Archive for December 2014

2014 – What Type Of A Year?

December 31, 2014

If you are reading this post, 2014 must have been minimally an ok year for you. 2014 might not have been the happiest, the most fruitful, the healthiest, or yielded the most financial rewards, but having made it through another 12 months represents an accomplishment… and positions you for what hopefully is a better 2015 Hmmm.

Don’t agree?

Think about the Gazans and the bombardment they received from the Israelis thanks to death wish foreign policy their Hamas leaders followed. Or, how about all the Syrians who thought they could reject the Basher al Assad regime and smell the roses. And you can’t overlook the hundreds of Afghans killed by coalition collateral damage or the 140+ Pakistani school students who were slaughtered by the Taliban.

Let’s not forget the unfortunate aboard Malaysian Air flights 370 and 17 and AsiaAir QZ 8501 (not to mention their relatives left behind). Not to be overlooked also are the hundreds of unlucky Koreans aboard the Ferry Sewol who perished when it sank. And speaking of bad breaks, how about the hundreds who perished from Ebola in Africa.

Putting these numbers in perspective, however, as bad as they appear, they do not compare to the deaths produced in our Civil War or World War I or II. (Damning with faint praise, I guess). The plague must have been a trip and influenza kills without fanfare more each year anyways.

So to be still standing at year end is noteworthy but in a world of 7 billion people the odds sort of predict a successful outcome.

So why do these tragic outcomes seem so readily apparent?

I suppose it is all about what we read and see. “Dog bites man” is just not as memorable as “Man bites Dog”. “An elderly man passes away following short illness” similarly is not as noteworthy as “ISIS beheads American on internet video”.

Life is a natural game. There are risks to life all around. So far, however, the sun has risen each day and consequently imbues each of us with a confidence that “today is going to be great (or at least better than yesterday)”.

Any logical reflection upon the actual odds of life confirms this optimism. And strangely, when one utters words of optimism these words seem contagious. Sun and optimism bring smiles and feelings of greater confidence and good will.

My prediction is 2015 will be a great year, even better than 2014.

Ode to Potholes and Rust

December 30, 2014

US Representative Bill Shuster (D-Pa), Chairman of the House Transportation Committee announced he has ruled out any increase in the Federal gasoline tax (at this time) in order to finance the Highway Trust Fund. The need to increase tax revenue stems from a $20 billion shortfall and the staggering condition of the nation’s highways and bridges needing even more spending. Hmmm.

Shuster has pushed for increased funding during this session of Congress to support the highway infrastructure.   So when he says no increase in the gasoline tax, where does he think the money will come from?

The gas tax answer should be obvious. Of course a gas tax increase is both necessary and long overdue. The reluctance to embrace such a tax increase follows from the GOP campaign pledge of no new taxes.

Looking around the world it should surprise no one that all other major modern economies impose higher taxes on gasoline. This highlights how ridiculous the GOP tax position is, and how out of touch with governance the GOP opposition to a “use” tax is.

Here’s the box the GOP is climbing into.  The GOP also positions itself as “pro jobs and pro business”. Well, how exactly will those businesses get their products to market or will workers get to their jobs if the current road system continues to decay faster than it is repaired?

The bottom line GOP argument seems to be Government is too big. “Too big” seems to represents any government spending or functions which the GOP does not support (like Defense, Agriculture, and tax code exemptions). Unfortunately (for the GOP) the purpose of government is much broader. Congress in 2015 will reveal whether it is fit to govern from the White House by how they approach funding.

Increasing the Federal gasoline tax is of course not the only route to increasing the Highway Trust Fund. With a “no tax increase” policy, however, money spent upon roads must come from some other existing spending, or come from the national credit card (borrowings). Shifting current spending is a viable idea but begs the question that agreement can be found on which existing programs will be cut?

Putting increased transportation spending on the credit card is irresponsible and completely hypocritical when viewed by past GOP statements on the national debt. The credit card approach, however, is the easiest technique to address the roads issue without raising taxes. Hmmm.

Why don’t politicians remember “pay me now or pay me later”.

Year End In Sight

December 29, 2014

As the 31st draws closer, it is always useful to look at the past 12 months. What type of a year has it been?  What has gone well and what would we wish have gone better?  Should we hope for 2015 to be as good or much better than 2014?

If I were President Obama and I were reviewing 2014, this is what I would think.

I would think 2014 was a grind.  I would also think the outcomes were much better than the media was giving me credit for.

If I were a really honest Barack Obama I would be thinking of all the missed opportunities where I could have convinced Americans that the Administration and its policies were making life better for all Americans.

And if I did not cross my fingers and was straight honest, I would admit that I had blinked or hesitated too long at certain points and as a result provided political opponents ample opportunity to frame the public’s perception.

The nice thing about time is that given a sufficient amount, results become clearer and even the cleverest politicians run out of excuses. For 6 years the GOP has said “no” and denounced President Obama’s actions and policies. Their predictions of doom and gloom simply have never come true and instead, the American economy is steadily improved and now is the envy of the world.

Healthcare has improved access for many Americans.  There are signs that the out of control healthcare cost increases have been slowed. The national shame of Americans being denied basic coverage because they earn too little or are sick too much is still with us but the reasons and occasions  are fewer. The GOP claims of job losses and an upcoming “train wreck” were overstated and essential misleading.

Internationally President Obama can be satisfied that he has read the world situations mostly correctly.  He has followed policies (for the most part) that have kept Americans (most but not all) out of war. The President, however, can still improve his international stage speaking skills. He can do a much better job speaking to international nations. Like why lecture other countries about human rights when you can pick up any US newspaper and read about similar transgressions here. Have you consider the human rights aspects of dome strikes, or holding uncharged detainees for over 12 years, or the US domestic incarceration rate and its racial make-up?

But even more important on the international stage is the public versus private dialog. Making foreign country demands for delivery on the US 6 o’clock news is far less effective than sending messages through normal diplomatic channels. And generally speaking, making demands which have not considered correctly how the other country will respond is foolish. Bluffing with domestic politics is problematic but if things go wrong, the consequences are confined to the US. Bluffing internationally is quite a different story.

The President’s inner circle will continue to advise him and as in the past, President Obama will need to decide which set of advice to follow.  With reflection on these successes, he should be able to make good future decisions.

Next year, Cuba, Immigration and the Affordable Healthcare Act will attract much GOP attention. The President needs to resist the urge to slap down the GOP for their regressive ideas and instead defend his decisions with measurable predictions.

Time will again allow a period to assess the President’s policies at this next year or maybe the year after.

What Is The Christmas Holiday?

December 27, 2014

Recently I was listening to Dr Dan Gottlieb on WHYY, a public radio station in Philadelphia. Gottlieb’s guests included three religious clerics, a Muslim, a Jew, and a Christian. The subject was broadly how each viewed Christmas.  Hmmm.

Both the Muslim cleric and the Jewish Rabbi noted that they lived in a predominantly christian country and their opinions were based upon looking from the outside in. While each of their traditions had religious holidays of celebration, nothing was like the merriment of secular Christmas.

While Santa Claus and Christmas trees were not a part of their traditions, there was no doubt that children were drawn to it. How was it not possible living among so many others who visibly celebrated the secular aspects of Christmas not to wonder. They also allowed that it did feel good to be wished or to wish someone else “seasons greetings”.

The Christian cleric, on the other hand, began by stating that “Christmas was the beginning of a religious story which begins with Christ’s birth and ends with Christ’s death and resurrection” at Easter. (How up lifting).  His words also seem to suggest there was no room for “seasons greetings”.

As the discussion continued, the Christian cleric allowed that many of the secular Christmas aspects were both popular and worthwhile. But, “Christmas’s” real meaning, he insisted, was religious and inseparable with christianity. He could not see why a Muslim or a Jew would want to partake in Christmas.

Dr Dan proposed that Christmas was a time when one can wish others (of any faith or no faith) health, happiness and respect. The secular christmas allowed such tidings to be exchanged. “What could be wrong with those wishes from a religious sense”, Dr Dan asked.

The Christian cleric tried weakly one more time to emphasize the religious Christmas’s significance, but gradually seemed to understand he was waging a losing argument.

Christmas, Weihnachten, Noel, and Navidad, however one says Christmas, traces its roots to early Christianity. Along the way, plenty of pagan rites have been incorporated. In the US today (as in most of the world), secular Christmas has a large commercial content.  In Commercial Christmas motivation is applied via advertising to encourage the gifting of many presents (at much cost). Christmas decorations adorn most homes and public spaces. Success or failure of the Christmas Season is often implied by cumulative commercial sales numbers, now listed in billions.

So when someone suggests that the “spirit” of Christmas might lie upon wishing others good will and unconditional respect, it would seem to me that was an idea worth supporting. Within Christian places of worship, church leaders are entirely free to emphasize the nativity to crucifixion story and celebrate it however they wish.

From strictly a brand management perspective, Christian church spokespersons are missing a bet to remain relevant by discounting the power of less commercial secular Christmas and instead emphasizing the religious story as the only relevant meaning.

The Problem With Charity

December 22, 2014

Suppose you are walking along and you encounter someone bleeding profusely from a wound on their arm. Would you simply walk on letting the bleeding stranger fend for themselves? Or, would you, like most others, stop and help to stop the bleeding?

Depending upon how often you have encountered someone needing immediate help (charity), the choice of walking on or stopping would likely be made. The occasional call for help usually summons a charitable response. The more frequent request, on the other hand, leads one to become jaded and callous to need. It becomes much easier to think the unfortunate person needs to learn to take care of themselves.

In most of our larger cities these days, there appears to be an emerging cottage industry.   Around key intersections, after the traffic stops, a sea of changing faces emerge carrying hand made signs shouting “Veteran and Unemployed – Please help” or “Homeless and Hungry”.

So what should one do at these corners? Do you give money (and encourage someone else to hold up sign) or drive on as if the person had never been there?

I have often thought this must be a reasonably good business because the same intersections are used and despite the changing faces, there seems to be someone there all the time.

I can’t answer, however, whether those standing their represent the bleeding person needing desperately someone to apply direct pressure to stop the bleeding. Or, are these down and out strangers just going to show up at another corner even if I give them some money? Is the act of giving money “charity” or is it “facilitating”?

There may be an answer to this question, but I do not know what it is. I have rationalized that I will not give to the street bigger but instead will donate to non-profits who specialize in providing unconditional help. (Unconditional except the unfortunate might have to listen to some words about god but that’s probably a small price for someone in no place to bargain.)

The elephant in the room, I think, is charity is almost always not the answer. Certainly it “feels” good, and it may be necessary (as in the case of stopping the bleed). So, why not support a handout?

Handouts are too easy and lead to no permanent fix.

Life seems to mirror this too much these days. It is all about treating symptoms and not identifying and eliminating basic causes.

For the new year, it might be worthwhile to consider matching gifts. For example, if it seems worthy to provide charity to someone or some cause, do it… but resolve to ask the question, why did that person or that organization need the handout in the first place?

With that answer, ask the question again until you reach an answer that if it were eliminated or managed much better, the need for the handout you had just made would be either unnecessary or greatly reduced.

Hmmm

Another Deity Insulted?

December 19, 2014

Barry Goldwater said it, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice”. Over the years Americans have come to see this politically charged line from several different angles. More recent examples from Dick Cheney’s assault upon human rights and individual privacy to the extreme right’s decision to shut down the US government, make it clear that extremism should be viewed very skeptically. This week, in another arena, the world was smacked in the face with an even greater hypocrisy.

In far away Burma, three individuals, were arrested and hauled off to prison. These commercial business operators were charged with “insulting Buddhism” Who is buddhism? And what did the insult look like?

It seems the accused displayed a picture of the long gone buddha wearing ear phones. OMG. How could anyone be so crass?

The Muslim world often needs little (like even a cartoon) to accuse individuals of insulting Allah or insulting the Islam. Thai officials on occasion charge to odd fellow with “insulting the King”.

In the western world, insulting someone is not unknown. And for sure insults can evoke anger from the recipient. But in the case of Allah, Islam, Buddhism, or even the King of Thailand, charges were not filed by the one alleged to have been insulted.  This clearly indicates that other parties consider themselves worthy to guard the offended ones reputation.

Hmmm, seems like that is also an insult.

I have often thought that many of the political personalities frequenting elected office these days are (or were) dumber than a dog. I will now have to be more careful writing this, since that could be construed as an insult… And I don’t want to raise the anger of animal rights groups representing dogs.

Cuba – Another Test For Commonsense

December 18, 2014

A quiet sigh of relief flowed out in Washington, DC yesterday when President Obama announced his intentions to normalize US and Cuba relations. Congress members’ public the statements followed more closely to party lines.   No one, however, presented a convincing case why the Cuban isolation and sanctions had accomplished anything or that if continued just a little longer would make a positive impact on US national interests.

That didn’t prevent some Congress members and pundits from taking an anti-Cuban position

  • You may heard that Cuba is a communist leaning country and we all know how bad communism is. Hmmm. Communism certainly is not America’s cup of tea.   The US economy is built upon a slightly regulated form of capitalism.  Russia and China, on the other hand claim to be communist countries in principle, and the US engages both countries without regard to their economic philosophies.
  • You may have heard that Cuba is a repressive regime and has imprisoned hundreds of Cubans. Hmmm. It turns out that the US has incarcerated more people than Cuba (absolutely and in terms of number per 100,000 citizens). And who can forget Guantanamo detention facility and the nearly 200 uncharged detainees. Hmmm.
  • You may have also heard that Cuba is a dictatorship and the Castros have refused to turn the government over to free democratic elections. This is probably true but lets look at that statement in world context. Democratic elections only work in countries where the population understand the responsibilities associated with free elections. A voting box with multiple candidates in no way assures democratic processes. The real question is why does anyone think that isolation and sanctions will bring about the miracle of free elections? Consider Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and a smorgasbord of Central African countries.

A more interesting question is why now?

Normalizing Cuban relations is no more appropriate today than it has been for decades. Pandering politicians have prevented normalization in the past.  These politicians have couched their rhetoric depending upon where the most votes lay. The anti-normalization faction has traditionally won this popularity contest. President Obama near the end of his sixth year brings a different set of circumstances.

He has little to lose.

The President has not received much credit for guiding the country out of a severe recession and huge unemployment situation which he inherited. His compromise “Affordable Care Act” (which did not give Progressives the single payer plan they wanted) never the less mended a modern day sin against humanity (insurance companies right to cancel policies or outrightly refuse to insure some people). And following over 10 years of war, the President has let the air out of the war machine.  All this with little popular recognition.

When historians write their texts covering the years of George W Bush and Barack Obama, my guess is the Bush years, despite his best intentions, will be marked as policy failures with the Iraq War topping the list. For Obama, historians will likely write that as a leader, he was not very effective, but as a policy maker, he made courageous and correct decisions more often than not.

Normalizing relations with Cuba will be just one of them.

Finding True North

December 17, 2014

Every once in a while, there comes along a news story which makes absolutely no difference about anything but some how can’t be erased from the public spot light. The alleged North Korean hacking of Sony Pictures is just such an example.

Sony Pictures has produced a movie with a plot involving a CIA planned assassination of North Korean President Kim Jong-Un. Why anyone would write such a script?  And make it a fictional comedy? for

The real life story involves North Korean agents hacking into the Sony Pictures’ computers and up loading movies and emails.  This is theft.  Subsequently, this pirated material was released to private sources who intern up loaded it to publicly available sites.

But it didn’t stop there.

In quick pursuit, all the major print and electronic news agencies published from this treasure trove of gossip as juicy material as they could find. And like all good news persons, these major media outlets contacted the individuals involved seeking quotes. Hmmm.

After a few days when the great revelations had given way to more minor and petty ones, a new set of voices stepped forward. “How can the media print stolen material?” Was this going to be a battle between the 1st and 4th Amendments? Where were the major outlets standards?

The Pentagon Papers were in essence “stolen material”, yet most observers would justify the publishing of them pointing to Government misdeeds. The Sony Pictures’ materials, however, do not rise to that standard of national security… or do they?

In this age of competition between old media and new digital media, the main stream printed or televised media appears afraid of its own shadow.  Old media has to move so much faster than in the past in order not to get scooped.  In this new speed, old media appears to have lowered its thinking standards.

The type of “news” exposed by these pirated up loads has in the past been found in the checkout aisles of grocery stores, not on the front pages of the Washington Post or New York Times.

Ironically, the real news story has yet to be printed.

Who broke into Sony Pictures electronic files? How did they break in and take this data without tipping off Sony? How could the thieves pass this information onto others without leaving a clear trace leading to their door steps? How much broader could these techniques be applied and what other personal or public data could be made public without permission? (Remember Bradley Manning and Wikileaks?)

I would have expected better from the likes of NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox (well maybe not Fox). I wonder whether these media giants still test their news producers about whether they can find “true north”?

Dick Cheney – Is He For Real?

December 15, 2014

Former Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on “Meet The Press” yesterday and repeated with apparent pleasure his defense of “enhanced interrogation methods” including water boarding. “I would do it again in a minute”, he said. Hmmm.

Cheney’s justification seems to be that the CIA EIT targets were “bad people”. Other defenders, including Cheney, claimed important and useful information was obtained. Still others said the “lawyers” said it was ok.

Cheney put the exclamation point on it by saying President Bush was fully briefed and kept informed on a regular basis. Hmmm.

The collective defense seems to be that al Qaeda (and anyone the CIA thought was connected) were such bad people that no civil rules applied. They deserved this type of treatment. And, the Cheney-types add, these techniques prevented any further 9/11 type attacks.

I wonder where the “lawyers” were when the Bush White House was reminded that the US was a signatory to the UN Torture Treaty (signed in 1988). Within the treaty lies a definition for what acts constitute torture.

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
— Convention Against Torture, Article 1.1

I wonder what part of “severe pain or suffering” was not clear?

The Bush White House, we must remember, sought out lawyers who were amenable to their enhanced interrogation views. They struck gold (maybe I should say muck) when they hired Jonathan Yoo who wrote the infamous torture opinion (pain equivalent to organ failure was Yoo’s standard).

Regardless of what Cheney and others felt (like the risk the US was exposed to), they knowingly chose to rig the system in order to convince CIA agents to torture, Congress to look the other way, and do it in such a way that there would be deniability for senior officials including themselves.

Cheney’s actions at this time could be an attempt to rewrite history. His outburst are far more likely aimed at minimizing any chance of prosecution by the Justice Department.

There is nothing in this issue that is Democrat or Republican, or Progressive or Conservative in nature. This is more about Libertarianism versus Authoritarianism. This is about clever leaders rigging the system so they could flaunt what ever rules they pleased, for what ever reasons they had.

Dick Cheney belongs to the Dr Strangelove era where the world was divided into white hats and black hats.

What is even more disheartening is a quote attributed to Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia. He said he did not read anything in the Constitution which prevented “coercion”.

Hmmm, what a polite way to refer to torture.

Federal Gasoline Tax – Missing An Opportunity?

December 13, 2014

Oil prices dropped this week to below $60 per gallon. Most people’s reaction might be summarized as “Hurray”! But, are we missing an opportunity?

The new lower price levels will bring a mixed set of blessings. Consumers will find more money in the their pockets at the end of the week, and in theory will have the means to spend it elsewhere. Local businesses are beaming with joy at the prospect of greater consumer shopping. But there’s more.

Airlines and large corporations in general see lower oil prices as helping their bottom lines.  In a free market, sooner or later, this increased profit should find its way to lower prices to customers.  Another plus.

On the other side, automotive companies who have spent billions developing new, more fuel efficient models are perplexed.  Lower gas prices could stimulate increased car and truck buying.  But, these auto companies have already sunk energy conservation investment in new tools, new engines, and in Ford’s F-150 case, new Aluminum sheet metal. These investments were premised upon a certain (and higher) gasoline price/gallon. Lower oil barrel prices fosters lower gasoline prices.

Auto companies worry that consumers may return to the power of gas guzzlers leaving their new gas efficient vehicles unsold.   Auto companies may fear they had invested too soon.

Adding to this, the previously booming “fracking” industry is wondering what has hit them. Oil at $60/barrel was not in their game plan. One by one these new drillers, shippers, and all their suppliers are getting the pink slips ready. Further exploration is out of the question for the time being, and continuing current operation is being questioned. Hmmm.

Back in the early days of the oil cartel, the Saudi head philosophically mused that any increase in oil price was a very serious matter and that any increase must be measured. New cartel members, on the other hand, wanted to raise oil prices as quickly as possible so that they could finance their local economies. Saudi Arabia often resorted to increased oil output to teach these greedy oil producers who was boss. The Saudis understood how complicated the world’s economy was and how mysteriously it was connected to rising oil prices.  Hmmm.

Today’s precipitous drop in oil prices seems at first wonderful to the consumer but it is likely to produce many unintended disturbances elsewhere. While the absolute price is important, it is the rate of change which could bring the greatest consequences.  How do companies plan for the future?

If the world were rationale, world oil output would already have been cut back. Oil price is simply the result of supply and demand. The world is not acting rationally because it has gotten fat on high oil prices. Low oil prices means far lower profits for all oil producers.

So what’s the missed opportunity?

The US could increase its Federal tax on gasoline. A twenty cent/gallon increase would be hardly noticed and would bring about $25 billion additional for use on roads and bridges maintenance.

The timing for a gas tax increase couldn’t be better. The GOP is against taxes and certainly tax increases but roads are deteriorating and bridges are decaying across the country. The recent lower oil prices is a gift for both political parties.

There is probably little chance Congress will recognize the early Christmas present sitting out there. Oil prices may continue to drop further ($50/ barrel is frequently hinted as the bottom). The 20 cent tax increase could go unnoticed (to the pocketbook) during this bonanza. With the world oil supply potentially so large, a return to $120+ oil price levels should be a long time off.

It’s time to fix our roads and bridges and those who use them should be paying.