Archive for November 2010

The Continuing Guantanamo Mess

November 30, 2010

It is now almost two years after President Obama announced he would close the Guantanamo detention center within one year.  As we enter 2011, Gitmo is still going strong and frankly shows no signs of being close to an end.  So much for the shallow thinkers of the Bush Administration.

Guantanamo represented a genuine effort by government leaders to deal with the vague but deadly threat of islamic extremists.  Unfortunately while the Bush Administration wanted to serve America, they instead have defamed our nation’s image and strengthened these terrorist resolve (and ability to recruit new terrorists).  In this process, the US has spent over a trillion dollars and lost over 6000 American lives.

But collecting prisoners from all sorts of places and concentrating them in Guantanamo boggles the mind.  How does one get this tar baby ever off our hands?

Some describe the prisoners in Guantanamo as enemy combatants, caught on the battle field, and unworthy of any justice such as receiving criminal charges and receiving a fair trial.  It may surprise some that there could be prisoners who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But let’s consider that most there are the worst of the worst.  Why do we not charge them and then try them?  Oh, is it possible they may have been tortured?  Is it possible that some evidence is hearsay and also obtained by torture?

The Supreme Court has ruled that Guantanamo does represent US territory and therefore prisoners should have access to protections of our Constitution.  This would not be the case had these prisoners remained in Iraq or Afghanistan under detention there.  While I think the fastest and surest method of justice is to charge and try these prisoners in US courts, military commissions would be ok with two provisions.  (1) No hearsay evidence or evidence obtained by torture, and (2) if a prisoner is found not guilty, no further detention for any reason.  So far these have been politically unacceptable conditions.

Guantanamo has served us little purpose and only served to put US in third world country status.  On top of this, there is no shortage of terrorists and al Qaeda franchises are showing up in several countries.  The Afghan conflict is going on with little regard for Guantanamo.  US morale authority has a gapping hole as long as Gitmo remains in operation.  It is time to end this policy blunder.


Please Explain

November 29, 2010

Here’s something I do not understand.  Why do Americans who do not pay anywhere close to the actual cost of their health insurance want to deny others coverage?  Why will these people not look to other modern countries in the world and at least consider how their “universal coverage” systems work?

I do observe this phenomena in other areas as well.  Some Americans beat their chests and fly the flag proudly while boasting of living in the greatest free (under law) country in the world.  These same people, however, do not object (and some support) indefinite detention and enhanced interrogation, and do not under any circumstances want the Guantanamo prisoners tried in civil courts in the US.  Why?  Do they believe that justice comes in different flavors?

The health care conundrum strikes right at the heart of what ails America today.  Americans, I believe, do not hate others and want to deny them health coverage.  Instead Americans want to take care of themselves first, and do not want to jeopardize their own coverage.  This is especially the case if someone else getting coverage might limit their access or increase their cost, then it is tough break and the other person gets screwed.  The real tragedy here is that Americans do not ask “root cause” questions.  Like what does my health care actually cost, and why is my health care so expensive?

So, please explain to me why Americans do not ask these questions when, even in the cases where they deny others health care, in a short period of time, these same Americans will be paying enormously more (as employers opt out of this benefit) and will be paying even more each year there after because nothing has been done to contain health care costs?

I guess nobody has said we are the smartest nation in the world.



Government Spending

November 28, 2010

Governments (local, State, or Federal) spend money for all sorts of purposes.  Since they are composed of people, a large part of government spending is simply for salaries, benefits, and pensions.  But why should governments spend anyways?

The answer should be that governments spend (pass out money) if the money has been “pre-accumulated” or the money is a “targeted investment”.  In the first case, money is collected from tax payers on the promise that it will be paid back at some time in the future.  Social security is an example.  In the second case, the government makes investments in “things” like roads, bridges, tanks, ships etc or programs like education, R&D, or aid to troubled sectors (like farming, housing, banks, etc).  If the government does its job well, these “things” or programs will produce a return, for example, allow citizens to work better, prosper and return to the government in taxes an amount equal to or greater than the original investment.

If there is a basis for seeking to reduce the size of government, one would reason that it would come from three perspectives.

  • The actual government spending does not produce any return or the return is just too small.  Such an argument has been made for the war in Iraq and the anti-missile missile (star wars) program.  Farm subsidies and certain aid to education also have been criticized as low or no return spending.
  • The cost to distribute government money (that is the Federal payroll) at time dwarfs the amount actually spent as well as the return.  Home Land Security is currently coming under this type of criticism.
  • The political process coupled with inherent opportunity for graft and corruption often syphons off so much money that the tax payer’s sensibilities are disturbed.  Programs can be criticized if tax payers think there is favoritism regardless of whether the expenditures made sense or not.  Ear marks are the current example.

It would be very refreshing to see the expected Tea Party/Republican assault on government spending taking a tact like I have outlined.  Common sense would still be required since federal employees are tax payers and real people.  Wholesale firing would produce large hardships.  Federal workers are also voters and repercussions should be expected.

Most likely this method of cutting government spending will be slow and in some cases, may produce negligible results.  Tax increases will certainly be necessary.  Just the same, asking the questions (1) where are we spending money, and (2) what is the return, would be enlightening.


The Games Resume

November 27, 2010

Thanksgiving weekend is the final pause this year where the airwaves are essentially noise free,  Congress will come back into session on Monday and the final days of a lame duck Congress will begin.  The question is whether we will see adults or instead see children trying to legislate.

The New Start treaty is worthy of attention.  There is also a Medicare patch where doctors are paid closer to their actual costs awaiting action.  And there are tax issues.

Whither goes the Bush Tax Cuts?  Will they be extended only for those earning less than $250,000 or will everyone get a break for a couple (read three) years?  What will happen to the Estate Tax?

While it should be clear that taxes should go up, and that any relief should be temporary for everyone, the mud fight is likely to center on where to draw the line on “permanent” tax reductions.  Medicare, Social Security, and Defense are government services extensively used by the poor and middle class.  These programs are severely underfunded.  It would be unconscionable that the Bush tax cuts would disappear only for the rich.

In order to balance the budget and begin paring down the debt, America will need to cut some services, increase some taxes, and grow the overall economy.  Politically cutting deeply in to Medicare, Social Security, or Defense is akin to a death wish but some cuts will be necessary.  Raising taxes, at least to Bill Clinton era levels is also politically risky but absolutely sensible.

So what’s the big deal?

Republicans have made a big deal of not raising taxes and letting people think all can be made well by simply cutting costs.  Democrats have made an equally a big deal that the rich must lose their Bush tax cuts.  Both parties have made noise about jobs and fear the impact of raising taxes now.  If not now, when?

One or two years delay won’t work because that will place a Congress members’ vote too close to the next election.  Voters can remember that long.  While the economy is coming back and might benefit from another six months of lower taxes, we are likely going to get a three year delay.  This will take the issue out of the Presidential arena experts predict.

The spectacle which is about to unfold will come to us as the games resume.

Leadership Primer

November 25, 2010

Our Congressional leaders as well as our Presidential hopefuls are strutting about and talking about taking the country back to its people.  Regardless of whether you cringe at that thought, the slogan has been appealing to a population that has lost confidence that government can be a part of a solution to what ails the USA today.

Here is a way to judge these orators and sense whether they are blowing smoke or, in fact, have a clue how to lead the country to a predetermined spot.  (I would argue that George W Bush never wished that his leadership would lead the US to an unwinnable war like Iraq or the unsavory mess with Abu Ghraib, or the lack of necessary management that lead to Katrina, the housing bubble, and the financial sector implosion.  Rather it was his clear lack of experience leading a boy scout troop that allowed events to take control. “W” had no sense of leadership.  His only recognizable skill was poising for a picture taking.)

  • Leadership requires the leader to articulate a vision of a future state (such as a growing economy where all segments fairly participate).
  • Leadership also requires the leader to describe in unvarnished terms the current state of events (like an education system that serves to few despite enormous expense, a health care system that rates 16th or so in the world but costs 50-100% more per capita despite lacking universal coverage, or that not enough jobs are being created in order to support the life style Americans are used to.
  • Leadership is about voicing a strategy on how to move the Country from where it is to where the vision describes.
  • And lastly, leadership is about following a code of beliefs or values which describe the boundaries that government will keep within on the way to the new vision.

Most simply stated, cutting taxes is not a vision of the future.  Nor is invading other countries or waterboarding or getting government off the backs of its citizens a vision of the future.  It is certainly possible that these references may be part of strategy but by themselves are wholly incomplete.  (Waterboarding should be ruled out for anyone with a decent set of beliefs or values.)

Most all the Republican candidates lack any evidence of a vision or any idea of our current state but President Obama needs to pay attention too.  Change is not a vision nor is it a complete strategy.  President Obama, despite the popular Republican smears, has the makings of a good story.  The story is not self evident and will need to be articulate.  From that story, the President will have a good platform from which to lead.

It Ain’t Easy

November 23, 2010

The “New Start” treaty is currently stalled in the Senate because Texas Senator John Kyl has put a hold on the treaty and has said he will keep the hold until next January.  A long list of past Secretary of States and experts on Russia (including current Defense Secretary Robert Gates) have urge Republicans to drop the partisanship on this vote.  So far no movement.

It is hard to imagine a more solid issue for President Obama to speak out strongly against Republicans, not in a prepared statement but in a full press attack with direct addresses to the American people.  I wonder whether Obama will wrinkle his forehead and show the signs of indignation?

It is simply not easy for the President to forget that the issue is not whether the treaty is right or wrong (of course it is a positive step in our nuclear protection ), it is whether the President can govern and pass legislation and treaties that are demonstrably in Americans’ best interest.   Otherwise, Americans will view President Obama more and more as irrelevant.

Senator Kyl and other Republicans need to see the President determined and committed to a street fight if necessary, to achieve reasonable objectives.  President Obama may lose this fight but Republicans could then kiss goodbye to a free ride in the next two years and plenty of presidential finger pointing.  Over time, Americans would see Republicans for what they are and not worthy of leadership.  But, it ain’t easy.

The Third Rail

November 21, 2010

Michael Bloomberg is often talked about as a potential third party candidate in the next Presidential election.  The word is that if the Republicans field someone like Sarah Palin or anyone equally hugging the right side of the party, and the Democrats nominate a weak Barark Obama, Bloomberg might mount a self financed and organized third party candidacy.  Would his election also be akin to the third rail and permanently change our two party system to three or more parties?

Americans have mostly experienced a two party system.  Even though a host of minor third parties run every four years, there is usually no expectation that anyone other than a Republican or a Democrat will win.

How would Bloomberg govern when Congress would be mostly Democrat and Republican?  And if Bloomberg was successful, could we anticipate a legitimate third party forming national and in subsequent election Congress then divided between three parties?

The current positions and behaviors of the “right tilted” Republicans and the “left wing” of the Democrats are both dysfunctional and unfit to govern.  (While the left may favor policies that will eventual be adopted and found necessary to the modern world, these Democrats refuse today to endorse a holistic approach and tell the electorate what the real costs and trade offs may be.)

The successful third party will by necessity land in the large middle territory.  If they lead in an holistic fashion, Democrats and Republicans will face extinction unless they change their ways.  Most likely, however, Republicans will retreat further into the 19th century and Democrats will try to govern as if they are from Mars.

At this time, there is no enunciated platform or set of domestic and foreign policies for a Bloomberg candidacy.  At this point he gains his appeal largely due to the lack of fitness of alternatives.  His candidacy will most likely drive the other parties to their extremes leaving a clear path to the presidency.  With a straight talk campaign, Bloomberg would seem like a breath of fresh air.

In that sense Bloomberg’s party would be like a third rail for Republicans and Democrats. He would sweep to victory right down the middle.   But no one knows who might follow Bloomberg after his Presidency.

Is It Time?

November 20, 2010

Unless President Obama comes back to earth and puts some common sense emotion back into his messages to the American people, he will be a one term President.  I fault him not one bit for the job he is doing as President.  I fault him completely for the job he is doing as a leader.

With unemployment stuck at 9% and the deficit unbalanced as far as one can see, the time for speaking directly to Americans and leveling about the realities of the 21st century should be a cake walk.  Instead we hear more whining and mumbling about bi-partisanship with his opposition party who wants it their way or it is the highway.

The major flaw in all this is that neither party, to date, has laid out a comprehensive plan to get control of deficits, generate economic growth, and treat all Americans as the richest nation in the world would be expected to.

Republicans are stuck in a “cut taxes” groove and Democrats are stuck in “we need this or that spending”.  There are no more free lunches available for Americans as there are none for other countries.  Americans must work, save and invest wisely, and pay for the services they receive.  It should also be clear that if in this land one can become very wealthy, then one should pay a greater share in taxes than someone who earns simply a wage.

The list of potential Republican 2011 presidential candidates is a sad list indeed.  There is no charismatic (and intelligent) person and their platforms fly in the opposite direction of the rest of the modern world.  President Obama is making his own bed through his inarticulate speech (and the possibility that he is truly confused on what is the right thing to do and not be wrong).  Is it time for the third party?

A third party that stood tall and said all Americans deserve basic health care with dignity and affordability.  Here’s how to get it and here’s what it will cost.  Or, there needs to be a social safety net for all Americans but particularly for the oldest and neediest.  Here’s how to keep it (social security) and here’s what it will cost.  Or, our country needs to remain strong and alert to those who would make war on us.  Here’s how to do it (more in line with global realities and the expenditures of other nations), and here’s what it costs (in terms of dollars and other programs we cannot afford now – lost opportunity).

Is it time?



Where is the Ship Heading?

November 19, 2010

Cutting taxes is the Republican, Tea Party, Libertarian, and conservative mantra.  And who would not like to pay less in taxes?  Given the current magnitude of government spending and debt, cutting taxes is an impossibility.   Rearranging the deck chairs might give the appearance of tax cuts but the modern world demands certain government services and they cost money.  The Republican cabal are lying to us, unless…

Do the tax cutters want to do away with social security?  Or, would they wish for a country without Medicare or Medicaid?  How about cutting the $900 billion security (Homeland and Defense Department)?

Nips around the edges will not work mathematically, so cuts must be deep.  The stand by (and unprovable ahead of time) solution promises growth policies.  In theory if the economy grew vigorously, there would be inherently more tax revenues at what ever tax rate existed.  But if one simply looks around at which countries are growing, one sees only Germany with a US type economy and the rest look like China and India where wages are dirt cheap.

As an aside, it might be amusing for these conservatives to look more closely at Germany.  There they would see a country with a positive export balance engaged in trade of high tech and precision goods.  They would also see a country with a retirement system (read social security) and health care system (read Medicare for all) that provided old age security and health care better than the US.

Ranting continuously about cutting taxes without describing the future state offers Americans an illusion.  In 2010, the US is no longer the country it was in 1776 or even 1950.  Each country in the modern world, of which America is the richest member, has a social contract with their citizens.  All of these countries struggle to balance their books largely due to slow growth.

If the US chooses to balance its books by cutting the social safety net, two things will happen.  One day the gullible middle class will finally wake up and realize what Republicans have done, and the pendulum will dramatically shift.  The second thing will be a critical loss of confidence in any government action, and that will mark the end of the American Century and the rise of another global leader.

Republicans have a moral obligation to tell us where the ship is heading.


Direction and the Bridge

November 18, 2010

As the Washington political scene plays on before us, one cannot be faulted for getting dizzy. What did that Senator just say? Or, what did that Representative mean? I have concluded that the reason we get dizzy is that our Congress members (and all the other faceless people who influence them) hardly ever speak of “directions” or the “Bridges” that would get the Country to the cited direction.

The most glaring example of this is the current level of our national debt and the fact that government budget projections run deficits for as far as the eye can see. Neither party has put forth a plan to balance the budget.

For several Administrations, the “Direction” was a national defense second to none, of a social safety net made up of social security and medicare/medicaid, and a set of national standards that would ensure that no matter where someone lived in America, they would have the same opportunities as anyone else. What was woefully missing since 2000 was a sound “bridge” to get there.

This year’s crop of politicians speak of “cutting taxes”, “reigning in government spending”, and “reducing the size of government”. These statements speak neither of a direction nor a bridge. Cutting taxes is not a plan and at best could only be part of larger “bridge”.

The question we all should be asking is a bridge to where?