Archive for August 2009

Cheney’s Song

August 31, 2009

US Attorney General Eric Holder has appointed a special prosecutor (Ed Durham) for the alleged purpose of investigating CIA “excesses and abuses” of the interrogation of detainees. From what has been discussed in the media for a long time, this seems poorly focused. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, true to form, has once again this past weekend sung his favorite song about “how the ends justify the means”.

Reports indicate that the CIA did not want the responsibility of interrogating anyone but never the less were tapped by the Bush Administration. We know also that the Justice Department, under former Attorney General John Ashcroft, worked diligently to find someone like Jonathan Yoo, who would write opinions that defined torture as akin to organ failure. We know that these rulings were requested by the CIA for their legal protection, and can rationally assume that protection was not lost on White House officials. And we now know that a wisw range of “enhanced interrogation” techniques were used on detainees with one detainee being waterboarded over 100 times. How can this be a case of excesses and abuses? This was clearly a case of Government Policy.

The question is how can anyone in the CIA, at the “hands on” interrogation level, be guilty of anything when the Vice President and the Justice Department were on record for endorsing their methods. It was not a question of ambiguity but rather one of prerogative. As Richard Nixon once said, “if the President says its ok, than it is legal”. This was debunked once and should be again.

The greatest mistake that Special Prosecutor Durham could make is do a rerun of the Abu Ghraib charade. “They were just “bad apples”, proclaimed the White House. Later we were to learn that the degrading and disgusting photos were really the result of an overall license which taught subordinates to think of detainees as things, not humans. The source of the Abu Ghraib disgrace and the excess of CIA interrogation are the same, Government policy.

Former Vice President Cheney declared this weekend that he might not cooperate with this “political” investigation. I wonder what he will say when he, himself, becomes the target?

A Break in the Clouds

August 29, 2009

Today’s newspapers bring unconfirmed reports that the Obama Administration may announce alternatives to the “star wars” project that the Bush Administration tried to roll out in Poland and the Czech Republic. If true, this will represent a break in the clouds, a “no-risk” option that should help international relations, save money, and in no way aggravate the security of the US. Other than a dubious value for bluffing, the long standing anti-missile missile program (aka Star Wars) had a 50/50 record of success and then only when everyone knew when and where the test firing would be. Some security.

This program, like the extra F-22s, were costly extras that we no longer can afford, and weapons systems of questionable value. Star Wars was still born simply from a technology perspective and after much money and time (from Reagan era), the system about to be deployed was good for only one enemy war head at a time.

The idea of intercepting an incoming missile is hard to argue with in principle. If only it were that easy to do. As a deterrent, however, it would not have dissuaded terrorist elements from trying to launch, and it chances of working were close to nil. A far better deterrent is the retaliation that could be heaped upon an Iran should they try to launch a missile attack at anyone.

The even brighter part of this cloud is that it places even more importance in diplomatic efforts. Despite all the differences that exist between the US and countries like Russia or China, it can not be lost on them that Islamic fundamentalists, especially groups like the Taliban and al Qaeda, are bad news for them too. Unlike the “stick in the eye” brand of diplomacy practiced by the Bush Administration, President Obama is placing more and more bets on rationality.

Massachusetts’ Quandary

August 28, 2009

With the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy, the State of Massachusetts has a potential test of whether this progressive State can look itself in a mirror without feeling the urge to regurgitate. When it appeared that Senator John Kerry might beat former President George W Bush in 2004, the Democratic controlled legislature passed a bill that prohibited the sitting Governor (a Republican) from appointing a replacement and prescribed a special election instead. Now with the health care reform tumbling towards a crucial vote this fall, the loss of a Democratic vote is viewed a potential loss for progressives.

Governor Deval Patrick has said that if a bill allowing him to appoint someone (returning the law to how it was before 2004), he would sign it. Shame on Deval.

There are wide ranging views on whether temporary appointments are necessary or are simply political tools to help the party in power retain the seat at the next general election. Clearly temporary appointments have been used this way and often the wife of the deceased Congressman or some obscure person who promises not to run again (a caretaker) have taken his seat. It is difficult to image why the country is better off with these type of appointments.

What stinks about this Massachusetts discussion is that it is so in your face. There is no principle in play here, unless it is the adoption of Bush and Cheney’s “ends justify the means”. It is being dressed up with the slogans like “in these difficult times, with health care reform at stake, Massachusetts can not be without two Senators”.  The Emperor has no clothes in this case.

Massachusetts has a wonderful, principled, and proud history, and in recent years has been the bluest of the blue States. To stoop to the Tom Delay type of back room deals should bring tears to the eyes of real blue State Massachusetts residents.

The Higher Power’s Legacy

August 27, 2009

In the run up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, George W Bush told the world that he did not seek his own father’s (George H W Bush) advice but instead talked with a “higher authority”. Only a cynic like Dick Cheney could keep a straight face and commend the President’s seeking supernatural advice. (Cheney had already made the decision to invade and was busily cooking the evidence to confuse the American public if not the President.)

Unfortunately, the higher authority let “W” down with apparently bum advice, and the Iraq invasion and occupation is history.

Today when there are so many other things that our imaginations and energy could be tackling, America is still stuck with the higher authority’s sticky paper on our hands. Iraq, even though the daily death toll is down, is simply a mess. This poor excuse for a democracy is really a theocracy waiting to happen. Most evidence points to Shiite control and an alliance with Iran for starters. This will trigger Sunni resistance, and unless the Shiites strike a sweet deal with the Kurds, there will be three factions preferring violence to allowing one (Shiites) to rule.

Afghanistan is another piece of the legacy. For 7 years, nation building was overlooked with the lame excuse that Iraq was a higher priority.  As a consequence, corruption and ignorance were allowed to flourish in Afghanistan. Bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan today will require a huge Army of occupation (probably in excess of 500,000) which we do not have and could not afford.

The Legacy keeps on giving. From Abu Ghraib to secret renditions to Guantanamo to the secret CIA prisons and the torture memos, Americans are being forced to confront these issues when these events never needed to have happened. Financially, the legacy is Broadway material. The actually fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost Americans over $1 trillion so far, and this figure does not include the future VA health care for the mangled bodies of US wounded or the post dramatic stress syndrome cases that are mounting.  The music just keeps playing.

The question, I guess, will always be laying out there as to whether “W” was listening to the higher authorities advice, or just thought he knew better. There’s plenty of evidence to support both notions.  On the other hand, maybe the higher authority gave bad advice because “W” had not bothered to ask on other important issues, like when “W” found it completely ok to sanction unlimited use of the death penalty, denying the reproductive rights of women, demonizing the life styles of gays and lesbians, and tuning his back on the risks posed by global warming. I hope if President Obama is faced with any similar decision during his Presidency, that he does not waste any time consulting a higher authority and instead, uses his time to gather data and listen to a wide range of knowledgeable people.

Think Twice

August 26, 2009

The George W Bush Administration inherited a budget surplus from former President Bill Clinton. President Barack Obama inherited a projected $1.2 trillion deficit from the Bush Administration, and the projection was prepared well before the economic melt down that subsequently occurred. In the best of the Bush years, deficits were encountered primarily because tax revenues (following Bush’s tax cuts) were not large enough to cover the cost of government. Think about that. Why was anything not done during the Bush years to end the deficit spending?

Today the Government announced they project about a $1.5 trillion deficit for this year, and about $9 trillion more over the next 10 years. And you might ask, “what is President Obama’s solution”? His Administration remains silent and leaves us to believe this is just a small problem for another day.

The budget can be viewed as composed of four parts. They are Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security, Defense, and everything else. The health care parts and social security are alledgedly funded by payroll taxes. The problem is that the Government is not collecting enough to ensure these funds will last and the Government is paying money into them each year to keep them afloat. Defense spending is about $ 600 billion each year and should be a target bigger than a barn to shoot at. The $600 billion is more than all other countries’ defense budgets combined.

We have heard often that health care costs can be trimmed and that changes in social security rules can help, but in the end, they are simply underfunded. The Defense Budget is clearly too large but it is unrealistic to imagine it going away. It is reasonable to think about a reduction of $200 billion a year but that is only a small down payment on a budget deficit of $1.5 trillion.

Most homeowners are incensed that others are walking away from their mortgages, or seeking to renegotiate their terms. Some are even seeking to have principle forgiven. Why then should the US Government allow deficits of this magnitude to exist without any plan to pay them off? How can we ask everyday citizens to pay their credit cards bills when the US borrows steadily to pay its bills with no idea how to pay its debts? Do Government officials think that they can ask forgiveness from the Country’s debt holders?

In politics, unfortunately it is not about right or wrong, it is about surviving and helping those who have supported the elected official’s election. It will be tempting to use inflation (which they will all decry) as a means to pay back this enormous debt with much cheaper dollars. We will all lose out on this ploy as our cost of living skyrockets and our savings shrink in value.

So what about bracing our backs and raising taxes on everyone.  This is a far more cost effective tool than inflation.  We already know that the tax schedule in force during the Clinton years was quite compatible with prosperity. With higher taxes, then we can all decide, in a clearer light, how much Government Services we can afford and really want.

I think it is time to “think twice” about taxes.

Does It Make A Difference?

August 25, 2009

It is hard to be sure whether health care reform is in trouble or not. The “debate” or better said, the outrageous disagreements that are paraded before us each day are almost certainly not intended for informational purposes. Rather they are intended to support the special interests that have contributed money and demand this type of rhetoric in return.

TR Reid’s new book, “The Healing of America”, in unemotional terms lays the facts out. He compares the major health care systems utilized by developed, civilized, and wealthy countries (compared to the rest of the pack). His book debunks the lies and distortions, or more charitably, the misunderstandings that the air waves bombard us with daily. It makes you wonder how elected members of Congress could stand before us and say the things they say. Shame is not too strong a word for this type of behavior.

Like the invasion and occupation of Iraq (because Iraq posed an imminent threat), or the imposition of draconian airport security (while leaving seaports totally open to smuggling of WMD), or the wholesale adoption of laissez faire regulation (while the seeds of the recent financial sector collapse germinated), all of these situations and the current health care debate are the result of ideology without the benefit of fact or data. It does not have to be this way.

The grand days of limitless American growth are over. The wild west image we all like to have of no challenge being to great, may still be partly true. America may still be able to do anything it wants, it just can not do everything without paying for it.

In a stumbling way, the American health care discussion is about whether we are going to be American for all people, or only America for those who can afford it? If we decide it is one America, then our choice of health care delivery systems will logically be one of the three models presented by Reid (his fourth model is “pay as you go”, no money, no health care, as is practiced in most of the third world countries), not the mixture we have now.

Rationing health care sounds ominous but that is exactly what America does now with the use of personal wealth as the criteria. Cost and efficiency have been casualties in the American system where administrative costs range from 18-20% for private insurance compared to Europe and Japan of 4-5%. And, the efficacy of specific tests or treatment are left to the data and not simply to affordability.

I am concluding that it probably makes no difference how this current round of health care reform discussions turn out. Reform would be nice but given the lack of interest by Americans in facts and data, a positive outcome is not likely. The status quo will bring us more of the same. More people will be shut off from coverage. Basic costs will continue to rise at 2-3 times inflation. Life expectancy will lag other wealthy countries and most Americans won’t know the difference. In time the current system will collapse and the herd will flock to whatever the Government proposes.

The real shame of this is that if this is how Americans think about health care, then how do they think about foreign affairs, or civil rights, or tax policies? Why should Americans have confidence in their Government if it only delivers what some selfishly want, not what is fair and in the best interest of the “common wealth”?

What’s Happening in Afghanistan?

August 24, 2009

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullin made the talk shows on Sunday. His job was to spread the doom and gloom message before the whole Afghan house of cards collapses. What could be happening that so worried the Admiral?

Separately, other reports over the weekend painted the picture that the Taliban was reduced to fighting over selection of a a new leader (you have to ask why any leader is needed). The Taliban dispute is all about family clans and how one clan can not possibly submit to rule by another, but is more than ready to rule a wide number of other clans. Technically this should be a Pakistan issue but these families have not heard about international boarders.

The Western world looks at maps and sees various boarders, be it in Iraq, Afghanistan, or most of Africa, and sees the clear demarkation of one country from another. But the people who live there, and have been used to roaming freely across these imposed boarders, see it quite differently. In their minds there are no boarders.

Afghanistan is at best a collection of regional fiefdoms each controlled by some sort of war lord. As in Saudi Arabia, it is convenient for the local leader to make a deal with the most powerful Imam. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours, so to speak. With this deal, there is virtually no chance that a poor, already backward country, can embrace education and reform. It is not that the Afghan people do not possess the “potential” but rather that they are carrying too heavy a burden to break free and enter modernity.

Admiral Mullin, if he is doing his job, should be assessing what military actions are winnable and which ones are not. Afghanistan is not a product of military actions even though the Russians and the US have dumped plenty of bombs and bullets into the countryside. Afghanistan is a broken country whose pieces do not fit, and most likely can not be put back together.

Swatting Flies

August 23, 2009

In August it gets hot. Flies of all types swam and fill the air with useless noise. On a particularly bad day, one can spend all the waking moments simply swatting flies. And the tragedy of this picture is that new flies come back the next day.

President Obama seems to be stuck in the rut of swatting flies this August. In most regards it is a problem of his own making. To be clear, President Obama did not create or make these feces eating flies. They are instead the product of the ignorant, mean spirited, and hapless followers of an ideology that can not work any longer. The rough and ready world of “pulling yourself up by the boot straps”, “intelligent design”, and “protect my freedom to carry a gun” may have been fine once upon a time but today are incompatible with a global world. But these aren’t the messages these flies are carrying.

“Death panels”, “end of private insurance”, and “government run health care” are the chants sung by this August’s flies. Swat, swat, swat. And guess what, just as if nothing had been said to counter these claims, a new batch of flies sings the same claims again. Sing, swat, sing, swat, and so on.

Normally when one is confronted with flies there is a reason. Close the door, look for decaying matter, use the bug spray. This August the flies are swarming over a crappy explanation of health care reform. Flies should be attracted to crap, so there should be no surprise.

It is not that health care reform is crap. Health care reform is badly needed. Most of the dumb flies do not realize how fragile their current insurance is and that relatively arbitrary decisions by health insurers could leave the flies with no coverage. Most of these flies do not seem to understand the current health care delivery system is economically out of control and will come tumbling down sooner or later. And most of these flies have not stopped to think that 40-50 million people do not have, or can not afford insurance coverage, and that is both immoral and economically dangerous for the current delivery system. Flies don’t think, I guess.

President Obama has got to stop swatting flies and start describing, in clear and unambiguous terms, what his health care reform will really look like. If he stops the crap, the flies will disappear.

$174,000 Does Not Buy Much

August 22, 2009

Your everyday Congress man or woman is entitled to $ 174,000 in salary for the year 2009. That does not seem like a lot of money although it is a little more than 10 times the minimum wage. It is not as much as what you think of when the word “Wall Street” comes to mind, but it is about 3 times higher than the median income of a person with a college (or greater) degree. So this must be a very good salary and must attract some of best and brightest. Does it?

From what we read about the workings of Congress and in many instances, about individual Congressmen, this is a hard question to answer. Senator John Ensign is so smart that he can tell the difference between his affair with a subordinate (and subsequent $90,000 pay off), and the sexual encounter between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Clinton’s was certainly worthy of impeachment while Ensign’s was simply a momentary lapse of good judgement.

The workings of Congress is what really counts, not the trials and tribulations of individual Congress men and women. On that score, I must admit, I am even less impressed. Senator Fluster must work extremely diligently to slip important “ear marks” into legislation late at night and just before the final vote so that his constituents receive their share of the spoils. Senator Bluster, on the other hand, must study, equivocate in long scholarly sounding speeches, and then cast his vote according to the wishes of his most favored supporters.

You might say “so what”, but looking at the state of the US with a projected $10 trillion deficit forecasted for the next 10 years and no one seems to have a rational approach to eliminating it.   You have to ask why we need these Congress people anyway?

We must not overlook that it is not easy to become a Congress person. The average spend for a House seat in 2008 was $ 1.1 million and for the Senate, $ 6.4 million. Keep in mind that those are average figures and only what the candidate spends themselves (form donations of course). So on average our Congress people spend 12 times their expected salary to gain office and then do their best to serve our needs. If there wasn’t a never ending line of candidates, I would have thought the current crowd had simply failed business 101 and were satisfied getting the best job they could no matter what it cost.

Non-sensical Politics

August 21, 2009

The on-going health care debate has been a misnomer. There has been no debate, no sharing of two or more sets of ideas that might improve health care. Instead we have heard one distortion after another from one side and a clear as mud explanation from the President on what exactly he is proposing. It should be no surprise that the health care reform legislation is receiving less and less support from Americans who should be demanding change.

Death panels and the end of private insurance, Republican claims that can not be backed up with any facts, have gotten traction solely because of the poor White House leadership job. The President’s decision to act as if he is above the crowd, and leaving the crafting of legislation to others, and then only approve or disapprove the resulting bill, is in this case, a dangerous tactic for a subject so important and so complicated as health care.

Yesterday, in a presentation to Democratic faithful (and separately on Michael Smerconich’s talk radio program), President Obama explained away most of the rumors and plain mistruths leveled by critics. He was quite convincing until he came to paying for a sustainable health care program.

Obama broke the estimated cost into thirds explaining away 2/3rds of the increase quickly. The last third, however, would need public funding and he could simply not bring himself to tell people that the current program needs that too. “I will not increase taxes for health care on the backs of the middle class”, Obama said.

President Obama (or his advisors) would do well to remember we have a progressive tax system for a reason. Everyone should pay and some should pay more if they earn more. Obama and his advisors would be well to also recognize that when something comes to you “free”, you value it much less. Many experts on health care reform point to this detail (lack of individual involvement in the actual cost of health care) as a large contributor to over use and lack of questioning doctors, hospital, and drug costs.

With the current health care delivery system heading towards bankruptcy and unaffordability, it is non-sensical to continue political theater. It is time to reform and it is time to begin paying what it costs and demanding that its cost track inflation.