Archive for May 2013

What One Sees

May 30, 2013

Yesterday I took the subway to South Philadelphia to see the Phillies-Red Sox game.  Safe, clean, and efficient.  Once in the stadium area, I had a beer at a “sports entertainment complex” directly across from the ball field.  At 6:45pm, I entered the Stadium and took my seat in section 423, row 7, seat 17.  Everything seemed in order.  Except…

I kept thinking what was unusual.  The game was a little long but well played with lots of home runs.  Sadly my Red Sox lost but it was just a game.  The beer and hot dogs were outrageously expensive (at least by my standards).  But the cost didn’t seem to be slowing anyone.  What was unusual?

Then it dawned on me.  Everyplace I had been, including in the Stadium during live action plays, all around me were people staring down at their cell phones, texting or reading emails or messages.  Some were facebooking but with everyone, two thumbs seemed to be flying.

I could sort of understand the subway.  What else is there to do?  The sports entertainment center (featuring well built young ladies dispensing beer) seemed totally incongruous with texting.  The world (people, and a million TV screens) was right in front of everyone, why play with the phone?

Cell phones in the ball park was even more mind blowing.  Everyone had paid good money for tickets.  The field was beautiful.  Win or lose the athletes were skilled and the action was fast.  Why do something else?

On my way home (again by subway), I thought about this.  I concluded that the social media found on these cell phones was in fact the”real world” for so many of our youth, young adults, and a growing number of adults.  These messages are what’s happening.  These bright screens confirm to their owner that they are alive.

I suspect, however, that too many cell phone users are kidding themselves.  They appear to think what they are doing is important.  Instant messaging requires no thought, no thinking.  Most messages are superficial if at all relevant.

With respect to the ball game, forget about anyone studying the managers strategy or guessing whether the pitcher will throw a change up or go with heat, low and outside.

For sure, there is no reason for anyone to study baseball (even though many have in the past).  But in this case, the baseball game is a metaphor for life.  Life is taking place right in from of 38,000 people and so many are not absorbed in the game but incessantly searching for some friend’s message.

No wonder so few people care about what politicians do or how our government functions.

The Way Of The Dodo?

May 29, 2013

It is just to difficult to pass over today’s announcement that US Representative Michelle Bachmann will not stand for reelection in 2014.  For someone who has made such a slash in political theater,especially on Fox News, it just seems strange that Saturday Night Live will be without a soft target to ridicule.  I wonder why she is retiring?

There are reports that she has assessed her reelection chances and come up wanting.  Other reports say that any chance of winning would require huge gobs of money and those prospects are slim.  Still others hint that an IRS investigation into possibly misspent campaign funds may be the reason.  Time will tell.

I would offer an alternative idea that her time came and has passed.  Bachmann became a household name just about the time the Tea Party was blossoming.  She quickly co-mingled and for a while became a Tea Party-Right Wing poster child.  Her advocacy for pro-life and anti-taxes endeared her to many conservative voters.  She became intoxicated with the public spotlight, in many cases got ahead of her facts, and tried to obtain the GOP 2012 Presidential nomination.  She laid it all out and the public said hmmm.

Bachmann is now seen as a past fad.  She has been replaced with much more articulate (although not necessarily more helpful) spokespersons.  While there are no rules she must retire, Ms Bachmann must have listened to political advisers who warned her that her political career was like the Dodo…  dead.

Sliding Into War?

May 28, 2013

The slippery slope is a well known phrase.  It involves taking a small act into an area previously free of involvement.  While looking relatively innocent, the small act is then followed up with more similar small acts, each justified incrementally, until “no involvement” becomes “total involvement”.  When total involvement goes wrong, there is no way to put things back the way they were.

Those who recommend taking the “small act” have an ethical responsibility to considered the possibility of where a slippery slope might lead and what the consequences could be.  These potential consequences must be weighed against the justification for initiating the first “small act” in the first place.

There are few people who would praise Saddam Hussein as an enlightened and benevolent leader.  Never the less, when the Bush Administration drew the line in the sand over proving Iraq had no WMD (even though UN inspectors continually said they had found none), was the small act that lead eventually to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.  The resulting civil war was not predicted and despite spending the better part of a trillion dollars on Iraq post Hussein, the country is on the verge of another civil war today.

The Iraq mess is not a result of what the US did.  That is, invading and occupying did not cause Shiites to kill Sunnis and vice versa.  Rather, the US invasion and occupation allowed conditions to arise where it was possible for Shiites to get “pay back time” by killing Sunnis.  Sunnis, without power, then felt the need (and right) to reclaim their former power and kill Shiites.

Currently Syria presents the US with another slippery slope opportunity.  The Syrian civil war has been going on for about two years.  Its costs have been estimated at 80,000 deaths and over 2 million displaced persons.  This is a tragic situation that most everyone would want to end.  But at what cost?

Senator John McCain, who championed the Iraq invasion and occupation, and wanted the US keep an Iraq presence even until today, made an unannounced secret visit to Syria over the weekend.  One might understand this act if the President was seeking war powers, and McCain was interested in fact finding to guide Senator deliberations.

Instead, Americans are very leery of more “troops on the ground”.  It seems that every day we are reading about the tragic legacies following US Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.  Veteran claims for VA services takes over one year to be processed.  And Senator McCain is ready to put more US forces again into battle?

The ugly truth about Syria is that no one knows how the future will unfold whether the US intervenes or stands on the side lines.  Syria may collapse and Iran may gain greater influence.  It is also possible that Sunni groups aligned with al Qaeda may find space to operate and create instability well beyond Syria’s borders.  Few believe that a post Assad period will bring a flowering of democracy.

So… with no benefits obvious for US national interests, President Obama’s wisest course of action may be to encourage Europe (which lies much closer) to undertake the “meddling”.  In the interim, the US ought to keep its powder dry, remain prepared while looking for totally unanticipated developments.

Following the lead of Russia and China, the US would do well to stand back and save its resources this time around.

Memorial Day, Other People’s Children, Friends Money

May 27, 2013

Over the weekend, GOP heavies shared their views of President Obama’s recent speeches on security.  Declaring “war on terror” and “Guantanamo” passe, the President reminded Americans that it was time to move on.  “Not so”, said GOP luminaries such as Lindsay Graham and John McCain.

In various ways, Republican critics described the President’s approach as dangerous and not recognizing global threats.  John McCain said the President needed to “Lead, L-E-A-D” and Graham said if the President wanted Congress’ support on closing Guantanamo, he needed a “Plan”.  This was a big week for four letter words.

Trying to understand all this, one is forced to pick between traditional partisanship or the potential that the President is really seeing the world incorrectly.   Hmmm.

Consider.  The US is deadlocked with a budget quandary.  Many politicians (as well as economists) tell us that the US is on a dangerous path if it allows large deficits to continue.  But the big problem which arises immediately are “no new taxes” and “what should be cut”?

The McCain/Graham crowd sees no conflict.  Security spending should be a given.  America should be the world’s policeman.  Cut the budget elsewhere but keep the military strong.  Hmmm.

It is often dangerous to question other’s reasoning or motives.  Why would Graham and McCain continue to beat this same drum when history has shown how disastrous the Iraq invasion and occupation, which they championed, was (Iraq had no WMD nor was it in anyway connected with al Qaeda at the time of 9/11).

What we do know, however, is that McCain and Graham will have no children involved in any conflicts that their aggressive military policies risk.  We also can be sure that their friends in the greater military-industrial complex will reward both generously.

Hmmm.  Other people’s children, friends money…   A great way to celebrate Memorial Day.

The Oklahoma Way

May 24, 2013

Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn was interviewed yesterday on whether Federal tornado relief funds should be offset with cuts elsewhere in the budget.  His statement drew interest because he had objected to the size of the relief package New Jersey and New York received following Hurricane Sandy.  The media was looking for an “I gotcha” moment.  Instead they got, if they were listening, a dose of common sense.

Coburn remained consistant on emergency relief.  Natural disasters occur regularly and as such ought to be a budget item.  With a central fund, the government could release necessary funds quickly without any chance for politicians to get involved.  But there was more.

Senator Coburn made clear that his objection to the NJ/NY relief was in part that the legislation contained a lot of “pork”.  He claimed that most of the funds would not be spent within two years.  Hmmm.  (Of course one man’s pork is another man’s meat and potatoes.)

The most important message, in my opinion, was the Senator’s description of Oklahomans.  He said Oklahomans knew the risks and took prior steps to mitigate.   He predicted that most of the residents of Moore had home insurance.  Policy payoffs coupled with help from neighbors would cover most of the estimated $2 billion loss.  He predicted $200 million would be all that was needed.   Hmmm.

Consider.  Hurricane Sandy was a surprise late season storm.  Many of the costal cities had rejected recommendations for building protective ocean dunes.  Hmmm.  New York   City had studies calling for protective dikes to guard against flooding subways and tunnels for several years.  Hmmm.  Yet, in the end, the Federal Government sent $50 billion to the area.

For sure there is a difference in population density between Oklahoma City and the New Jersey/New York coastal area.  Never the less, Senator Coburn’s words make sense and underscore the possibility that big government bail outs breed further dependency rather than simply rehabilitate.

Too Close To Home

May 22, 2013

I continue to be both amazed and amused at the reaction of the broader news media over the Associated Press subpoena.  I am very supportive of the rights of a free press and the value it brings.  I just wonder why these talking heads do not take a time out, think for a moment, and then speak again more rationally.  The media seems so excited that they are not hearing what they are saying.

The traditional free press story goes like this.  A newspaper prints a story quoting some named or unnamed source.  The government objects and asks for the press to identify their source.  The press refuses and then the food fight begins.  If the case gets to court, most are thrown out or end in acquittal.  In the end, the Court weighs the alleged damage against the right to publish and decides if the government is justified in its position.   Overwhelmingly the Court sides with the press.

So, what is the big deal with the AP?

Naturally it could be simply “knee jerk reaction”.  If there isn’t a dramatic rebuke, then the press reasons, the government will overstep the first Amendment again and even possibly more severely.

Another view might be that rather than an attack on the first Amendment, the AP subpoena was an attack on a 7/24 business model.  The news media has always been a “for profit” business.  Today, however, with the expansion of cable and the internet, making money presents new challenges.  Most news agencies have found that cutting on the ground reporting, especially in distant lands, and replacing with information provided by the military and other government sources can be effective in developing a story with “appeal”.

More “appeal”, more viewers.  More viewers, more advertising income.  Hmmm.

Consider the Sunday morning talk shows.  How many new faces do you see compared with the dozen or so ever present ones?  Without a doubt this arrangement is a win-win.  The news programs obtain quotable moments with trusted sources.    With attribution, any news agency can also use the quotes.  The guests, on the other hand, get TV (and maybe print) face time which polishes their egos and helps their electability.  Where is the real news value?

Its time to stop whining, prepare for a trial if charges are preferred, and get back to real reporting.

 

A Free Press

May 21, 2013

The first Amendment speaks to freedom of the Press.  I wonder what that means?  One would think it would be illegal to publish classified design details for a top secret weapon, or would it?  Although probably not wise, the news media might believe they had a legal right to report details of such a weapon if their informations was based upon independent knowledge, like that found in scientific departments of major universities.

What if a newspaper or magazine reported the detailed formula for an amazing new drug?  Suppose the magazine had paid an independent source who in fact had stolen the information?  Dealing in stolen goods?   Hmmm.

The 7/24 news media has become a tough competitive business.  Success standards seem to hinge upon the most “first to report” and most “classified” information.  Claiming one or both of these is intended to mark that news organization as special and worthy of continued viewing.  (Oh, and advertisers to buy more ad time too.)  Hmmm.

The Obama Administration is experiencing a bumpy road with revelations about a secret subpoena for a lot of telephone information concerning Associated Press employees.  The implications are that someone in the government was passing classified information to  someone in the AP.  The reaction by the rest of the press corp and its management has been enlightening.

“How can a reporter be wrong doing what he does for a living”, one executive asked.

Of course, even this issue is not black or white.  Whistle blower revelation are widely regarded as valuable first Amendment benefits.  So this AP issue will grind along with arguments and counter arguments, one side trumping and the other counter trumping.

So, is this about “principle” or “substance”.  Is the leaking of confidential information concerning a foiled airplane bomber defensible on “principle” or is it defensible on the basis that this was important information for the public to know?  Hmmm.

There are plenty of examples in modern history where leaks exposed secret (classified) government actions which had the potential to involve the country in war.  While the same questions can be asked, most would agree that those revelations was a public service even if the information was obtained through someone not authorized to release the information.  But, do covert operations intended to protect the US fall into the same category?

What amazes me, however, is that the press gets its back up over the “principle” and basically claims carte blanche for freedom of the press.  No discussion of substance and why the public had a need to know.

Yet if the government is the target, why are there not more exposes about wealth accumulation of Congress members?  Why are there not more descriptions of the inefficiencies or ineffectiveness of certain (or all) government agencies, in other words why government is not delivering what it is there to deliver?

I do not know the answer to those questions.  I suspect, however, these subjects are too complex and involved to “sell” on the 7/24 media.  I also suspect they strike to close to home.  An effective investigative news media might find a lot more government investigations (and new rules) if the press decided to look under the official dealings of Congress and government agencies.

Lastly, I think the press realizes that this issue is “bi-partisan”.    Both Democrats and Republicans can agree to keep the Press looking other places.

The Health Care Fault Line

May 20, 2013

Many hours have been spent discussing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) with dire predictions from those who have opposed it.  It is not clear how anyone can object without offering an alternative which fixes the faults.  Clear or not, this has been a political mantra… “repeal Obamacare”.

Arguing that Obamacare will cost too much and may bankrupt many small businesses is a valid concern.  Also those who predict that due to higher insurance premiums, many Americans will elect to take less coverage or none at all.  These predictions suggest that fewer Americans will be insured under Obamacare than prior.  Hmmm.

As valid as these concerns may be, I am still waiting for alternatives that deal with pre-existing conditions, the omission of millions who do not have health care insurance, and the tendency of healthcare to treat illness as opposed to prevention.  Those with concerns about Obamacare would do everyone a great service if they included a description of a better system.

What another study?

My guess is that describing an alternative to Obamacare would not require a huge study.  Just look at what has been said already.  Costs, millions of Americans without coverage, and tinkering with best health care delivery system in the world.  True, true, false.  Hmmm.

There are about 20 other modern industrial countries with healthcare systems which cost about one half of the US, provide coverage for all residence, and deliver equal or better health outcomes when compared to the US.  Hmmm.

So… what about a bi-partisan effort to replace Obamacare with a universal health care patterned after German’s or France’s?  While this would lead to great success at much lower total cost, and would eliminate Medicare and Medicaid, there is little or no chance that Obamacare critics would propose such a solution.  Healthcare is big business and big business are willing to finance candidates to preserve the current system.

Americans are left with only an indirect method to bring on a truly better health care system.  Whenever the GOP votes to repeal Obamacare, demand that those voting in favor explain what they would propose as a better system.  Measure these recommendations (if these crafty politicians offer any) against the everyday experience in Germany or France, or 18 other countries and judge for yourself.

Lessons From Europe, Is Anyone Listening?

May 19, 2013

While Washington is aswirl with all sorts of Congressional Committee investigations, important lessons are being taught in Europe.  I just wonder whether anyone is watching or listening?

If one plots economic growth and compares the US economy to that of Europe, one might be shocked to see that the US is and has been doing far better than our friends across the Atlantic.  While Germany is showing positive growth, that growth is still insignificant compared to the US.  What?  Why is Europe dragging?

The quick answer is that European countries have adopted an “austerity” budget which is throttling growth at the expense of getting borrowing and debt under control.  Keynesians point out that “if only Europe adopted stimulus” their economies could grow again.  Hmmm.

Memories sometimes are so short.

Recalling the 2000’s, Iceland, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and of course, Greece followed Wall Street’s lead.  They borrowed and invested.  Their investments did lead to employment and for a few years, life was quite good.  Then the days of reckoning arrived.  It was time to pay back the bankers.

Sustained economic growth comes from wise investments coupled with wise expenditures.  In Europe, most of the countries who got in trouble poured billions into real estate development like new housing.  It offered everyone something.  Jobs all around and new digs for those who signed up.  Soon, however, the bubble burst.  European countries woke up to the unpleasant fact that there were too many homes compared to the number of people who could afford them.  Even worse, it turned out that many who could afford them were dependent upon government jobs.  When these home owners were laid off (due to austerity), even more homes flooded the market.

Free enterprise may be something like bulimia.  There is a naturally biased to over consume or over produce, and then vomit and act as if nothing has ever happened.  Free Enterprise advocates never see a bubble, and when it bursts, advise bankruptcy.  They believe markets will correct.  Most governments, while recognizing this, decide to “soften” the collapse just the same.  In the US we got “too big, to fail” for our bankers.  In Europe, bankers as well as certain large corporate employers received favorable treatment from their governments even when they have participated in some foolish business deals.

So what’s the lesson Europe is teaching?

  • Don’t cut government expenditures to sharply.  Economies which have large segments of government spending must be weaned carefully or risk a sharp contraction overall.
  • Government expenditures aimed at helping the economy must have “sound investment” characteristics.  In other words, the expenditures must anticipate a “pay back”.  The pay back must come in the form of greater tax revenues such as road or port fees, greater VAT from increased manufacture, or wage/income taxes from higher employment.  Most European countries (except Germany) seemed to overlook this.
  • Public welfare payments (including unemployment, food stamps, housing assistance) while necessary for domestic peace must also have components that fosters less dependence in the future.

So now the really big question.

Do you think Congress is up to such a challenge?

When Words Are Not What Someone Says They Are

May 18, 2013

If there ever was a desire for fantasy, one could not get more of it than listening today as Congress holds one hearing after another over subjects in which the public has little interest.  The public silently suspects Congress doesn’t know or care what they are actually doing or saying.

Benghazi, the IRS 501(c)(3) process, and the Associated Press record collections are examples that seem for the moment to have taken prominence above Obamacare, the Deficit, and Jobs. I wonder why?  Hmmm.

Representative Darrell Issa is leading the Benghazi hearings.  His interest appears not about learning and preventing a repeat.  If he were, he could work to restore funding for our Diplomats security.  Issa’s interest appears, instead, more about finding some potentially politically embarrassing “after the fact” detail which once revealed will make the Administration look bad (and presumably hurt Democrats in the 2014 mid-terms.

The IRS situation is potential far more serious and what really happened and why must be established.  You might not guess that by early Congressional questioning.

The IRS extra investigation of certain groups seeking 501(c)(3) status crossed a line in traditional American fair play sensibility and that is a serious matter.  It is important to know whether political appointees in the IRS influenced this behavior.  But it is also possible and we should not be a surprise that these groups would draw extra attention.  The rules are murky.   The difference between “issue advocacy” and “political advocacy” can be wafer thin.

And the most fundamental question is why should either, issue or political advocacy receive any tax advantageous status?

Representative Dave Camp asked a number of reasonable questions and then landed on his conclusion… the entire tax code needs to be reformed.  Others Congress members took the opportunity to polish their “election is just around the corner” medals and asked strictly partisan questions.

The Associated Press issue on its own merits has little traction in Congress other than as a method for Republicans to impugn the reputation of Attorney General Holder.  But this issue has potentially more education value for the American public than both of the other issues.

The entire press establishment is up in arms over records of AP telephone communications, even though they were legally obtained.  The first Amendment flag has been raised and the public is being warned of the potential loss of our liberty if the news media can be so assaulted.  Hmmm.

If hearings do follow, the public may be surprised to learn how routine the flow of information is between government officials and the “press”.  Leaks and quotable comments are the life blood of the media.  We now frequently read quotes attributed to someone who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak on the subject.  Hmmm.

What should words mean?

Benghazi has meaning in the greater context of how the US will conduct its foreign affairs in a new lawless world such as is emerging in the Middle East.  It also highlights the quandary surrounding budget reductions and the expectations of government.  How can the US carry the flag when there is no money (or too little) to protect it?

The IRS is important for both the need to keep politics out of IRS bowels, AND, the ridiculous nature of the current tax code.

The AP situation is far more nuanced.  The subpoenaed records were done legally (remember the Bush years and records were taken secretly without due process).  The real issue may not be about freedom of the press or the work of whistle blowers.  It is about the cottage industry which produces a steady flow of rumors and insider information to a hungry, waiting news media that live off this flow.  The AP situation is about “degrees” and not absolutes.  The cultivation of sources for the 7/24 news media is the issue that will almost assuredly not be investigated.

Hmmm.