Tuesday, November 24, 2009

KGO TV's Schedule of HD Telecasts of Commonwealth Club Events

Did you know Bay Area residents can watch high-definition video of Commonwealth Club events? Here's the latest schedule of KGO HD's Commonwealth Club programming:

KGO HD Commonwealth Club Programs on Comcast Channel 715.
Sundays at 9am until January 17th.  Then on January 17, the time period moves to 10pm.

1. Zeke Emanuel, "American Health Care System"
Next Air: 1/3, 1/17

2. George Weyerhauser, " Climate Countdown, Can the World Cut a Deal?"
Next Air: 12/13 & 12/27

3. Robert Baer (former CIA operative), "Inside Iran"
Next Air: 12/6 & 12/20

4. Barbara Rose Brooker, "The Viagra Diaries"
Next Air: 11/29, 1/10

For radio schedules and other broadcast and internet multimedia from The Commonwealth Club of California, see our broadcast pages online.

Bill George: Crisis of Confidence: Restoring Trust in Our Leaders


By Bill George
This is a special guest article by Bill George (see bio at bottom). Any opinions are those of the authors and not necessarily those of The Commonwealth Club. Mr. George will be speaking at The Commonwealth Club December 2 in San Francisco.

The stock market has recovered from the financial crisis, but a deep scar from the recession remains. Americans lack confidence in the nation’s leadership to address the challenges the nation currently faces.

The Harvard Center for Public Leadership's 2009 National Leadership Index reveals that 69 percent of Americans think we have a leadership crisis in the country. Another 67 percent believe that “unless we get better leaders, the United States will decline as a nation.”

At the bottom of the index’s ranking of confidence in leadership are Wall Street leaders, closely followed by news media, Congressional, and business leaders. It is tempting for leaders to view these dismal results as a public relations issue emanating from the economic downturn. But this is not a PR problem: it’s a leadership problem.

We opened this decade with a wave of appalling leadership failures. Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling of Enron, Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom, Joseph Nacchio of Qwest, and Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco blatantly disregarded the ethical and legal responsibilities entrusted to them by their shareholders.

We are closing the decade with another wave of leadership failures. Dick Fuld of Lehman, Alan Schwartz of Bear Stearns, Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide Financial, and Chuck Prince of Citigroup sacrificed financial prudence for the possibility of extraordinary short-term gains. Their decisions obliterated billions of dollars of economic wealth and almost destroyed the nation’s financial system.

This crisis won’t be over until a new generation of leaders emerges that understands that long-term institutional stewardship and maintaining public trust are the two imperatives of 21st-century leadership.

Far too many leaders fell into the trap of believing that the purpose of business is to maximize shareholder value and reap personal rewards, rather than serve customers and the society they operate in. In my experience, those that focus primarily on maximizing shareholder value, usually with a short-term focus, are more likely to destroy the value they created.

A recent study of S&P 700 international stocks from 1998 to 2009 shows that only three of the top fifteen winners are American – Apple, Amazon, and Oracle – all of which are headed by leaders with long-term focus. The five worst U.S. stocks – AIG, Kodak, Citigroup, Ford and Bristol-Myers – had leaders with a short-term focus. This list excludes GM, K-Mart, Enron, WorldCom, and Lehman since they declared bankruptcy.

Long-term leaders recognize they cannot rely upon cost-cutting, acquisitions, and other short-term moves to create sustainable value. By focusing clearly on their long-term mission, values, and strategies, they earn and keep the trust of their customers, their employees and the society they serve.

The key to creating sustainable shareholder value is to provide superior value to your customers. Companies like Johnson & Johnson, Target, Google, Medtronic, and Wells Fargo focus on their mission and values, which is what motivates their employees. When a company does these things well, revenues and profits expand and sustainable shareholder value follows.

A number of progressive corporate leaders are emerging that recognize the need for long-term focus to create sustainable value. For example, IBM’s Sam Palmisano embarked upon a seven-year “leading by values” initiative to reposition the firm globally and emphasize its service businesses. Indra Nooyi committed PepsiCo to a long-term focus on expanding healthy food and beverage offerings. Dan Vasella of Novartis invested heavily in drug and vaccines research to prevent and treat intractable diseases. John Chambers is making acquisitions during the downturn to prepare Cisco to lead a new productivity expansion. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos keeps introducing product innovations like the Kindle—even though they take five to seven years to payoff.

In an earlier era, Walter Wriston of Citigroup and John Whitehead of Goldman Sachs capably steered the financial markets with honesty, intelligence, and dignity. As many firms failed in 2008, three Wall Street leaders emerged. J.P. Morgan’s Jamie Dimon created a culture of candor enabling his bank to successfully navigate through the financial crisis. Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein (on whose board I serve) built effective risk management into the bank’s DNA. John Stumpf emphasized Wells Fargo’s core strengths and focused on commercial banking to use the crisis to strengthen its franchise.

The path to restoring the public’s confidence and trust in business leaders is clear. We need leaders who are committed to sustainable growth over short-term gains and serving society by creating long-term value.

Bill George is professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and author of 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis,True North, and Authentic Leadership. The former chair and CEO of Medtronic, he currently serves on the boards of ExxonMobil and Goldman Sachs. Read more at www.BillGeorge.org, or follow him on Twitter @Bill_George.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Obama Visits Beijing: Yuan, Human Rights, Climate on Docket

Obama’s upcoming visit to China next week is generating global interest amid the release of an inflammatory Human Rights Watch report, repeated calls for climate change discourse and China’s giant holdings of U.S. foreign reserves.

The visit, Obama’s first to China, is already marked by a decidedly different tone than that of administrations past. U.S. concerns for human rights interests remain on the foreground, especially with regard to supporters of an independent Tibet. And an international cry has gone up over “An Alleyway in Hell,” the 53-page report by New York-based Human Rights Watch describing China’s use of unlawful jails and detention centers to quell political dissent – especially on the lead-up to visits by foreign leaders.

However, this time around the U.S. will be approaching China on an altogether more deferential note, owing entirely to two huge factors: the immense power now abiding within an artificially undervalued yuan, and the looming nuclearization of North Korea.

China’s status as the single largest holder of U.S. foreign debt places it in predictable position at the center of the post-recession economy. Any significant divestitures would ratchet up U.S. interest rates, reducing consumption at home and severely impacting foreign exporters. Complications arise as China’s expanding middle class increasingly seek their own avenues for consumption.

China is also a major player in the Obama administration’s strategy to persuade Pyongyang to discontinue pursuit of nuclear arms, the acquisition of which would certainly lend considerable instability to an already rocky relationship with North Korea. For more on the latter, watch video of Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher's recent Commonwealth Club speech and discussion.

With the approach of December’s Copenhagen climate conference, climate change won’t exactly be written off the agenda – especially given China and America’s shared title as the world’s largest CO2 producers. Whether China will be open to any pot-vs-kettle name calling or shrugs off any urging from the Obama administration remains of keen interest to many, given China’s burgeoning market for green technology.

--By Andrew Harrison

Monday, November 9, 2009

What's Your Opinion? National Debt and National Security


In his recent speech to The Commonwealth Club, CIA Director Leon Panetta made a sobering case for redressing our country's long-standing practice of living beyond its means and driving up the national debt. As the San Diego Union Tribune wrote:

By far the most insightful speech we’ve heard of late from an Obama administration official came recently when CIA Director Leon Panetta addressed the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. Panetta warned that if the federal government continued to run $1 trillion annual deficits – a very real possibilitygiven the blitheness of President Barack Obama and Congress about red ink –the national debt would become a threat to national security. The CIA boss makes a crucial point: An America that has to spend a quarter of its revenue just for interest on the debt is likely to be an America so weakened that it cannot protect itself from its enemies. Panetta said it was foolish to think “that we can remain a powerful nation” unless the United States lives within its means. He’s exactly right –and we hope he makes this argument to the president at the next Cabinet meeting.

 What do you think? Is our national debt a threat to national security? Why? What can be done about it? How should the country change that? Give us your opinion -- leave a comment below!

20 Years After the "Mauerfall" -- Fall of the Berlin Wall

In the former eastern sector of Berlin, there is a memorial known as the Mauerpark -- Mauer is the German word for wall. Though almost all of the communist-built wall that separated this city for 28 years has disappeared, this park serves as a reminder of several things: the wall itself, the communist regime that ran the former GDR, and the lasting scars of the horrible war started and lost in that capital city.

On August 4, 1961, just days before the Berlin Wall's construction would begin, UPI President Frank Bartholomew spoke to The Commonwealth Club about the dilemma Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev faced with his post-war empire in Eastern Europe.

In Berlin this July, I was able to understand Khrushchev's attitude toward Berlin and why he created the crisis. From his viewpoint, it is completely logical. ... Berlin is cracking the Iron Curtain. It's a showplace of Western prosperity 124 miles inside the Communist zone, and it has become absolutely intolerable to him. ... The billboards in East Berlin extol the benefits of Communism as against the slavery of the West, but 40,000 East Berliners go West each day for their employment. ... The defections are depleting the population of East Germany. Three weeks ago, defections were 4,000 a week. Now reports say they have stepped up to 1,500 daily. ... Khrushchev faces 100 million enemies in the Iron Curtain countries and is making no progress at persuading them to the Russian way of thinking.

Today, Germany is hosting celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. Leaders from across the European Union -- nations that were locked in a fight to the death 65 years ago, and that were divided by a lethal iron curtain for about 45 years after that -- gathered to commemorate the event that, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted, was part of the continental struggle to lift off the repression of a number of communist regimes. Those leaders have been joined by some other significant leaders, including Russian President Medvedev, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former Polish President Lech Walesa, who arguably established the first crack in the Iron Curtain when he led the shipyard strikes against Poland's communist government almost a decade before the Wall fell. In her comments right before a re-enactment of the crossing of the border, Merkel noted the "incredible encouragement" East Germans got from Poland's Solidarity movement.

When Walesa spoke at The Commonwealth Club in 2004, after receiving The Club's Medallion award, he downplayed the role played by Gorbachev and suggested that it was the late Russian President Boris Yeltsin who really made the changes of 1989 stick:
The process could have been reversed, and at this point we were lucky to have Yeltsin - not Gorbachev, but Yeltsin. Because Gorbachev, when he realized what was happening, made this attempt to reform communism. Perestroika and glasnost are nothing but a reform of communism. .... This is precisely what he admitted in the presence of President George Bush Sr., [German] Chancellor Kohl, [Czech] President Havel and others. But that was a time when Yeltsin was antagonistic with Gorbachev. As you may remember, the majority of you supported Gorbachev at that time; however, this antagonism allowed Yeltsin to prepare Russia and then withdraw her from the Soviet Union, which he actually did. I'm not sure whether he did it when sober or when drunk, but he did it. Had he not done it, I am sure that I myself, and Chancellor Kohl, would be rebuilding the Berlin Wall even faster than we had pulled it down sometime before, with strong encouragement from the United States. [Listen to complete Walesa audio.]
Yeltsin, of course, is unable to attend today's festivities, but Walesa's views do not seem to have moderated in the last five years. He recently told German newsweekly Der Spiegel that "the first wall to fall was pushed over in 1980 in the Polish shipyards. Later, other symbolic walls came down, and the Germans, of course, tore down the literal wall in Berlin. The fall of the Berlin Wall makes for nice pictures. But it all started in the shipyards."

In his own speech to The Commonwealth Club on the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Czech President Vaclav Klaus noted that the revolutionary events of the end of communism in eastern Europe had given way to a changed landscape that required continued -- but not revolutionary -- change: "The Czech Republic has become already -- structurally -- a standard, which means normal, European country, and as a result of this it has typical European problems, if not to say European diseases. They cannot be solved by means of another revolution, because we are already in the middle of the process of a spontaneous evolution of basic social structures. This evolutionary era, of course, is less radical, less dramatic, less headlines-creating, but -- paradoxically -- more controversial and even more ideological." [Listen to Klaus event audio.]

Tear Down This Wall
Another important figure who was not able to make it to this year's celebrations is the late U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who famously sparred with the Soviets during his first term in office, only to forge a partnership with Gorbachev. Reagan is often quoted for his challenge to Gorbachev, delivered at the Brandenburg Gate along the Wall, to "tear down this wall."

The writer of that speech, Peter Robinson, told The Club in 2004 that he had a conversation with President Reagan before the speech, in which Robinson tried to get feedback from the president that would help him formulate a strong speech.

I said, "Mr. President, I learned when I was in Berlin that they'll be able to hear the speech on the other side of the Wall, by radio – and if the weather conditions are just right, I was told, they'll be able to pick up the speech as far east as Moscow itself. Is there anything in particular that you'd like to say to people on the other side of the Wall?" And Ronald Reagan thought for a moment and then said, "Well, there's that passage [in the draft of the speech] about tearing down the Wall – that's what I'd like to say to them: that wall has to come down." [Listen to complete Robinson audio.]

Today, "Berlin Wall" is a "trending topic" on Twitter, which means that it's one of the phrases used most often on that social media service. Thousands of "tweets" are noting the anniversary, sharing memories, and pointing to news stories on the celebrations in Berlin. One person tweeted the question, "What would it have been like if Twitter had existed when the Berlin Wall fell?" Probably not much different would have happened, but it might have given an answer to the other person -- a teenager, judging from his profile photo -- who tweeted, "Who cares about the Berlin Wall?"

The crowds who accompanied Merkel, Walesa, and Gorbachev across the bridge in their re-enactment of the first East German crowds to surge across the border in 1989 care, that's who. And they are making another point about how what people on the ground can do to make history, or at least to push their leaders in the direction they want to go. The New York Times reports that, as Merkel noted the large crowd that turned out for the crossing today, despite rainfall, she appreciated the milieu:

“It’s perhaps as chaotic as it was in 1989,” Mrs. Merkel said of the crowd thronging around the leaders so that it was sometimes barely possible to distinguish the politicians from the people. “I’m very happy that so many people turned up. ... Everyone who is present here today has a story to tell,” she said. “They are part of freedom.”

Thursday, November 5, 2009

SuperFreakonomics Sparks Ire, E-Mails over Last Chapter

SuperFreakonomics, the long-awaited sequel to 2005’s Freakonomics, has ignited a bit of controversy since its release on Oct. 20. The last chapter, which delves into climate change, has prominent environmentalists, critics and fans locking horns in a furor that has resulted in at least one public relations black eye and more than a few private emails posted on very widely read blogs.

Both SuperFreakonomics and Freakonomics embark, largely, upon an explanation of what its authors say are the invisible incentives that give shape to the world we see around us. From the economics of drug dealers to why suicide bombers should buy life insurance, readers can expect intriguing insights from both books.

Readers can also expect, in SuperFreakonomics’ controversial last chapter, a radical, rationalized take on why all of our climate problems can be solved by equipping pigeons and field mice with laser-guided— Hey, we’re not here to give away the ending!

The argument really kicked into gear when ClimateProgress.org editor Joseph Romm decried the book as pushing “global cooling myths, sheer illogic, and ‘patent nonsense.’”  He and many others have been upset by certain ideas explored in the offending chapter, titled “What Do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo Have in Common?” (To add color to the debate: Romm glows over Al Gore’s new book in a recent ClimateProgress post.)

If you have a spare lunch break, SuperFreakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner’s rebuttal makes for interesting reading, as does co-author Steve Levitt’s lively conversation with economist Yoram Bauman – who, like Romm, takes issue with Levitt and Dubner’s final chapter.

If you missed this event, which was moderated by The Wall Street Journal's Alan Murray (on the right, in the bottom photo), keep watching The Commonwealth Club's YouTube page -- we'll post the video soon so you have something to talk about at that next cocktail party.

--By Andrew Harrison
(Photos by Camille Koue)

Funding California's Massive Transportation Needs in the Future

Nearly 300,000 cars cross the Bay Bridge every day. So, when some of its support rods failed and 5,000 pounds of steel and concrete came crashing down during rush-hour traffic last week, serious concern was in order. The six-day closure of the span for emergency repairs not only inconvenienced commuters and stressed the rail and bus system, it called into order close scrutiny of our aging infrastructure.

Transportation issues in California are as expansive as the state itself. Structural safety, unstable terrain, environmental laws and an ever-growing population have stretched our current system thin. Compounding all of these issues is, of course, funding, and furthermore, deciding where to spend it in the nation’s third-largest state.

At an October 29 Commonwealth Club panel discussion about California transportation, the overarching theme was the need for involvement at all levels (see photo of panelists). “This issue is not one to speculate on capriciously at cocktail parties,” said Therese McMillan, deputy administrator for the Federal Transit Authority. “It’s serious.”

The population of California is expected to double by 2050, meaning upgrades, along with maintenance on structures like the 73-year-old Bay Bridge, are crucial. Revenues have decreased, meaning that more public money is needed, something that is not a popular message during an economic crisis.

How to secure funding has brought up some questions. More fuel-efficient automobiles have helped drivers save at the pump and keep smog levels at bay, but revenues derived from fuel taxes have decreased. “We’re not advocating that everyone go back to gas-guzzlers,” said Norma Ortega, Interim Chief Financial Officer of Caltrans. “But this reduced funding means less for maintenance.”

The option of public and private partnerships (PPPs) is a popular method to bring in revenue, but it will still come with a hefty price tag to taxpayers. Steve Heminger, executive director of MTC (Metropolitan Transportation Commission), said that such partnerships can only address part of the problem.

“PPPs will play a small role. Many advocates try to use it as a replacement, but it’s a tool; a small wrench compared to the big hammer we need,” he said. “There’s no one from Goldman Sachs who wants to pay for this. It’s going to have to come from public [sources].”

No matter which way the issue is viewed, it involves the attention of public and private sectors on a very pragmatic level. An increased population leads to the need for improved management of demand, rather than simple expansion of the existing system.

“We have to prioritize with limited money,” said Ortega. “The funding picture for California is such that decisions must be made on a regional level.… The challenge with the legislature is that funds don’t get spent quickly; they get tied up for years.”

And when we need money to fix things, we need it immediately, as illustrated with the emergency repairs on the Bay Bridge. February’s federal stimulus bill gave the state about $2.5 billion to spend on transportation and the opportunity to apply for funding for projects such as high-speed rail, but it was a one-time grant, which doesn’t augment the loss of transportation funding.

“Here in the Bay Area, we anticipated the stimulus bill and acted to allocate the money two weeks after we got it,” said Heminger. “But we had to just pick the meat-and-potatoes projects – pave some roads, get new signs, buy some buses, that sort of thing.”

As the economy rights itself, some transportation experts believe the attention of the public and leaders is crucial to ensuring the proper allocation of funds and oversight of our transportation authority.

“The challenge with infrastructure investment is that it’s something we’re in for decades,” said McMillan. “We’re not able to respond as quickly or nimbly as we need to be. The question now is whether we can build flexibility into a system.”

--By Heather Mack

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Commonwealth Oscars


Okay, we might be stretching this a bit. But nonetheless, former Commonwealth Club speaker Alec Baldwin is being announced as one of two co-presenters of the next Academy Awards.

The "30 Rock" will be co-hosting with Steve Martin, who, as far as we can tell from our research, has never spoken at The Commonwealth Club of California. It's about time, don't you think?