Archive for July 2008

Regulations

July 31, 2008

It is most enjoyable to read in the Editorial and Opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal how George W Bush and his Administration have lost their way and are now resorting to regulations (read Government controls and interference) as a means to end a wide range of abuses.  The securities and banking segments have jumped the tracks and running wild in unchartered fields and if not put safely back on the tracks will drag down the economy further and may take with them savings and pensions of millions of Americans.

There are always risks when the Government tries to regulate or control anything.  History is full of examples where those who regulate or control miss the mark (especially as times change) and are in and of themselves, a cost tax payers must carry.  Republicans and the Wall Street Journal traditionally carry the banner of “no Government is good Government” and so it is particularly interesting to see the Bush crowd reaching for controls.  Why is this happening?

It would be nice to say that they have finally seen the light.  I do not think that is the correct answer.  I would suggest something more “Rovian”.  The President has an approval rating of about 20% and Republicans (John McCain included) are facing an election where many of them are likely to get swept out of office.  And with their loss will go the gravy train of political spoils.  Republicans now think it is simply time to do something (anything) that will keep a system wide bank failure from taking place or a huge segment of the population being thrown out of their homes when mortgage interest rates are reset upward.  There are no new policies in the Bush White House that looks to help Mister and Misses America.  The Bush crowd is for Mister and Misses “top 1/2% income” people, and of course, themselves.  They will try whatever would keep them in power.

The Bush Administration has been strongly linked with “I do it because I can”, “greed” and “the ends justify the means”, and these affirmations have gone no where.  It is time for a new Administration that has the “common wealth” in mind.  The next Administration, however, must also remember that big government can do harm as easily as it can do good.  These past 8 years have marked an unbelievable period of incompetence in administering the US Government apparatus.  We may find out after January 20th, 2009 that a big improvement is obtained just by running the Government with a well intended and fully capable chief executive.  But you will not find that in the Wall Street Journal.

Stevens-Gate

July 30, 2008

Senator Ted Stevens Federal indictment on charges of failing to report about $ 250,000 in gifts has brought a lot of feelings to the surface in Washington.  Senator Stevens, who for years has traded votes with other consenting Senators in return for a vote here and there that would help Alaska and Alaska alone.  At this game Stevens was very good.  So it is a shock to many that after 27 years in the Senate, he would get caught at something akin but short of bribery.

For me it is difficult to not be cynical.  Why anyone would think that, in some way or other, all members of Congress do not accept (or even solicit) gifts and do not report them.  The fundamental proof is the exorbitant amounts of money each spends on their election and reelections.  There is no free lunch and who ever gives those donations wants something in addition to good government.  In addition, these Congressmen/women are serving normally at a far lower salary than what they could get in private life and for most, they serve during their more productive ages. 

In relative terms the $ 250,000 that the Federal charges claim Stevens failed to report is peanuts compared to what pork is passed around.  It is almost chump change.  This does not make it right or even that Stevens is in some way entitled to it.  It just means that Stevens must have been stupid or lazy in how he handled these expenses, or that someone who did not like Stevens ratted him out.  In the age of huge Republican political influence on the Justice Department you might wonder whether they decided to sacrifice one of their own for the sake of looking bi-partisan.

A Few More Bad Apples

July 29, 2008

The Inspector General’s report on the hiring process of career (non-political) US attorneys will undoubtably be attributed to “a few bad apples” who operated on their own and will be left out to dry by the Administration.  Monica Goodling, a name that will be remembered for narrow minded, mean spirited, and completely misguided thinking has been again singled out for gross abuse of the civil service by screening all Bush US attorney appointments from a loyalty and fundamentalist religious perspective.

It is not so long ago that we heard of the Abu Ghraib “bad apples” who sadistically tormented Arab prisoners and gratuitously photographed their actions for all the world to see.  Justice was swift and all the low ranking individuals were court marshaled and both militiary and government officials labeled this as offensive and a violation of policy.  Of course later we found out that in fact they were doing what they had been encouraged to do and that that encouragement could be traced to the highest levels of the US Government.

To be sure no one in the Government or the Military probably ever described the exact practices used by the guards at Abu Ghraib.  Rather it was the tone at the top and lack of oversight that both encouraged and enabled this type of behavior.

With Monica, there is an strange similarity.  For reasons of its own, the Bush Administration recruited a huge number (about 80) graduates from Regent University School of Law (founded by Pat Robertson).  These young and idealistic conservatives were put in all sorts of government positions “because they could be trusted”.  The tone at the top was clear, if it is republican or strongly conservative or devoutly religious, and preferably all three, it was ok.

But just as there are rules covering prisoner treatment, there are rules covering the recruitment of career US attorneys.  These career jobs are suppose to be apolitical and embody the principle that no one is above the law.  Ms Goodling’s careful screening to pick only those who opposed abortion, were not gay or lesbian, and loved Republicans (particularly “W”) was a clear violation of that objective.

Ms Goodling as well as the Abu Ghraib guards are not the root of the problem.  The real source of these transgressions lies at the top of the Bush Administration.  Most likely it was Dick Cheney and a small group of his reports who drove both these processes.  They picked their legal advisers carefully and extracted “opinions” that seemed to provide some latitude in interrogation and in staffing government jobs.  George W Bush is a complete failure as an executive and did not provide any oversight.  With this background, it is not a surprise that subordinates enlarged their assignments in ways they thought the boss wanted.  The rest is history.

While Ms Goodling should have known better and must suffer some penalty, any investigation should not stop with her.  Her actions could not have been a secret either.  The trail must be followed to where it began.

What Does the US Owe?

July 28, 2008

When President George W Bush invaded and occupied Iraq (under Vice President Dick Cheney’s orders), he (they) set off a series of events that have made a mess and a sort of quagmire.  We hear daily that violence has been significantly reduced versus one year ago but as events show, even today, there are senseless killings taking place in settings that the western mind can not compute.  Yesterday, two female suicide bombers blew themselves up attacking religious processions.  How much more “surging” will be necessary to eliminate this type of violence?

Let’s back up a moment.  There are various explanations for why Bush and Cheney decided to invade Iraq but the least believable (although actually true) is that Hussein was a “bad” person.  The most honorable reason but still unjustified is that they believed they could make a positive impact on the Middle East and hasten a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The most probable explanation, however, is that “they could do it and it would be worth their while”.  Bush and Cheney had the power, could show other bad actors what would happen if they disobeyed the US, and the spoils of war would accrue to their backers and supporters.

Regardless of the rationale for the invasion, the occupation was a disaster.  With insurgency (call it civil war) unleashed and the fundamental services of Government totally broken, the US suddenly had a legal and moral obligation to “fix” Iraq and return it to a sovereign and functioning Government.  It is now going on 6 years later and 4000 deaths/almost $1 trillion have been wasted.  The end game is still very unclear.

Republicans lead by John “one note” McCain still try to connect removing US troops over the next 16 months as “losing the war”.  It seems to have evaded their understanding that you can not lose an occupation.  It also seems clear that no amount of US occupation can change a thinking process that divides Shiites and Sunnis who profess to be highly religious and yet will murder each other in the most bizzarre and cruel ways.  When Sunni and Shiite religious leaders themselves step forward and blow themselves up (rather than their followers), I might be better able to understand their motivation.  There is no sensible definition of religion that can justify the manner in which the various factions in Iraq are treating each other.

All of this was known before the invasion and there are no magic bullets to change this behavior.  Maybe time will change these century old practices but it is time for the Iraqis and all Arabs to take care of this problem themselves.  At $ 10 billion running costs per month the US has spent more than enough and it is time to come home.

Sticks and Stones

July 27, 2008

In 2000 and again in 2004, the Republican standard bearer used a liberal dose of negative charges against his Democratic rival.  The architect was Karl Rove, but the hands of George W Bush were dirtied just the same.  Now in 2008, there are signs that John McCain may resort to the same methods in his race against Barack Obama.  Will the outcome be the same?

On Saturday, McCain’s campaign issued a charge that Obama had “short changed” the GI’s when he canceled a visit to an Army hospital in Germany.  McCain’s turd throwers said Obama preferred instead to spend his time in front of crowds of Germans.  While the facts are close to correct in that (1) Obama did cancel his planned visit to the hospital, and (2) Obama did draw 200,000 Germans to his speech, there is as always more  to the story.  The Army had raised concerns about getting itself involved in politics by having someone running for office visit.  At this point, Obama was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.

There will be many more of these type of negative charges.  Each one requires a swift explanation before Obama can move on.  Even worse, no one is served well by this type of charge in any case.  There are important issues, for example, the lagging US economy, the struggling banking and investment industry, the broken US monetary and fiscal policies, the country’s addiction to imported oil, the ugly prospects of global warming, and the future of healthcare and social security.  Why do the Republicans not speak to these issues?

There is no national consensus on any of these issues.  A rich debate over the next 100 days would help educate the public on these subjects and possibly develop some agreement on how to attack them.  During the past 8 years, the Bush Administration’s answer for these concerns was more like “what me worry?” or half baked ideas like private social security accounts when if they were created the rest of the social security fund would collapse even quicker than now forecasted, and drilling for more oil instead of breaking the addiction by developing alternatives sources and finding ways to consume less energy.

If John McCain will not begin this important discussion then Barack Obama should.  Obama will not only look like a President, he will be acting like one.  McCain should remember “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”.

Welcome Home

July 26, 2008

Barack Obama has returned home from his trip to Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, occupied Palestine, Germany, France, and the UK to mixed reviews.  It is reasonably clear that Obama looked like a President and can be trusted to not make a fool of himself on the International stage.  In the same period of time, John McCain, safely in his favorite environment – “town hall meetings” – managed to get Czechoslovakia confused with the current Czech Republic twice.  If anything, Obama’s trip brought very positive reviews in the foreign press and unlike President George W Bush’s recent trip, there were no anti-America chants.

Interestingly not everyone has seen Obama’s trip the same way.  Some saw the trip as early celebration of this November’s election.  Others say Obama was acting as President before he was elected.  And if any of those were Republicans, they were moved to close their eyes (hold there noses too?) and vote for “John McBush III”.  While this is worrisome, there is still much time for other impressions to be made for both candidates.

Obama needs to catch his breath and then get the political discussion away from John McCain’s one note symphony and compare their ideas on everything other than the surge.  Obama should dismiss any mention of the surge with “Iraq War was an invasion and occupation, not a war, and was totally unnecessary, reckless, and enormously costly when compared to any benefits.  The surge was never necessary”.  What about the economy, or the state of US monetary and fiscal policy, or about the widening gap between the rich and the poor, or the stagnation of middle class income, or about how we can save social security and improve health care and still balance our budget.  These are the big issues.  There are other hot button issues like a woman’s right to reproductive health, complete acceptance of gay/lesbian as full fledged American citizens, and a much more sensible view of immigration which could individually be a litmus test for some voters.  In any case, let’s get this discussion going.

Where is the Vision?

July 25, 2008

The 2008 Presidential race has been underway for over 1 1/2 years and we have heard a lot of words.  We are now down to Barack Obama and John McCain and I am unsure what either candidate sees as a future Vision for the USA.  I know about “hope” and I am also informed about “not losing the war”.  I hear a lot about “issues” like global warming, jump starting the economy, lower taxes, more strict constructionist Justices, and secure boarders.  I do not hear about what the world will look like in 20 years and where the USA will fit in.

You may ask why should anyone care about 20 years from now when we can not predict the price of oil one day or one month from now.  The reason a vision is important is that without an idea of what the future will be like, policies, both domestic and foreign, are like a garden hose with no one holding it.  The hose will spray randomly in all directions.  The greatness and richness of America that we all know is a result of WWII and its aftermath when the US possessed over 60% of the world’s manufacturing.  The rest of the world was in ruin and relative to others, the US was rich.  With this advantage, we could invest in other US institutions (like education, class mobility, innovation, and entrepreneurship) and their results kicked in.  It is now almost 70 years later and the rest of the world has caught up.  For the next 70 years it will be a different world than we have been used to.

As voters we are left with no information on which candidate has a clue about the next 20 years or for that matter, what the world actually looks like today.  We are offered instead “feel good” proposals about making like easier and better for today.  Where are the exaltations for joining together to build a safe, secure, and peaceful future where Americans can have the freedom and means to raise the standard of living for everyone in America (and maybe even the Americas)?

The cruel answer I fear is that there is almost no way to communicate this type of thinking.  The media deals in sound bites and talk show rhetoric.  The media seeks short, controversial, and single syllable issues to feed its 7/24 news cycles.  Had we had this type of vision in 2000, we might not have wasted 6 years on an invasion and occupation (not to mention over a trillion dollars).  We probably would not have turned our backs on science with top level Government officials endorsing “intelligent design”, limiting stem cell research, or surpressing global warming research findings.  We would have recognized that the “profit incentive”, when available for all, is a great driving force for a better life but if the “profit” accrues to the top 1/2%, or is generated from swindle-like means, the end game is no so pretty.

In the remaining weeks I will be trying to discern what each candidate sees as the future and whether the things he has chosen to speak about bear any connection.  The strange thing is that most people agree that America responds well to a crisis.  If we experience another 8 years like that past, we will have a crisis we may not be able to get out of then.