Archive for March 2014

Yin and Yang

March 30, 2014

The GOP has begun its unofficial process for selecting its next standard bearer. Over the weekend Governor Chris Christy began his quest with an appearance before the Republican Jewish Committee. Some consider it Sheldon Abelson’s cattle call because he has promised to pledge so much money to the one candidate he things can win. I wonder why?

If one considers only Governor Christy and President Obama, the Chinese symbol of “yin and yang” comes to mind. Christy is a shoot from the hip, take charge, personality who exudes the message “I can get it done”. President Obama, who cannot run again, is almost the opposite. Obama thinks about things and seeks information when his facts are not sufficient. Obama speaks a great game but somehow seems to move onto the next issue leaving the last one to flounder under insufficient management control.

The question this begs is under which type of leadership would the country be better off?

For the past 6 years, the GOP has never failed to inform the public that the America as we know it, was about to end. The deficit was out of control and the resulting debt would sink America’s greatness within the next generation. “Tax and spend” democrats need to be kicked out of office for the good of America, they said. Hmmm.  While the economy is not great by US standards, it is by world standards.

In addition, the GOP formula for success, when tried elsewhere in the world, have had awful results. Austerity which is a by product of the GOP wishes to shrink government spending has lead to no growth and increased unemployment where ever it has been tried (following the 2007/8 economic recession).

Entitlements reform, another GOP mainstay, has exposed either a naivete or outright cruelness. GOP proposals about how to reform entitlements patently favor the wealthy (no new taxes) and suggest a class distinction (lower Medicare, Medicaid, and safety net programs) on where the American dream should be focused.

From the public record, there is no basis for any Republican to think they deserve election. The public record, however, holds also the Democrat’s accomplishments. Not much.

With the primary exception of the Affordable Care Act, “a lot of hot air” and not much else could sum up Democrat proposals. While Democrats have fiercely defended entitlements, they have also not offered any ideas on how to fund or how to ensure entitlement spending was wisely being spent.

Yin and Yang does not have to reflect only the differences between a Barack Obama and Chris Christy type of individuals. A thoughtful President does not have to an ineffective executive, nor does an effective President have to be a thoughtless person either.

What has been missing from both Parties has been a holistic approach. The need for entitlements signals a greater problem within the society. While every society will have poor, uneducated, mentally ill, and the sick citizens who cannot provide for their own well being, the size and scope of US entitlements may go well beyond this number. Why?

I cannot recall any discussion by either Party which dissects entitlement spending, assigns a cause for the various needs, and offers alternative ways to eliminate these needs. (This is not a bad approach for all government spending including defense.)

I wonder whether who ever represents the Democrat or Republican parties in 2016 when viewed side by side will look the same or as yin and yang?

Christie’s Report

March 28, 2014

Yesterday a 300+ page report was shared with the public. The report alleged to reveal all the relevant facts about “Bridgegate”, the mysterious closure of three on ramp lanes of the George Washington Bridge. A genuine “who dunit”.

No surprise, the report found no involvement by Governor Chris Christie. This may actually be the case but that totally misses the point. Those implicated were Christie appointees. If they acted on their own, they never the less remain examples of the type of appointees the Governor thinks capable, competent and loyal.

As in the business world, internal governance and the values that any organization believes stem from the top. Hmmm.

There is another report soon to be written which has nothing to do with bridge lane closures which may speak even louder about the nature of Christie’s Presidential timber. This weekend he (and other GOP Presidential hopefuls) will meet with Sheldon Adelson. The hopefuls are responding to Adelson’s promise to dump all his money on one candidate for the 2016 election and wants to begin the process of deciding which one. Hmmm.

Remembering 2012 and Adelson’s fondness for Newt and then his switch to Romney, and in total spending more than $100 million on various conservative candidates, the question is obviously which Republican will Adelson back?

The question, which more than any other piece of information, will provide insight on Christie’s Presidential worthiness is how far right will “moderate” Christie twist?

The Wrong Path

March 27, 2014

Yesterday President Obama gave a speech before a group of other nations meeting to discuss ways to reduce the threat presented by nuclear weapons. The President used the occasion instead to refute point by point President Putin’s justification for annexing Crimea.

President Obama confirmed what everyone knows, there are no national interest reasons for the US to escalate the annexation to a war status. No kidding?

The President also drew a clear distinction with the US invasion and occupation of Iraq with that of Russia fermenting and then annexing Crimea. The difference President Obama said was that US actions were never aimed at acquiring new land or wealth. The President pointed out that the US left Iraq and in leaving left an independent nation. Hmmm.

Reference to the invasion and occupation will be rubbed in our faces for years to come. While President Obama was correct, mostly, in his statement, there are serious question about whether favorable access to Iraqi oil might have motivated the Bush/Cheney Administration. Regardless, one must stretch the meaning of national interests beyond reasonableness in order to see justification for US military actions.

But, the Russian charges of US hypocrisy were off base and the President called them on it.

The “Dick Cheney” view towards foreign diplomacy was to punch the other person in the nose first and then tell the other person he will get punched twice if he does anything Cheney does not like in the future. Smooth.

President Obama is following quite another path. He has placed logic and reason at the front of his foreign policy. The 21st Century behavior of nations must evolve giving the interdependence of nations and the history of mass destruction we witnessed in the 20th Century. The problem the President is encountering is that facts and logic are different when viewed by other countries. Gaining consensus will be slow and at times a wandering exercise.

History cannot be changed or rewritten. Iraq’s invasion and occupation is an historical fact. Iraq’s future is still very much a question (as it was under Hussein), and the odds that the world will look favorably upon Cheney’s war as a humanitarian act are slim. Russia “reoccupation” of Crimea is far more popular with the people involved and has history as a support.

In reality, the West has a problem with the process Russia used.  If this will be Russian modus operandi, that is using a broken process, the West is correct in worrying what Russia might try next.

As with the cold war, patience will be key. The Russian economy is broken and given any serious effort to rebuild Russian military superiority while still tending to the needs of its people, it is reasonable to expect the Russian economy to break again.

President Obama’s words and efforts to coordinate the West’s response seem very appropriate. As time passes and the memory of Crimea’s annexation fades, keeping a united front against the “Russian process” will become more difficult.  The President made clear he was never the less starting at the right place.

Unfortunately, the Iraq invasion and occupation will never be a great selling point.    “Do as I say, not as I did” is a weak argument.

 

 

Coming Of Age

March 25, 2014

Pennsylvania is wrestling with a no-brainer ethical dilemma. Should the State amend its ethics rules to make it clear that cash contributions given directly to an elected official are unacceptable? It is hard to believe this should not already be the case. But it is not.

About three years ago, the State Attorney General’s office opened a “sting” investigation probing the ethics of elected and appointed officials. The sting allegedly nabbed at least 4 State Representatives who accepted cash in return for a promise to vote a certain way. Slam dunk you would think. Not quite.

The current Attorney General shut down the sting operation and refused to charge anyone. Attorney General Kane said the investigation was flawed and sloppily undertaken. The consequences are that four Representatives have been found guilty in the press but will face no further criminal charges. Most are running unopposed so they will continue their political careers.

The State legislature is now considering a complete ban on cash gifts. Hmmm. No one is asking why this was not already the case, or how will politicians go about collecting this type of tribute in the future? But closing this ethical loophole is a necessary first step.

State Representatives “getting around” and talking to constituents has been a necessary part of politics since cows roamed our streets. How else can a Representative know what their district needs or what legislation would be good for the State? Getting around, however, does often involve a Representative being lobbied. Here someone with money gets a larger say in what should happen than the average citizen.

In the past, face to face was necessary because Harrisburg was too far from Philadelphia for information to travel quick enough. Letters, faxes, and even newspapers were too slow, and telephone calls consumed too much time. Today the internet has provided a game changer. It is possible through social media for a Representative to solicit in real time their constituent’s opinions as well as to post their own thinking as a means to gather feedback.

Getting around can be limited to office hours or “town meetings” where the sunshine flows. A Representative who wants to be ethical can easily obtain all the necessary information and feedback he/she needs without sitting in a dark restaurant booth and slipping a cash stuffed envelop into their purse or pocket.

The worrisome part of the investigation findings is that while these were ethical violations, they were not illegal unless it could be shown the cash was accepted in return for a vote. This is much easier to allege than to prove.

And, what’s more worrisome is most politicians conflate ethics and legality. If its not illegal, its not unethical. Hmmm.  Where have our schools failed us?

Hobby United?

March 24, 2014

The Supreme Court will hear arguments today over whether a “for profit” corporation has religious rights like those of an individual under the First Amendment. The question is whether Hobby Lobby or any other “for profit” corporation can deny legal benefits to its employees if, in the opinion of the corporation owners, these benefits violate the owners religious beliefs.

The case is based upon a real company, Hobby Lobby, with real owners who are religious, sincere people. These owners believe that certain Affordable Care Act covered birth control methods are unacceptable when held up to their religious beliefs. Hobby Lobby does not want to provide these benefits although they are willing to provide the rest of the Affordable Care Act’s benefits.

There would seem no dispute that Hoppy Lobby owners themselves are free to not use these birth control benefits. The problem arises, however, when Hobby Lobby denies employees with different religious views (or no religious views) access to these benefits.

Proponents of Hobby Lobby have argued that just because Hobby Lobby owners established a for profit businesses they should not have to give up their religious views. This is a red herring argument because the owners do not have to give up their personal religious views (as it pertains to how they lead their own lives). The Affordable Care Act simply requires that healthcare policies contain certain mandatory coverage. This requirement applies to all employers (with certain limited exceptions for purely religious organizations).

Others have said that Hobby Lobby as a corporation can claim the same rights of individuals (like Citizens United). This is another red herring. Religious views come in all sorts of sizes and shapes.  There are people who, for religious reasons, claim that immunization, blood transfusions, or even medical care are unnecessary on the basis of religious views.

How can it be that individuals or corporations composed of these individuals can deny others legally protected services or rights? What do you think of Fred Phelps and his religious views?

From my perspective, it is difficult to understand why the Supreme Court has taken this case. It should be obvious that the US can not allow one religion to asset it views on members of other religions, or on those who profess no faith. In addition to the Fred Phelps of the world, what about orthodox Jews or fundamentalist Muslim? Would Hobby Lobby like to follow their teachings?

Of course, in America there is a history of allowing all religious traditions the right to “personally” practice their religion but some beliefs like polygamy have run into problems.  In a secular country, there must be a bright line between what someone believes for themselves, and how much they can force these views on others.

See It My Way

March 21, 2014

The news is now dominated with two issues, where is Flight MH-370 and Russian ambitions in the Crimera.  There appear to be no clues yet to explain why the Boing 777 disappeared although there have been whispers that maybe one of the pilots was responsible.  How could anyone do such a deed?

The Russian Ukraine/Crimera ambitions are almost equally unexplained.  Crimera is an armpit of social and economic woes.  Why would Russia risk its world reputation when protection of its Black Sea naval port could easily be maintained without annexing Crimera.?

Surprisingly, many proposals have been put forth.  For example, (1) Putin is continuing to rebuild Russia self pride.  (2) Russian people have long and historic ties to those living in Crimera and next door Ukraine.  (3) Putin is getting even for the West trying to steal a former Soviet nation and incorporating it into NATO and the EU. (Hmmm, this one feels like we are getting warm.)

There is another possibility, however, we do not hear mentioned often but could have merit.  Consider that the West’s post cold war tactics no longer contained economic measures to control Russian behavior.  (We were suppose to be friends.)  The next best idea was cause the Russia governing process to be more like the US.  The plan was to bring what we take for granted in the West, freedom of speech, into Moscow’s front yard.

The West reasoned that if former Soviet nations could open and liberalize, ordinary Russians would see these nearby nations prosper and Russian citizens want to have a taste too.  Soon the Russian political process would morph into one more similar to the West.  Hmmm.

President Putin, probably would argue that Russia already has a “western style” political process where one Russian has one vote.  But that is not what is feared.

Putin and most other authoritarian leaders fear the spread of “allegations” which may or may not be true.  From Putin’s perspective they may be totally false but to prove it, he and his government would need to share far more information than they wish.  To ignore the allegations, would give a sort of nod that these charges were at least partly true.  Not a good position either.

So maybe Crimera is a shot across the bow telling other former Soviet countries that Russia does not want them to open their societies more than now.

All this makes President Obama’s task more complicated.  A new Cold War would be expensive and disruptive.  Confrontation militarily seems like a poor choice but making Putin’s foreign policy choices expensive has far more appeal.

Military options can be panderized in Congress.  They are blunt and uncultured actions, perfectly fitting for our Congress.  Making Putin’s choices expensive will require less obvious communications and a total absence of “I got you on that”.

Strangely whether Crimera is part of Russia or not can not make any difference to US interests.  Rather it is the Russia wanton disregard towards what we would call “international norms” and the fear that Crimera would be the first of several countries to feel Putin’s hot breath.

Leading from behind may not be such a bad place to make life expensive for the Russians.

 

Two Required Lessons

March 18, 2014

From time to time, most people get the blues.  Maybe the weather has been lousy, or maybe someone has not been feeling well.  What ever the cause, everything else happening takes on a dark tone.  The daily chores seem too burdensome.  Hurry sundown.

For most people, well before the chemical arsenal of anti-depressants or mood elevators are prescribed, suddenly and for unknown reasons, life becomes manageable again.  For the nation, a similar phenomena appears also to take place periodically too.

For example, there has been a run of bad news for what seems like the last several years with foreign affairs.  The Israeli-Palestinian issue is stalemated with one senseless provocation by each side after another.  Egypt in the name of democracy disappeared as a tourist destination as the Muslim Brotherhood won a narrow victory and then tried to govern as if they were a 100% majority.  Tunisia, Libya, and now Syria went through uprisings.  Syria’s troubles are headed to the record category for senseless killings.  Now there seems to be a return to the cold war behavior of Russia and a divided and seemingly indecisive Western coalition.  Nothing seems to be working as reasonable and enlightened humans would expect.

On the domestic scene, partisan politics have reached the point of dysfunction.  Both sides talk past each other and miss all opportunities to find common ground.  Personal greed has pervaded Congress (as well as most State and Local officials).  The new motto seems “not I can do for government, but what government can do for me”.  Today’s domestic scene will not be confused with Camelot.

Something, however, is feeling different.

So, maybe it is Spring.  The weather has been unusually awful this winter but now there are real signs of a break.  Baseball is around the corner.  Fishing season is almost here.  What ever the reason, the cloud of gloom seems to be lifting and although much of the world looks a mess, there is hope it can be fixed.

Lesson 1.  It could be that we are slowly realizing that democracy and capitalism may be the best institutions and all countries should adopt, but importantly, it is not going to happen.  The importance of that observation is that we can stop trying to convert the world with extraordinary means.  We may be beginning to realize these dysfunctional States will continue to be lessen economically competitive.  The up short is US will face less competition while trying to figure out how it will govern.

Managed economies and especially those run by authoritarians are generally inefficient.  With globalization, inefficient economies are on a steady downward path.  Damning with faint praise, the US, despite its weaknesses with debt, education, and high healthcare costs, can for the foreseeable future expect to remain the wealthiest and most productive economy.

Lesson 2.  History has taught that everything deteriorates, and that what is done today, becomes the basis for what have in the future.  Once we make out beds, then we must sleep in them.

Consequently, we should use this regained confidence (and time)  to sort through our social and infrastructure problems and put them in perspective with our overall economy.

Consider that nothing good can be expected if the current income distribution gap continues.  And if we simply transfer wealth from the rich and give it unconditionally to the poor, I am confident nothing good will come from that too.  Clearly we must find ways to shrink the income distribution gap magnitude while addressing the other social and infrastructure issues.

My guess is that if a path forward is found, a successful path will lie well between the extremes of conservatism and progressivism.   We need solutions that are pragmatic while being strategic, that rely upon data and analysis, and once implemented are continually tested for efficacy.

I just hope these dark clouds remain parted long enough for optimism to flourish again.  And I must remember that dark clouds form normally as well as from disappointment over failed policy.  Patience and willingness to consider all proposals which are fact based will eventually win out.

 

Cold War Again?

March 17, 2014

It is less than clear what the implication of this weekend’s Crimea secession from the Ukraine will be.  Our politicians are blaming Russia for intervening and intimidation through the use of force.  Russia, on the other hand, has clearly stated that the Crimea is vital to their national interests.  (And history tends to support this claim,)  The Ukraine, another cobbled together post WWI country, now has a Constitution which clearly states how provinces could secede, has denounce the vote in the strongest of terms.  So does might make right?

There are several other factors to suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the Crimea as an important political move.  He likely sees the West as divided and weak, and generally lacking any strategic interest in Crimea (and probably Eastern Ukraine).  The Russian economy is weak in comparison to the West.  Putin probably thinks Russia must maintain as many “trading partners” as practical and the Ukraine is one.  So in addition to Crimea’s strategic location on the Black Sea, trade is another strong reason to keep a hold on Crimea.

There is a third factor.  Russia, like many other authoritarian governments does not feel it can survive in a Western style open society.  These authoritarian economies (China is maybe an exception) do not operate as well as those found in the West and as a result cannot produce both guns and butter to the degree needed to satisfy their citizens and project their policies around the world.  Losing the Ukraine (including Crimea) to the EU was just a step too far.

So what should be the West’s response?

 The West should have no delusions that there is a way to negotiate or explain to Russia why their behavior is unacceptable.  It would be like Mexico inviting Russia (or China) to set up military facilities across the boarder from the US.  While this should be Mexico’s perfect right, the potential threat would drive the US to undertake some preventive action (remember the Cuban missile blockage?).

The cold war was very sophisticated chess.  Containment was a bi-partisan foreign policy that aimed to keep the Soviet Union’s boarders from expanding.  Through alliances, and third party surrogates, the US and the Soviet Union dueled around the world.  In the end, it is thought, the US simply outspent the Soviet Union and they went bankrupt.

The West had better remember that there is no great unifying force amongst the countries that comprise the West.  Raising Crimea to the level that succession must be reverse or all is lost is unwarranted.  Recognizing Crimea as a land grab and putting in place surrogate action that penalize Russia without having to shout it from the town square will get the message through.

For the US, there ought to be some soul searching.  Tell me again about the wisdom of having invaded and occupied Iraq?  If that is not justification for Russia unilateral action, what is?  Iraq was also short sighted because Hussein was an effective surrogate against Iran’s expansionist ambitions, while the “new Iraq” is far more aligned.  For the US, one less lever and a no safer Middle East to boot. 

The US might also think through its potential relationship with China.  China and Russia share some things in common but not everything.  The Chinese entrepreneurial spirit is far more compatible with the US than with Russia.  In the cold war, one must be clear on who the bad guys are.    

Crimea will be a huge test for Congress.  For this dysfunctional group who have seen budget reductions and no new taxes as good and entitlements as bad, where does Russia fit?  Congress will be stressed rhetorically how to support military spending while our infrastructure is crumbling and still demand no new taxes. 

Hmmm.

 

The Mess About Public Schools

March 15, 2014

The Philadelphia School District like many other school districts have lots of problems.  Test scores are poor, drop out rates are high, there is a $300 million funding shortage.  Almost as if they are forgetting about their main mission (educating Philadelphia’s youth), the District has had to furlough a lot of support staff (nurses, administrators, and counselors).  The School District seems more interested in vouchers for Charter and Private Schools.

The main reason the Philly Schools are short money is that the State cut over $300 million in State aide and the City has not found ways to replace it.  Both the State and the City have ignored the funding issue and instead have become proponents of Vouchers for Private and Charter Schools claiming them to be superior to Public Schools.  Hmmm.

Yesterday there was a wake up call.  The call came from a news report which boggles the mind when you think about it.  There was a rape involving 4 boys and one girl.  While heinous, the depravity of this crime jumps out when one learns that the boy charged with rape was 10 years old.  One has to wonder what social conditions would lead to this type of 10 year old behavior?

The rape took place in a stair well between classes.  One must also wonder why no one interceded.

The reluctance of any student to intercede might have to do with the code of the street.  One is also left to wonder why no adult, especially a teacher or administrator was not watching the stairs.  According to school officials there is a policy which calls for a school official to be in the halls and stair wells.  So, why wasn’t one there?

Now the ball of yarn begins to unwind.

Charter and Private Schools are schools who select their students.  If the prospective student poses any risk to good order they are refused entry.   If an accepted students later acts up, he/she are liable for expulsion.  So where do those students denied Charter or Private School participation go?  That’s correct, they concentrate in public schools making the publics a more difficult learning environment.

Philadelphia is a large city and has its share of large city problems.  Poverty and single parent families are associated with children whose behavior suggests they do not want to learn.  In the extreme, sexual crimes, fights, and even shootings occur.

Our society is faced with a huge dilemma.  We seem on the path of segregating the socially unfit (and physically/mentally challenged) and keeping them in public schools until they quit, are graduated, or are sent to prison.  Public opinion seem comfortable thinking that Charter Schools or Private (mainly parochial schools) provide better education even when test scores say otherwise.

I do not know the answer.  What I do know is that cutting public school funding is self defeating.  While a certain number of Charter Schools may be a wise investment to see if innovative teaching methods could emerge, unless Charters were forced to accept all students regardless, they leave too much collateral damage for those remaining in Public Schools.  Private Schools are are attractive (if you can afford tuition), but the mere thought of vouchers is repugnant.

Somehow it seems Philadelphia has gotten its priorities wrong.  Public schools must be made safe and all students must be protected from disorderly other students.  With a safe environment, education has a chance to take place.  Alternative venues such as Charters and Private schools must be judged on the same basis as public ones.  They must be open to all students.

If we allow Charters and Private Schools to cherry pick only those students they wish to educate, we will see Public Schools become dysfunctional.  It is time to recognize what the mess about public schools is all about.

2010 All Over Again?

March 13, 2014

A special House of Representatives’ election in Florida yesterday went the GOP way.  The results raised Democrat fears, that like in 2010, Democrat voters would not turn out.  On top of that, Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) as a campaign issue would motivate Republicans to vote in numbers.  Even though one rose does not make a summer, this early loss raises some disappointing possibilities.

It is entirely possible that the best person won in Florida.  What is truly worrisome, however, is the implication the GOP is sending when they raise the Affordable Care Act as a campaign issue.  In fluff filled campaign speeches, the GOP is cleverly conflating debt, deficit, and healthcare cost.  Their message is their candidate, if elected, will work to repeal Obamacare, and all will be better.  Hmmm.

The Congressional Budget Office has already estimated that the Affordable Care Act will actually lower the deficit, not increase it.  Industry reports have also predicted lower increases in insurance premiums (although this claim will require the test of time to confirm).  So what’s the issue?

First, why are not Democrats advertising the many positive aspects of the Affordable Care Act and asking how the GOP would provide?  In 2010, Democrats cowardly tried to hide from this landmark legislation and see how well that tactic work.  In 2014, there is little reason to think acting like a mushroom will work this time.

Entrepreneurs, dependents under 26, and those previously denied insurance coverage can now obtain health care policies.  And most people have still kept their same coverage since most people are covered by their employer.  While some have lost coverage because their employer has opted to cut hours or in some cases, eliminated coverage for all, those impacted have viable options to get coverage through the exchanges.  Under the pre-ACA system, if your employer dropped coverage you were on your own to get coverage if you could qualify.

Second, where is the message about fairness?  Under the pre-ACA system an individual seeking health care insurance was in essence placed in a pool.  The larger the pool, usually the lower the rates.  So, someone with a pre-existing condition who tried to obtain individually insurance coverage was doing so as a pool of one.  The consequences of this type of system is the individual is unlikely to be able to afford coverage if they could in fact find a company willing to insure them.

The message here is those favoring repeal of ACA are in essence saying “we don’t care about those unemployed or those with pre-existing conditions because we already have coverage”.

It is true that some GOP spokesmen say “repeal and replace”, and say they would keep coverage for pre-existing conditions.  Tell me how.  Insuring those with pre-existing conditions will result in higher insurance company spending and those cost must be covered in some manner.  There is no such discussions like that from any GOP Congressional candidate.

The Affordable Care Act stops far short of what I would like for healthcare.  ACA when compared to healthcare in two dozen other modern industrial countries remains far more expensive and likely to be inferior in health outcomes.  Never the less, ACA represents important reforms which should improve care for the average American (the rich will still be able to obtain worldclass care), provides a rationale for controlling to growth in healthcare costs, and provides a partial answer to the question of how the riches country in the world can spend so much on healthcare and have so many without coverage.

Democratic candidates better wake up.  Keeping silent does not ensure victory.  Speaking up in support of ACA, while not guarantying victory, will at least preserve their reputation as a courageous and honest person.