Archive for October 2009

Tenacity?

October 31, 2009

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote yesterday about President Obama and Afghanistan. Brooks commented that the “experts” he consulted were not concerned with the time it was taking for President Obama to decide on the General Stanley McChrystal’s request for more troops. They assumed he would make a reasoned decision. They were worried (lack of information) about whether Obama had the fortitude to stick it out in good times and bad.

There is something smug about that concern. It is like, “well anyone can see we need to be in Afghanistan, but I do not think he has the guts to stay with it when things look bad.” How do these people know what is “right” and in any case what is their argument for continuing to stay in Afghanistan?

President Obama is undoubtably familiar with the ordeal that Vietnam represented for three Presidents. Vietnam was like a tar baby, it could not be shaken away. We went to Afghanistan to capture and destroy al Qaeda, and to remove the Taliban lead Afghan government that provided sanctuary for them. For oh so many foolish reasons, the US did not focus on building a stable Afghan government, and here we are 8 years later with a corrupt regime ineffective in delivering basic services and lacking popular support. Why stay?

There are many reasons given. The most frequently heard is that the Taliban will overthrow the Afghan government and they will destabilize the region again. This is not a pleasant outcome but ask this question, “who are Afghan’s neighbors?” Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan (for Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, read Russia).

The future stability of Afghanistan is a world problem and not that of the US alone. Someone is supplying the Taliban with plenty of weapons, munitions, and money. The Taliban has already shown that they share nothing in common with any of their neighbors and will sponsor suicide bombings where ever they choose.

I do not know whether President Obama will have the courage to stick by his decision in good times and bad. I do want him, however, to really think through “why are we there now”.

Leadership

October 30, 2009

Former President Harry Truman used to like to say, “the buck stops here”. Former President George W Bush said, “I’m the decider”. One of these men will be remembered as a great President and the other will not. Taking responsibility for ones decisions and their consequences is a large part of leadership as well as individual greatness.

Yesterday we learned that President Obama had made an unannounced visit, shortly after midnight, to Dover Air Force Base in order to be present when the bodies of US soldiers and citizens recently killed in Afghanistan arrived. The President greeted each coffin with a salute. He also met with family members who were  present. Later the President said that this experience would weigh in his decision about the future of US involvement in Afghanistan.

It is not clear just how this visit will weigh in President Obama’s deliberations but what is clear is that he understands the human costs of war. As the commander in chief, he stood tall and symbolically showed that, “the buck stopped with him”.

 

You Can’t Fix The World

October 29, 2009

The optimist sees the glass as half full. Strangely, some see Afghanistan as almost ready for stability. While I would like to see it that way too, I am afraid that I see, instead, an undeveloped country locked in poverty and holding on to an absolutely useless religion. These shackles are too pervasive and will sooner, rather than later, force the unfortunate people who call themselves Afghans back even further in time.

NATO forces ousted the Taliban Government in 2002 and installed a “democratic and free” Government lead by Hamid Karzai. This Government has been an abject failure although it has probably done as well as should have been expected. Now President Obama is weighing whether to increase US presence and increase the effort to bring a stable government to bare. What ever President Obama is considering, let’s hope he recognizes that “you can’t fix the world”.

The US must consider first its national interests. With respect to Afghanistan, what are those national interests?  That’s not clear, although preventing the return of the Taliban would seem one of them. But think about the efficacy of that goal. What prevents the Taliban from setting up training camps in Somolia or Pakistan?

As we have seen in Iran, a religious lead government take over, given time, looks just like a tyrannical secular takeover. Sooner or later the religious leaders find that receiving a little money makes life easier, and receiving a lot more money makes life even better.

The senseless insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan,where suicide bombings rule the day, have no recent historical parallels . They look more like a civil war where a divided nation seeks to find a ruler, but chooses not to find compromise. As a result there are no cookie cutter solutions.

This argues strongly for a swift reduction of US troops with most likely a complete withdrawal within three years.  American can save lives and money, and have the advantage of observing from a distance what emerges.  There is no reason to expect a new Iraq or Afghanistan to be a better neighbor for Russia or China.

What Can Government Do?

October 28, 2009

It is probably easier to answer the negative of this question. We know Government can not write tax code that is understandable. We are told that Government can not run health care (although those receiving Medicare generally do not agree). We are advised that Government will muck up our free enterprise system if they intervene and set remuneration packages for the big banks. So, there seems to be evidence of what Government can’t do, but what can they do?

  • We have reason to believe that Government can help those who have helped them. Otherwise, why would so many contribute so much to so few?
  • We can also guess that Government employs intelligent and persuasive people. If that was not true where would all those lobbying firms get their talent?
  • We are taught that the institution of Government is about increasing the commonwealth and providing an environment for all citizens to pursue prosperity. History and biography books are full of these examples. So why are there so many that warn that Government can not do anything?

Let’s look at two examples. Healthcare and Wall Street salaries.

Healthcare. It is ridiculous to assert the Government can not administer a national health care service program that handles the payment of basic health care benefits. If Government is good at anything, it is good at bureaucracies. Government is also good at leading industry panels such as one designed to define what is basic health care (care and services that apply to everyone). A panel of scientists and medical specialists could recommend a protocol of treatments and measure outcomes against the cost of these treatments.  The bench mark would be other modern countries. Mirroring what is done in Europe, Canada, and Japan should result in better health care at a much lower cost.

Wall Street salaries. It is also ridiculous to think Government can set Wall Street salaries any better than in times of inflation, Government can set “wage and price” controls. Government can, however, set trip points that will prevent institutions getting “too big to fail” and in all cases, that management including the most senior leaders are held fully accountable for the financial institutions performance. For example, a Citigroup should never be allowed to form unless there was a strict debt to equity leverage ration of under ten. Or, if financial institutions decide to pay its executives salary and bonuses greater that the President’s remuneration package, then bonuses must be long term in nature and fully deniable if the institution’s performance does not match the initial expectation behind the award. And should the institution fail, all members of the top management team for the last three years would be potentially both criminally and civilly liable.

Government can play a useful role in setting rules, administering the rules, and modifying the rules as outside events dictate. It is about decisions and consequences, about outcomes and costs.

 

Still The Big Three

October 27, 2009

With so much going on now, what should President Obama, and for that matter, Congress, be seeing as their most important objectives. There are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is the task of restarting the economy, there’s fixing the regulatory loopholes that contributed to the financial sector collapse, there is the public option, and so many more. But what should be the main focus and around which everything else should be placed in some priority?

The “Big Three” remain the same. They are:

  • Eliminating dependance of fossil fuels. This objective would bring forward alternative energy sources like solar, wind, and geothermal. It would allow for medium range use of natural gas and “clean coal” in order to immediately discontinue the use of foreign oil. Benefits would be the sharp drop in transfer of US wealth to foreign countries necessary to pay for oil. There would also be an accompanying easing of diplomatic/military pressure that seems necessary to keep the oil lines open.
  • Adopting a sensible health care delivery system, most likely single payer, that is patterned after ones like Germany, France, Canada, or Japan. There are two objectives with this goal. First, we must eliminate the source of social instability that lies at the heart of our current “some have, and some do not” health care delivery system. The American multicultural fabric will be torn apart if we allow the current disparity to continue. The second goal is the reduction of health care cost and the improvement of outcomes. Success in this area is critical to our Country’s future financial strength.
  • Putting Education back into our schools. Today too many students are “baby sat” in school while they either put in time until they can be legally on their own, or until they can enter the job hunt only to get (if they are lucky) lower paying jobs. Education is about learning useful skills and knowledge and most importantly, about how to make informed decisions.  Education is critical to truly restarting the economy and being able to compete in a global world. Education is critical if the electorate is to decipher the intentional misrepresentation and spin of political extremes. Education, especially math, science, and engineering, are critical to creating value which is the only way Americans can have hope that our children can have as good, or hopefully a better life than we have had.

Oil, health care, and education. If we get those right, then all the other serious issues we face will fall into line. If we do not, then what ever we accomplish will be built upon a house of cards, soon to tumble down.

 

Vietnam Memorial, What’s Next?

October 26, 2009

Over the weekend, I visited Washington DC. It was a beautiful fall day and a lot of other people had the same idea as I had. In addition, there was a marathon underway and a fair number of out of towners came along to run, cheer, and sight see. Along the mall, from the Capital buildings to the Lincoln Memorial, people of all ages walked, biked, strolled, or jogged.

I was struck by the majestic nature of the architecture, old blending smoothly with the new and modern. Well almost everywhere. One huge exception jumped out.

If you remember the mall, at one end is the Capital, standing on a raised area with its gleaming dome. In the middle is the Washington Monument standing tall and slender. And at the far end is the Lincoln Memorial with its many stairs and tall columns. Now there is a World War II memorial (dedicated in 2004 by George W Bush).

The WWII memorial is a large oval composed of columns with each of the US states and territories names. On each column is a large (4 foot in diameter) oak lead cluster. In the middle of the monument is a reflecting pool. Some how, the monument seems out of place. It does not communicate like the Cemeteries in France with thousands of white crosses.

Just before the Lincoln Memorial and slightly to its north lays the Vietnam Memorial. It is a cut in the ground that slowly descends about twelve feet below ground level before gently rising again. On the walls are the names of all those who died in this, the longest of all US wars. This simple memorial carries the power of the fields of crosses in a most compact manner.

At the WWII monument, people played, at the Vietnam memorial visitors walked silently with many searching for the names of lost friends and family.

I was struck by two thoughts. Why would someone design one monument with so little impact as the WWII for a conflict of such magnitude. Or was it simply that the Vietnam Memorial was design with so much genius?

I was also struck by what type of monument would be appropriate for those who gave their lives for Iraq and Afghanistan?

Finally Sense in the White House

October 24, 2009

The White House has been grappling with what its strategy should be going forward in Afghanistan. General Stanley McCrystal has submitted a request for more military personnel and is awaiting a response. The collective White House is weighing its response and for good reasons.

According to Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, getting the strategy right is the most important step that needs to be taken. Gates said that up to now there has not been any thought through strategy for Afghanistan. What a surprise.

Gates also said recently that there was need for robust consultations with other allies. He said that Afghanistan was not the sole responsibility of the US. The pieces may be fitting together as one thinks about all the consultation that has been quietly underway with allies and other interested parties (like China and Russia). The press has presented the White House considerations as only a two dimensional think project, centered on what is the politically correct number of troops to deploy. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Militarily, Afghanistan is already a quagmire and the Afghan Government is a cesspool. Both are not likely to change quickly and so there would appear no quick and clean path to peace and withdrawal. What the Obama team seem to recognize, however, is the dysfunctional Taliban leadership that would replace the current Afghan Government should US troops withdraw, would pose a menace for the entire world and not just the US.

Hence the need to get commitment from other Countries, and back home within his Administration, a common and coordinated approach among all the Cabinet Departments. Having an aligned and coordinated approach to Afghanistan is the best chance of achieving a positive outcome, a stable, peaceful Afghan Government.

So it is with some amusement that former Vice President Dick Cheney’s comments are received. Cheney speaking to a like group of chicken hawks said President Obama was “dithering” and should just give his commander the troops he needed to win. Oh, this is so Bush and Cheney, it is hard to not fall down laughing.

The Bush/Cheney team allowed the US Afghan war effort sit on the back burner while it foolishly pursued an unnecessary invasion and occupation of Iraq. In both military efforts there were no robust plans, no exit strategies, and no identified set of goals that would define success. And, even more telling, there was little or no involvement of allies or interested parties. It is refreshing and even more, a sign of real change to see the manner in which President Obama is conducting his foreign policy.

Finally, there is sense in the White House.

Lucy and the Public Option

October 23, 2009

In years recently past, this time of year was special.  Lucy would put the football down and hold it ready for Charlie Brown to kick. As he ran to kick, Lucy would pull the ball out of the way and Charlie, of course would miss and fall on his back side. Every day Lucy would plead that she would not do it again, and low and behold, she did.

The newspapers today report again that the leadership of both house of Congress are on the verge of including a “public option” in the health care reform bill. The reasoning would be clear if we thought Congress responded to the wishes of most Americans, or at least to common sense. There is so much more at play in these debates that it is not clear what the motivation or intentions are that cause Congressional leadership to signal the public option again.

For example, including the public option may be a longer term strategy to permanently identify those who vote against it as health care and health care reform opponents and unworthy of voters interest. It may also be a “get even” blow against the insurance industry that has shamelessly opposed any real reform. It may also be again a false balloon where the fall back position is a “trigger” which at some later time might bring a public option into play.

It seems to me that eliminating any reasons for uninsurability (pre-existing conditions) and adding requirements that everyone should purchase coverage (with appropriate tax incentives) are the bare minimum step to reform health care. But I can also write the script for the demise of private insurance (at least the large scale use of it)depending upon the behavior.

  • The American health care delivery system is the most expensive (by a huge margin) in the world today, and delivers mediocre health outcomes. It is not close to the best in the world by any measure.  Insurance industry representatives do not acknowledge this, and they have no proposals how to reduce health care cost AND improve outcomes.
  • On top of its absolute high cost, health care costs are rising each year unchecked at rates 2-3 times the rate of inflation.  Sooner or later it will break the bank.
  • There will be no relaxation in the Wall Street pressure to increase private insurance companies’ profits, and the greed of top executives to earn even greater salaries and bonuses will continue unabated.

It is simply not clear to me whether the greed of the private insurance industry or the inclusion of a public option will bring the Country to its senses. Health care is a right and not a place for manufacturing profits. Health care must be paid for but what we pay must make sense when compared to other equally modern countries.

Pay Cuts

October 22, 2009

The Government “Pay Czar” has been reported ready to claw back 2009 pay from executives of companies the Federal Government bailed out. Reports suggest that the top executives will experience roughly a 50% drop from 2008 level. Is this fair? Is this the Governments business?

First, let’s vent. These are the leaders who were absent for duty during the time leading up to the collapse of Wall Street and the associated economy driven losses by General Motors and Chrysler. While there was probably different degrees of culpability between General Motors, AIG, Bank of America, and Citigroup, the unmistakable facts are that their CEOs (and top executives) presided over their companies and were responsible for decisions and the consequences that culminated in severe financial difficulties. These leaders had regularly accepted generous (if not obscenely high) remuneration packages before their company’s collapse. Pay cuts were the minimum just due.

Second, can the Government do this? It is dubious what the legal footing is, and as a precedent, what exactly would be the conditions under which the method could be used again?

Like most reactions to some terrible event, the reaction is often excessive. In the case of the pay level and, for sure, the bonus level, the Financial Services top executives have received remunerations that it is difficult to justify, either by performance or by reference to others such as doctors, teachers, the President, or most corporate CEOs. The auto companies are junior to banks in earnings but the principle is the same. The forced pay cuts seem just and do send send a message about punishment.

The real questions, however, might be, did these high remuneration packages drive the executives to greater performance levels, or will these pay restrictions evoke poorer job performance? I am sure the answer is “no” to each.  Further, it is my guess that this event will have no effect on the ethics or morality of the industries going forward. Something is wrong with the their parenting or their education from MBA producing machines that spit out these executives.

Marriage

October 21, 2009

Last evening at the National Constitution Center, in Philadelphia, PA, a discussion concerning the Constitutional nature of Gay and Lesbian requests for same gender marriage to place. David Boise and Keith Boykin argued “for” and Maggie Gallagher and Glenn Stanton argued against. This discussion went something like this.

For: It is unclear how today’s Supreme Court will decide on this issue, not withstanding their conservative leanings. If they decide that marriage is an important enough right, than a majority (as in California) can not deny a right from a minority (gays and lesbians). Under this light, gays and lesbians should not be denied the right to marry. If the Supreme Court decides this is a State issue, then it will be decided in each State.

Against: Marriage is a very special “idea”. It is, by definition, a union between a man and a woman, and has been so since antiquity. It is only a man and a woman who can conceive a child, and children are very important to perpetuation of the race. Further the “ideal” situation for a child is to grow up in a household composed of one man and one woman who are in a loving relationship and care about the child. (The notion here is that neither a gay couple nor a lesbian one can meet this criteria (no matter how sincere, committed or loving they may be), therefore they are not ideal. There was no also no recognition of all the marriages that end in divorce, contain incest, or are simply parented by immature and unfit adults. Some model of ideal.)

The idea of equal rights and that a majority can not over ride a minority on Constitutional issues was the mainstay of the “For” arguments. The “Against” speakers were more emotional. Marriage was so clearly the province of a man and a woman that society should decide.

The evening’s discussion at times seemed surreal. The “Fors” stuck to legal precedents although they did point out the generational difference where Americans under 30 overwhelmingly favor allowing same sex marriage. The “Againsts” used example after example which went tangential to the core legal argument and instead grew out of some religious or ideological belief.

Motives are hard to decipher and some say should not even be considered. I wonder, however, what are the motives behind those who champion either position. For sure, gay and lesbians want to gain equal rights and garner the emotional advantages of adoption and sick bed visitation. I am sure. also, the economic pluses like marital tax deductions and inheritance are also prime goals.

But why do the “Against side” protest so strongly. Do they believe these advantages they enjoy will disappear if same sex marriage becomes the norm? Or do they hold some strong Biblical or religious doctrinal belief that same sex relationships are inherently abhorrent? Or, are they even more basic and are championing this course because it is their job and others will pay them for their services?

In the question and answer section, one young woman made a statement that she felt same sex marriage “cheapened” her marriage. Astonishing is the only words that came to mind. Later I thought that this, clearly sincere person, had not a clue about what was involved in marriage and would sadly wake up someday to see her children hold entirely different view (and even sadder, can you imagine if one of her children becomes the 1 in 10 who are naturally homosexual?).