Obama Can Reboot the Federal Government

Pilobolus enacts social mediaBarack Obama apparently resents it when he’s accused of being vague about the policies he’ll pursue as president, seeing such questions as a political trap.  He’s not unjustified in this fear, but since he doesn’t have a record of doing anything in particular in the public sphere — if he had a signature issue, it was ethics and campaign reform, and he just jettisoned that with his decision to raise unlimited private funds in his general election bid — he does have to be more specific than another candidate with a record and a reputation might have needed to be.

I think the promise of Obama is that he will bring to the US government of the new opportunities for collaboration and network formation that creative people have developed in the past five years, using the Internet’s capabilities as their primary tool.  Social media is why my son’s life is going to be very different from mine.

Social media could also be why Obama’s presidency could be very different from any of his predecessors.  Who knows, maybe the state of the art is such that McCain would also embrace these techniques, but if you had to pick between them as to who would usher in that future first, it wouldn’t be a contest. It’s Obama.

There’s a tension, however, between the futuristic orientation of Obama’s young supporters and the essential stodginess of the Democratic Party — a condition Obama’s acolytes haven’t really experienced yet.  The Democratic Party gives life to, and is the death of, idealism in youth.  The situation was nicely captured in today’s Sunday New York Times Magazine, in a short piece by NYU sociology professor Dalton Conley.  Here are some of the key grafs:

The chatter these days is that the Republicans are a party that has run out of ideas. The Soviet Union is long gone; welfare has been reformed; market logics have permeated almost every aspect of our lives (eBay, anyone?). The truth is that the triumph of conservative ideas may present a political problem for the ailing Republicans, but the party that’s truly lacking in new ideas is my own, the resurgent Democrats.

There is lots of talk in progressive policy circles that we need a “New New Deal” or some other sort of postindustrial revision to the social contract. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, after all, were forged in a society in which, for the most part, social organization was concentric. By way of analogy, think of Russian nesting dolls: children were nested in families; each family had one breadwinner; that breadwinner worked for a single employer; those employers were firmly rooted in the United States; and, to top it all off, the vast majority of people living in the country were citizens. This form of social organization made the social contract possible. There were clear parties to cut the deal, so to speak.

(snip)

Today, by contrast, the most common model of social organization is crosscutting social groups.

(snip)

These more complex social arrangements create many problems for the old social contract.

(snip)

So perhaps we need to reimagine these nesting dolls and instead think of the social contract along the lines of a computer network or the hub-and-spoke airline network in the U.S. In such “scale free” networks, distance has been collapsed by long links that allow you to skip between any two points in a couple steps. The government’s role is less as a backup provider — in case one link of the nested chain breaks down — and more as honest broker and resource hub across groups.

In health care, for example, the government could act as a pooler, forming health-insurance-purchasing cooperatives, randomly assigning unaffiliated individuals to groups that would then contract with private insurers. Likewise, the state could set up universal investment accounts for retirement savings, college savings and health expenditures. In education, the feds could mandate that any institutions of higher education that receive government dollars must make their research and course materials available online in an open-source format free of charge.

Private companies and nonprofits are already stepping in to fill this role. The Freelancers Union allows self-employed individuals to purchase health insurance at less expensive group rates. And M.I.T. and iTunes U have already inaugurated the open-courseware movement. But government has an important role to play. After all, the state can absorb a lot more risk than smaller entities can. Think how well government-backed V.A. and F.H.A. mortgages worked after World War II as compared with how the private market has fared lately.

(snip)It’s not surprising that the private-sector, new-economy companies are ahead of government in adapting to the networked society, but if progressives want a victory in the world of ideas and policy — and not just a couple of good election cycles — they are going to have to stop talking F.D.R, J.F.K. and L.B.J. and start thinking eBay, Google and Wiki.

Social network diagramOn my other blog, From 50,000 Feet, I wrote about Obama as viewed similarly in a Wired story.

These aren’t the ideas that will get Obama elected, surely.  He already gets mocked as the “egghead” in the race.  He’s compared in an uncomplimentary fashion to such famous Democratic intellectuals as Adlai Stevenson and Michael Dukakis.

But someday, somehow, one of our presidents is going to rescue the federal government from its sclerotic ways and figure out how to treat us like valued customers.  I think it will have to be a Democrat, because only a Democrat will be trusted to reconfigure social safety-net programs, and only a Democrat can butt heads with the public-employee unions that exist to kill efficiency reforms and expert to emerge with anything to show for it.

Obama can grow in the areas where he is now weak.  McCain is what he is. He’s the Pope Benedict XVI of this election, the safe, stall-for-time choice for president who will hold the office honorably while both parties figure out what their new directions will be.  Obama might not be ready (see my last post), but modernizing the colossus that is the US government is a task no one will ever be ready for.  You have to start somewhere, and Obama brings more of the kinds of tools we’ll need than anyone else with a credible chance to become president in 2012.

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Is Obama Ready? (*updated)

Gore and ObamaOkay, Barack Obama, you’ve survived the Hillary gauntlet.  She “threw the kitchen sink” at you, and you hung onto your delegate lead until finally you inched over the top.  You also survived the revelation that Rev. Jeremiah Wright, your pastor, mentor, spiritual advisor and the guy you bring your children to listen to every Sunday is a racist extremist.  Kudos on both.  It couldn’t have been easy.

But you were also lucky. Hillary Clinton is the emblem of a despicable political machine, to which there was a post-traumatic response among some Democrats, particularly the intellectual types who sleep-walked through their skanky reign, recited the talking points on TV when asked, and cheered Bill as if he was Stagger Lee giving a commencement address at Harvard.  You gave them a wake-up call, and you offer an opportunity for cleansing.

Obama, you might get lucky again.  John McCain isn’t as despised as Hillary, but he’s not a beloved figure among his own party, and he’s undeniable tied to George W. Bush on enough policies that the public’s rejection of what’s now being called “the GOP brand” might get him to the White House.

At that point Obama, I hope you can take a few weeks to figure out what it means to be the Leader of the Free World and the Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military in the known history of the planet.

You need to take a class or something.  You’re making some appalling errors right now.

———–

On NAFTA:  During a Democratic debate, Obama quite clearly threatened to unilaterally withdraw the US from the treaty if Canada and Mexico weren’t willing to renegotiate.  It came out that his economic advisor, Austan Goolsbee met with Canadian officials as an Obama representative to tell them to take Obama’s anti-NAFTA rhetoric as “political posturing.”  When a memo regarding this meeting was publicized, Obama’s campaign tried to issue a carefully parsed denial, but eventually had to acknowledge the meeting did happen and comments about the politics of NAFTA were made.  Obama and his campaign reaffirmed, however, their anti-NAFTA bonafides. The story hurt Obama, and he lost the Ohio primary.

Now that he’s the nominee, he’s doing the usual things, including giving reassurances to Wall Street of his intentions.  His method was a sit-down with Fortune magazine, during which he was asked about NAFTA.  Not too surprisingly, Obama took a more moderate position on the treaty.  The position shift isn’t what made him look bad.  It was the clumsy way he did it:

“Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified,” he conceded, after I reminded him that he had called NAFTA “devastating” and “a big mistake,” despite nonpartisan studies concluding that the trade zone has had a mild, positive effect on the U.S. economy.

Does that mean his rhetoric was overheated and amplified? “Politicians are always guilty of that, and I don’t exempt myself,” he answered.

(snip)

Now, however, Obama says he doesn’t believe in unilaterally reopening NAFTA. On the afternoon that I sat down with him to discuss the economy, Obama said he had just spoken with Harper, who had called to congratulate him on winning the nomination.

“I’m not a big believer in doing things unilaterally,” Obama said. “I’m a big believer in opening up a dialogue and figuring out how we can make this work for all people.”

This isn’t a shift in tone or emphasis.  This is Obama talking about himself as if he doesn’t recognize that “politician” who was running around Ohio, getting all overheated and talking about unilateral moves that Obama doesn’t believe in.  As if he was just seized by a passionate hatred of NAFTA, and not making calculated statements to draw votes from NAFTA-hating Ohio unionists, statements that these Ohioans would be justified in now calling lies.

In the big leagues, Obama, politicians shift around all the time, depending on the audience and the temper of the times. The moderate uniter-not-a-divider George W. Bush of 2000 would hardly recognize the Onward Christian Soldiers Bush of 2004.  But you don’t make the shift by casting yourself as an unreliable source of your own beliefs. “Yeah, I said that, but I must have been crazy,” is a fair paraphrase of what Obama told Fortune.

He did it again on an even more sensitive subject: The status of Jerusalem in a hypothetical Israeli-Palestinian accord.  From a Reuters story Tuesday that was headlined: Adviser denies Obama showed naivete on Jerusalem:

Democrat Barack Obama misused a “code word” in Middle East politics when he said Jerusalem should be Israel’s “undivided” capital but that does not mean he is naive on foreign policy, a top adviser said on Tuesday.

Addressing a pro-Israel lobby group this month, the Democratic White House hopeful said: “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”

The comment angered Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967, as the capital of a future state. “He has closed all doors to peace,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said after the June 4 speech.

Obama later said Palestinians and Israelis had to negotiate the status of the city, in line with long-held U.S. presidential policy.

Daniel Kurtzer, who advises Obama on the Middle East, said Tuesday at the Israel Policy Forum that Obama’s comment stemmed from “a picture in his mind of Jerusalem before 1967 with barbed wires and minefields and demilitarized zones.”

“So he used a word to represent what he did not want to see again, and then realized afterwards that that word is a code word in the Middle East,” Kurtzer said.

The U.S. Congress passed a law in 1995 describing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and saying it should not be divided, but successive presidents have used their foreign policy powers to maintain the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and to back talks between Israel and Palestinians on the status of Jerusalem.

I am not running for president, and I don’t consider myself an expert on the Palestinian issue, but even I know that Palestinians take offense when US politicians promise U.S. Jewish leaders that Jerusalem will be Israel’s.  This time it was Kurtzer uttering the “yeah, he said that but he must have been crazy” formulation, describing the misleading and confusing images in Obama’s mind that led him astray.

It’s also bound to be noted by conservatives and McCain’s campaign that Obama seems intimately aware of what Jerusalem looked like when he was all of six years old, but had no clue what his Weather Underground friend Bill Ayers was up to, blowing up buildings two years later.  But more to the point, the claim that Obama is “not naive” doesn’t alter the inherent naivete in a presidential finalist talking off the top of his head on the most touchy international topic imaginable.   Jennifer Rubin, an Obama critic who blogs for Commentary Magazine, spreads the responsibility to Obama’s campaign:

Even more so, if the advisor says Obama didn’t understand what he was saying. But wait a minute. Didn’t Obama have advisors on Israel assisting him with the speech? Where were they? Once again, this suggests that there is too little adult supervision of a candidate unaccustomed to speaking on the world stage about issues in which there are lots of code words, indeed in which every word (e.g. “preconditons,” “immediate withdrawal”) has meaning to Americans’ foes and friends.

Winnie-the-PoohThe link on the words “adult supervision” will take you to another embarrassment, but this one implicating his “likely National Security adviser” Richard Danzig, who compared foreign affairs to Winnie-the-Pooh.  He was probably kidding, Rubin suggests hopefully.  But I’ve seen so many Democratic candidates destroyed by seeming unequipped to defend the country.  You know, the Dems are supposed to be “the Mommy party.”  To make the same point, I would have picked any book in the world but Winnie-the-Pooh.

Obama has had a meteoric rise to power, to the threshold of the presidency, which I believe he should be favored to win almost no matter what he does.  But please, Obama, don’t scare the grownups, or else a lot of us might take our secret ballots and secretly pick someone else.

*Update, 6/20/08:  The NY Times columnist David Brooks disagrees with any hint that Obama is naive.  It’s all strategery, Brooks says:

This guy is the whole Chicago package: an idealistic, lakefront liberal fronting a sharp-elbowed machine operator. He’s the only politician of our lifetime who is underestimated because he’s too intelligent. He speaks so calmly and polysyllabically that people fail to appreciate the Machiavellian ambition inside.

But he’s been giving us an education, for anybody who cares to pay attention. Just try to imagine Mister Rogers playing the agent Ari in “Entourage” and it all falls into place.

Those Selfless Angelinos of 1984

Give me a break!

This is from the LA Times’ series on traffic:

When Los Angeles traffic experts get depressed at the sorry state of the freeways, their minds sometimes drift to the improbable days of 1984, when the Olympic torch blazed through town and the city’s sea of cars parted.

For more than a week, downtown and Westside freeways worked as their creators had intended, whisking drivers from place to place.

The respite from congestion was flickeringly brief, but many still ask: Can the experiment be repeated?

For the 16-day event, transportation agencies put aside turf wars. Employees carpooled or worked staggered hours or took vacations. Truckers shifted deliveries to off-hours. Construction projects were rescheduled. Arterial lanes were reserved for buses. Two-way streets became one-way streets.

Actually?  Despite all the measures, the entire city was braced for the worst traffic in memory.  The staggered hours, shifted truck deliveries, etc. were implemented to keep the already crowded freeways from congealing into a gridlocked meltdown, among other things delaying athletes and media from reaching event venues.  It was assumed that the traffic would still be terrible.  It was a shock, a thrilling surprise, that traffic jams disappeared almost entirely.

But that’s not how young Times reporters and their sources remember it:

“We had essentially no congestion,” said David Roper, retired operations chief for the California Department of Transportation’s Los Angeles division. “What was behind all this was the feeling ‘I don’t want to be the guy who screws up the Olympics.’ “

You cannot be serious. This wasn’t altruism, it was fear!  So many people I knew left town entirely.  Everyone remembers that the 1984 Games made a profit.  What’s often forgotten is that it made a profit from a brilliant sponsorship campaign, and not from ticket sales.  Most Olympic events were not sold out.  Few wanted to brave the traffic.

The reporters’ point is, it only takes a small percentage of drivers to stay off the freeways for the commute to go smoothly for everyone else.  Today was proof.  I had to go downtown for the first time on a weekday since gas prices zoomed past $4 a gallon.  My route is basically the entire Harbor Freeway.  I didn’t go at the traditional peak, but even at 10 a.m., it’s usually blocked from somewhere north of the 105 through downtown.

Not today.  It was clear all the way, even through that crazy stretch where cars try pick their way to the correct lanes for the 5, 101, 110 and the exits.  And I’m sure it’s because of the gas prices. I hear anecdotally  that companies are shortening the work week, instituting telecommuting and making other arrangements to keep their employees from searching for work closer to home.

This is a big, fat, prize-bait series the Times is running.  Obviously, it was conceived before gasoline got so expensive.  The writers might not have expected it, but summer 2008 is going to be another Traffic Miracle, thanks to whatever you blame for high oil prices.  Maybe by the end of the week, they’ll have figured it out.

The Murderous Mrs. C.

Hillary with an evil lookPeggy Noonan is ecstatic that the Democrats nominated Barack Obama, and at least half the reason why is that they didn’t nominate Hillary Clinton:

Mrs. Clinton would have been a disaster as president. Mr. Obama may prove a disaster, and John McCain may, but she would be. Mr. Obama may lie, and Mr. McCain may lie, but she would lie. And she would have brought the whole rattling caravan of Clintonism with her—the scandal-making that is compulsive, the drama that is unending, the sheer, daily madness that is her, and him.

We have been spared this. Those who did it deserve to be thanked. May I rise in a toast to the Democratic Party.

They had a great and roaring fight, a state-by-state struggle unprecedented in the history of presidential primaries. They created the truly national primary. They brought 36 million people to the polls, including the young, minorities and first-time voters. They brought a kind of dogged brio to the year.

All of this is impressive, but more than that, they threw off Clintonism. They threw off the idea that corruption is part of the game, an acceptable fact. They threw off the idea that dynasticism was an unstoppable dynamic in modern politics, that Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton could, would, go on forever. They said: “No, that is not the way we do it.”

They threw off the idea of inevitability. Mrs. Clinton didn’t lose because she had no money or organization, she didn’t lose because she had no fame or name, she didn’t lose because her policies were unusual or dramatically unpopular within her party. She lost because enough Democrats looked at her and thought: I don’t like that, I don’t like the way she does it, I’m not going there. Most candidates lose over things, not over their essential nature. But that is what happened here. For all her accomplishments and success, it was her sketchy character that in the end did her in.

So then the question comes up:  Given the closeness of the contest, should Hillary be Obama’s VP pick?  (No, say I.)  No, says Peggy Noonan.  Here is one of her reasons:

She would never be content to be vice president. She’d be plotting against him from day one. She’d put poison in his tea.

Trust me, in the succeeding paragraphs, there is no rim-shot-bada-bing to indicate Noonan is kidding.  She would expect Hillary to poison Obama, if it meant she would be in the Oval Office. 

Noonan’s column is not the first place I’ve seen this “Hillary would poison Obama” meme.  I wish I’d been saving all the links.  They mostly appear in comment threads, or if it’s the main blogger, they usually try to let you know they’re joking. 

Keep an eye out for it.

When her husband was president, the Clintons were accused in some right wing rubber rooms of having people murdered.  I don’t remember the details, but there was supposed to be a list of premature deaths, and somehow it was tied in with cocaine shipments into the Mena Airport in Arkansas.  They were also accused of using very rough tactics to silence “bimbo eruptions.”  Kathleen Willey’s dead cat, for example.

The mainstream media thought these accusations were hideous, hysterical, evidence of a vast right-wing conspiracy led by crazy people who would say anything.

Now, the suggestion that Hillary would use the Office of the Vice President to carry out a murder plot against the president has become a normal part of political discourse, across the ideological spectrum.

You know, she almost won the nomination, folks.  If the Democratic Party had used Republican primary rules, she would have won. Would these same commentators be suggesting the Democratic Party had nominated a murderer if she was the presidential candidate?  Would they be worrying about John McCain’s water glass at the presidential debates the way they’re worrying about Barack Obama’s tea?  

The Inevitability of the Inevitable: CA Cities Will Go Bankrupt

If you’re the kind of person who looks to government to address the most critical needs of our society, including education, public safety, sanitation and essential services for the needy, then you need to start worrying. Your elected officials’ craven giveaways to public employee unions are about to blow back with hurricane force.

That tax money you happily agreed to entrusted to your elected officials for the greater good is actually going to fund retirement benefits (thanks!!!) that you could never dream of getting from a private employer.  Services intended for children and for your protection will inevitably be cut, drastically, to fund these benefits.  Your taxes will need to be increased (sorry!!!) to pay for them, despite the decline in services.  Or, your city, county or state might have to go this route:

You see, the good Democrats who dominate this blue state of California at the local and state levels are required to raise campaign money from somewhere (we like our jobs!).  With the exception of developers and government contractors, business doesn’t like them enough to send big checks (greedy bastards with no compassion!).

Where are these candidates supposed to find the big checks?  They find them by calling the unions representing the public employees.  Once they get elected, these elected officials owe the unions, big-time (or else!).  So they pay them back, providing an immense return-on-investment, with money intended for kids and the needy (thanks!).  These officials knew it was unsustainable, but, “Hey, we need those big checks!” (And besides, we’re termed-out, so who cares!)

From CNN/Money, an outline of the looming, inevitable crisis:

The jig is up. For years, politicians have been playing what amounts to a multi-trillion-dollar shell game with state and local pensions. They’ve doled out lush retiree benefits to their heavily unionized workforces, knowing that they could shove the cost for those benefits onto future generations of taxpayers.

But a recent financial bombshell dropped by a San Francisco suburb shows why that shell game is now starting to unravel in a nasty way. And it’s a cautionary tale that you can’t afford to ignore.

Here’s the skinny: In late May, Vallejo, Calif., became the largest city in California history to declare bankruptcy. Its financial demise was brought about partly by the real estate crash, which decimated home prices in the area and put a major dent in the city’s tax revenues.

But the real nail in Vallejo’s coffin was the city’s labor costs. Under the current labor agreement, the average police officer walking the beat in Vallejo will be paid $122,000 this year before overtime, according to city documents. An average sergeant will make $151,000; a captain, $231,000. The average firefighter, meanwhile, will bring in $130,000 before overtime.

That’s just the salaries, though. The final budget-crusher was the city’s pension plan. Thanks to retroactive benefit enhancements approved by the city council in 2000, police officers and firefighters can now retire at age 50 and receive an annual pension equal to 90% of their final pay (assuming 30 years on the job), an amount that gets increased every year to help keep pace with inflation. The old plan had given the workers a pension equal to 60% of their final pay at age 50.

So a Vallejo police sergeant making $150,000 a year can now retire at age 50 and receive an annual pension of $135,000, increased each year for inflation. To put that amount in context, you would need to amass a retirement nest egg equal to about $3.5 million to produce a similar retirement income on your own.

According to the Pew Center on the States, there is a $360 billion unfunded pension liability among the 50 states alone, not counting cities like Vallejo (or LA or SF).

Voters need to get involved in this arcane aspect of government, the article’s writer, Janice Revell, says.  Employees should receive the pensions they were promised when they were hired, but taxpayers should pressure elected officials not to give the public employees unjustified and unsustainable upward bumps.  Voter vigilance is necessary because the elected officials simply can’t help themselves (we need those big checks!).

This is an election year. As such, many states and municipalities are under heavy pressure to sweeten the pension plans for their workers – Massachusetts, South Carolina and Pennsylvania are but three high-profile examples. And ironically, just a few hours south of Vallejo, the city of Rialto, Calif., recently approved a similar retroactive pension increase that will give police officers a pension equal to 90% of their salaries at age 50.

The bottom line: If similar changes are being considered in your city or state, the Vallejo disaster tells you that it’s well worth your while to get the facts.

Maybe you’ll discover that your local pension fund is flush with money and that elected officials in your area have out laid out a sound, fiscally responsible plan for funding any pension improvements. But I wouldn’t bank on it.

I’ve been feeling sick about this issue for some time.  As Revell points out, the notion that public employees deserved higher benefits because they are making a sacrifice in accepting lower pay is an out-of-date myth.

What really burns me up, and should burn you up, is the way in which public-employee funded campaigns for increased government spending make illicit use of the neediest in our society — children, the elderly, victims of crime and fire — to pimp voters to part with money that will never reach the intended beneficiaries.  I want to be a liberal, vote like a liberal.  But I’m not willing to be tricked anymore into having my compassion exploited so cynically and so destructively.

The “Silver Lining in High Gas Prices”: A Boost for Telecommuting

When I worked in Mayor Bradley’s office in the 1990s, I was part of a task force designed to increase city workers’ telecommuting.  At that time, oil was cheap, but traffic was horrible and air quality still (then as now) the worst in the nation.

We were mindful of the 1984 Olympics traffic experience, when just an 8 percent drop in the amount of cars on the road resulted in traffic that flowed like midnight.  Small changes can have a big impact on the traffic.  Less traffic idling was another anti-smog strategy.  So, we thought it should be possible for City Hall to set an example for the business community.

How silly.  When it comes to management, Los Angeles’ city government will never “lead the way” on anything.

Both management and labor perceived telecommuting as a threat.  Department heads didn’t want anyone out of their sightlines for any longer than was absolutely necessary.  They assumed the worst of their employees.  The unions demanded that telecommuting become a bargaining issue.  Typical of how city unions work, the labor appointee to our task force missed the first two meetings, then came late to the third and asked to speak with me privately.  She said, “We’re not sure if telecommuting is a way for managers to unfairly reward or unfairly punish our members, but either way, we’re going to oppose it.”  Then she sat at the table with the rest of the task force, repeating a few platitudes, knowing she’d killed the idea.

What emerged instead were 9/80 and 4/40 schemes to give some city employees the option of two to four weekdays off per month in return for a longer workday.  What it meant in practice was employees would work the same eight hours worth of tasks, stretched into nine- or ten-hour days, except with an extra day off every week or two.  It was nice for them, but chaotic when it was time to schedule meetings.  Most workers chose Friday to stay home, so Fridays went dead.  Add to that the introduction of casual Fridays — which started after I left the mayor’s office — and the end of each week became a world where Charles Bukowski would have fit right in:  Hardly anyone there, and those who did show up wearing sweats, old T-shirts and shoes you might use for wading into flooded basement.

I don’t know if that’s still the case over there; I haven’t been in City Hall for over four years.  But I digress.

In Southern California, every weekday there are tens of thousands of commuters who drive epic distances to get to work centers in LA and Orange counties.  In the 1990s, the Inland Empire land boom was just beginning.  My last commute was about 30 miles each way and that seemed painful and expensive enough.  Now gas prices have doubled since 2004, and many people are driving west from places like Temecula.   Temecula is almost 90 miles from downtown LA, and more than 65 miles from Santa Ana. Do the math.  If your car gets 20 miles per gallon, pretty good for a beep-n-creep voyage on crowded freeways, it’s costing you nine gallons per day to go back and forth from work = $36 per day just for gas.

I can’t imagine that at least some of those people, and the merciful among their bosses would want to alleviate that.  So, all of a sudden, telecommuting looks less scary, maybe necessary, and perhaps something that will be embraced in a rush.  That’s what Computerworld’s blogger Mike Elgan thinks:

One thing leads to another. High gas prices prompt employers (including the federal government) to allow employees to work from home once a week. Once that’s accepted culturally, an elephant appears in the boardroom: If it’s OK once a week, why isn’t it OK five times a week? (This is what happened with “casual Friday” — its once-a-week acceptance lead to the current trend of casual wear every day.) Once telecommuting is accepted, “extreme telecommuting” — working from the Bahamas or Paris or an internet-connected shack on the Australian Outback — becomes acceptable, too. After all, once you’re out of the office and connecting to the company over the Internet, it doesn’t really matter where you are, does it?

The last remaining barrier to the general acceptance of “extreme telecommuting” is purely cultural — it’s our irrational clinging to obsolete rules for how we work. As the cultural barriers fall, more of us will be freed to work from wherever we please, something which mobile technology and Internet communication already enables.

To me, that’s the silver lining in high gas prices.

Seth Godin, writing about the higher standards business meetings and conferences must meet to make it worth the (increasingly expensive) trip puts the onus on managers to make going to the office a value-added experience, or else:

If you’re a knowledge worker, your boss shouldn’t make you come to the (expensive) office every day unless there’s something there that makes it worth your trip. She needs to provide you with resources or interactions or energy you can’t find at home or at Starbucks. And if she does invite you in, don’t bother showing up if you’re just going to sit quietly.

I’ve worked in three companies that had lots of people and lots of cubes, and I spent the entire day walking around. I figured that was my job. The days where I sat down and did what looked like work were my least effective days. It’s hard for me to see why you’d bother having someone come all the way to an office just to sit in a cube and type.

The new rule seems to be that if you’re going to spend the time and the money to see someone face to face, be in their face. Interact or stay home!

How long before companies in Los Angeles, where the distance of commutes is among the most acute in the nation, adopt this kind of thinking?  I’m not sure they have a choice.

There’s probably money to be made in telling managers how to manage a virtual workforce, because a lot of companies will need to make this shift soon or they’ll lose valuable employees.

(A different version of this post appears on the blog I write for Dolan Media, From 50,000 Feet.)