Archive for December 2013

A Dim View

December 29, 2013

It must have been a dark and dreary day yesterday at the Washington Post.  Otherwise, why would they published an article predicting a dim future for Afghanistan?  Why would they hare written that much of the allied gains will be subject to reversals in the months ahead?  What will we ever tell the veterans of over ten years of Afghan conflict?

Most of us have been raised with visions of victory whenever the US fights on the side of what’s just.  The most powerful country in the world must prevail if it sends its troops into action.  Hmmm.

The ugly truth is that military force is transient, here today, gone tomorrow.  Soon US forces will be reduced to much lower levels, allegedly by the end of 2014.  This could be akin to former President Nixon’s secret plan to get out of Vietnam… simply declare victory and leave even though the enemy (North Vietnam) would take over the day we left. The most important aspect of Nixon’s “plan” involved leaving NO military behind.

Washington-types (military, think tankers, and many politicians) want to leave a residual force (maybe as high as 30,000) for training and rapid response purposes.  A “status of forces” agreement has been negotiated but as yet not ratified by the Afghans.  Justifications run a wide gamut… from interrupting drug trafficking to training to keeping an eye on the region.

Those opposed question the cost, the potential for further US deaths, and the futility of working with a largely illiterate, corrupt tribal population.  Hmmm.

So to write a headline that casts a dim light and predicts that geographic gains might be reversed once troop levels are decreased borders on sophomoric.  On what basis should anyone expect that lasting gains would have been made?

Our military and our DC politicians, of course, have a vested interest in describing our 10+ years Afghan odyssey as heroic and just.  Hmmm.  How about misguided and sad?

What will we tell our service men and women who sacrificed and accepted deployment and imminent danger in Afghanistan?  How can we tell thousands of relatives that the loss of their loved one was a mistake or at least done without hope of sustained gain, for either the US or the Afghans?

Rooting out the Taliban government in 2001 for having operating as a failed State and harboring al Qaeta is relatively easy to understand and justify.  Staying beyond the time necessary to oust the Taliban, and allowing mission creep to keep our troops there amongst rampant Afghan Government graft and corruption can only be seen as foolish at best and malfeasant at the worst.  In any case, there is scant justification to remain.

A rewrite of the Post story might better carry the headline, “Ray of Sunlight as Afghan War Ends”.  A sub headline would read, “Afghans Will Sort Out Their Future”.

Have You Considered?

December 28, 2013

Recently a representative from my from the college where I graduated emailed asking for a chance to meet.  She wanted to learn how the college had shaped my life, how my education had opened doors for life successes.  I did not attend Princeton so the name of my college was not likely to open doors.  Rather it was the pragmatic engineering education which shaped how one thought and solved problems that would be key.

during her visit, I explained that and she thanked me hardly taking time to ask a follow up question.  Then she got to what she really had come to discuss.

“Had I considered making the college part of my estate planning”, she asked?

She explained several ways that I could leave money to the college upon my death or even give some to them now and more later.  She was sensitive to the possibility that I might have my children in mind and she had an idea how to do both.  My bequest would help the college to continue its growth both academically and with fun things (like a new field house).  She said I could be an important part of my college’s future.

There were glossy brochures and well written prose.  There was an invitation to a private campus tour and should any of my grandchildren be interested in an engineering education, well, there would be a special visit that would be arranged.  Hmmm.

I thanked her and said I had not yet made up my mind about life ending gifts.  She was equally thankful for having had the chance to meet.  We parted and life moved on.

I did not share with her that I had this uncomfortable feeling about the emphasis the college was placing on the “quality of life” aspects, like recreation centers, pretty grounds, new fields and field houses.  And at the same time, little or no apparent emphasis on the cost of 4 years.  (Fortunately, graduates from my college normally get very good paying jobs but debt is debt.)

There was something else that was nagging at my mind.  Finally it dawned on me.  I had heard the college pitch before.  Not from the college, however.  Financial planners use very similar language as my college visitor.  And so does the local zoo and museum of art.  And now I am hearing the same type of language from hospitals and medical disease funds like cancer research (St Jude’s is currently flooding the TV airwaves with pleas for donors to remember them in some financial way).  And if you lay out their requests and suggested methods for giving, they all are very similar.

Philanthropy is a big business and one that has kept pace with changing tax regulations.  “If you make your donation by December 31, it is totally tax deductible for 2013” they all shout.

In my view, charitable gifts are important.  They should, however, reflect the donors values far more than tax advantages.  Human nature, of course, makes recognitions  ranging from naming a bench, park, building wing, or for the big hitters, the entire building a strong drawing card.  Just the same, the purpose the gift serves ought to be more important than the tax credit.

One more observation.  This cottage industry created around bequests delivers a steam of money with generally little restrictions.  The grateful recipient is often poorly served by this stream of money.  Although a large amount of personnel time must be put into managing the endowments, the more insidious problem might be the weakening of financial management on all other college or university activities.

Work expands to fill the resources available.  I would have thought that colleges and universities would be committed to offering the best education at the lowest cost to greatest number of students, and not offering the best education at what ever it costs to those students who can afford the fare.

The responsibility falls on potential donors to determine whether ones gift is helping provide the services you admire, or is funding a bureaucracy creating more need for more funding.  While the decision to give is personal, we should be prepared to learn whether the gift is funding the search for more gifts and not what the institution is about.

Simply Amazing

December 23, 2013

Why do people seek elected office, especially a seat in Congress?  Is their goal to serve others or for others to serve them?  The performance of our Congress members, both Democrat and Republican, over the past decade or so would make one wonder.

It seems obvious that each Congressional member’s first priority is getting reelected.  But that explanation only begs the next question, why do they want so badly to be reelected?

Ego, power, personal achievement are often mentioned as key drivers.  The less honest claim they seek to represent their voters and then cite a lengthy list of often counter intuitive rationales.  But is any of this why Congress members resist term limits and seem to work even harder (at getting reelected) the longer they are in Congress?

I suspect there is not one reason why someone first runs for elected office.  Reasons are varied and the intensity of these personal choices vary also.  At the end of the day, however, Congressional seats are lucrative.  Congress members are able to enhance their own personal net worth.  The longer they remain, the larger their net worth.  Someplace in this pursuit, the Congress members’ original reasons are transformed into avarice.

The most amazing part of this metamorphous is it apparently does not matter to the electorate that their elected official has done little good while in office and often has demonstrated fiscal foolishness or public policy cruelty.

Correcting this process may be easy on paper but seems nearly impossible in practice.  For example, term limits, for example 5 terms for a Representative and 2 terms for a Senator would eliminate those long in the tooth friends of special interests.  Coupled with a “net worth” test (a Congress members net worth could rise by X percent where X is some number only sightly larger (say 3%) than inflation.  If the member failed the test during his time in office, he/she would automatically be barred from the next election.

The objective would be to populate Congress with Americans who seek to serve and have no realistic expectation of making a fortune while in office.

But why should we expect this type of “fix” would bring us a more productive Congress?

Clearly no one can be sure if this proposal would have its intended results.  On the other hand, why people would spend 10 or 12 years away from their primary occupations and put their net worth building years on hold unless they were public service oriented people.

So, my proposal is simple.  Congress just votes term and net worth increase limits for its members, and bingo, problem is on its way to a natural solution.

Hmmm.

Let me think.  Why would voters who don’t care now that Congress members are stealing them blind, and also are willing to reelect these incompetents as often as the ask, vote the next time only for someone who promises term and net worth increase limits?

This problem is simply amazing.

 

Values, What’s That

December 17, 2013

The tiny compromise being hailed in Washington as a gridlock break through offers two thought provoking parts.  In order to meet conservative demands for a reduction in government spending and no new taxes thereby lowering the deficit, and Democrat demands for sequestration relief, the “tiny compromise does increase government spending in certain sequestration areas.  What?  How could this be possible?

Congress found areas where it could “generate” revenue to offset the increased spending.  Two contributors to offsetting this increased spending were (1) a reduction in pension payments to former military members who were less than 65, and (2) elimination of long term unemployment benefits (up to 99 weeks) for those who had already received 26 weeks of benefits.

Former military members who receive a pension for their service, to a large extent, have found other employment following their military service.  These Americans are able to receive both a pay check and a pension check.  A small reduction in their military pension may not be so burdensome in light of the person’s total income.  (It is another question on what basis is it fair to change the pension rules during the game.)

The absence of long term unemployment benefits is a more complex question.  It must be assumed that long term benefits were a temporary measure (introduced first during the great depression and more recently again by President Bush).  Not extending these emergency benefits might seem appropriate given the recovering economy and the psychology that no benefits  more strongly encourages the unemployed to find work.  Hmmm.  Not clear what is the more prudent policy.

But what jumps out is that there are a zillion taxes and fees that could be imposed which take into account the widening income distribution gap and the consumption of goods and services.  In other words, Congress could have asked those who could afford to pay to do their part while those who have served the country or who are stuck in the 26 to 99 gap to get a pass.

The tiny compromise while probably the best that could be expected in an election year does little to focus on the greater issue of Medicare and Medicaid funding.  Screw the retired military members and the long term unemployed.  I trust Congress will have a wonderful and merry Christmas confident that they have served the Country well.

 

Political Advice For Marco

December 14, 2013

One of the great jobs in America these days must be that of  “political strategist”.  It sounds weighty and at cocktail parties it must be dynamite.  The term is illusive enough that no one can be sure what you mean, and better yet, no one can be sure what you say is correct or not.  Compared to an engineer, where the building or the bridge either stands or falls based upon what the engineer says, the political strategist at best can do no better than the flip of the coin to predict whether his/her advice is sound.

So, this week when Senator Marco Rubio took to the microphone and denounced the House budget compromise as a step in the wrong direction, one has to wonder whether this was Rubio’s idea or his strategy team’s?

Mitt Romney wrote the book on failed strategies in the 2012 election.  Driving as hard as possible to the right, pandering to the lowest common denominator in order to gain the nomination, Romney seemed surprised that the Country elected Barack Obama despite his questionable record as President.  The ultra right simply does not demographically represent enough votes to elect a President.  Add to this that Americans, while they have the capacity to forgive or forget misguided positions, do have limits on how far right a pendulum can swing and then have the candidate described themselves as main stream.

Rubio is said to be consumed with thoughts about the 2016 Presidential or Vice Presidential nomination.  Who knows?  I can give him cost free advice.  Don’t dwell where the needle is pegged to the right.

The budget compromise is not much to praise until one asks what would be in second place.  Both parties have no stomach (or backbones) to deal with the really necessary subjects of tax and entitlement reforms.  Second place was again stalemate leading to default and a government shutdown.

In an election year, serious legislative work is not going to happen.  A far wiser Rubio position would have been to convey his deep concerns about the larger issues which were not addressed, but, with a sigh, announce the bill did no harm either.

 

Man Of The Year

December 12, 2013

Pope Francis was named Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year” yesterday.  This is a marketing game so there is no need to examine the selection relative to the other finalists.  The Pope is certainly not a bad choice and arguably he might be the most worthy for a meaningless prize.  The reasons for his selection, however, are worth commenting upon.

The Pope was sighted as having spoken out and having made sincere gestures towards the poor.  The Pope was also recognized for wondering out loud why the Church hierarchy obsessed so much about family planning and homosexuals.  (The Pope has subsequently clarified his wonderings saying those subjects were part of Church dogma and still valid).

The Catholic Church is much like the Queen Mary.  It does not turn on a dime.  Maybe Pope Francis can only fight one battle at a time, this time for the poor.   This is not a bad choice.  It is just an insufficient one.

The ironic part is that every step he takes in bringing the church clergy round to dealing with the forgotten poor, he will be shining a light on other equally great contradictions like women’s homosexuals’ rights.  The notion that Catholic Charities or Parochial Schools would not employ someone if that person obtained a same sex marriage license is as mean spirited as it comes.  But there’s more.  How is it ok to deny any employee of a church affiliate certain parts of the Affordable Care Act?  These two say it all.

Pope Francis needs to do more to earn the title Man of the Year but if he does, he would deserve at a minimum “Man of the Decade” status.

 

Simple Things – Hand Shake

December 11, 2013

President Obama was pictured shaking hands with Cuban President Raul Castro yesterday.  It is not clear whether this was staged or accidental.  It is not clear whether the President was on his own or whether his advisors had ok’d the shake if it were to be possible.  My take is that President Obama, once more, has come down on the side of reason, good manners, and history.

The sanctions and other restrictions that exist between the US and Cuba are relics of the cold war.  They owe their long life to “pro-Batista” Cuban Americans longing for some way to reclaim their past wealth.  Consequently, any suggestions that it might be in the US best interest to normalize relationships puts the fear of god in these former Batista supporters.  Normalized relations would mean no chance to reclaim their confiscated property, these Cuban Americans think.  Hmmm.

It is unlikely in the current Washington political climate that President Obama could put a thaw in the US-Cuba ice cold relationship.  Chances would be immeasurably better if Cuba had oil and not sugar.

Never the less, a President who is dignified, courteous, and forward thinking is also something of which to be proud.

When No Deal Is The Deal

December 10, 2013

Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray have been leading an effort to find a “deal”.  The scope of the deal would include some relief for the sequester and also set spending limits for the next two years.  The objective is to avoid another government shutdown or default on the debt.  Sounds sensible if not heroic, but the substance falls quite short.

Prima facia, the country’s tax code is so convoluted it should be against the law.  Entitlement, especially Medicare and Medicaid are woefully underfunded and should constitute fiscal mismanagement to be allowed to continue as is.    A pinch here or a pinch there on the over all budget without dealing with these two big problems won’t have much impact upon the growth of the debt.

These two elements (tax reform and entitlements) constitute the heart of a political impasse.  Without tax reforms (leading to more tax revenue) Democrats will not support any other changes, especially to entitlements.  Without cuts in entitlements, Republicans won’t budge on any changes in the budget, and as an article of faith, no new taxes will be considered.

The Obama-Boehner “grand bargain” which included tax reform and entitlement cuts, seemed so obvious.  Washington, today, is deafly silent about that possibility.  While it remains an option, it certainly is not one for an election year.

The Murray-Ryan deal is the equivalent of “no deal” even if it can be struck.  Nothing happens versus the systemic problems facing a slow growing nation.  At a time when decisive handling of the nation’s infrastructure could prepare the US for global competition in the 21st century, there is no budget room and sadly, no will to deal with the future.  Just as disturbing is the blind eye both parties are showing towards healthcare.  While the Affordable Care Act promises to reduce the inequality of healthcare delivery and may slow the growth of future healthcare costs, it still leaves the US far short of more than two dozen other modern countries in cost and quality of care.  Not dealing with healthcare also leaves in place the festering sores called Medicare and Medicaid.

If Representative Ryan and Senator Murray cannot lead us to a tiny deal, how can we expect our elected representatives to deal with real game changers?

 

The Strange Case Of Citizens United

December 9, 2013

The 2014 election is looking more and more like a repeat of 2010.  Stunningly, there is a chance the GOP may gain control of both the Senate and the House.  What are Americans thinking?

What has it been about the GOP complete refusal to support any legislation proposed by Democrats that is so appealing?  What is it about “the world is about to end unless we slash government spending (every type except Defense)” that Americans like so much?   What is it about shutting down the Government that seems like responsible governance?

Even more perplexing is the GOP’s dealing with healthcare reform.  The Affordable Care Act is a copy of Mitt Romney’s MassCare which is a copy of a GOP think tank proposal.  Forgetting this hypocrisy, ACA moves Americans closer to the best in class status of the modern industrialized world.  How can a country as wealthy as America accept millions uninsured?    And how can anyone find the insurance company practice of canceling or denying health insurance coverage based upon a “pre-existing condition” acceptable (like these companies are in the business of insuring only healthy people, heads I win, tails you lose…?

Never the less various polls are suggesting the GOP could gain control of both Houses of Congress.  The belief is that GOP opponents to incumbent Democrats will be very well financed.  This financial aid will be flowing from all over the US through various opaque PACs.  All this free flow thanks to Citizens United.  Hmmm.

On the other hand, is something about Democrat positions that turns voters away?

For example, it might be hard to understand a position which overlooks law breakers (illegal immigrants) and yet asks voters to obey other laws.  It might also hard to support the continual extension of unemployment benefits in tight economic times when human nature suggests people will not try very hard to find work if they receive benefits.  And, while it is almost unfathomable to understand GOP polices around smaller (read less effective) government considering the housing bubble and reckless Wall Street practices which brought the Country to its economic knees, it only takes a moment when one runs into a restrictive government rule or regulation to want less government.  Hmmm, maybe the GOP do have a point?

The problem with Citizens United’s decision is more simple.  The Koch Brothers (and other like groups) can spend a fortune trying to sway voters to their candidate in States where they do not reside.  I cannot afford to spend the same amount.  The Supreme Court has likened this spending to “free speech” and in doing so has established that those with money have more free speech than those with less.

One way to rectify this imbalance would be to allow out of State US citizens to mail in votes.  In essence, if money knows no State boundaries, why don’t we allow votes to flow as freely?

This may seem like a silly proposal.  It does have, however, the potential of getting a truly national consensus reflected in our elected representatives.  The Koch Brothers idea of a path forward, while certainly their prerogative, should not carry more weight than my vote.

Extorting Our Way to Gridlock

December 5, 2013

“Extortion”, a book by Peter Schweizer, purports to describe how politicians get your money.  In an interview yesterday on public radio, Schweizer recounted example after example of Congressional practices which maximized the amount of cash flowing into each Congress members’ coffers.  Some of the uses had tight limits on how the money could be used, while others were loosey goosey, and still others were outrightly shameful.  It was clear from Schweizer’s description why so many Congress members could seem so willing to subvert their legislative responsibilities in favor of personal enrichment.

There are obvious challenges to Schweizer’s claims.  Speaker John Boehner dismissed “Extortion” out of hand and claimed Schweizer should read “Congress for Dummies” if Schweizer wanted to really know how Congress functioned.  Hmmm, that sounds like an endorsement to me.

“Extortion” describes the bizarre  requirements each party places upon it members in order for them to receive an appointment to a “select” committee.  The price, $500,000, in campaign fund raising.  (The half million goes to the Party, not the Congress member.)  No money, no select committee.  Where did competence go?

Laws exist, however, that no special interest can offer or give Congress members money to vote one way or another, and no one can give members any money while the member is on the floor.  There is a loop hole, however.  Any member can give any other member money on the floor at any time.  Tinkers to Evers to Chance.

Schweizer painted a clear picture why special interests and Congress members liked this arrangement.  Certain types of PACs, for example. could be used as tax free expense accounts for Congress member’s personal expenses.  Hmmm.  Special interests got what they wanted.  Congress members got wealthy.  Couldn’t be nicer.

In the interview, Schweizer mentioned the lobbying cottage industry that helps facilitate the collection and distribution of money.  He did not dwell upon another beneficiary of this putrid system.  Money collected and used for reelection campaigns or for advocacy is spent some place by someone.  This money buys print space, TV time, and all the consultants and writers who think, design, make, and distribute the “message”.  This is a great deal for the “media”.

Hmmm.  I wonder whether that has anything to do with the sparse coverage the book has gotten so far?