Archive for April 2014

Learning From Recent History

April 30, 2014

The usual Congressional suspects are exercising their vocal cords again. These darlings of the Sunday talk shows are denouncing President Obama for lack of action in the Middle East and the Ukraine. Besides “leading from behind”, President Obama has simply been too tepid in his support of supposedly western leaning forces in these hot spots, they say. When asked to be specific, other than supplying arms to “our friends”, these critics have no response.

Hmmm.

Syria is Iraq all over again. Were the US to get militarily involved, we should expect to be stepping into a totally amorphous situation. Everyone involved in the Syrian conflict is in it for themselves. The Syrian insurrection is not about ideals like the rule of law, or human rights. Rather it is about which political group can control which source of State revenue and benefit more than the others.

Israel and the Palestinians feel better off at the point of each other’s dagger than finding difficult sharing compromises. For the Palestinian Authority, this means continued employment and ready made excuses when the average Palestinian complains about the low standard of living. For Israel, no peace agreement allows the internal political process to avoid dealing with religious extremists. On the BBC evening news last night, a Jewish Hebron settler said that he was in Hebron because god wanted Jews living there. A peace agreement would undercut to this crazy thinking.

Egypt has also prompted criticism. When the US called for “democracy” with free and open elections, they got their wish. The only problem, the Muslim Brotherhood won. Under the Brotherhood’s leadership, the Constitution was redrawn changing the rules of the game (a no no in a Democratic society). Now with the military back in charge, believe it or not, there are Congress Members calling for change again.

The Ukraine is the latest conflict zone. Again American’s sense of fair play has been injured. While the theater of the absurd plays out in Eastern Ukraine, it should be clear that at best there is ambivalence within the Ukraine residents over its central government. Ukraine has no rich history of capitalism and democratic rule There is, instead, a longing for dependable handouts from the government. The Ukraine will be a financial drain on who ever becomes its rich uncle.

So, it rang true the other day when President Obama wondered out loud what people were thinking when they advocated getting tough with Russia? He asked whether they had learned anything after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan?

It is true that these are all complex and complicated situations. Direct sustained intervention was wrong and costly in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  It would be even a greater mistake now.  For enlightenment to return to these lands, it will take a century or longer.

Arguably the US should exert light pressure in the direction of capitalism and democracy in order to guide the nations forward. Light pressure, however, is not the hallmark of the military.

Gathering Clouds

April 29, 2014

The world has more than enough hot spots. Most of them, such as Syria, Iran, Egypt, Israel-Palestinian, North Korea, and the Ukraine are complicated and extremely difficult to find a silver bullet that when fired will make everything smooth again.

Each of the situations, however, can be seen with very interesting clarity through the eyes of wealth, and more specifically, wealth accumulation. Either the “haves” want to keep their wealth or the “have nots” want to transfer from the “haves” to themselves. Consequently these situations are very difficult to demagogue for political points in the voting booth.

With domestic situations, the Washington scene is eerily quiet. The GOP has suddenly gone mute on popular conservative issues and in general, toned down their attacks on President Obama (and anything the President has endorsed).

It is an election year and the GOP may just have realized that their losses in the voting booths have largely been the result of extreme stands they have taken on issues they never needed to champion. By keeping quiet and simply letting sophisticated PAC money talk, the GOP has allowed voters to assess domestic issues by whatever measures the voter chooses.

Polls now indicate President Obama’s approval rating is at an all time low.  Hmmm.

Former Senator Rick Santorum is out in public again. He too is thinking about 2016.  In hopes of not being overlooked, Sanotrum has written a book aimed at the “blue collar” electorate. Rick’s public themes are surprise, surprise, lower taxes and more jobs, both designed to appeal to the middle class.

As a general approach (programs aimed at the Middle Class), this could be very fruitful for the GOP. With Santorum, it is not what he is saying now that should worry anyone, it is what he has not re-said about women, gays, and planned parenthood that should worry one.

Between now and the mid-term election this November, this “all quiet on the political front” will most likely prevail. The opportunity to write about clearly wrong headed policies or hypocritical response to domestic issues will be small. Following the mid-terms, however, the GOP will be severely tested on whether it can keep its members extreme views private or whether the GOP will again pander to a small section of its base.

Marketing At Its Best

April 28, 2014

Over the weekend, Major League Baseball announced the introduction of a new line of “Bobble-Heads”. Most baseball fans already know about bobble-heads because they are frequently used as a gift to fans who attend certain games. Bobble-heads are also for sale at nominal prices and serve as souvenirs for many avid fans.

But now MLB has a even better idea. Responding to market surveys that suggest fans and players are looking for hope, MLB has decided to introduce a limited edition line of bobble-heads.  T made in the likeness of Fall of Fame stars who excelled at some aspect of the game. Sources indicate there will be a “Bob Feller” idol dedicated to the fast ball. Another will be a “Mickey Mantle bobble-head which promises to deliver home runs from either side of the plate.

These miracle producing idols will sell for a high price but are expected to return benefits to both MLB and any young player in need of a strikeout or a home run.

Also over the weekend, the Roman Catholic Church introduced its version of bobble-heads. The Church formally elevated Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul VI as “Saints of the Church”. As such there will be lots of souvenirs produced in their likeness. These souvenirs will be marketed with the understanding that miracles and divine intercessions could come the way of the lucky souvenir owner.

What are the Catholic Church leaders thinking?

These new saints were men, just men like anyone else.  Sure they lead (for all we know) exemplary lives. They are certainly deserving of respect and their memories could be warmly held by millions. But why sainthood?

This question may never be answered fully. Some suggest the whole process was designed to distract the attention of practicing catholics from pedophilia and banking scandals the same church had covered up. Who knows?

In the 21st century, thinking even for a minute that petitioning a dead fellow man in some way can bring about favorable results (miracles) is not the sign of enlightenment. Rather, it is a sign of how far from common sense church leaders have strayed.

Pope Francis inherited this goofy ploy and maybe can’t be blamed. As great as these two men might have been, making them saints (a purely man-made event) does not seem destined to help Pope Francis serve the needs of the poor or curb the excesses of the wealthy.  It could be, however, pretty good marketing.

You Get What You Ask For

April 25, 2014

Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would withdraw from Peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu said the reason for this decision was the Authority’s reconciliation with Hamas uniting both Gaza and the West Bank. Netanyahu describe the event as a choice between peace or terrorism.

Israel would never negotiate with terrorists, he said. The principle of not negotiating with terrorists is well proven strategy. The question is whether this view applies in this case.

What if somehow magically the Palestinian Authority and Israel has agreed to a set of swaps and a mutually acceptable border along the West Bank. Presumably the West Bank would emerge as a new sovereign state of Palestine. Why shouldn’t one expect that the Palestine would reach out to Gaza and seek reunification?

Netanyahu’s huffing and puffing are suspicious. News reports had indicated that both sides were still at odds over details of a settlement. The talks were about to end anyways due to the previously set end date.

Consider that Israel’s continued building of new settlements, and its claim to all of Jerusalem suggest Israel has no intention of land swaps that would provide a distribution of land similar to what existed at the time of the 1967 borders. These indications of a Hamas reconciliation was in fact a “gift” to Israel. Netanyahu could righteously profess Hamas was the reason, not the overall negotiations.

Of course it takes two to negotiate. The Arab world (and Iran) have been irrational about their reluctance to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Hamas and Hezbollah, in addition, have spearheaded the irrationality expression by perpetrating outrageous acts of violence. Lost in this violence unfortunately has been the political goals and rational routes to achieve them.

Israel negotiating position has been suspect for quite some time. It is not even clear that Israel would live by borders it drew if the Authority agreed to them.

In many regards, Israel is caught in a lose-lose position. Israel could simply annex all the lands on the West Bank and make the Palestinians Israeli residents. Demographic trends, however, predict that in time the Palestinian birth rate would produce a voting population greater than that of the Jews. If, as a consequence, Israel denied full citizenship to the Palestinians, Israel could look forward to being likened to the old South Africa… apartheid.

President Obama is faced with the disappointment of having tried to broker peace and having not succeeded. Given the behavior of both sides, Obama ought to withdraw and focus on other world regions.

The Palestinian Authority and Israel must now experience the natural consequences of their behaviors. While the US is obligated to defend Israel if necessary, the Middle East no longer plays the critical role in world affairs it once did.

In diplomatic terms, President Obama ought to tell Prime Minister Netanyahu he wishes him good luck and call when he is in the area.

Foreign Entanglements, Hmmm

April 24, 2014

Our founding fathers warned about “foreign entanglements”, given the horrible history of wars they knew from Europe. Today that same worry rings just as true.

The US is on the hook around the world, at risk of being drawn into some conflict should a local quarrel break out. From Israel to Europe (NATO members) to India to Korea and Japan, attacks upon those nations would result in an obligatory US response.

Consider that the situation in the Ukraine is dangerously close to other NATO members who are also potentially exposed to the same type of old Soviet provocation. If Russia were to attempt the “Crimea thing” in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia, the NATO treaty compels all other members to come to their defense. Hmmm.

But here is a much murkier situation to understand.

The US has important relations with both China and Japan. While the US has no requirement to come to China’s defense, it does have one with Japan. So what happens when both of these nations claim the same uninhabited chunks of rocks in the sea east of China and west of Japan?

The Senkuku Islands (Japanese term) or the Diaoyu (Chinese term) lie some 1170 miles southwest of Tokyo and about 400 miles southeast of Shanghai. These islands are only about 800 miles south from Seoul, Korea and 200 miles north of Taipai, Taiwan. Yet both Japan and China have declare they will fight for these islands.

At this point you can safely guess that the region surrounding these islands must hold the promise of mineral wealth. Mixing the prospect of oil and gas with lost centuries of past military strength, modern China and Japan seem locked in a course that will lead to conflict.

What should the US do?

In President Obama’s visit to Japan this week, he said the Islands would fall within the US-Japan mutual defense agreement. That would call for the US to come to Japan’s assistance should China take control of the islands or the area around them by force.

That is an outcome clearly not in the anyone’s best interest. As in most similar issues, there are much more sensible solutions than claiming national integrity.

Western thinking would support a strong initial position (these islands are ours) followed by negotiations (China gets this much territory and Japan gets this much). But the Senkukus/Diaoyus fall under Eastern thinking and Eastern history.

The US has a dog in this fight even though it does not really care who controls these islands. Much of the world’s shipping moves through the China Seas and a much of Southeast Asia’s exports to the US (and vice versa) sail to their destinations from these seas. The US has a national interest that these waters remain open and safe for travel.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, western powers used force to get their way. It seems obvious that force in the age of nuclear weapons and globally linked economies will produce no winners. Playing for time seems the best options even if one of the parties were to use force.

While China is big enough to exert its will through military force, China is highly dependent upon exports to support its people. Much the same can be said for Japan although it would take years for Japan to rearm.

Entanglements exists whether we like it or not. The US has played the world’s policeman since WWII and the role is getting old. US influence, however, could still have value.

The world is well on the way to total global interdependence. Small shifts in trade can be even more effective than bombs. Loss of trade will hit the pocketbooks of a country’s wealthy quickly.

Trade wars are not risk free either. Never the less, they are a better way to attempt to resolve disputes until the principles can conduct sensible negotiations.

The Noble Experiment

April 23, 2014

The Supreme Court upheld yesterday, by a 6-2 vote, Michigan’s ban on using race as a factor in college admissions. The Court’s decisions said States had the right to choose whether race should play a role in college admission.  Michigan had voted to eliminate it. Hmmm.

Affirmative Action was introduced by President John F Kennedy in 1960 by executive order. The order was intended to end racial discrimination in hiring. Over the years it spread to other sources of alleged discrimination including college admissions.

Affirmative Action, however, has pitted two strongly held American beliefs, merit (best person wins) versus discrimination (I’m qualified but you are not giving me a chance). Most Americans can accept decisions “where the better person” won. If you work hard and try your best, then you should win American thinking goes.

But how does one answer the question why so few minorities (largely African Americans, but also Hispanics and American Indians) are represented in college enrollment?

The quiet answer had been “they are simply not qualified”. Additional information such as test score biases and the unexpected fact that most minorities when admitted, complete their courses and graduate, suggest that the admission process might be suspect since the minorities demonstrated they could do the work.

The use of race in college admission is strongly supported by most universities.  Race is a sure method to assure a diverse class.   These institutions hail the “diverse” campus as a plus for all students. The impact of race based college admissions beyond the actual class demographics is much harder to pin down.

Minority applicants tend to come from poor backgrounds.  Many reason that if these less fortunate students get a break and graduate, the next generation will be able to succeed without help.  Hmmm.

Unfortunately, poverty is not on the way out in this country.   The cycle of poverty seems as secure as ever. Consequently, it is hard to see the plight of minorities getting better.  It is even harder to see how this Supreme Court decision will help.

Universities are faced with a difficult choice in the admission process. How do they determine which students can do the college work and once graduated, will go on to successful careers?  If this were not a concern, the university need only raise its tuition until there was just enough who could afford the cost. That approach would not ensure a graduation population which could succeed in life or bring credit to the school.

Another consideration is that it is difficult to cleanly separate Federal funds from any academic institution’s operation. Federal grants directly or indirectly support buildings, research, and grants/loans to worthy students. While it may seem reasonable that if Michigan residents vote to ban affirmative action in its colleges, it just makes no sense why remedies for an American issues such as poverty and racial lack of inclusion should not apply to all States?

This is a murky subject and one ready made to enliven our prejudices. If universities truly subscribe to admitting diverse classes, the burden will fall on them to alter their admission criteria.

This is much easier said than done. Which university is willing to deny admission to a qualified child of a large benefactor in order to make space for a less wealthy minority? Hmmm.

Supreme Choice

April 22, 2014

The Supreme Court will hear today “American Broadcasting Companies versus Aereo”. News reports claim the Supreme Court decision could change the way we watch TV. Hmmm.

Imagine that you have a DVD and you tape several programs aired on CBS (or either of the other major networks) from your rabbit ears outfitted TV. Later you invite some friends over to watch the shows together. A few days after that you receive a bill from CBS demanding a small fee for having “rebroadcasted” the shows.

What would you think? Initially you might think “what’s going on? CBS is “free” TV, isn’t it?” In a strangely clever way this Supreme Court case is about whether a commercial company, Aereo, can in essence do the same in your behalf.

Aereo claims it captures “free, public” signals from CBS and stores the transmissions on a complex DVD system. Aereo, with a straight face, claims that there is a DVD for each of its subscribers and they are simply duplicating what each person could do on their own.

The major networks are up in arms. They claim they are loosing valuable “retransmission fees” and if Aereo is allowed to continue, they may leave the over the air broadcast world and go only to internet or wireless. Some content providers, like major sports, who broadcast some of their games on CBS, NBC, and ABC say they will stop broadcasting over these networks.

For the many millions who only receive TV through an antenna this could be a major loss. For the cable subscriber, it is hard to say but most likely “retransmission fees” would jump and so would monthly cable bills.

Remember this is the same Supreme Court who views the extravagant amounts of money flooding Washington as “free speech”. It seems to make no difference to the Court’s majority that money is corroding Washington, or that their Citizens United decision has reinforced the power of the wealthy versus the average person.

So, what will the Court decide?

If the Court stays consistent, it should rule that Aereo is free to follow its business model providing it is not charging extra for any of CBS, ABC, or NBC content.

Will the world end? Who knows. Each of the players is acting in their own selfish best interest. The market, however, could care less.

If Major League Baseball were to elect either cable or pay per view, or nothing, many people would either watch less or pay a little more. When this is multiplied by millions of these decisions, it is nearly impossible to determine what would be the net economic results for Major League Baseball.

The same can be said about CBS, NBC, or ABC.

Unbundling Cable TV packages and allowing subscribers to buy only what they want is frequently heard from consumers. The driving force behind this request is the ever mounting monthly Cable bills. Since there is no law requiring anyone to subscribe to Cable or to watch TV, the free market might be the correct place to settle this issue.

The Supreme Court has recently shown a propensity to know what’s best for America. We should know by summer how they view this issue.

A Day To Reflect

April 20, 2014

Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Islam, and Judaism all have roots that date thousand of years ago. In certain tenets or beliefs, each tradition claims a divine origin. All have been at one time or another conveniently aligned with secular leaders. Consequently, generational leadership changes have occurred as one secular leader was disposed by another and each tradition evolved.

All traditions offer customs and practices which promise to help one lead ones life in a way harmonious with others while keeping the person on a path to what ever lies ahead after death.

Members of all these traditions, at one time or another, have also engaged in bloody, cruel, and merciless attacks on others.

Today, within Christian religions, followers celebrate Easter. Christianity which emerged as a tradition more recently (just before Islam), engaged wholeheartedly in manifestations of hatred against fellow man while professing absolute certainty that divine intercession was guiding their way.

On Easter, Christian believers recognize a “man” who was conceived and born to a virgin, who preached a peaceful life philosophy. This “man”, however, was crucified and died. Easter represents the return from the dead, this “man” is said to have experienced. Hmmm.

All of these traditions have similar unbelievable tenets and attempt to connect the supernatural with life on earth today. Each traditions have believers who see their own tradition as real and those of others somewhat unbelievable. So what is one to believe?

Easter also has a unrelated secular theme.  A magical rabbit hides brightly color eggs, some filled with chocolates, for children to find and enjoy. There are plenty of hidden eggs so there are no winners or no losers. What an example for life.

In America, we speak of a Constitutional guaranteed “right of religious freedom”.  Christians celebrating Easter is a Constitutional right.

The Constitution assures everyone that they are free to follow any of these traditions, or none of them. The Government is prevented from limiting anyone’s practice of the religion of choice… providing the practice of ones religious tradition choice does not inhibit the right of others to practice their choice. In other words,

Catholics can no longer run inquisitions against Jews or Muslims, Hindus cannot slaughter Sheiks, or Sunnis cannot exterminate Shiites. Instead each religious tradition is invited to believe in what they want, regardless of what modern science says is possible.

In return, each tradition is expected respect the rights of those who practice other traditions. Hopefully on this Easter day, following the non-violent Easter Egg Hunt, many religious Americans will take the time to reflect upon this.

Cream Floats

April 19, 2014

President Obama has been criticized for his so-called “leading from behind” foreign policy. While lacking bravado, and with certainty we know one strategy cannot fit all situations, “leading from behind” still has much to offer.

And, it is quite possible that President Obama may be wise again applying this approach to the Ukraine and Crimea.

Much has been written about Russian President Putin and his alleged land grab of Crimea. The news media portrays Putin and Russia as the black hats, strong and acting as a bully. Traditionally, the white hat role is supposed to be played by the US. It is the US who is supposed to oppose Russian aggression (as the US did in the past against the Soviet Union).

The typical picture puts the US military face to face with Russia’s. Not this time, at least not at this point with the Ukrainian situation. And, why is this a wise approach?

  • The Ukraine was previously a member of the Soviet Union and has had a long history of close Russian relations.
  • The Ukraine is Russia’s neighbor and if Russia chose to invade, the speed Russia could show would make it strategically impossible for the US or NATO to mount an armed resistance.
  • Crimea has closer ties to Russia than to the Ukraine.
  • There is no imminent threat to American interests.
  • And, both Russia and the people of the Ukraine and Crimea will soon learn that Russian rule is not the way to a better life.

By “leading from behind”, the US is allowing facts on the ground to become clearer to all parties. When the Soviet Union cut the Eastern European countries free in the 80’s, it did so because the Soviets could no longer afford what little support it provided these lands.

Communism, while possibly a very fair economic system in theory, in practice was both inefficient and unproductive for the average citizen. In short, most everyone endured a poorer existence and learned from experience to do as little as possible.

Separate from economic communism, but essential to how the Soviets administered their authority, was intense measures to control what people thought and said. Those living in the Soviet Union were told their form of government and economy was the best in the world. Hmmm.

Fast forward. The internet has changed the world. People can easily see that others live differently. Trying now to tell Ukrainians and Crimean residents that they must be content with even less than they had before will not be an easy sell.

Russia will also be faced with issues of food, water, and fuel availability. Does Russia intend to supply (or at least subsidize) their availability? And how much will the Russian Government be willing to take away from its domestic budget and prop up the Ukraine and Crimea?

One can find “hot heads” or mercenary soldiers for hire anyplace. At a reasonably low cost, these militias can project popular opposition. But when it comes to long term control the bills go up.

Russia is faced with this corundum.

“Leading from behind” should help the US stay out of another expensive conflict and allow natural forces to convince both the Russians and the Ukrainians that there is nothing to be gained by the Ukraine aligning with Russia.

This is not an open and shut conclusion.  Life will not be that rosy aligning with Europe, it just won’t be worse.  For the US, it should be a win-win.  Russia gets the extra costs and probably a very disgruntled people should Ukraine realign with Russia.  Or, if the Ukraine aligns with Europe, there will be one more chance for an open economy to grow.

 

It Would Be A Hoot If It Wasn’t So Serious

April 14, 2014

Over the weekend, GOP conservative Presidential hopefuls gathered in New Hampshire. Notably, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie were not invited. (That’s a snub when you consider Donald Trump was in attendance.) But who was invited was not the news, rather it was what Rand Paul and Ted Cruz said.

These Tea Party favorites made speeches that included appeals that the GOP needed to broaden its base. What?

Certainly if the GOP wishes to win the White House it is a no brainer that current demographics are not very favorable to their crusade.

Paul tossed out civil rights using the example of disproportionate criminal convictions for drug possession. He urged fellow GOP members to recognize this injustice. Was he trying to stretch the traditional GOP “law and order” theme?

Cruz chose to demagogue the wealthy. “Republicans can no longer be seen as the party of Wall Street and the super rich”, Cruz said. He went on to say that income inequality has become the widest since 1928… under President Obama’s economic policies. If truth were words, and Cruz was forced to eat his words, he would have choke to death on the spot.

The GOP is well established as the party of no new taxes. Their voting record since 2008 is quite clear on the subject of taxes, especially increasing taxes on the wealthy. Now I suppose it is possible that Cruz and Paul’s words are the beginning of a total rethinking of what makes sense to the GOP. I wonder whether this rethink includes the Affordable Care Act?

To be sure there is plenty of landing ground for the GOP to change its tune. For starters, the GOP could simply say they favor a narrowing of income distribution inequality, or that all Americans are entitled to basic healthcare in a dignified way. What would follow next would confirm whether these were words or in fact a commitment.

It seems impossible to be for narrowing income inequality and at the same time be against raising the minimum wage and increasing taxes on the very wealthy. Repealing the Affordable Care Act seems equally inconsistent without a plan that also assures coverage.

There are many steps the GOP could propose to narrow income inequality. These would involve training and education, infrastructure development and maintenance, and disincentives for those who are gathering disproportionate shares of wealth (like hedge fund executives, large corporation CEOs, and those who take advantage of off shore tax holidays).

The core nature of healthcare involves availability and payment of service provided. Here too there are numerous areas where the GOP could propose how to make basic (emphasis on preventive) care available and a comprehensive method to pay for it. Almost certainly these proposals would include methods to cap fees the medical industry charges as well as broad based tax revenue to back up fees individuals paid (in a system where no one is ever denied service due to ability to pay).

Wouldn’t it be nice if Paul and Cruz were just writing the first chapter in this new GOP playbook?