Tuesday, November 27, 2012


By Keith McDowell

Tell me it isn’t so! How can Washington let this happen? I demand a new Congressional select committee to investigate TwinkieGate – the conspiracy to deprive all right thinking Americans of their soul food. Imagine, if you can, a world in which the “Archie Bunker’s” among us no longer pop the “golden sponge cake with cream filling” into their mouths. It’s a stunning prospect that’s driving a Pavlovian run on sugary junk food and emptying the shelves at the 7-eleven.

And not surprisingly, true conspiracy theorists are whispering that TwinkieGate is actually a communist plot hatched by liberals and unions to sober up the GOP right wing by removing their principal sustenance from the marketplace. How else can one explain the “Twinkie Defense” of the Georgia legislators who believe that the Obama Administration is exerting mind control over them?

Sadly, “I’m a recovering junk food addict!” is a statement for our times as many of us continue the battle of the bulge on our waistlines. But here’s the good news! Innovation runs rampant as new diets, therapies, and scientifically engineered exercise equipment command our attention through clever and enhanced commercials and infomercials. I particularly like the regimes where you continue to eat, lose weight, and develop the body of Adonis, all for only a few dollars for menus and food. Sign me up! The exercise equipment sounds more like “no pain, no gain.” I probably wouldn’t stick with that, but, wow, the innovation and creativity involved with each new generation of equipment. Who says America can’t compete! But can we really lose weight by walking on the Bowflex TreadClimber three times a week for only thirty minutes a session?

I grew up in the post World War II era of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Junk food was mostly used to satisfy my sweet tooth – my favorite being Krispy Kreme donuts – and liquid refreshments mostly quenched my thirst.  But how can I ever forget those “Brownie” bottled drinks that I used as a small child to wash down the licorice that blackened my teeth? Or how about the traditional RC Cola and Moon pie? And for the true male redneck experience, how about Planters salted peanuts dumped into the top of a Coca-Cola bottle? Oh, and don’t forget the Cheerwine experience for those special moments. If only my dentist knew why I have a mouth full of crowns!

Today, junk food loads the calorie count for those who pay attention and carbonated drinks are the bane of the waistline and healthy teeth. Extreme sports are the order of the day, mountain hiking being my own particular brand. Candy has morphed into energy bars that are tough and chewy when cold and are an acquired taste (politically correct for they taste really bad). Liquid refreshments are now energy drinks that restore electrolytes and give one the power to continue past the bounds of common sense, ergo extreme sports. One of the latest crazes is power drinks that are “lite” or low on calories – Guru Lite being an example. While an oxymoron, it certainly rates as an innovation and it sells.

Whether diet drinks, microwave meals, or poptarts, innovations in the food industry truly play a major role in the American economy. But do we pay a price for that success? Is the 5-hour ENERGY drink a killer as some allege, especially for young children? And how about the tragic acceleration of obesity in America? Did you know that obesity in the populace has grown from 13% in 1962 to 35.7% in 2010? Let’s all give a loud Ho Hos shout out for those Ding Dongs who believe that the consumption of 500 million Twinkies per year is the principal cause of obesity and the alarming projection of an impending diabetes epidemic. Junk food doesn’t make people obese. Poor eating habits and life style are the real culprits.

And that brings us back to Hostess Brands, the manufacturer of Twinkies. Exactly why is it that 15,000 workers received pink slips at Thanksgiving and 3,500 more will be laid off in the coming months? George Will in an opinion piece claims that it’s all about market forces having their way and the Twinkiestalgia of baby boomers. You might be surprised but I agree with Will … but not for the details that he posits.

Market forces include the necessity to pay the going rate for salaries of the workers. And guess what, unions must have the right to negotiate for those rates, even if there were 372 distinct collective bargaining agreements at Hostess Brands. No one ever said it had to be easy.

I agree with George that the Teamsters position of using different trucks to haul different products seems silly on the surface. But how about the $1.3 billion in debts that corporate management ran up or the raises of 35% to 80% they paid themselves last year while driving the company into financial ruin? Should they receive a huge benefits package upon bankruptcy of the company or is this all just extractionist capitalism as discussed on the Ed Schultz Show of 20 November 2012?

And how about innovation as a factor in the Hostess Brands’ story? Did the corporate management sit on their thumbs, ignore the changing marketplace, and fail to innovate with new products and business models? If SodaStream can come up with a way for people to make their favorite carbonated drink right on their kitchen counter, Hostess Brands could have innovated.

Ultimately, the debacle at Hostess Brands will become grist for a business school case study and fodder for theorists debunking supply-side economics or right-wing pundits who don’t like the working middle class. For certain, junk food and obesity are not going away any time soon. For me, I got the broken sprocket on my Schwinn AirDyne exercise bike replaced today. I love that bike. There’s no better way to watch the noise on the television than riding on that bike.

Oh, and would you please pass the donuts!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

I'm An Angry, White, Old, Southern Male!

By Keith McDowell

That’s right! I’m beyond PO-ed! I’m fuming. I’ve had enough. And I’ve once again taken out my marching shoes.

The reason? Fifty years after James Meredith became the first African-American to enroll at the University of Mississippi on the first of October 1962, and fifty years after I enrolled as a freshman at Wake Forest University in September of 1962, nearly 400 students at Ole Miss erupted in a race riot following the election of President Obama on Tuesday night. Yes, it was a race riot despite some protestations to the contrary.

Twitters have tweeted the most disgusting of racial and gay-bashing invective. And not to be outdone, right-wing pundits have evoked the image of a “traditional America,” typically using the 1950s as a benchmark. Are they nuts? Well yes, they are.

Let’s talk about the good ole times of the 1950s and early 1960s. Let’s talk about my time as a sixteen-year-old usher at the Paramount Theatre in High Point, North Carolina, 313 South Wrenn Street. It was a good part-time job for a teenager and my first job. Of course, we snookered the public into believing that the popcorn was freshly popped, but actually it came in large metal cans that we surreptitiously poured into the popcorn machine when no one was looking. I lived on that free popcorn.

And then there came the day that the local civil rights movement decided to assert their rights at the Paramount. The theatre had two well-lit entrances on both sides of the ticket booth.  Inside the glass doors were the lobby and a concession stand with the infamous faux popcorn machine backed by the theatre itself and a balcony. But that wasn’t all. There was a second balcony reached by a dimly-lit outside door down the street from the ticket booth. [See image at the end.] It was the “separate, but equal” facility for blacks.

I got the job of standing outside the glass door and telling each black person with a ticket in their hand as they cycled past that they could not enter, but must take the back stairs to the second balcony. It was a helluva thing for a teenager to experience. I resigned soon thereafter and have never forgotten the pain I felt at treating my fellow human beings like that. It defied everything that I had come to believe in from my Christian upbringing.

I wish I could tell you that the Paramount experience was a singular event. Not even close! There was the effigy of a person hanging from a tree at the entrance to my high school as I got off the bus on the day that we were integrated. There was the day that my father took me to some office in Archdale, North Carolina, for me to register to vote for the first time. I was required to answer several of those “questions” designed to suppress the black vote. It didn’t matter that I was white.

Then there was the evening that I went to hear Martin Luther King speak in the Wake Forest University Chapel under the threat of violence to any white who dared to show up. And how about the regular and unrelenting use of the N-word by many people in my youth, much like the modern use of the F-word? Even one of my own grandmothers thought and told me that blacks should not be allowed to swim at the municipal pool because they would turn the water brown. Or how about some of my relatives who were offended in 1975 because blacks attended my wedding?

One of the most transformative events in my life occurred in 1963. The pastor of the Green Street Baptist Church, a good friend of mine, invited me to present the Sunday night “sermon” in his absence. I worked for a week on that speech and on Friday evening, caught the bus from Winston-Salem to High Point with the intention of walking home from the bus terminal. To my surprise, there was a civil rights group marching down Main Street past an angry mob of whites. Some tomatoes and eggs were being thrown from those in the crowd with no effort being made by the police to stop them. And yes, front and center were members of my church.

I was furious. I went home, wrote a new speech, and gave it that Sunday night to a stunned congregation. As I reread my old copy of that speech today, it’s a pretty straightforward speech and not inflammatory by modern standards. Some church members praised what I said, but I also got some hate mail. Hate mail was serious business in 1963. Three civil rights workers were gunned down and killed in High Point only a mile or so from my parents’ home during that time period. Furthermore, the Ku Klux Klan rode around with guns hidden in their cars just in case they happened to meet a N-lover.

But let’s change the topic and talk about bus terminals. I spent a lot of time in them as a college student waiting to catch a bus. I never had the money to buy a car. And guess what? Yep. I was approached several times by gay men – pejoratively known as “queers” in those days – trying to hustle me. Why else would a young man like me be sitting in a bus terminal? It was disgusting to me and, in retrospect, probably the same for them. I must confess that several decades passed before I learned to accept that being gay could be an alternative lifestyle for anyone. It took friendships with several gay couples to make that transition. Now it seems perfectly natural to me. Being gay, or being a transvestite, or being a “whatever” is not the same as engaging in harassment or being a predator, a pedophile, or a rapist.

So, in case you haven’t gotten my message, let me spell it out for you. Hate speech and rape are crimes, not some accidental act or the will of God.  Racism in all its many forms is an odious abomination, not to be tolerated by a progressive modern society. And “traditional America” really wasn’t all that nice a time and place unless, of course, you were a member of the privileged few.

My story is no different from that of anyone else who grew up in the 1950s and reflects the real “traditional America” that the right wing and their pundits want us to return to. Don’t believe a word of their dissembling rationalization or their mouthing of the word “values” as something that they own.  It’s underpinnings represent the worst of America, not the best. And I’m damned angry about that.

I refuse to remain silent. I refuse to allow those who spew hate speech to get away with it unchallenged. I refuse to put another 16-year in front of an American citizen telling them that they can’t enjoy the full rights and privileges of being a citizen, whether it’s civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, or simply the right to be Happy as guaranteed by our founding fathers. I refuse to allow bigots and political con artists to co-opt true conservatism with the trash talk polluting our airwaves. Their appeal to and their version of what the Constitution is about is total crap.

Folks, this is not about being a conservative or a liberal. It’s not about being a Christian or a member of any other religion. And it’s not about traditional values, however one interprets them. It’s about stupidity and the use of code words by hucksters and political hacks to stir up the extreme right wing and to drag or bully those of a more normal conservative persuasion into their cauldron of hate while fleecing their wallets.

Don’t believe the poisonous rhetoric! Join with me! Speak out against this nuttiness. Boycott companies who support Rush Limbaugh and his venom. Tune out Fox News. Get out the vote in our next election. Do your part. Redefine what it means to be a conservative if that’s your persuasion. If you don’t, you’re going to deserve what you get when we return to the “traditional America” of the 1950s. I know what that really means. I’ve already been there.

Theatre Images

The photograph of the Paramount Theatre presented at the beginning can be found at the website Historic High Point. Also available at the same website is a photograph for the old Broadhurst Theatre located at 309 North Main Street in High Point showing the same architecture as the Paramount Theatre. Note to the right the sign above a door with the message “Entrance, Colored Balcony. “ The same arrangement was present at the Paramount, but is not clearly visible in the old photograph.

Note to my blog readers

Innovation, technology commercialization, entrepreneurship, and university research are extremely important to America’s future in the world of global competition and they are topics that I intend to continue to discuss in my weekly articles. But these issues are currently trumped by the important ongoing debate as to what America is, or was, or will be. If we don’t get that part right, the rest won’t matter. I don’t apologize for taking a stand.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Seizing the Future - Together!

By Keith McDowell

I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.
President Barack Obama, Victory Speech, 7 November 2012

Is Obama right? I’m convinced that he is and have supported his position many times and in many ways with respect to my focus on global competitiveness and how best to accelerate and to improve the American innovation ecosystem. But such activities to enhance our competitive advantage do not take place in a vacuum and are inextricably a part of the warp and woof of the overall American experience and the polarized political climate that we are now experiencing. Neglecting that condition is not a prescription for success.

So how divided are we? Is there no room to clarify and to redefine in more suitable language a contextual framework for compromise based on principles that most of us agree upon across the political spectrum? And just what are those principles?

It’s not rocket science to find the principles by our founding fathers! I begin with the Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

The Declaration further proclaims the need to create government and a system to secure these rights, or stated in more modern terms, government has a responsible role to play in our lives. That need led eventually to the adoption of the Constitution of the United States whose famous preamble clearly states why we have a United States of America.

We, the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

That sounds like six straightforward principles to me. But then, how is it that our Supreme Court determined that a company is a person? And exactly when does “personhood” begin for a human being? Should society condone equality in marriage as well as equal pay? And when and for whom does taxation become a burden?

These are just a few of the troubling questions facing modern society and therein lies the rub with the principles of our founding fathers. Each of us views the world through a different set of filters and each of us approaches and interprets these principles in a different manner. It’s the individualism that characterizes the best of America.

But I’m an optimist! Americans have always had the ability to come together as a community in common cause for the greater good.  And even in the face of a presumably divided electorate, I believe that it is possible to set forth a collection of practical principles that most Americans can accept – principles that we can use to govern ourselves. Here is my attempt to establish some working principles.

Fiscal policy, budgets, and the tax code must be responsible, fair, and balanced with respect to revenue and spending. Obstructionism in Congress must be replaced by flexibility and compromise in order to avoid a fiscal cliff and to reduce the deficit. We must all understand that “cutting spending and waste” are just code words for the right wing social agenda and the Tea Party trap of no government through austerity, even though cutting unnecessary spending and eliminating waste are good things to do on the whole.

Social policy should focus on providing a caring safety net whether for the poor, the elderly, the unemployed, or any other disadvantaged American. Religious beliefs, no matter how strongly held, are not a basis for public policy nor a reason to restrict access to needed services. The culture war must end. Old-fashioned libertarianism, which focuses on individual freedom, should be the rule until the public weal, as clearly laid out by the principles in the preamble to the Constitution, kicks in. Modern civilization requires that we have a functioning and protected middle class free to live as they please within the broadly set limits of the Constitution. Without a middle class, there will not be a vibrant economy or consumers ready to snatch up the latest innovative gadget.

Effective, efficient, and responsible regulation of business, commerce, insurance, banking and finance, the environment, and healthcare is essential to protecting our individual rights as well as the common good.  Public policy and actions must be based on testable facts and known truths. Disinformation to distort those truths or denial of proven facts must be exposed for the fraud that they are. Evolution and human-driven global climate change are real. And yes, there really are verifiable economic facts. Reducing taxes for the top one percent doesn’t produce jobs.

The new reality – which actually is an old reality – is that America is a multi-cultural, plural society rapidly becoming a so-called majority-minority community and we must govern accordingly. Or as Bill O’Reilly put it, we no longer have the traditional America. Or as others have said, “it’s not Reagan’s America anymore.” What they really mean is that the good ole white boys don’t rule the roost anymore. Folks, it’s time to stop the extreme right wing war on [fill in the blank with women, gays, blacks, latinos, intellectuals, teachers, the 47%, unions, the middle class,  …].  Hate and toxic language must be marginalized and ignored. We are not a nation of communists and sluts as some would have us believe. Instead, we are a nation of value-added immigrants to the New World and their descendants who have built the United States of America! And yes, we need for the Republican Party to revitalize itself as the voice of true conservatism, not the voice of a discredited “too old, too white, too male, and too wrong.”

Nation building here in America must be the gold standard, not overseas military adventurism. America faces many internal challenges in the Twenty-first century including energy independence through alternative and clean energy sources, a revitalization of our decaying civil infrastructure, and insourcing of jobs. Solving these challenges requires investment, not austerity. It requires innovation, technology commercialization, entreprenuership, and all the many activities that I’ve long supported and advocated for. But most especially, it requires a new commitment to invest in our nation’s educational system.

Is America ready to seize the future? The re-election of Barack Obama as President is a step in that direction and a rejection and repudiation of the truly nutty stuff we’ve been subjected to over the past few years. But as I listen to Mitch McConnell and John Boehner following the election, it’s clear to me that they still just don’t get it. The age of the “good ole white boys” that I grew up with in North Carolina really isn’t over yet.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

What To Do Next?

By Keith McDowell

Superstorm Sandy! Was it a harbinger of the foretold Biblical Apocalypse brought on by the sinful ways of humankind or simply a real-life version of a Cecil B. Demille classic movie epic complete with a parting of the waves? Or could it be a taste of the future as the effects of global climate change begin to exact their inexorable toll? Certainly fire, earth, air, and water played their usual roles as the defining elements of the human experience.

Whatever one might think about the causative reasons for Superstorm Sandy, if indeed there are any, it is undoubtedly a tragedy of historic proportions that cannot be minimized – excepting, of course, those claims by radical jihadists that they are responsible for the storm. But was it predictable? Are superstorms about to become a part of our yearly menu of natural disasters?

If you believe the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the predictions from their various reports, the answer is yes. Superstorm Sandy is only the beginning. Average temperatures will increase by several degrees and the oceans will rise by several feet before the end of the Twenty-first Century. And you thought it couldn’t get any hotter in Texas or that flooding of the New York City subways couldn’t happen!

We’ve all become inured to the surrealistic debate about climate change and the impact of humankind on the global ecosystem. But is anyone in government paying attention? Are we as a society making any effort to plan for the effects of global climate change? And specifically, have innovators and entrepreneurs bothered to take on the grand challenge of mitigating the consequences of natural disasters?

Mercifully, the answer is yes, but likely not at the level needed to meet the impending crisis. Furthermore, the “solution vectors” lie not just along the “hard engineering” axis, but entail other dimensions including “natural infrastructure” such as swamps and wetlands to mitigate storm surge as well “social infrastructure” – must humans always inhabit the vulnerable shorelines? Setting aside the predilection of humans to maximally expose themselves to a disastrous outcome, it will take a holistic approach to prepare for the coming superstorms.

Take, for example, the predicted rise in the oceans over the coming decades.  Prior to Superstorm Sandy, the State of New York took such warnings to heart and formed the Sea Level Rise Task Force whose final report is available. It’s an interesting report, but like most of the studies that I read and review, little action has been taken. We’ve now seen what that can mean when coupled to storm surge and high tide in the tunnels and subways of New York City. Interestingly, the artistic populace and intelligentsia of New York City also engaged in the flooding debate prior to the storm through a production called “Rising Currents”. People do care about their future!

Innovators have likewise been at work designing new devices and barriers  such as “trapbags” to hold back flood waters. Entrepreneurs have been busy putting new products on the market such as FLOODSTOP by the company Fluvial Innovations. And as always, the Netherlands continues to lead the world as an innovator of flood and surge control systems at the size and scale needed to achieve success. Even our weather prediction systems have undergone significant improvements as described by John L. Guiney, Chief of a Meteorological Services Division at NOAA, in a paper entitled “Innovations and New Technology For Improved Public Weather Systems.”

And not to be forgotten, our nation’s coastal shoreline and the erosion by hurricanes and superstorms have been the subject of much controversy and angst due to the high dollar value of the real estate and our strongly held desire to spend vacation time at the seashore. A Powerpoint presentation from the State of Florida provides an interesting review of innovation and entrepreneurial activity in this important area.

Similar stories can be found in the construction business with respect to the design and the materials used to build homes in vulnerable areas.  And how about the future of the transportation sector in terms of rail lines, tunnels, bridges, buses, trains, subways, and cars. Of course, society still hasn’t figured out how to pay appropriately for the destruction from such natural disasters. What’s going to happen to our economy as we see more and more such superstorms?

On a personal note, I have to relate a story from my days as the Vice President for Research at The University of Alabama in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. At issue was what to do with all the debris from that hurricane. In particular, the biomass power industry in Alabama was prepared to remove woody materials both from downed forests and from the shoreline and use the material as feedstock for their power plants. But bureaucracy and red tape got in the way allowing the wood to rot and become a home for all kinds of nefarious critters and bugs. What’s going to happen to all that debris from Superstorm Sandy?

Even more important for our ability to deal with future superstorms, it is essential that government invest in earth science research as the precursor to new innovations and entrepreneurship. Is it really a higher priority for America that the rover Curiosity prowl around the surface of Mars while earth-based weather and monitoring satellites need replacement and upgrades – especially those in polar orbits?

Americans are resilient and have an amazing ability to persevere in the face of unimaginable hardships. The will to rebuild from the destruction wrought by Superstorm Sandy is admirable and commendable. But isn’t it time for our political leaders to also rise to that same standard? Isn’t it time for Congress as well as our state legislatures to face the undeniable facts and prepare our country for the future? It’s not a question of what to do next! It’s a question of getting together in common cause for the greater good.