded. Social Security and Medicare are just the most evident national examples. This underfunded liability distorts budgets and often pinches needed programs and reforms. And as the cost of servicing the debt increases, the pain of profligacy will get worse.

Tomorrow is not unconnected from today. If we mess things up, we have to pay. When we fail to fully fund our promises, the liability becomes a dead weight on the backs of our progeny and trust in the full faith and credit of the United States.

Speaking of trust, in an especially deft phrase, Tom Friedman, columnist for the New York Times, noted that “government moves at the speed of trust.”

The trust that is being squandered by the President’s erratic use of insults, slights, fights and worse will be a dead weight in the years to come. International allies will first be wrong-footed and then will attempt to avoid meaningful collaboration.

His political competitor’s will, to their eventual damage, simply be anti-Trump as if that is all the public needs to know.

Most media will specialize in criticism while the few that are more comfortable with the President will risk their reputations. Both versions will further discredit an important institution–the media that needs repaired.

It is hard to know how this ends or whether there is any possibility that Trump will cease to manufacture and distribute weapons to those who relish the chance to use them.
Since I believe both Parties are disintegrating, I am looking for new political leadership that will offer a way out of this mess. Hopefully leadership will emerge that is honest about the nation’s finances. Most importantly we need to speak truth to power about our fiscal mess and not just the part that interests us.

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. 

A National Community is Not an Option by Al Sikes


Polarization was the implicit theme of 2016; it continues in 2017. “Two Americas” stories frequently pivot on severe cleavages in education and economics while in politics, it is Red versus Blue America. Especially divisive language by Donald Trump continues to be hailed by many voters as “telling it like it is.” Divide and conquer has become an overarching political strategy.

My Dad, who served in the Pacific Theater in WW11, rarely talked about his war experiences but he did mention a bunkmate from the Bronx. My Dad, from rural Missouri, first saw New York through his eyes; indeed he saw much of America through the stories of his comrades-in-arms.

America was unified by Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the event that sent Dad overseas. My wife and I were living in Manhattan on 9/11 and joined New Yorkers, often a fractious grouping, as we sang patriotic songs together. Unity is possible, but it shouldn’t take an attack on the homeland to create a stronger sense of national purpose.

When I grew up each day in school the class recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I was a Boy Scout and recited its creed. Both struck unifying themes. Litigation and advocacy, in recent years, have fought both.

Conversations about our nation’s capitol sometime lead to a myth–reminiscences about Republicans and Democrats working more harmoniously. Politics has never been nor will it ever be a wellspring of good feelings unless there are unifying themes that cause voters to discipline politicians. Politicians will only work together when voters demand it.

I am convinced that we often feel alienated from “the other” because we don’t know them or their communities. Rural Missourians, in 1941, had no feel for the Bronx and vice versa. And, today it is hard to conceive of unity among people of widely different backgrounds without a war. Our national motto, “Out of Many One” increasingly feels like a tag line from an old advertising campaign.

As Americans we underwrite our military academies. Each is required by law to draw from the entire United States. The cadets are not the offspring of rich alumni, but the product of hard work and a willingness to make a substantial commitment to their country.

America would more readily find common causes if service and education were more universally linked. What if every college and vocational school received financial support to implement a variation on the military academy model with each student continuing their campus service for at least twelve months after graduation?

Each student would have a menu of opportunities, like those that can now be found at serviceyear.org. Those who choose the military would enter one of the service branches after graduation while those who choose domestic or international service would find a broad menu of missions and organizations. Eager youth would be a stimulant for programs that help renew society.

I have, of course, used the G word, graduation. Financial incentives should underpin the program and students would then be encouraged to find an outlet for their skills and interests. Many would choose a vocational track; indeed vocational work should be honored. And for the college cohort that looks forward to a gap year after graduation, helping to renew America is a grand way to fill the gap. If overseas travel is tempting, the Peace Corp will accommodate.

While short essays don’t allow for much detail, I will repeat one overwhelming truth: America needs renewal and it must be a community effort.

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. 


Are We Prepared for the Latest War? By Al Sikes


Espionage! Sabotage! Theft! Unfortunately, the words have become all too familiar. After all, these are the aims of cyber war.

The questions cascade. At the end of 2013, forty million Target accounts were hacked. In 2015, four million personnel files were stolen from the United States government. In 2016, five hundred million Yahoo users’ data were illegally accessed. And, of course, more recently we are all familiar with international political hacking and accusing. As I type, it is certain that criminal and alien hackers are also tapping away as they seek to burglarize public and private structures of America.

It is often said that the United States is fortunate to be an ocean away from our enemies. No longer. Cyber war is the most important assault we face. Are we prepared to defend? Do we have a strategy for going on the offensive?

Famed U.S. Army Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing said, “The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle.” Pershing’s glories date to the beginning of the 20th Century. I wouldn’t for an instant suggest that he is wrong, but today’s enemies are often using weapons that can’t be taken out by a rifle or a missile or a drone.

Do we have the equivalent of the Marine Corp on the front lines of cyber war?

Several nights ago Lt. Gen. Guy Swan (US Army Ret.) spoke to Aspen Fellows about our readiness. He serves on the Aspen Institute Homeland Security Group, a bipartisan combination of homeland security and counterterrorism experts. When talking about competing for top talent that enabled companies like Google (now Alphabet), Apple, Amazon and others, his confident voice receded.

Recruiting and retaining skilled computer specialists is very difficult. I know the problem first hand. I am sure that military and civilian agencies seek to recruit the best, but the competition is fierce and hierarchal structures are unattractive. A Fortune article noted: “One of the things that tech companies do really, really well – they don’t rely a whole lot on hierarchy.” Washington’s institutions marinate in hierarchy.

In February 2016, the United States Government sued Apple to require them to let the FBI access the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. Our top law enforcement agency could not get into a consumer device just as the government’s Office of Personnel Management couldn’t protect personnel records.

The lawsuit against Apple was quietly dropped when a technology provided by Cellebrite, an Israeli subsidiary of a Japanese company, Sun Corporation, facilitated access. Apple does not show up on a list of technology contractors that might protect government sources.

And when you look at the government’s primary technology contractors you find defense firms like Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon, Boeing and General Dynamics leading the list. The lineup does not include America’s top five cloud computing service providers, Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, Alphabet, and Salesforce.

A report released this month by Bay Area think-tank Lincoln Labs outlined the obstacles facing new companies and their products, often our leading source of innovation. Derek Khanna, one of the report’s four authors, says that most government contracts are awarded to firmly entrenched, old-line companies based on the fact that they employ large portions of the “consulting class.”

America is at risk, and its central government faces powerful institutional and cultural headwinds.

In wars past, Americans have been pressed into action. In the hot wars of WWI, WWII, Korean and Vietnamese, the nation had a draft. Combatants were secured, trained, and equipped with the tools of combat. Today, those gifted in the use of technology, are not drafted, and government recruiters are handicapped.

Ten post-9/11 veterans were elected to Congress in 2016; six are Republicans and four Democrats. Each knows the threats we face first hand. A bi-partisan caucus should press for a thorough modernization of our cyber war preparedness. The recruitment and retention of Artificial Intelligence (AI) talent should be a top priority. AI programs can discern thievery and quickly change the locks. We clearly need better locks.

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. 

Visuals Matter, Especially When They are Jarring by Al Sikes


Increasingly visuals matter; words not as much. Tone though is important; it is an important emotional signal. But, since all I have is words, a word on each.

Quick polling on the reaction to President Trump’s speech to Congress and the country underscored the importance of tone. Fifty-seven percent according to a CNN poll had a very favorable reaction to the speech. This boost was not due to the policy content of his address.

Trump, the day before the speech, had graded himself on his first five weeks. His grades: A+ on effort, A on accomplishments, C to C+ on messaging. Given that too often his voice has been loud, his words harsh, and his feelings raw and indignant, I would give him a D- on messaging. Trump had won the biggest job in the country, but was often acting like a jerk.

Screen Shot 2017-03-02 at 9.25.55 AMHopefully the tonal pivot on Tuesday night is indicative of what Americans can expect. Hopefully the positive feedback Trump received will have the impact of a customer survey at Trump Towers. Trump hotels presumably feature a polite service staff and the President is in a service job. The next formal vote on his service is 22 months away and there will be hundreds of polls along the way.

Words? I thought his outreach at the very outset, recognizing Black History Month, was important. Indeed, much of his address was about those who economically or culturally have been left behind. While policy differences do not get resolved by speeches, the President made a number of nods in the right direction. So while most pundits recalled his immigration message and thought little had changed on the content front, I disagree. My opinion, he was pivoting toward the second stage in his deal negotiations with several applause lines that forced Democrats to stand up and clap. At the same time, many fiscal conservatives in the Republican Party stood only because of peer pressure. Trump joins a long line of politicians that promise benefits without sacrifice.

Everybody left, right and center agreed on one thing – the visual impact of Carryn Owens was riveting. On January 29th, she lost her husband, Ryan, while he was protecting America. On March 1, the world watched her; with tears streaming down her face she looked toward heaven repeating, “I love you.”

Next to Mrs. Owens, in an impossibly awkward position, was the President’s daughter, Ivanka. Mrs. Owens was in a simple black dress. Ivanka looked as if she had just stepped from the Oscar stage. The visual, unintentionally, underscored America’s problem.

There are two Americas and where wealth is concentrated few serve in the nation’s military services. And in most of the country, few can afford more than a simple black dress and often that must be purchased on credit.

America’s first families have often been wealthy. Our new first family is both characteristic and uncharacteristic – I suspect that only the Kennedy family could have comfortably shared similar zip codes.

Candidate Trump reached voters in zip codes that were unfamiliar to him with savvy and divisive rhetoric; he won. Now, if he is to actually go from style to substance and on to accomplishment, he will have to begin to unify disparate elements. His speech was a beginning, but only a beginning.

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. 


Robotic Politics Lead to Alienation and Anger by Al Sikes


Questions persist. Why is America caught in a trap of emotions, unthinking politics, and what seems to be an inexorable erosion of core values?

In a sense, the easiest questions pertain to politics. Let me begin with the corruption of the Republican and Democrat parties. The electorate rejected a thoroughly established Democrat for a Republican who had blown up his Party.

All but two of the candidates in the two primaries were shaped by their respective parties insistent interest groups. Default settings responded to questions about schools or guns or health care or whatever. Robots were displacing jobs in more than the manufacturing and service sectors. Most candidate’s operating systems were programmed.

All but two of the candidates failed to sense a radically restive populace, that while prepared to buy from a robotic clerk had no interest in a programmed president. And even though the two candidates, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, were well outside the normal zone of electability, the one closest to an angry populace won. The losers didn’t understand what happened nor did the thousands who led America’s established institutions. In particular, the news media was surprised and then distraught.

What about core values that have historically been behavioral curbs? In a sense, the breach of values became a proxy for reform. And while so-called progressives will blanch at attaching reform to President Trump, that is exactly what he is, a reformist. He is doing his level best to reshape (reform) decorum, process, and ultimately the relationships between the government and a wide range of constituencies both domestic and foreign.

Trump is, of course, an out-sized figure and a magnet for reporters and pundits. Each day is filled with some new outrage. I was amused to see the New York Times run an article claiming the Wall Street Journal had not been sufficiently anti-Trump. Wall Street Journal reporters and pundits were insufficient only if the New York Times’ hyperventilating is the new baseline.

It is, of course, a monumental task to thoughtfully assess the underlying cultural changes that made Trump’s election possible. I would suggest, however, that assessing seminal changes is not beyond the competence of a variety of on-line and print publications.

Let me begin the early stages of the inquiry with a few questions beginning on the left. Do monopolistic public employee unions and their interests pose a threat to government competence and finances? Is college the only acceptable career beginning? Does identity politics lead to a dead end? Is there a misalignment between the art of the possible and campaign generated expectations?

Turning to the right. Does sacrifice abroad carry any responsibility at home? Do all tax decreases generate offsetting revenue through economic growth? Is there any weapon not protected by the Second Amendment? Is school choice the only answer to America’s education and related jobs problems?

I close holding onto a hard to let go assumption. I remain convinced that persons of integrity, who also exhibit thoughtful leadership talents, retain an electoral advantage. Yet, today’s established parties and their orthodoxies make optimism more difficult.

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. 


Weed In Your Brownies Anyone? By Al Sikes


There is a recurring advertisement on my internet news feeds. The click bait says, “How to Start Your Journey to Marijuana Millions.”

Legislators in State Capitols have certainly been paying attention as they organize to push marijuana. Unfortunately, State and private capitalism is running way ahead of science, but that should not be surprising. There is money to be made and weed has momentum.

Industry advocates and their political allies have a brand, “recreational marijuana.” Synonyms for recreational: pleasure, leisure, relaxation, fun, enjoyment, entertainment, amusement, play, sport …………… Before long tobacco companies will lobby for “recreational smoking.” As every marketer knows branding is crucial.

Government policies and actions toward marijuana are sufficiently incoherent to make the tax code seem coherent. Marijuana is criminalized at the federal level, yet thousands occupy prison cells for selling what is legally sold in eight states. The Obama administration deferred to the States, while President Trump is uncharacteristically quiet.

Regarding its medical use, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) states it “has not found any such product to be safe or effective for the treatment of any disease or condition.” Yet, its medical use expands.

In a recent New York Times article, Pregnant Women Turn to Marijuana, Perhaps Harming Infants, it was noted that, “As states legalize marijuana or its medical use, expectant mothers are taking it up in increasing numbers — another example of the many ways in which acceptance of marijuana has outstripped scientific understanding of its effects on human health.”

“Often pregnant women presume that cannabis has no consequences for developing infants. But preliminary research suggests otherwise: Marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient — tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC — can cross the placenta to reach the fetus, experts say, potentially harming brain development, cognition, and birth weight. THC can also be present in breast milk.”

There are, as you might imagine, a swirl of conflicting claims about its potential benefits and costs. And many simply say that if alcohol is legal, why not weed. As noted eight States have answered that question in the affirmative for so-called recreational use, while twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia authorize medical use.

As the new Administration considers the way forward, I have a few simple suggestions.

Congress should enact a three-year moratorium on additional legalization of “recreational marijuana,” concurrent with requiring scientific studies, a report to Congress, and eventually an up-or-down vote on whether federal criminalization should persist. Transitionally, the federal government should continue to defer enforcement in the States where currently it is legally sold, in exchange for cooperation by those states in providing data for the studies. We have eight laboratories which will yield useful data on supply, demand, and consumer and public effects.

The Federal Drug Administration should initiate a proceeding to medicalize marijuana. Heroin or diamorphine, for example, is used legally in pain management medication while remaining a prohibited drug for so-called recreational use. If your doctor has given you a prescription, you can get it filled at a licensed pharmacy. Marijuana should be treated similarly, ending the practice of dispensaries and associated doctors who profit off of business, not medical care.

As the click bait of a “Journey to Marijuana Millions” makes clear, the animal spirits of capitalism have taken charge. And culturally weed is cool. Count me a skeptic on the wisdom of this latest gold rush. We now have a new President who vows to shake things up. One thing that needs shaken into coherence is the nation’s approach to marijuana.

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. 

Can Disunity be a Successful Strategy? by Al Sikes


Unity is not the default setting in a democracy and in particular one as diverse as America’s. Yet, most successful political leaders try to avoid long and intense periods of disunity. They know that government is composed of power centers and when those centers are animated by entirely different views, more than tactical victories are difficult.

And so it was during President Obama’s second term, as he resorted to Executive Orders with predictable challenges by the other two branches. Congress turned back his infrastructure initiative, and the Court reversed his Executive Order to protect up to 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. After that reversal, he said, “I have pushed to the limits of my executive order ….. we now have to have Congress act.” He turned into a lame duck before his time.

President Trump appears to have disunity as a strategy. And it is working; he might be the first President to become a lame duck before his so-called honeymoon is over. It takes a special kind of ineptness to achieve such a result.

A friend of mine said the most encouraging thing about the Super Bowl was that Vice-President Mike Pence was sitting next to James Baker, who served both Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Working with President Reagan’s Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige, I got to know Jim Baker’s deft moves as we worked on new telecommunications policy. Domestic policy initiatives were vetted by the Economic Policy Council, which Baker chaired. He understood power and like a maestro knew how to blend disparate players.

The best presidents use persuasion skills, but also hire staff that is experienced and talented. When the two work seamlessly, presidents succeed and ultimately to the historian’s satisfaction.

Much is written about the President and his staff; unfortunately, the reviews are negative. Trump attempts to deflect this criticism by counter-attacking. This is not a successful long-term tactic; counter-attack can be used successfully only when deployed selectively.

America generally perseveres; it has survived assassinations, impeachments and attacks on the homeland. Yet, each intensely disruptive moment carries long-term implications and often perverse ones. September 11, 2001, brought America two wars and ubiquitous intrusions on privacy. And when Justice Harry Blackmun, writing for the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, said that the constitution protected the right to abortion, he triggered severe disunity that is entering its third generation.

Now we have politics translated into war. We have negotiating stances stated as White House policy positions with attendant social media frenzy. Where does it end?

On the positive side, both political parties have received negative reviews. They both needed to be shaken, although it is unclear whether either can escape their hard-edged polemicists.

Hard edge can bring in money and create powerful street scenes, as leading provocateurs use social media. But, when America is at war internally its strength is sapped externally. And, by the way, internally there are some rather significant issues—spending, debt, health care, and economic insecurity highlight what I think of as a necessary renewal agenda. Those issues cannot be resolved with executive orders; disunity will exact a heavy toll.

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. 

Emotion Trumps Reason by Al Sikes


President Trump needs to understand or maybe just honor the physics of abrupt departures.

The United States government is often referred to as the ship-of-state. The origin of this metaphor goes back to the 17th Century and Machiavelli’s, The Prince.

Ships are built to compensate for error, not as much the ship of state. All seasoned Captains avoid abrupt turns when the ship is at full power; President Trump has his White House at full power, even though his Administration is largely unstaffed by his appointees.

And just like a ship captain faces immutable forces, so too does a President operating in a swirl of power centers led by self-regarding people. There are people with big titles who will be subservient but at the end of the day no one that will count.

He can declare the news media the opposition but he cannot take them out of the game. Mark Twain famously said, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” Today in a world of many voices, you can take on the media if the counter move is skillful and used selectively. I repeat used selectively.

You can also ridicule members of the other Party but you need to understand the rules of the United States Senate. It’s a simple, not complex numbers game, for a graduate of Wharton. Recall that your side has only 52 votes and that Senator John McCain is one of those 52, that he is fearless and has a few very devoted allies, who are also Senators. Also, McCain actually won Arizona with a 54% majority.

You need to understand that if your chief White House strategist, Steve Bannon, had your back he would have turned down inclusion on the National Security Council. He knew that nothing would anger McCain and his allies more. Those who truly serve you do not create unforced errors that will light you up like a neon sign.

Finally, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt rounded up Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the country’s population was largely European in origin. Note that German-Americans were not rounded up, just a small number of German nationals. Today’s America is many hued ethnically and religiously. Blunt bans, not tempered by careful discretion, should and have created a backlash.

I could go on but will stop there. Emotion can be a useful source of energy, but when it is detached from reason it becomes toxic. The only long-term strategy that makes any sense is one that uses emotion to aid reason.

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. 

Breaking Takes by Al Sikes


Breaking News is the jargon of breathless cable news. Not one to shun a trend, here are my Breaking Takes.

If President Trump is judged by history to have been a successful President, history will also judge Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell to have been giant legislative leaders. These three centers of power, White House, US House and Senate, must get much closer in orchestrating desired outcomes. It is much easier to defeat legislative initiatives than pass them.

Fake News
Fake news only works with an incurious, ill-informed or deeply prejudiced electorate. Knowledge of government and history is as important to a healthy democracy as engineering is to a technology age.

The availability of jobs is important, no less important is a well-trained and eager labor force. To emphasize one without the other is foolish. America’s manufacturing prowess will turn on labor force readiness. The Departments of Education and Labor should actively collaborate.

America versus Europe
In Europe new movements have had to build a political party, a very difficult challenge.

At the risk of oversimplification, America’s extreme weighting in favor of only two political parties caused President Trump’s Populist/Nationalist movement to take over the Republican Party. So while the contest for power within the Party will proceed, it will never again be the party of Reagan. Even the most devoted Reagan acolytes will have to explain themselves.

Grace Notes
President Trump has expressed admiration for former President Obama’s approach toward the transition. He has much to learn from Obama in the use of the political pulpit. Grace notes create a relationship with the governed that will bail you out when dark descends (and it will). President Trump must learn to talk to those who are not predisposed to favor him.

Transgressive Personality
It is the first work day of the Trump presidency. I opened the Wall Street Journal and on page one are stories about trade deals and the packed agenda of Trump’s first week. There is also a story about his National Security Advisor’s contacts with Russian officials.

I then opened the New York Times and until you get to the seventh story on Israeli-Palestinian politics all the articles are about real or perceived miscues of Trump or his aides.

Trump is Trump. Convention is obsolete. But, what is important is the substance of what effect the national government is going to have on health care, national security and a range of issues that count today and tomorrow. Obsessing on the unconventional or exaggerations or who is staying in Trump hotels unwittingly serves his cause. Drill down on what matters.

But, and this is an important but. Those of you who are Trump supporters or who are coming around to his side should read “Why I Cannot Fall in Line Behind Trump” by Peter Wehner, a thoughtful Republican who worked for George W. Bush, among others. Wehner’s describes Trump as a transgressive personality, who “thrives on creating disorder, on violating rules, in provoking outrage.” If you believe you can discern that trait now that what he is doing is deadly serious, answer disfavor when the pollster calls.

One quote of a quote from the article: “In ‘The Abolition of Man,’ C. S. Lewis wrote, “I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently.”

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.